E. Gilbert Highton.

A voice from the London and its echoes, to which is prefixed an address to those who have suffered by the calamity, and to the public at large online

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Online LibraryE. Gilbert HightonA voice from the London and its echoes, to which is prefixed an address to those who have suffered by the calamity, and to the public at large → online text (page 1 of 3)
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Gift of C. A. Kofoid












The letters entitled " A Voice from the London and its
Echoes," were originally given to the World through the courtesy
of the Times newspaper, and were afterwards published, with some
additions, in the columns of BelVs Weekly Messenger. The reasons
which have induced the writer to reprint them in a collective form
are set forth in the Address by which they are now accompanied,
and he trusts that their recital will awaken fresh interest in the
important question which he has attempted to elucidate and discuss.

Q5 30


My Fellow- Sufferers and Fellow- Countrymen, — •

In compliance with a -widely expressed request 1 again
venture to submit the following letters to your earnest and careful
consideration. Written, as they have been, from a strict sense of
duty, under a deep feeling of bereavement, and through a peculiar
combination of circumstances, their object will be fully attained, if
they only prompt that further investigation into the circumstances
connected with the loss of " The London " which is so absolutely
needed, both for private satisfaction and for public advantage. A
variety of causes, to which I cannot shut my eyes, may, possibly,
prevent my statements from producing that result which, under
happier auspices, they might be expected to achieve. It is useless
to conceal that I shall have to contend with the influence of a great
and powerful firm, which, though it may not be openly and actively
exerted, will yet operate as a dead weight against all action con-
cerning the matter in hand. Next to this, there will, probably, bo
the indirect opposition of many of their fellow-shipowners to en-
counter ; and, further still, there will, most likely, be a bias on the
part of the government in general, and of the board of trade in
particular, to support their own officers and to acquiesce in the
conclusions of a report which, to employ plain language, has simply
" white-washed " everybody responsible for the construction, equip-
ment, lading, and management of the lost vessel. Nor will these
be the only, nor, I regret to say, the chief difficulties in the way of
now obtaining a more complete and searching inquiry into the case.
In this sensational age, when the jaded appetite of a considerable
portion of the reading public is ever on the look-out for fresh


stimulants, even the terrible tale of the foundering of " The
London " may have already begun to appear stale and insipid. A
cynical and indifferent crowd is always prepared to start up and cry
" enough " whenever a call is made upon their active sympathies,
and a number of wise-acres are ever ready to bow reverentially be-
fore anything that wears even the semblance of a judicial verdict.
Despite these obstacles, however, there is much to assure me that
the cause I advocate will not be pleaded in vain. The shock occa-
sioned by the actual catastrophe was certainly felt throughout these
islands in a manner almost unexampled in recent times, and
before this address reaches the public eye its reverberations
will have come with harrowing effect from the Antipodes.
The contemporaneous or subsequent destruction of several
vessels, similar in build to " The London," has tended to
spread still more widely that feeling of insecurity which its self-
provoked fate occasioned. It is acknowledged by all impartial
persons, not merely that our credit as a great maritime nation is at
stake, but that the obligations which we owe to that vast mass of
our fellow-citizens, who — relying upon the soundness of our ships,
the good faith of our ship-owners, the skill and discretion of our
commanders, and the guarantee of our inspecting officials — daily
commit themselves to the mercy of the deep, are but very negligently
and perfunctorily discharged. Little, therefore, seems to be want-
ing but the sound of " A Voice from ' The London' and its Echoes,"
effectually to awaken and sustain that attention on the part of the
reflective and intelligent portion of the community, without which
there can be no hope of obtaining either present justice or future
reform. Encouraged, therefore, by this conviction, and stimulated,
as I have said, by requests from various quarters, I have determined
again to place the letters bearing the above designation before the
public ; and, in doing so, I will ask permission to briefly recapitulate
the leading impressions which they are intended to convey.

Starting with the decisive testimony recorded in what I may fairly
call the dying words of Mr. H. J. Denis, viz., that the ship was
over-weighted, that the engine-room hatch was too, slight, that the
poop windows were bad, and that the vessel generally was not well-

ordered, I have been enabled, by a mays of information supplied to
me from all quarters, to trace the opinion as to the ship, its loading
and its management, from the time it left the East India Docks
until the very hour when it sank for ever into six hundred fathom
water in the Bay of Biscay. A greater unanimity of sentiment
than that which exists on the part of all those who can speak inde-
pendently on the subject, it is impossible to conceive. But one
opinion indeed seems to have prevailed amongst all who saw the
vessel on her passage from Gravesend to Plymouth, and that was,
that she was overladen, too low consequently in the water, and would
never rise to a stiff sea. One eye-witness, indeed, states that when
she left the East India Docks she was obliged to land forty or fifty
packages, for which there was no room, and that, too, after knocking
down several cabins to make way for stowage. Beyond this opinion,
also, the facts to which it points are further established, both by
inference and demonstration ; by inference, inasmuch as Captain
Martin never dared to navigate " The London " as he would have
done a real seaworthy vessel; and by demonstration, inasmuch as
according to the measurement of Mr. Gladstone, the Senior Surveyor,
the main deck of the ship — a ship, be it remembered, 260 feet long,
and only about 30 feet broad — was but 3 feet 6 inches from the sur-
face of smooth water . The defects in her construction, moreover,
were of the most dangerous kind. Unlike the great Atlantic
packets, " The London " had merely an auxiliary screw, and was
practically a sailing vessel, without any of a sailing vessel's good
sea-going qualifications. Her rigging was too complicated for her
crew to manage ; her canvas was too extensive for her to ride with
safety in a gale ; and her decks were without any sufficient ap-
pliances for getting rid of the seas she continually shipped, and
without any adequate protection against the effects of the water
when accumulated upon them.

Over and above what may be called the physical aspect of the
case, there is also much to be said in a moral point of view. " The
London " was allowed to sail with a crew badly organised, undoubt-
edly incapable as a body, insufficient in number, and composed in
one-third part of foreigners, who hardly understood an order in

English. She went away in a great hurry, out of her regular turn,,
and her quick passage was, it is said, the subject of a bet on the
part of her Commander. Besides this it has been asserted, without
any corresponding denial, that her owners insured her contrary to
their general practice, and it has been shown from previous
examples, that Captain Martin was likely to drive her on with
far too little care for the safety of the passengers.

Touching the Greenwich so-called inquiry, it appears that the
nautical assessors were very " ancient mariners " indeed, and had
little knowledge of the requisites of modern seamanship ; that the
principal witnesses could not be held to be free from bias, as they
were mostly connected with the " Board of Trade," whose officei
had passed the vessel, and in several instances had themselves hac
but little experience ; that outside and independent evidence was not
allowed to be given, much less required ; and that cross-examination
by the counsel representing the relatives of those who perished was
altogether prohibited.

This then being the state of the case, I do think that, both on
behalf of those immediately interested, as well as for the satisfac-
tion and future protection of the public at large, a more thorough,
searching,and impartial inquiry is imperatively demanded. Such an
inquiry can now only take place before a Parliamentary Committee,
and to aid me in obtaining that Committee, I do most earnestly be-
seech the co-operation of the public.

To you, indeed, my Fellow- Sufferers and Fellow- Countrymen, I
now solemnly and emphatically appeal. The cause is yours no less
than mine, and the obligation to be up and doing lies upon you
equally with myself. Can you be absorbed in the stir and bustle of
life, — mingle in the gay and thoughtless throng, go to and fro to
your ordinary avocations, or even sit patiently brooding over the re-
collection of your irreparable loss whilst a whole hecatomb of your
relatives and friends have been sacrificed to the God of Mammon,
and have miserably perished to satisfy the craving of a reckless and
insatiable cupidity ? Has it, indeed, come to this, that our boasted
reverence for human life, our time-honoured institution of inquests,
our cherished determination that not one drop of British blood

shall be spllfc throughout the world without the offender being'
brought to a reckoning, should all have become a figment of the
past, and that destruction need only be wholesale in order to secure
impunity for its authors ? You mulct the railway company in heavy
damages, which, through the carelessness or negligence of its ser-
vants, injures the persons whom its trains convey, — you have been
accustomed to hold the coach proprietors responsible, who, through
the overloading of their vehicles, have endangered the lives of the
passengers who travelled therein, — but the ship-owner, who first
shields himself from risk, by insuring his vessel, by exacting the last
penny of passage-money, and by filling every available foot in her
with cargo, and then wantonly exposes not his own property, not
even his own hirelings, but hundreds of precious and innocent lives
to the uncovenanted perils of the ocean in a ship which has no rea-
sonable chance of weathering a storm — him you allow to go scot
free, to walk u clothed in purple and fine linen, and to fare sumptu-
ously every day/'

In the face of so grievous an inconsistency, of what avail is it
to talk of our impartial administration of justice ? — of our free press,
and of our representative constitution ? Our ancestors held, and
justly held, that protection to life and limb was the first duty of a
Commonwealth, and the supreme office of a Government, and all
the Electoral Reform and amendment in the world will be but a
hollow legislative mockery if this leading principle of state-policy
is to be disregarded and despised.

By every sense, then, of honour and of patriotism, — by every
remembrance of the wrongs which your virtually murdered rela-
tives, friends, and countrymen have suffered, — by every frightful
image which that last sad scene of horror and despair upon the
sinking vessel may have left in your minds, — by that common bond
of human sympathy which unites our destinies and our race, — I do
beseech you, my Fellow- Sufferers and Fellow- Countrymen, to join
me in one resolute effort to obtain justice in this case. Our friend-
ships, our affections, our hopes may have been shipwrecked in
" The London," but let us not voluntarily suffer that last and worst
shipwreck of all — the shipwreck involved in purposeless and uu-


availing regret, in drawing no adequate moral from her story, and
learning no permanent lesson from her fate.

Trusting then that you will speedily join me in petitioning both
Houses of Parliament upon the subject,

I am, your obedient humble Servant,



33t> Bedford Square, London,

May 12th, 1866.



Sir, — For three long and weary days I have waited in anxious
expectation to see whether the metropolitan press, and yourself at
their head, would editorially notice that remarkable " message from
the sea," which appeared in all the journals of Thursday last, and
which was so wonderfully preserved to us from the wreck of the
" London." No sign or sound of comment having yet — so far as I
can discover — been made, I feel that any further silence on my part
would be in the highest degree culpable. As a near connection, in-
deed, of one who not merely went down in the ill-fated ship, but
" whose voice, though dead, yet speaketh," and as having myself
both thought much and written carefully upon the destruction of the
vessel, I do think that I am entitled to draw attention in the most
emphatic manner to one or two of the leading circumstances in this
terrible calamity, especially under the new and ghastly light which
has just so unexpectedly been thrown upon them. I need scarcely
say then, sir, that I allude to the testimony of my lamented brother-
in-law, Mr. H. J. Denis, for that alone, of all the messages preserved,
contains matter of any material interest to the public at large. Be-


fore, however, I quote his evidence, I may perhaps be pardoned for
endeavouring to enhance its value by referring for a moment to the
character of the person who gives it. Mr. H. J. Denis, as all who
knew him will agree, and as this very message amply proves, was a
man of no ordinary kind. For many years past he had been accus-
tomed to a variety of travel and adventure. He had visited many
remote regions, had lived among savages, and faced the dangers of
the chase in South Africa, and, moreover, as the public have lately
been informed, was officially declared by the United States' Govern-
ment to be the first Englishman who ever grew cotton by free labour
in the slave districts on the Mississippi, and that, too, at a time when
civil war was still raging on the American continent. Further than
this, he was onboard the Marco Polo, when about four years ago, she
suddenly, and in the middle of the night, struck an iceberg in the
Southern Ocean, 2,000 miles away from land, and when for some
hours all on board expected every minute to go down. Upon this
trying occasion he evinced extraordinary calmness and presence of
mind, and I have frequently heard from his own lips the precautions
he adopted with a view to at least temporary preservation. Fami-
liar, then, with peril, acquainted with nautical affairs, and singularly
observant of small details, I have a right to assert that his evidence,
given as it was in the very jaws of death, is of the utmost import-
ance, and has a claim to the serious consideration of the Board of
Trade, even though they may have endorsed and published a formal
report. What, then, is his brief, but precise language ? — "Bay of
Biscay, Thursday, ten o'clock. Ship too heavily laden for its size,
and too crank. Windows stove in, and water coming in everywhere.
Storm not too violent for a ship in good condition." Surely, sir,
language like this, coming from such a man at such a time, does not
deserve to be slighted as of no account, or to be placed even in the
same category as the opinions, scientific soever as they may be,
formed by persons far away from the scene of the catastrophe, and
when all material proof as to its causes has been for ever removed.
And when, sir, in addition to this, I have to tell you that I had an
opportunity of seeing and examining the Quartermaster, Daniels, on
the very day after he had landed — that same man, whose evidence


was said to be so confused at the inquiry that nothing could be made
out of it — and when I am enabled to affirm that nothing could be
more clear than the replies he gave to my questions, and that one
of the very first statements he made to me was that he felt certain
the vessel was too heavily laden from the moment he saw her go
down the river ; that the consequence of her being so was that she
shipped such heavy seas, that at last the hatchway of her engine
room was carried away ; that the natural result of this was that her
engine fires were extinguished by the flood of water which poured
in, and that thus not only was the ship rendered a log, but the great
means upon which they relied for pumping out the water — viz., their
steam power — was unavailable, I do consider, sir, that I have made
out a case which calls for the most serious explanation on the part
of her owners. It is said that the bustle and routine of commercial
life are apt to deaden the sympathies of the human heart, and even
to render callous the instincts of natural affection, but I can
scarcely yet think so meanly of our great merchant princes, of those
men whose ships are on every sea, and who carry our trade to the
ends of the earth — as to suppose that they would for the sake of
some miserable gain risk invaluable lives, and, so that they may only
expedite the transport of their merchandise, care not whether they
make parents childless, turn wives into widows, and suffer happy
children to become lone and desolate orphans.

I am, Sir, yours obediently,


£1? Bedford-square, March 3.



Sir, — Your speedy and considerate publication on Monday week of
my letter, entitled " A Voice from the London," has entailed upon
me a responsibility for which I was hardly prepared. No sooner had
the letter appeared in your columns than communications reached me


from divers quarters, and from divers classes — including shipbuilders,
nautical men, and independent observers, as well as friends of those
who had perished, and even survivors of the vessel itself — in nearly
every one of which was contained information and encouragement,
the materials for enlarging upon the subject, and the expression of
hope that I would not let that subject drop. Under these circum-
stances, I have felt that however painful it might be for me to thrust
myself again before the public, there was but one course which I
could with propriety pursue, and that was to appeal to your sense of
justice to give those persons a hearing through the medium of my
pen, who from various causes might be unable, and from various
motives unwilling, to commit their knowledge and opinions openly
and personally to the press. For convenience, then, of arrangement,
no less than for the better understanding of the important question
at issue, I propose to divide the evidence in my possession into three
heads — viz., first, the opinions of professional " experts " upon the
nature and condition of the lost vessel ; secondly, the conclusions
arrived at by independent observers who had opportunities of wit-
nessing her conduct and appearance as she passed along the river
and the Channel ; and, thirdly, the sentiments of individuals who
actually made the last short and terrible voyage within her fatal
lines. Over and above this, too, I propose, with your kind
permission, to add a few remarks of my own, suggested no less by
a study of the details than by a general consideration of the entire

With respect, then, to the opinions of the "experts," they are, as
might naturally be anticipated, chiefly directed to the form and
build of the vessel, to the nature of her equipment, and to the
manner in which she was navigated when she had to encounter a
gale in mid-ocean. Before entering, however, upon this delicate
topic I must cry for mercy from my informants on the one hand,
and from your readers on the other, from my informants, lest, as a
landsman, I misunderstand their arguments or misinterpret their
observations, and from your readers, or at least that part of them
uniniated in seafaring matters, lest I puzzle their understandings by
the enforced use of nautical terms, or weary their patience by the


enunciation of doctrines in general only interesting to tliose who
make the sea their profession. Touching the form and build of the
vessel, the prevailing idea seems to be that she was too narrow in
the beam for her great length — her width in proportion to her length
being scarcely 1 to 8. One gentleman, an old sea captain, writes
tome, "the centre of gravity in the 'London' was too low for a
ship of her long, narrow dimensions. Three years ago," says he,
" I conversed with a celebrated shipbuilder on building such long,
narrow ships, and he told me he must go with people's ideas, speed,
not safety, being the order of the day." Another gentleman, also
an experienced commander, states that on the first voyage of the
"London" to Australia he went with a friend to the Docks, and saw
the vessel, and told his friend that she would be most uncomfortable
to go out in, as she was so short in beam and over- masted and flat-
sided. An eminent shipbuilder on the Clyde expresses the same
opinion,' and, whether correctly or not I cannot tell, says that this
fault of construction is more common in Thames built than in Clyde
built vessels. As regards the equipment of the " London," it is
admitted that she went out unprovided with storm sails, a want of
foresight upon which my nautical correspondents lay much stress,
and which one of them declares he was never guilty of during 30
years of command. Besides this, they blame her, as, indeed, did
Captain Stoll, the Plymouth inspector, for putting to sea "with her
royal masts end on and top-gallant yards across." They also find great
fault with the want of proper provision for allowing the water which
accumulated on the deck to run off, the scupper-holes being either
defective or else choked with coal, and the " spur-curtain" — which,
as I understand, is the space between the waterway and the port-
holes — being too high. Further than this it does not, say they,
appear that she carried life -boats constructed on the best and new-
est principles — as, for example, the tubular, and when they were
most wanted no rockets or means of making signals of distress were
apparently accessible. In reference to the navigation of Captain
Martin, when involved in the tremendous difficulty in which — with
a ship so laden — he found himself in the Bay of Biscay, two dis-
tinct theories seem to be propounded — the one taking the circum-


stances as they actually existed, the other making the assumption
that the "London" was a thorough seagoing sailing vessel. One of
my correspondents, well versed in navigation, declares that had he
been in the position of Captain Martin when the bad weather com-
menced, and before the engine-room hatchway was broken down, he
would have put the vessel on the starboard tack, sent topmasts
and yards on deck, rigged in the jibboom, furled all square canvas,
set proper storm fore and aft sails, and propelled the vessel by
screw just sufficiently to give her steerage way, and by these
measures have weathered the gale. Another, equally experienced,
expresses great surprise that Captain Martin should have been
blamed on the supposition — afterwards discovered to be erroneous —
that he put his ship before the wind. " What," says this old com-
mander, " could be more natural or more correct than to put a vessel,
with proper storm sails set, before the wind ? Who ever heard of
the well-known East Indiamen — all less by 200 tons than the
' London ' — ' lying to ' in a gale of wind ? Did not a small ship of
300 tons burden, loaded with copper ore, pass close under the stern
of the ' London ' only a few hours before she sank, scudding merrily
before the gale ?" " No" exclaims he indignantly, " Captain
Martin knew what he was about ; he knew he was in a ship which
could not l rise to the seas ;' he knew she was too long and too narrow
for the waves she had to traverse and the cargo she had to
carry ; he felt she was overladen, and he did not dare to trust to his

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Online LibraryE. Gilbert HightonA voice from the London and its echoes, to which is prefixed an address to those who have suffered by the calamity, and to the public at large → online text (page 1 of 3)