Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The sinking of the SS Neptun, Part 2

In a previous post  I narrated the events which led to the loss of the SS Neptun on 27 June 1936. I also informed you that the owners of the vessel – J. Lauritzen – held the Humber Conservancy Board (HCB) responsible, and sought compensation in the Admiralty Court. It is now time to reveal the outcome of this case.

The trial was heard on 3 November 1937 by Mr Justice Langton. A copy of The Times Law Reports dated 10 December 1937, found amongst the records of the Engineer’s Office, outlines the details of the case.

The plaintiff’s argued that the loss of the Neptun was due to one or more of the following: breach of contract, breach of duty, breach of warranty, and/or negligence on the part of the Board.

They argued that through the publication of charts and plans indicating a minimum depth of three feet at low water in the Whitton Channel, the HCB had represented or warranted (unless notices were issued to the contrary) that such a depth existed at the deepest point. The Board counter argued that the Humber was a tidal estuary with a bed of sand subject to constant change and thus such a representation was not possible; a fact well known to those familiar with the Estuary. The positions of the Middle and Lower Whitton lightships had been altered on the fateful day, and notices issued alerting mariners of the change. Furthermore, all the Board’s charts bore a disclaimer alerting mariners that the Board accepted no responsibility for any inaccuracies. It was therefore concluded that the HCB had given no such representation or warranty.

Upper Whitton Lightship

The next charge by the plaintiff’s was that by taking dues from vessels using Humber Ports, the HCB entered into a special relationship with the owners of these vessels to maintain the navigation of the Humber to a certain standard. The grounding of their vessel represented a failure to meet this obligation. 

Establishing the Board’s responsibilities was a vital part of the case, but Langton found the Board’s attitude to be ‘vacillating, obscure and unsatisfactory’. The Board’s representatives had claimed that the obscurity of the various Acts of Parliament which conferred upon it the duties of a beaconage authority made it impossible to place any definitive responsibilities upon it. The HCB had been operating more than thirty years, and the Judge found it difficult to believe that they had not at any point sought to understand the extent of their obligations. The Elder Brethren of Trinity House were therefore called upon to define them, and outlined these minimum responsibilities as follows:

  • To find the best navigable channel via sounding.
  • To signpost such channels with sea marks (buoys, floats, lightships etc.).
  • To illuminate sea marks at night.
  • To re-sound the channel as and when the opportunity presents itself.
  • To keep a vigilant watch on any changes to the river, and adjust marks accordingly.
  • To maintain records of soundings and alternations to sea marks.
  • To publish further supplementary information and guidance.
The Judge ruled that the Board was therefore not responsible for maintaining the Humber channels to a certain standard, but was instead responsible for marking the safest known route and removing obstructions.

Humber Conservancy Board Wreck Marking System

The final charge made by the plaintiff was that the HCB had been negligent in taking soundings of the channel, and in positioning the Middle and Lower Whitton lightships on the day of the accident. The Judge having consulted expert advice, considered the resources of the Board, and taken into account its prompt response to the accident, concluded that the Board ‘had not been guilty of any want of reasonable care in the discharge of their obligations’.

The Judge had no responsibility for uncovering the circumstances behind the accident. But, with the view to the possibility of an appeal, offered the following explanation ‘that the pilot was a man of cautious habit who made a deliberate choice on the information available to him at Blacktoff, but that in this case his calculations were based on too small a margin of safety and upset by circumstances beyond his control’. In the Judge’s opinion, the accident was caused by ‘a combination of poor judgement and misfortune’.

The judgement was delivered on 29 November 1937; the case was dismissed with costs awarded to the HCB.

Neither the HCB nor the Neptun’s owners claimed that the pilot or crew was responsible, or had acted in any way improper. The ship was a victim of the unpredictable and shifting sands which characterise the Humber to this day.

Robert Astin, Project Archivist

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