Probert, William Bernard Charles
The humanitarian, technical and political response to shipwreck in the first half of the nineteenth century: the 1836 Inquiry and its aftermath.
University of Southampton, Department of History,
Shipwreck in the first half of the nineteenth century had been an on-going national tragedy. It was not officially quantified until the 185O's when it was found that 1025 ships a year on average were lost, the consequent destruction of life averaged 830 persons a year, with an annual loss to the country representing some 1.5m. There had been a devastating loss to the maritime strength of Britain since the close of the Napoleonic Wars.
The response to this on-going national disaster was slow but eventually emerged principally in three areas: humanitarian, technical and political. The humanitarian driven reform came from amongst other sources by way of incentives to inventors from the Royal Humane Society, the formation and establishment of a lifeboat service and a general up-swelling of opinion by exposure to pamphlets and newspapers against the evils of shipwreck. The technical response came as inventors and builders sought to find new forms of construction in ships, lifeboats, life-saving equipment and safety equipment amongst others. Politically, the increasing use of the select committee to bring facts before the public and parliament served as the basis of much reform in nineteenth century England, the 1836 Inquiry into the causes of shipwreck, the 1839 Inquiry into the losses of timber-laden ships and the 1843 Inquiry into the causes of shipwreck being the major exposers of malpractice. The object of this thesis and the major research question is to assess the principal strengths and directions of these responses as the climate of opinion changed and reforms albeit piecemeal came about. The work begins with an outline of the situation as it affected different parts of the coast and some of the localised responses to shipwreck. Using the 1836 Inquiry as the basis for establishing the causes of the problems, itself a new datum point in maritime history as it was the instigating basis for change, the nature of shipwreck and course of reform is traced through the following two decades up until the unifying 'great' Merchant Shipping Act of 1854.
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