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Failure to Update the Law a Titanic Mistake

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With all the news this week surrounding the 100th anniversary of the sailing (and, of course, sinking) of the RMS Titanic in April 1912, I’m sure everyone has read or seen at least something related to this event.  However, if you really want to learn about the disaster from different perspectives and get a sense about some of the historical materials available, you don’t need to look further than the Library of Congress Blog and other Library blogs that have published posts about the Titanic: In The Muse (performing arts), Picture This (prints and photographs), From the Catbird Seat (poetry and literature), and Teaching with the Library of Congress.  (Update: Inside Adams (science, technology, and business) has also published a post relating to the Titanic.)

Of course, we here at In Custodia Legis think that the legal angle is particularly interesting!  There are multiple legal aspects that might be examined in relation to the Titanic, so I decided to just look at the regulations and requirements that applied to the safety equipment on board, particularly the lifeboats.

The fact that there were not enough lifeboats for everyone on board the Titanic, and that those that were available were not fully utilized, is well-known.  What I learned in researching this post is that the number of boats was actually in compliance with the relevant UK laws that were in place at the time.

The Merchant Shipping Act 1894 and Merchant Shipping Act 1906 were both in effect in April 1912.  A table specifying requirements relating to life-saving appliances was issued in 1894 in accordance with section 427 of the 1894 Act.  Relevant rules were also contained in the Life-Saving Appliances Rules of 1902.  It appears that the requirements were established by an advisory committee constituted under the 17th Schedule of the 1894 Act.  (You can also see some of the other interesting provisions in the schedules of this Act that may have applied to the Titanic, including those relating to accommodations and provisions for steerage passengers.)  The table and rules based the requirements for the number of lifeboats on the tonnage of a ship.  The highest requirement applied to ships over 10,000 tons, which were required to have on board 16 lifeboats with a capacity to carry a total of 990 people.

Two major official investigations were held following the sinking of the Titanic – a Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry in the UK and a Senate Investigation in the United States – and the resulting reports are very interesting reading.  The reports make a number of findings and recommendations, including a recommendation from the British Commissioner that “the provision of lifeboat and raft accommodation on board such ships should be based on the number of persons intended to be carried in the ship and not upon tonnage.”  Sounds reasonable enough…

Titanic disaster: Senate Investigating Committee questioning individuals at the Waldorf Astoria (1912) (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The British report included background information regarding the history and details of the rules, how they applied to the Titanic, and discussions and correspondence relating to their possible amendment.

The U.S. Senate report also addressed the lifeboat issue and mentioned the British rules:

The Titanic was fitted with 16 sets of double-acting boat davits of modern type, capable of handling 2 or 3 boats per set of davits. The davits were thus capable of handling 48 boats, whereas the ship carried but 16 lifeboats and 4 collapsibles, fulfilling all the requirements of the British Board of Trade. The Titanic was provided with 14 lifeboats, of capacity for 65 persons each, or 910 persons; 2 emergency sea boats, of capacity for 35 persons each, or 70 persons; 4 collapsible boats, of capacity for 49 persons each, or 196 persons. Total lifeboat capacity, 1,176. There was ample lifebelt equipment for all. [Emphasis added.]

Note that the British Commissioner’s report puts the total lifeboat capacity at 1,178 and stated that this was “a number far in excess of the requirements of the Table and Rules.”  There were, however, more than 2,200 people on board the Titanic when it sailed, more than 1,500 of whom died.  The U.S. Senate report includes lists of all of the passengers (first, second, and third class) and crew, specifying those that were lost and those that survived.

The British Board of Trade, which had responsibilities to advise and implement shipping laws and regulations, was criticized by the British Commissioner for the delay in updating the relevant rules.  The Commissioner stated:

The outstanding circumstance in it is the omission, during so many years, to revise the rules of 1894, and this, I think, was blameable, notwithstanding the excuse or explanation put forward by Sir Alfred Chalmers. I am, however, doubtful whether even if the Rules had been revised, the change would have been such as to have required boat accommodation which would have increased the number of lives saved. Having regard to the recommendations of the Advisory Committee, the Board of Trade would probably not have felt justified in making Rules which would have required more boat accommodation than that with which the “Titanic” was actually provided; and it is not to be forgotten that the “Titanic” boat accommodation was utilised to less than two-thirds of its capacity. These considerations, however, afford no excuse for the delay of the Board of Trade.

So, it was a mistake not to ensure that the lifeboat rules kept up with developments in shipbuilding, but the Board of Trade would probably still have made a mistake in setting the requirements even if it had updated the rules.  Oh dear.

The U.S. Senate report also highlighted the issue of inadequate laws in the context of its reciprocal recognition of foreign inspection certificates, saying

Senate Investigating Committee questioning Harold Thomas Coffam, wireless operator (1912) (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

By statute the United States accepts reciprocally the inspection certificates of foreign countries having inspection laws approximating those of the United States. Unless there is early revision of inspection laws of foreign countries along the lines laid down hereinafter, the committee deems it proper that such reciprocal arrangements be terminated, and that no vessel shall be licensed to carry passengers from ports of the United States until all regulations and requirements of the laws of the United States have been fully complied with.

The report went on to recommend changes to the U.S. maritime safety laws.

Of course, there were many other problems identified in the two inquiries, including the safety and wireless equipment, inadequate training of the crew to use the lifeboats, the speed of the ship itself, and the fact that there were warnings of large icebergs which were not heeded.

The Titanic disaster and the subsequent inquiries led to significant changes to maritime safety laws and practices.  In particular, the international harmonization of such laws was achieved through the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS Convention), which was first signed in 1914.  The Convention went through a number of later revisions until a new Convention was signed in 1974.  This Convention, as subsequently amended, is still in force today.

The Law Library and the Library of Congress hold copies of many interesting items, including the relevant UK (and U.S.) laws relating to life-saving devices, the reports of the two inquiries, and documents relating to the SOLAS Convention:

Inquiry reports:

  • The British inquiry report, entitled Shipping casualties (Loss of the steamship “Titanic.”): Report of a Formal Investigation into the Circumstances Attending the Foundering on 15th April, 1912, of the British Steamship “Titanic,” of Liverpool, After Striking Ice In or Near Latitude 41 ̊46 ́N., Longitude 50 ̊14 ́W., North Atlantic Ocean, Whereby Loss of Life Ensued; Presented to Both Houses of Parliament by Command of His Majesty, and Evidence Appendices.  The report has also been digitized.
  • Return of the Expenses Incurred by the Board of Trade and Other Government Departments in Connection with the Inquiry into the Loss of the S.S. “Titanic” (1913).
  • The US Senate report, entitled “Titanic” Disaster: Report of the Committee on Commerce, United States Senate, Pursuant to S. Res. 283, Directing the Committee on Commerce to Investigate the Causes Leading to the Wreck of the White Star Liner “Titanic,” Together with Speeches thereon by Senator William Alden Smith of Michigan, and Senator Isidor Rayner of Maryland (1912).
  • The Titanic Disaster Hearings: The Official Transcripts of the 1912 Senate Investigation (edited and with an introduction by Tom Kuntz, 1998).

Historical UK and U.S. laws:

  • Wreck Inquiries: The Law and Practice Relating to Formal Investigations in the United Kingdom, British Possessions and Before Naval Courts, into Shipping Casualties and the Incompetency and Misconduct of Ships’ Officers, with an Introduction by Walter Murton (1884).
  • Schedule of Rules Attached to Law No. 1, of 1890, Entitled, Law “to Make Provision in Respect to the Appliances to be Carried by Certain Ships for Saving Life at Sea” (Board of Trade, 1890).
  • Merchant Shipping Life-saving Appliances (Board of Trade: Advisory Committee on Life Saving Appliances, 1909).
  • Merchant Shipping: Life-saving Appliances and Safety of Life at Sea (Board of Trade: Advisory Committee on Life-saving Appliances, 1912).
  • Rules and Regulations of the Board on Life-saving Appliances, 1912 (US Board on Life-saving Appliances, 1912).
  • Merchant Shipping: Life-saving Appliances (Board of Trade, 1914).
  • Merchant shipping: Life-saving Appliances: Draft of Rules Proposed to be Made by the Board Trade under Section 427 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, Presented to Parliament by Command of his Majesty (1914).  (Includes the note “Revised in accordance with the provisions of the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea, signed Jan. 20, 1914.”)

Convention-related documents:

  • Safety of Life at Sea: Papers showing the Proposals Made by the Board of Trade for the Revision of the International Convention of 1914 on Safety of Life at Sea (Board of Trade, 1927).
  • Safety of Life at Sea: Analysis and Explanatory Notes of the London Convention on Safety of Life at Sea in relation to the American Merchant Marine (prepared by Andrew Furuseth, President of the Seamen’s Union, 1914).
  • International Conference on Safety of Life at Sea: Messages from the President of the United States, Transmitting an Authenticated Copy of the International Convention (1914).
  • Text of the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, Signed at London, January 20, 1914 (digitized version also available).
  • Safety at Sea; North Atlantic Ice Patrol: Interim Arrangement Revising the Scale of Contributions under Article 37 of the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea Signed at London, May 31, 1929; Entered into Force January 1, 1951 (US Department of State).
  • Statement of Requirements Relating to Construction and Life-saving Appliances of the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea as Signed in London May 31, 1929 and as Recommended to the Signatory Governments for Ratification (US Shipping Board, 1929). This item and later correspondence and versions of the Convention are also in the Library’s collection and can be found by searching the online catalog.
  • International Life-saving Appliance Code (LSA Code) (International Maritime Organization, 1997).

I also located some publications that might show some of the history and thinking regarding lifeboats at the time of the Titanic’s voyage, including:

Comments (9)

  1. So interesting!!!

  2. Of course, in the current regulatory environment, the argument would be that all these requirements are terribly onerous and are preventing small shipping companies from entering the market and creating jobs.


  3. Thanks for this; interesting & certainly a different perspective. Much appreciated.

  4. I was looking more for a list of all the new laws, but this was great!

  5. Super interesting. I am doing a research paper for my English class and this gave me many statistics I was able to use. Thank you!

  6. Thank you! very helpful for my national history day project on the titanic that I have to do in history! 🙂

  7. i am very pleased with all the information

  8. So cool

  9. Very good! This is very helpful for a big grade in my ELA class about the Titanic.

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