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Colonial Cases

The Northern Light v. The Melbourne, 1863

[shipping collision]

The Captain and Owners of the Northern Light v. The Captain and Owners of the Melbourne

Consular Court, Shanghai
8 August 1863
Source: The North-China Herald, 12 September 1863



8th August, 1863.

Before J. MARKHAM, Esq., H.B.M.'s Acting Consul.

Captain VINCENT, C. THORNE, Assessors.




This action was brought to recover Tls. 4300.25 for damage sustained, and incidental; expenses incurred by the Northern Light through a collision with the Melbourne on the 2nd July last.

The defendants pleaded non-liability.

WM. HUTCHINSON, late Master of the Northern Light, said: - I was master of the Northern Light at the time of the collision, which occurred about midnight on the 1st July; or a little after 12 p.m.  I was awoke by hearing timber falling from aloft.  I got on deck as quickly as possible and found the Melbourne across our bows, and the Belmont alongside.  The Melbourne, by coming athwart-hawse the Northern Light, caused her flood chain to part.  The Belmont slipped clear of both ships; but the Melbourne and Northern Light drifted together up the river till they were brought up by the Naomi and Oasis. The Melbourne was all the time athwart our bows, and remained so till the flood tide made.  There was no one on board but myself and the ship's keeper; so I appealed to the Ounangonly for assistance, and got the Chief Officer and eight hands from her.  I afterwards got eight more men from the Grenadier and three from the Fonzel, besides sixteen coolies from shore, to assist on clearing the ship and getting her secured.  I requested the Master of the Melbourne to get assistance for clearing the ships, but got for answer - "when my employers send me men I will set them to work."  He did nothing then, nor until later in the day, and in the meantime the tide had turned. 

It is my opinion that, if the Captain of the Melbourne had procured assistance in time, a great deal of damage might have been avoided.  I called to him at slack tide, - the only chance of clearing the ships - but was told he was fast asleep.  I requested him top employ the Martin White which was passing, but he would not agree until she was beyond hearing; when he hailed, but, of course, received no answer.  The damage we received was - starboard mizen rigging, mizen top-mast back-stays and boat's divots carried away; quarter boat damaged, poop-rail broken as well as iron hand-rail. Eight stanchions started, and other items.

We finally separated at the next flood and drifted clear of the Naomi and Oasis.  The Melbourne's cathead was through our side, but there was no one on board to pay out her chain.  I sent eight men on board her to do so, but the tide had then made too strong. The two ships drove down again with the ebb till we reached the Hanover, and I got a warp to her which assisted the anchors in holding my ship.  We remained there until slack tide.  At turn of tide we carried away the Hanover's job-boom and finally lashed alongside her until I got steam.  We went thence and made fast to the Rhine, but broke adrift again at next flood, parting the warps. We had to employ a steamer to take us clear of the Melbourne.

The Court here ruled that all damages sustained by the Northern Light after getting clear of the Melbourne and being placed in secure position, must be made good by herself; the other vessel could not be held liable.

TO PLAINTIFF'S SOLICITOR: - The Northern Light had been here since March.  She had part of her inward cargo of coals on board, having never fully discharged.  She was used as a store-ship, I considered her as laid up and dismantled.  I was moored with two bower anchors, one each way, on a large mooring swivel.  We had 30 fathoms of chain out each way.  The floor chain, by which we were riding, parted and the anchor stock of the ebb chain broke.

TO COURT: - I could not swear it was broken by the collision.  Twenty eight hours elapsed between the collision and sighting the anchor.  We had been moored about three months by that anchor.  I can swear that the anchor was right when dropped, but cannot swear that it was broken by the collision; I believe it was, and the fracture seemed new.  I hand in my account for incidental expenses.

TO DEFENDANT'S ATTORNEY: - I was Master of the Northern Light - was appointed on the 9th March last.  I do not know whether the ship was condemned, I joined under orders to take her to Moulmein.  She is not sea-worthy at present.  There were about 15 fathoms of chain for each anchor on deck.  I do not think it is the practice to have chain on deck when moored by a swivel.  The chain was not handy in the lockers of my ship; it is the practice to have it on deck ready to veer away.  I went to bed about 10 p.m.' when I awoke the collision had taken place.  I left the ship's keeper - a European - in charge; it was his duty to keep a look-out.  I cannot say whether he called me.  It was flood tide and there was very little wind.  The tide was unusually strong.  I had no light up.  Had all the chain on board my ship been veered out, it would not have avoided the collision.  It is not a fact that the Northern Light was rotten at the part where the Melbourne's cat-head had perforated her.  There is no rule as to showing a light in harbour.  I never saw any notice to that effect.  It is the custom for steamers to show a light - not sailing vessels.

TO COURT: - The Melbourne was below the Harbour Master's hulk, and we were above.  I cannot say how the anchor stick could have been broken unless by the shock.  The ship was then considered as a hulk; but I have not heard of her being condemned.When a ship is properly moored, two people are sufficient in charge.  It might be better to have a few coolies on board to light to chain.  The Melbourne had no more hands than we.  I can only account for the collision by supposing the Melbourne to have been improperly moored.  The warps by which we made fast to the Rhine were half-worn.  There were two, besides small lines.

CAPTAIN PARTRIDGE: - I hand in report of a Survey of the Northern Light, signed by myself.  I told Morris, of Morris, Behneckee, that he had better go round the ship, and if he believed my report to be true, sign it.  Captain Hutchinson did not belong to the ship when I went on board.  I considered her sufficiently moored; she was duly laid up as a hulk.

TO DEFENDANT'S ATTORNEY: - I surveyed the Northern Light before the collision, and again afterwards.  The damages were not there on the former occasion.  I surveyed her previously for a cotton cargo, but would not pass her as good risk.  She was unfit for that purpose.  As a rule the cost for repairing damage to a hulk is one-third less than to a running vessel.  I have no idea what would be a fair award for these damages.  I should think the carpenter's bill would be about Tls. 1500.  I should have been prepared to give Tls. 4000 for the Northern Light before the collision.

THE COURT: - I think that all damages should be made good, and the ship restored to her former condition.

HENRY BEHNECKE: - My partner, Mr. Morris, signed the estimate produced.  I know nothing about it.

Captain F. Gardner, Assistant Harbour Master, said: - I saw the ships the day after the collision.  I went on board and requested the Captain to drop down and re-moor.  I did so because I considered her endangering other ships.  I do not know what chain she had out.  The Northern Light was moored with 30 fathoms each way, which is what we always recommend. 

TO DEFENDANT'S ATTORNEY: - Ships should always have some chain on deck in this port, in case of accident.  I was on board the Northern Light about three months before the collision, but  did not notice whether she had chain on deck or not.  The Georgiana had broken adrift the day before, in consequence of the Melbourne having fouled her.  A schooner got foul of one of the hulks; but I am not certain that it was the Melbourne. The breaking adrift of these vessels was caused by the spring tide.  The Northern Light should have veered away 50 or 60 fathoms if she could, and if there were nothing astern of her.  It would require half a dozen men to light to a ship's chain.  I consider there should be six hands on board of any ship.

TO COURT:- I never go on board hulks except in case of collision, so do not know what number of hands they have.  I ordered the Pilot where to berth the Northern Light.  I found both the Melbourne and Northern Light considerably damaged after the collision.  Three or four ships were lying together.  The Northern Light would have had a better chance of holding on had she veered out more chain.

This closed the case for the plaintiff; the first wirness called for the defence was

WILLIAM GOMER, a Pilot: - I was on board the Melbourne on the night of the 1st July. I was the first who saw the vessel a drift, and I at once roused Captain Miller, and another person who was staying on board.  I put the helm hard a starboard, and Captain Miller and the other person went forward to light to the chain.  I repeatedly hailed a vessel towards which we were drifting, to put his helm hard a-port.  Had he done so, my opinion is that the collision would never have occurred.  We should have drifted down the fairway channel.  I was hailing at least seven minutes before the collision occurred.

The starboard quarter of the Melbourne struck the bow of the Northern Light.  I jumped on board the latter immediately we fouled, and found no one there.  I afterwards saw one person come out of the forecastle and one out of the cabin.  There was no one else on board, and no chain to light to.  One person went to her below, and we began to drift together.  If there had been any watch kept, the collision would not have occurred.  I do not consider the Northern Light properly moored, as she had no chain on deck.  I did not see her broken anchor stock; nor any spare anchors.

TO PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY: - I was not on duty on board the Melbourne.  I lodged there formerly.  I went on board at 8 p.m.  I was sick at the time.  I called to the Captain and some others when the collision seemed likely.  I do not know whether any other look-out was kept besides a Chinaman.  I cannot say to a moment how soon I hailed the vessel we were approaching.  I saw the Melbourne break adrift; no one gave me warning of it.  The Captain told me he had 30 fathoms out.  My opinion is that if the Northern Light could have paid out even 10 fathoms of chain, the ships would have cleared each other.

TO COURT:- If the ship were riding at a single anchor and the helm put a-port, she would shear  ten fathoms - with a light bridle 4 fathoms.  Two fathoms would have been sufficient to clear the Melbourne. The head of the Melbourne was top the Shanghai side.  I hailed the Northern Light as soon as I saw we were adrift.  I cannot say how long she dragged before I discovered it.  There were always three China boys on board.

JAMES MILLER, who was at the time in charge of the Melbourne, said: - At midnight on the 1st July, I, Mr. Gomer, a Swede and two China boys were all that were on board.  I turned in about 10 p.m.  Mr. Gomer kept a look-out for me.  I slept on deck.  I jumped up when he called me and ran forward to light to chain.  We paid out about 45 fathoms.  Mr. Gomer hailed the Northern Light, but there was n o one to answer him.  He told them to port her helm, but no one answered.  Had the helm been ported, we might have scarped his side, but not materially damaged him.  Mr. Gomer was the first to go on board the Northern Light.  She was moored with a swivel.  Could she have veered away chain, the collision would not have happened, nor would it, if there had been any one to port the helm.  I succeeded in veering away my own chain.  We drove from our moorings the day before, the Sophie having broken adrift and come athwart.

TO PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY: - We paid out 45 fathoms to both chains.  I am an old sailor.  No regular look-out was kept.  Mr. Gomer was keeping a look-out at the time.  I think that, after we fouled the Belmont, we were not clear of her again till we struck the Northern Light.  I had 45 fathoms of each chain on deck.

GODFREY LAURENCE: - I am master of the Ta-yung tug.  I attended on the Northern Light in July last.  I recollect seeing the anchor got up.  It had seen better times.  I towed the Northern Light to Dow's wharf, and both Captain and Pilot agreed that she was secured.  I observed nothing wrong with the towing Bits; but they must have been rotten.

TO PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY: - She went to that wharf because she had no anchor.  It was the only place she could go to.

The Court delivered judgment to the following effect: - That the Melbourne was liable for all damages and incidental expenses which occurred to the Northern Light up to the time of her having been left in a safe position by the Ta-yung; and that the Defendants should, therefore, pay the costs of repairs of the damages sustained by her and the incidental expenses incurred as specified.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School