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The loss of HMS Megaera in 1871
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83. Having thus given the general history of the "Megaera" so far as appears necessary, and having laid before Your Majesty everything which appears to us to bear upon the subject of our inquiry, we now proceed in obedience to Your Majesty's commands to state the conclusions at which we have arrived.
84. We express our decided opinion that the state and condition of the "Megaera" was such that she ought never to have been selected for the voyage to Australia, and that as a matter of fact she was an unsafe ship when she left Sheerness, and had probably been so for some years. It is right that we should add that Sir Spencer Robinson informed Sir Sydney Dacres that he did not consider her well adapted for this service, and it is much to be regretted that more weight was not attached to his representations, and that, when he expressed an opinion unfavourable to the employment of the ship, Sir Sydney Dacres did not call for and discuss the reason and grounds for that opinion before incurring such a responsibility.
85. When the "Megaera" left Sheerness her ports were leaky, some being decayed, and others worn out by long service. She was also overladen with reference to the comfort of the officers and men on board, bearing in mind more particularly the nature and length of the voyage and the numbers she carried.
86. We consider that the Admiralty were justified in ordering the "Megaera" to continue her voyage, after she had put into Queenstown, the Admiral on the station having declared that she was fit to proceed. The defects, which were then reported, were not of a character to affect her seaworthiness, and were such as were remedied without docking her.
87. The defects in the ship's hull, at the time when she was beached at St. Paul's, were local. The leak itself was an oblong aperture about two inches in length by one and a half in breadth. The plates for a space of five or six fest in the vicinity of the leak were more or less corroded, and dangerously weak over an extent of from two to three feet. In several of the ship's frames also in the same part the floor plates were more or less eaten by corrosion. These circumstances raised a feeling of insecurity in the minds of the officers as to the soundness of her bottom. It was this which induced Captain Thrupp and the officers he consulted to decide upon running the vessel ashore.
88. The cause of the leak and of the defective condition of the plates in its vicinity was the continued corrosive action of bilge water on unprotected iron. The loss of the ship is in our judgment to be attributed to the want of adequate protection to the inner surface of those plates. The corrosive action had in our opinion been at work for some years, and was not appreciably, if at all, accelerated by galvanic action, occasioned by the presence of copper.
89. The plates in the vicinity of the water line of the "Megaera" were ascertained in 1866 to be very thin; but it must be borne in mind that it is not to the weakness of these plates that the loss of the ship is in any way attributable. This circumstance, however, ought to have led to a thorough and complete examination of the whole of the plating. The sound condition of the plates was not to be satisfactorily ascertained by mere boring from the outside, which was the only process adopted subsequently to the above discovery; such a boring, limited as it was to a mere puncture of the inner surface of the iron could not afford any indication of the condition of the interior face of the plates.
90. It is a matter of doubt whether the plates ought at that time to have been doubled or replaced, but it is certain that their comparative weakness should never have been lost sight of, and should have been constantly brought to the notice of the dockyard officials, and that their soundness should have been carefully tested before the vessel was despatched to Australia.
91. Nevertheless, after 1864 the "Megaera" was never sufficiently examined. Every official at the time of examination confined his attention to the exterior, and to such parts of her interior as were readily accessible, and relying, it would seem, as to her interior, upon the supposed lasting qualities of Cement, omitted to make the necessary examination, though it is obvious that whether her age, her extended service at sea, or the period which had passed since the repairs in 1864, be considered, such precautions should have been observed. It has been proved to our satisfaction that there were parts of the interior which could only be examined by opening up the ship to an extent which was never done; anything short of this prevented the real state of these parts from being ascertained. It is in evidence that at the termination of a ship's commission, which usually lasts four years, such an examination should be made as would thoroughly satisfy the authorities as to the state of the ship, so as to make it clear whether further examination or repairs are necessary. But counting from February 1865, the time when the "Megaera" left Devonport Dockyard, until February 1871, when she sailed from Sheerness, six years had elapsed since she was thoroughly overhauled. It was owing to this that the corrosive action was allowed to go on until it resulted in the loss of the vessel.
92. We will now proceed to state upon whom, in our opinion, rests the responsibility for the mismanagement which allowed the vessel to remain so long in an unsafe condition.
93. We are of opinion that responsibility rests on Sir Spencer Robinson, who was Controller from 1861 to 1871.
"1st. Practically he had the power of controlling the operations carried on in Her Majesty's Ddockyards, the Superintendents and Dockyard Officers being subject to his orders.
"2nd. The Constructor's Department was also under his direction.
94. It was for the Controller to take care that the organization of his Department was such that all the duties connected with it were efficiently performed. The attention of the Sheerness Officers was never called to the Report of 1866 on the "Megaera", and the Reports of subsequent years on the ship seem never to have been scrutinized with the necessary care nor examined with reference to the information regarding her, which was then obtained, and even when in 1870, the Carpenter of the ship had called the attention of the Dockyard Officers to the alleged thinness of the plates at the bottom of the vessel, they satisfied themselves with an examination of the outside, and their Report was accepted without challenge by the Controller.
95. We have shown that Sir Spencer Robinson was responsible for the application of Spence's Cement to the "Megaera", and for its having been subsequently suffered to remain there without examination, though ascertained to be a failure in other instances. From the day it was put into her, until the day she was beached at St. Paul's, no one ever thought of the matter; although it is impossible to suppose, judging from the effect of bilge water on it, as reported in the cases of the "Sharpshooter" and the "Northumberland", that it could have afforded any lasting protection to the plates of the bottom of the ship.
96. No advantage was taken by the Controller of the opportunity of fully ascertaining her condition during the five months she lay unemployed at Sheerness, although so many questions had been raised and doubts entertained with reference to it; nor did he, when informed by Sir S. Dacres of his intention to send the "Megaera" to Australia, recall to his mind that doubts had existed for years as to the general character of the ship. Hence it follows, in our opinion, that the Controller is mainly responsible for the misfortune which befel the vessel. The arguments which he has adduced in explanation of this neglect are not, in our judgment, satisfactory. We say this with much regret, for there can be no question of the zeal and ability of this Officer; and it is difficult, we think, to have taken part in this Inquiry with forming a high appreciation of his merits as a devoted public servant.
97. We also consider that neither Mr. Reed nor Mr. Barnaby is free from responsibility, the former in not, when undertaking in 1866 to make an examination, making it a complete one, the latter in not calling the attention of Lord John Hay to the weakness of the ship's plating when asked as to her condition in 1871.
98. We think also that blame attaches to Mr. H. Morgan, of the Chief Constructor's Department, because when he received the Report of the Sheerness Officers in April, 1870, containing the observation that the bottom was stated to be very thin in many places, he neglected to inform them of the previous Reports, and of the known thinness of her plates.
99. We are of opinion that Captain Luard incurred a grave responsibility, in sending to the Admiralty, without further examination of the ship or any knowledge of her previous history, the Telegram of the 13th of August 1870. But for this she would have been placed in the Fourth Division and thoroughly examined, when in all probability her defects would have been discovered. We say this with regret, for it is clear that the error into which he fell arose from zeal in the Public Service, he having no suspicion of the real state of the case. We think also that he is responsible together with the dockyard officers for the defective condition of the ports when the "Megaera" left Sheerness.
100. We further consider that Mr. William Ladd, the Master Shipwright, and Mr. W.H. Henwood, the Assistant Master Shipwright at Woolwich from 1866 to 1869, and Mr. A.B. Sturdee, the Master Shipwright, and Mr. William Mitchell, the Assistant Master Shipwright at Sheerness from 1869 to 1871, are severally deserving of censure for not having discovered either the unprotected condition or the inaccessible position of the plates in the part where the leak was afterwards discovered; and for never making a thorough examination of the interior, although both at Woolwich and Sheerness there were ample opportunities of so doing. Nor do we think that the Superintendents at those Yards were free from blame in not seeing that these duties were efficiently carried out.
101. We consider that Mr. Ladd and Mr. Henwood are further to blame for having neglected to institute an examination of the "Megaera"'s plates in the interior in December 1867, though they were then expressly directed by the Controller of the Navy to report whether she was in want of repair.
102. Mr. Sturdee and Mr. Mitchell are also especially deserving of censure, because when informed by the Carpenter of the "Megaera", when she was in their hands in April 1870, that the bottom was stated to be very thin in many places, they took no steps whatever to ascertain whether that was true or not.
103. The Engineers and Carpenters of the "Megaera" in her several Commissions are in some degree to blame for not having called attention to the circumstance that parts of the ship were closed up and inaccessible even to view.
104. Captain Thrupp also appears blameable for not taking care that the Cargo was properly stowed before leaving Sheerness.
105. We are of opinion that it was an unfortunate circumstance that Sir Sydney Dacres should have placed Officers in charge of the "Megaera", very few of whom had ever sailed in iron vessels, as it must be difficult, for those who are not familiar with their construction, to form a sound opinion as to the character of defects or accidents which may occur at sea, or to adopt the best methods for repairing them.
106. On the question of the general responsibility of Dockyard Officers it is doubtful what are the precise Rules in force. They all unite in declaring that their duties are limited to the examination and remedy of reported defects, and of such other defects as may become apparent in carrying this duty into execution; and these views are supported by the evidence of their immediate Naval Superiors, who hold or have held the post of Dockyard Superintendents. On the other hand, the Admiralty Officers urge the very opposite statements, and point to the Circular Orders in existence, and to the impossibility of their being able to ascertain whether the Dockyard Officers have done or have not done their duty in examining ships. It is clear to us that while the intentions of the Admiralty were to enforce adherence to these Circulars, nevertheless their orders have always been understood and obeyed by the Dockyard Officials in the limited sense above referred to. But it appears to us that it would be quite possible to mature a system whereby the respective duties of all these Officers could be defined and checked, so as to render it very difficult for any serious mistakes to occur, and that without such a system, responsibility in practice becomes little better than nominal.
107. We think that a complete survey should be made of every iron ship at suitable intervals. But the circumstance that such survey had been made should not release a Superintendent of a Dockyard from the duty of at all times making sure that a vessel has left his charge in good order.
108. We feel compelled to add that we have formed, however unwillingly, an unfavourable opinion as to the mode in which the Administration of Her Majesty's Dockyards is generally conducted. The important work of the survey of vessels seems often to have been done in an incomplete and unsatisfactory manner. Officers too often appear to us to have done no more than each of them thought it was absolutely necessary to do; following a blind routine in the discharge of their duties, and acting almost as if it were their main object to avoid responsibility.
109. As regards the Admiralty, we have endeavoured to restrict our inquiry to matters which immediately bore on the loss of the "Megaera"; but owing to witnesses often travelling into points which seemed to affect their own character, and which it was difficult to check, we have been led to exceed such limits. We do not consider that there is any evidence to show that the Admiralty ever cut down an Estimate from a feeling of parsimony, or sacrificed efficiency from a desire to reduce expenditure. We do not believe that in any case connected with the "Megaera" the reduction of an Estimate contributed to her loss. We consider, however, that it would have been sound economy to have got rid of the vessel long ago, as being an expensive ship to maintain and of comparatively little value for any service.
110. We feel bound also to state that, in the course of the inquiry, it has been clearly shown to us that the System of Administration at the Admiralty is defective in some important points. Its Secretariat arrangements are insufficient, and its mode of Registration of correspondence defective. It is an extraordinary circumstance indicative of this that when Sir Spencer Robinson asked for the report which Mr. Reed was supposed to have made in 1866 on the thinness of the iron plates of the "Megaera," that reference did not lead to the production of the Report of the Dockyard Officers of the same year to a similar effect. A very little reflection ought to have led the Clerk intrusted with the search to endeavour to ascertain, and to produce any documents of the period which bore on the subject under inquiry. The explanation of Mr. Claude Clifton in this matter is very unsatisfactory.
111. The checks by which responsibility is to be enforced, judging by the case of the "Megaera," appear to be practically almost nominal. There was, indeed, a Ship's Book for the "Megaera," but neither the circumstance that she was coated with an experimental Cement, nor the nature of the different surveys which had from time to time been held on her, nor, indeed, a word whereby a suspicion would arise as to her real condition at the time she was selected for the voyage to Australia, was to be found therein. Such a record was worse than useless; it was simply misleading. When estimates for the repair of ships are received at the Admiralty, judging from this case, they are disposed of without sufficient reference to previous Reports and former outlays. Reports from dockyards seem to be received with too much reliance on their correctness. It is with difficulty that the details of the actual work performed under each Estimate can be traced. Nothing like Completion Statements of the work done in each instance to it ship appear to be furnished. No one seems to have known, or to have recollected in 1870 and 1871, that the "Megaera" had never been thoroughly overhauled since 1864. That she had been once declared only fit for 18 or 24 months' service in her then existing condition, and on two subsequent occasions fit for 12 months' service only. That when pronounced equal to the voyage to Australia more than six years had passed, and that before she could have returned to England seven years at least would have elapsed since she had been properly examined and really made efficient for sea service.
112. We have come to the above Conclusions after careful and full consideration. It is with reluctance and pain that we express unfavourable opinions with respect to the conduct of Officers and the Management of a great Department. But, in doing so, we hare acted on a strong sense of duty, and of the imperative obligations which have been placed on us by your Majesty.
A. BREWSTER (L.S.)
M. SEYMOUR (L.S.)
FRED. ARROW (L.S.)
*H.C. ROTHERY (L.S.)
THOMAS CHAPMAN (L.S.)
GEORGE P. BIDDER, Secretary.
6th March 1872.
* Signed by me subject to the following remarks. - H.C.R.
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