The loss of HMS Megaera in 1871 
The loss of HMS Megaera in 1871 

Royal NavyLossesLoss of Megaera (2/3)

131. The charge that Sir Spencer Robinson, when informed by Sir Sydney Dacres of his intentions to send her to Australia, should have recalled "to his mind the doubts that had existed for years as to the general character of this Ship," docs not appear to me to be well founded, seeing that I am not aware that any such doubts ever existed. It is true that the "Megaera's" plating in the neighbourhood of the water line was reported to be thin, but Mr. Reed has informed us that, owing to the peculiar construction of the Vessel, he did not consider that to he a source of danger, and it was not in that part that the Vessel ultimately gave way. Sir Spencer Robinson also being, as he has informed us, "not a Naval Constructor, nor a Naval Architect," would in a matter of that kind naturally be guided by the opinion of the Chief Constructor. Moreover, it has been shown that the Dockyard Officers always reported her bottom down to the last to be in good condition. Seeing too that the defects, which ultimately caused her loss were purely local, confined within very narrow limits, and that they were never suspected up to the day of her departure from this country on her last voyage; I cannot blame Sir Spencer Robinson for not entertaining doubts, which seem to have had no existence.

132. I have now gone through all the charges, on which it is sought to make Sir Spencer Robinson "mainly responsible" for the loss of this Ship; and I have come to the conclusion that in one point, and in one only, namely, in regard to the Cement, is he in any respect to blame. In that case, also, the blame, which attaches to him personally, is but small, seeing that the mistake arose chiefly from the omission of a Clerk in the Steam Branch to forward the documents to the Ship Branch, in which case the Cement would have been watched as an experiment. Nor must I omit to notice that even this neglect would have been of trifling importance, had the Dockyard Officers on any of the occasions, on which she subsequently came into their hands, done that which it was their duty to do, namely, examined from time to time the interior of the vessel.

133. I am sorry to find myself differing so widely from my Colleagues on this, perhaps the most important question in the case, but I feel that the reputation and character of an upright and honourable man are concerned; and I cannot consent to brand as "mainly responsible" for the loss of this vessel one, to whom this country owes so much for his unwearied efforts in her service during periods of great trial and difficulty, when his mind was often more profitably occupied with the large and intricate problems of the construction of Our Ships, including the theories of armour plating and heavy guns, than with the petty details of Office work. To hold him "mainly responsible" for the loss of this Vessel, simply because some Clerk in the Steam Branch had not marked a Paper for the Ship branch, when he should have done so; or because a Clerk in the same Branch had not, when asked for them, produced certain Papers relating to the thickness of the vessel's plating; or perhaps, because Sir Spencer Robinson gave credit to the Dockyard Officers for doing their duty, as he would himself have done it, had he been in their place; appears to me to he neither right nor proper, nor is it such a measure of justice as we would wish to have meted to ourselves.


A few words will dispose of the charges against those Officers of the Constructors Department, who are censured in the Report.

134. I do not think that blame attaches to Mr. Reed "in not, when undertaking in 1866 to make an examination, making it a complete one." I am not aware that Mr. Reed ever undertook to "make an examination" of the "Megaera," and it was not his business to do so; all that he did was to go down to Woolwich, "with reference to the 'Megaera' and other matters." As regards the "Megaera," he went to inspect for himself the thickness of the plates, which had been previously bored; and to satisfy himself whether it would or would not be necessary to replace or to double them. And there it appears to me his responsibility ceases. No doubt he had many "other matters" to attend to at Woolwich, and he would hardly devote move time than was required to the examination of the "Megaera," or perform duties more particularly within the province of the Dockyard Officers; the rather, as we have it in evidence, that these Officers were jealous of the visits of the Constructors to the Dockyards, - jealous, no doubt, as seeming to imply that they were not fully equal to their duties.

135. Nor do I concur in thinking that Mr. Barnaby was open to censure for "not calling the attention of Lord John Hay to the weakness of the Ship's plating, when asked as to her condition in 1871." Lord John Hay has informed us that, when he asked the question of Mr. Barnaby, he had no reason to suspect that the vessel was unseaworthy, and Mr. Barnaby has confirmed him in that view, and I see no reason to doubt the words of these gentlemen. Lord John Hay told us that, when he heard that it was intended to send the "Megaera" to Australia, he asked Mr. Barnaby about her character, as being the person most likely to give him the best information on the subject. The reply of Mr. Barnaby appears to me to be strictly accurate; he stated, that "having undergone repairs at Sheerness, she is reported to be complete." This was strictly correct, for Captain Luard had, on the 13th of January, three days before, telegraphed that she was "ready, with the exception of completing stores and coal." Mr. Barnaby next stated that "she is a good sea boat, and although more than 20 years old, is sound and strong." This also was quite true, so far as he had any means of judging. No report had ever been sent up by the Dockyard Officers, that she was otherwise than sound and strong; and the fact that she remained for 76 days after being run ashore, before she finally broke up, was, in the opinion of Admiral Mends, a sufficient proof that she was a sound and strong vessel. Apart, indeed, from the local defect referred to, there seems to be no reason to think that she was otherwise than sound and strong, and perfectly fit to undertake the service for which she was ordered. Mr. Barnaby's last statement is, that her boilers were only good for one year's service, which is also strictly true.

136. Nor do I think that Mr. Morgan was to blame, "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 the known thinness of the plates." For, first, there was no "known thinness of the plates except in the neighbourhood of the water line, and that, as I have just said, was not considered by his Superiors to be a source of danger, nor was it, in fact, the cause of her loss. And as regards the plates in the bottom, they were, as I have shown, always reported by the Dockyard Officers to be in good condition. Moreover, on the occasion referred to, the Dockyard Officers had themselves reported that, although it had been stated that the bottom was very thin, it was found, on the vessel being docked, that it was "in a better condition than was expected."


137. I now come to the question of the general responsibility of the Dockyard Officers. And first, I do not at all agree that "it is doubtful what are the precise rules in force for their guidance." No doubt the Dockyard Officers, whose conduct is inculpated, "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." But it appears to me that the Circular Orders, and especially that of the 17th of January 1867, addressed to the Superintendents of Dockyards and Captains of Reserve, conclusively show that the Dockyard Officers are "responsible for the condition" of the interiors of any Ships that may come into their hands, and that they are required by that Order "to keep the Ship clean, and the iron free from corrosion." Nor do I at all concur in thinking that, whatever may have been the intention of these Circular Orders, "it is certain that they have always been understood and obeyed by the Dockyard Officials in the limited sense above referred to." We have one striking instance to the contrary in the present case, before even the Order of January 1867 was issued, when the Dockyard Officers at Woolwich did not so understand their duty; namely, when without any instructions from the Admiralty, and merely on the suspicion that the plating of the "Megaera" was thin, they bored hundreds of holes all over her, not only between wind and water, but also in the flat of the bottom.

138. I concur in opinion that Captain Luard incurred grave responsibility in sending to the Admiralty, without apparently making a careful examination of the Vessel, the telegram of the 13th of August 1870, which resulted in her being transferred from the Fourth to the First Division of Reserve. I also think that he was to blame for having allowed the vessel to leave Sheerness with her Ports in the defective state in which they were. But I think that these mistakes are comparatively trifling to the far graver errors, which he committed, in not having taken the opportunity to examine the interior of the vessel during the five mouths that she remained in the Reserve at Sheerness, and before she was commissioned for her voyage to Australia. Under the Order of January 1867, it is clear that the Captain of the Reserve is "responsible for the condition of the inside of the Ship," and that he is bound to keep her "clean and free from corrosion." Even according to the somewhat lax views of their duties entertained by the Dockyard Officers themselves, the vessel ought, before being put forward for a new Commission, to have had her interior carefully examined. Captain Luard, however, neither whilst she was in the Reserve, nor when about to be put into commission, thought it necessary to examine the interior, nor even to order it to be done. "The arguments which he has adduced in explanation of this neglect are not in my opinion satisfactory." Captain Luard stated that the Ship, when she came into the hands of the Dockyard, had only run out about half her time, and that therefore without any special reasons for making another search, not only were they not called upon, hut they would not have been justified in proposing such a search. What Captain Luard meant when he said that she had only run out half her time, when she came into the hands of the Dockyard Authorities at Sheerness, I am at a loss to understand, seeing that she had been commissioned in December 1867, and that when she came for the first time into his hands in August 1870, it was that she should be paid off. Had Captain Luard, before jumping to the conclusion that she had only run out half her time, taken the trouble to inquire, he would have learnt that she had been originally commissioned at the beginning of 1865, paid off in December 1867, and immediately recommissioned. So that in August 1870, when she was paid off, and then at his suggestion put into the First Division of Reserve, she had been running almost continuously for more than five years and a half.

139. Equally, if not more culpable were Mr. Sturdee, the Master Shipwright, and Mr. Mitchell, the Assistant Master Shipwright, neither of whom ever pretended that they had examined the interior of the "Megaera" during the whole time she remained at Sheerness. Mr. Sturdee stated that, when she was despatched on her last voyage to Australia, nothing was done by him to see that she was fitted for the voyage, that it did not rest with him, and that he considered Captain Luard, the Captain of the Reserve, was alone responsible for her condition; Mr. Mitchell said that he had never once looked into the interior of the vessel, with the view of ascertaining the state of the cement, during the whole time she remained at Sheerness. Had these Officers done their duty, there can be little doubt that they would have discovered the inaccessible place, where the leak occurred; and had they then removed the small vertical plate, which closed it in toward the centre of the vessel, an operation which could hardly have been attended with much difficulty, they would have discovered the condition of the plates within, and this misfortune would probably have been avoided.

140. 1 concur with the Report in thinking that the Woolwich Officers are not free from blame; they would, however, probably excuse themselves on the ground that on all the occasions of her having gone into Woolwich for repair, it was to make good commission defects, except in December 1867, when she was paid off, but was then immediately recommissioned. No such excuse, however, can be offered for the Sheerness Officials. During the five mouths, that she remained in the Reserve at that port, they had the fullest opportunity of examining her interior, and they should have done so. According to their own showing, they ought to have carefully examined her, before bringing her forward for the voyage to Australia, but they do not even pretend to have done so.

141. The excuses, which the Dockyard Officers have advanced for their neglect, and the way in which they have sought to shift the responsibility from themselves to others, are in my opinion by far the most painful features in the case. And I am inclined to say, with Sir Spencer Robinson, "Here is an unfortunate case, in which these gentlemen have overlooked their duty; and the proper course for them, when this was observed, was to admit that they had committed an oversight; and if they had done so, I think little more could have been said. But when they pass by written instructions, and interpret those instructions to shield the faults they have committed, I think it is the bounden duty of everybody concerned in this Inquiry to say, that is not the way the public service ought to be carried on, and is carried on in general."

142. It is most painful to find myself differing so widely, upon this the most important point of our Inquiry, from Colleagues, with whom I have served for so many weeks, and of whose ability and judicial impartiality I have the highest opinion; but a strong sense of duty, and the obligations imposed upon me preclude me from concurring in what appears to me to be an act of great injustice to a most deserving officer. The mistake, if I may be permitted to say so, into which my Colleagues have in my opinion fallen, is in not clearly distinguishing between the duties of the Controller and of the Dockyard Officers, and in making him responsible for acts, of which he had not, and could not have any knowledge. In all other respects, save as I have stated, I cordially concur in the Conclusions of the Report.

H.C. ROTHERY. (l.s.)

6th March 1872.

In addition to this report (no C507 of 1872), the Commission also issued a volume (no. C507.1 of 1872) of more than 750 pages containing documents obtained from the Admiralty, and a verbatim record of the 16,928 questions put to the 84 witnesses during the 24 days of hearings.

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