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The Ilfracombe Disaster - The Board of Trade Report

What follows is the official report into the disaster.

IN the matter of the formal Investigation held at Crown Court, Bristol, on the 13th and 14th days of September 1887, before H. C. ROTHERY, Esquire, Wreck Commissioner, assisted by Vice-Admiral POWELL, C.B., and Captain DRAGE, as Assessors, into the circumstances attending the foundering of the sailing ship "MONARCH," of Barnstaple, and the loss of 11 or 12 lives, off Ilfracombe on the 26th of August last.

Report of Court

The Court, having carefully inquired into the circumstances of the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds, for the reasons annexed, that the loss of the said vessel and the lives on board was due to her having been thrown over on her starboard side when the boom gibed, and the main sheet being fast it was not possible to ease her by letting it go, and she consequently filled and sank.

Dated this 14th day of September 1887.


Annex to the Report

This case was heard at Bristol on the 13th and 14th days of September instant, when Mr. Thompson appeared for the Board of Trade, Mr. Vassall for the owner and crew, and Mr. Handcock for the representatives of some of the deceased passengers of the "Monarch." Eleven witnesses having been produced by the Board of Trade and examined, Mr. Thompson handed in a statement of the questions upon which the Board of Trade desired the opinion of the Court. Three witnesses having then been produced on behalf of the owner and crew of the "Monarch," Mr. Handcock and Mr. Vassall addressed the Court on behalf of their respective parties, and Mr. Thompson having replied for the Board of Trade, the Court proceeded to give judgment on the questions upon which its opinion had been asked.

The circumstances of the case are as follow:

The "Monarch," which was a small sailing yacht, belonging to Mr. John Rumson, of Ilfracombe, grocer, who was also the managing owner, was registered at the Port of Barnstaple, but appears to have been always stationed at Ilfracombe, where she was generally employed during the summer months in taking out persons for a two hours trip to sea at a shilling a head. 

On the 26th of August last, shortly after 3 p.m., she left Ilfracombe on one of her usual trips with some 21 or 22 persons on board, besides William Rumson, the owner's brother, and a man named Buckingham to navigate her. It was blowing a fresh breeze at the time with occasional squalls, but the sea was smooth, the wind being from the S.S.W., and therefore off-shore. On clearing the harbour the vessel's head was turned to the westward, and she proceeded down channel under double-reefed mainsail and inner jib, with the wind between two and three points before the beam. After passing Capstone Hill the wind began to blow stronger, and the gusts to be more violent, and in about a 1/4 of an hour or 20 minutes after leaving the harbour a squall struck her, which threw her on her starboard side with the rail under water, but on the main sheet being eased she at once righted. 

Soon afterwards another squall struck her, and again put her rail under water, and again she righted on the sheet being eased; but this time a boat hook was washed out of her. Some discussion then seemed to have occurred between Rumson and Buckingham, as to whether it was worth while to put about to pick up the boat hook, and it was at length decided that they should do so, upon which the helm was put down, and she came round with her head in-shore, and was steadied at N.E. by E. or N.E. 1/2 E., the wind being from two to three points on the starboard quarter. 

As they neared the boat hook, Buckingham, who was in the fore part of the boat, got ready another boat hook for the purpose of hooking it up, whilst Rumson, who was sitting aft and on the port side, with his right hand on the tiller and the mainsheet in his left hand, gave the sheet three or four turns round the pin, so as to leave his left hand free to catch hold of the boat hook in case Buckingham should miss it. 

Just at this time the boom suddenly gibed over from the port to the starboard side, owing either to a change of wind or to the vessel's head having been brought too much to the north, and the result was that the vessel was thrown over on her starboard side with the rail under, and in a very short time she filled and went down stern foremost. It happened very fortunately that Major Yeeles, who had been out in a small boat called the "Playmate" fishing, and was returning to Ilfracombe, saw her go down, and he and Brooks, the man who was with him in the boat, immediately lowered the sail, and having got out the oars pulled to the spot and succeeded in saving six of the passenger

Within an incredibly short space of time other boats came up, and ultimately eleven of the passengers, and Rumson one of the hands were saved; the rest, however, consisting of some ten or eleven passengers and Buckingham the other hand, were drowned.
These being the facts of the case, the first question which we are asked is, "Whether, when the said vessel was lengthened, proper measures were taken to insure that her safety in respect of construction or stability was not thereby affected ?" 

The vessel appears to have been built in the year 1881 by the long established firm of Messrs. Hinks & Sons, of Appledore, and to have cost about 110l (sic). She seems to have been a very good boat of her kind, her frame, bottom, and bends being of oak, the sides of red pine, and the keel of elm, and she had a registered tonnage of 5.94 tons. In 1885, however, Mr. Rumson determined to lengthen her, and with this view he put her into the hands of Mr. Pollard, of Ilfracombe, who cut her in half and lengthened her 8 feet, making her about 36 1/2 feet long over all, at the same time increasing the breadth amidships 1 foot 4 inches, making it 9 feet 10 inches, but diminishing the depth about 1 1/2 inches, making it 4 feet 7 1/2 inches. The alterations, we are told, cost about 40l., and so far as appears were well performed; and all the evidence seems to show that the vessel, after she was lengthened, was, so far as her construction was concerned, a very good vessel of her class. We are told that after the alterations she had four tons of ballast put into her, which was double the amount she had previously carried; and that it consisted of shot, fire bars, and other old pieces of iron laid in the centre of the vessel, covered with a wooden floor, and secured at both ends as well as at the sides to prevent it shifting. And although no measures were taken, and no calculations made, to ascertain whether she had a sufficient amount of stability, there is, in our opinion, no doubt that she had; indeed, the only question in our opinion is whether she had not almost too much stability, the owner stating that he put this quantity of ballast into her to make her stiff, and enable her to stand up to a stiff breeze, and walk away from her competitors.

The second question which we are asked is, "Whether, when the said vessel left Ilfracombe, on the 26th of August 1887, she was in good and seaworthy condition, and in all respects fit for the carrying of passengers in the Bristol Channel ?" 

So far as the form of the vessel and the materials and workmanship are concerned, nothing it seems could have been better; but we are told that there was one weak point in her construction. The vessel, which as I have said was about 36 1/2 ft. long after she was lengthened, was decked for about 15 ft. forward, and about 4 to 5 ft. aft; and had a strip about 18 in. wide on each side, leaving an open space or well in the centre some 16 ft. long by about 6 ft. wide. There were bulwarks 8 in. high, with an opening of about half an inch all round to allow the water to escape, and coamings of the same height round the well. Now it is obvious that with bulwarks only 8 ins. high and open at the bottom, and with coamings of the same height separated from the bulwarks by a strip of deck only 18 in. wide, a very small inclination of the vessel would be sufficient to allow water to flow into the well, whence there were no means for it to escape. This was, in our opinion, a source of danger; and on this point we have the evidence of a very competent witness Lieut. Dyke Acland, an officer who has been until quite recently in charge of the coastguard station at Ilfracombe, and who stated that he had himself told the owner that he did not think that the vessel was safe with so large a well in the centre, and that he should not again go out in her, and that he had not done so. The same opinion was expressed by Major Yeeles, who seems to have had a great deal of experience in the management of small boats. There can be no doubt that a well 4 ft. wide, with a strip of deck 2 ft. 6 in. on each side, would have rendered the vessel much more safe.

The third question which we are asked is, "Whether the said vessel was carrying proper and sufficient ballast ?" 

The ballast itself was perhaps not of the very best description, but secured as it was with a floor above it, and with frames and bulkheads at the ends and sides, there is no reason to think that it was not proper and sufficient. The only question seems to be whether it might not have been rather too much for her.

We will take the fourth and fifth questions together; they are, "Whether the said vessel was sufficiently manned ?" and "Whether the master and mate had sufficient experience, and were fully competent to navigate the said vessel ?" 

The crew of the vessel consisted of William Rumson, the owner's brother, and of a boatman named Buckingham. Apparently they were both very good and experienced men. Rumson it seems had had thirty years experience at sea, and had for the last ten years been sailing boats of this description out of Ilfracombe, and had for some time been the master of a small yacht called the "Playmate." Buckingham, too, seems to have had considerable experience in the management of these boats, and we were told by Mr. Edwards that he had been master of a yacht of 70 tons burthen belonging to his son, and that there could not be a better man. We have therefore every reason to think that the men were thoroughly competent, and that they were quite sufficient for the proper navigation of the vessel.

In the course, however, of the remarks which were made by Mr. Thompson a question of very considerable importance was raised, whether the vessel ought not to have been in charge of a certificated master. The 136th section of the Merchant Shipping Act 1854 says that, "No foreign-going ship or home-trade passenger ship shall go to sea from any port in the United Kingdom, unless the master thereof, and the first or only mate have obtained and possess valid certificates either of service or competency appropriate to their several stations on the said ship". Now it is admitted that neither Rumson nor Buckingham possessed any certificate, and the question is whether they should have had one. It appears to us, however, that the "Monarch" can hardly be regarded as a home-trade passenger ship; she was not going from one home port to another with passengers, but was simply taking them out for a two hours trip, and returning to the place from which they started. But however this may be, it is quite clear that they have never hitherto been so regarded; and we are of opinion that boats of this description would be much safer in the hands of experienced men like Rumson and Buckingham, than of a man who might hold a master's certificate, but might have no knowledge of the management of a boat. In our opinion the boat was sufficiently manned, and the men in charge fully competent to navigate her.

The sixth question which we are asked is, "Whether, having regard to the construction, size, and capacity of the said vessel, and to the state of the weather on the said 26th of August 1887, the owner or master was justified in permitting the said vessel to sail with 21 passengers on board ?" 

It seems that the licensing and regulation of pleasure boats at Ilfracombe is in the hands of the Local Board of Health for that place. The practice seems to be for the owner to send in an application stating the number of persons for the carriage of whom a license is required, and if the constable whose duty it is to look after the boats is of opinion that the number asked for is not too great, the license is granted; if however there is a doubt on the point, the opinion of the harbour-master, who is a member of the Board is taken thereon before the license is issued. 

In the present case the "Monarch," which before being lengthened had a registered tonnage of 5.94 tons, had had a license from the Local Board of Health to carry 25 persons, but after she was lengthened, and when her tonnage was, we are told, about 10 tons, the owner applied for a license for her to carry 40 persons. On the question coming before the Local Board, it was thought that the "Monarch," being above eight tons register, they had no jurisdiction in the matter, in as much as the 7th Article of their Bye-laws provided, "That the pleasure boats licensed to be hired be divided " into two classes, viz.:”Class I. Sailing boats, being  boats with masts and standing rigging, not exceeding " eight tons. Class 2. Rowing boats, being boats " usually rowed without standing rigging, and which only occasionally use a sail or sails." 

And as the "Monarch" would come under neither of these two classes, a letter, dated the 9th July 1885, was addressed by the Local Board to the Board of Trade, stating that they were "informed that the number of persons such boat is described as capable of containing is in excess of that which would be safe," and they therefore asked that before being licensed she "should be surveyed by some competent authority," and it was added "that as she frequently goes considerably beyond the limits of the district, the Board of Trade was the proper authority to judge of her fitness to carry so many persons to sea." 

To this an answer was returned by the Board of Trade, dated the 15th of the same month, saying merely "that the matter appears to be one for the consideration of the Local Government Board." Upon which the Local Board of Health replied on the 18th, saying that one of their Bye-laws restricted them "to the granting of licenses to sailing boats not exceeding 8 tons, and that they were advised that any sailing boat exceeding that tonnage would come under the jurisdiction of the Board of Trade, and hold a certificate from that Board as to the number of passengers she is allowed to carry;" and under these circumstances they asked if the Board of Trade " would at once interfere in the matter of these sailing boats, as there was considerable danger in their carrying a greater number of passengers than a competent authority will allow." 

To this a reply was sent from the Board of Trade saying "that the Merchant Shipping Act 1854 empowered them to regulate the number of passengers to be carried by steam vessels only." 

There the matter dropped, and although there was some discussion whether they might not adopt what are called the Model Bye-laws issued by the Local Government Board for the use of sanitary authorities in regard to pleasure boats and vessels, nothing more was done, and the "Monarch" sailed without any license, and with what number of persons they chose to take in her. 

At the same time it is right to observe that the vessel on this occasion had fewer persons on board than the Board would have been willing to license her for, had they had the power to do so, and fewer even than she had been licensed to carry before she was lengthened. Nor, indeed, can it be said that the weather was such as to have made it improper for her to go out, for we are told that all the sailing boats were out that day, and Major Yeeles was returning from fishing when he saw her go down. Still the fact remains that this vessel was sailing out of Ilfracombe carrying as many persons as the hands in charge of her thought fit to take on board, and we do think that it behoves the Local Board of Health at Ilfracombe to take the necessary steps to obtain an amendment of their Bye-laws, so that all such pleasure boats, whether above or below eight tons, should be licensed to carry only such a number of persons as they can with safety.

The seventh question which we are asked is, "Whether the said vessel was furnished with sufficient life-saving apparatus, and if not, whether a boat or life-buoys or other apparatus would have prevented or lessened the loss of life ?" 

The vessel, it seems, had not any boat; and the only life-saving apparatus which she had on board was one life-buoy, and that was down in the cabin. Something was said about the cushions having been stuffed with straw and pieces of cork, but the owner has fairly admitted that he did not consider that they would have been able to support any one in the water. Now the 24th Article of the Byelaws says that every pleasure boat shall be furnished with a life-buoy. The "Monarch," therefore, had the requisite amount of life-saving apparatus required by the Bye-laws. It does, however, appear to us that boats going out with so large a number of persons on board ought to be provided with a greater number, not necessarily of life-buoys, but of some life-saving apparatus in the form of seats or cushions, by means of which every one would have been able to keep himself afloat until assistance arrived from the shore. Had this been done in the present case, there can be little doubt that many more would have been saved; and it is a matter which ought to engage the attention of the Local Board of Health when they come to revise their Bye-laws.

I will take the eighth and ninth questions together; they are as follow: "Whether the said vessel carried too much sail ?" and "Whether, after she had been struck by a squall, the master ought to have taken in sail ?" 

It seems that, owing to the weather being squally, and to the stiff breeze which was then blowing, the vessel went out under double-reefed mainsail and inner jib, which seems to have been a fair amount of sail for her under the circumstances. But we are told that after she had been struck with the squall and her rail put under water, one of the passengers said to Rumson that he thought she was carrying too much sail. Now an experienced boatman is hardly likely to be guided as to what amount of sail he ought to carry by any remark which might fall from one of the passengers, who might possibly never have been at sea before. Moreover, to have taken in another reef in the mainsail would have been a matter of extreme difficulty; but Rumson did what he could before putting the vessel about to pick up the boat hook, he hauled up the tack of the mainsail, and thus reduced the amount of sail; and we have the evidence of Major Yeeles and of the boatman Brooks that, when the casualty happened, the tack was hauled up. We do not think, therefore, that she was carrying too much sail, or that they ought to have taken in any sail.

I propose to take the tenth and eleventh questions together; they are as follow: "Whether the master was justified in returning for the boat hook as described in his evidence ?" and "Whether the vessel was properly manuvred for that purpose, and whether the main sheet ought to have been made fast ?" 

We are not prepared to say that the crew were not justified in putting back to pick up the boat hook, although it is admitted that it was of very little value; but they were out for a sail, and whether they went to the east or to the west could make no difference to any one, and there was nothing in the state of the weather to make it dangerous to go about. They seem, too, to have put her about, and to have laid her with her head to the eastward on the starboard tack, and with the wind some three points on the starboard quarter, without any difficulty. 

So far then there is nothing to complain of, and whether the gibing of the main sail was caused by the wind shifting, or whether the vessel's head was put so far to the northward as to bring the wind on the port quarter, in our opinion makes no difference whatever. The important fact is that the main sheet was made fast, so that when the boom suddenly gibed over from the port to the starboard side, there were no means of letting the sheet go and relieving the strain. Rumson told us that he should, had he been able, have let go the throat halyards when the boom gibed over; but, in the opinion of the Assessors, he should have had the main sheet in his hand, and eased it off as the pressure came on the sail, and in that case she would in all probability have at once righted. The great mistake in this case was securing the main sheet, and rendering it impossible to ease the vessel when the squall struck her.

The twelfth question which we are asked is, "What was the cause of the casualty ?" 

The casualty was, in our opinion, due to the main sheet having been made fast, a thing which ought never to have been done in such weather.

The thirteenth question which we are asked is, "Whether every possible effort was made to save life ?" 

Major Yeeles deserves the greatest credit for the promptness with which he went to the rescue of these unfortunate people, and for having succeeded in saving six of the passengers. Great credit is also due to the other persons, who in so short a time put off from shore and succeeded in saving a number of others. It was said, indeed, that there was a want of promptness on the part of the "Lorna Doone" in not getting to the spot as soon as she might and ought to have done; but we are unwilling to cast any reflection upon those who have not had an opportunity of defending themselves. At any rate the "Lorna Doone" succeeded in saving the life of Rumson, one of the crew; but whether they could or could not have saved any more lives, we are not in a position to say.

The fourteenth question which we are asked is, "Whether blame attaches to the master and owner or either of them ?" 

We cannot see that any blame attaches to the owner in this case. He seems to have done everything in his power to keep the vessel in a good and seaworthy condition, as he would naturally do, seeing that she was wholly uninsured. As to Rumson, the man who was at the helm, he no doubt is to blame for having made fast the main sheet. Unfortunately, however, it is a habit too common amongst sailors, and which has often led to the most lamentable accidents. Except in this respect we see nothing to find fault with in Rumson's conduct.


Linked toWilliam Wareham

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