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The Loss of the ships ORION, AMAZON, and BIRKENHEAD

Date: 1852
Overall: 210 x 136 x 10 mm, 180 g
Medium: Ink on paper, leather
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Classification:Books and journals
Object Name: Book
Object No: 00030605
Place Manufactured:London

User Terms

    During the 19th century the significant loss of life in shipping disasters and the inability of passengers to safely evacuate from sinking vessels led William Lacon to write this book in the form of a letter to the President of the Board of Trade.

    In this publication, Lacon specifically responds to the loss of the ships ORION, AMAZON, and BIRKENHEAD with proposed changes to the way boats are carried on ships and their use in emergencies. The book is largely technical, dealing with the problems of lowering, stowing and covering of boats, and the duties of those in charge of them. Lacon suggests a system of davits and slings that would allow crew members to lower the ship's boat on an even keel, quickly, without fear of upset.
    SignificanceThis book by William Lacon was a significant and influential work regarding safety of life at sea, and demonstrates the development of emergency procedures and evacuation methods on ships during the 19th century.
    HistoryIn the early 1850s a series of major shipwreck disasters with extreme loss of life occurred off the English and South African coasts. The wrecking of the passenger screw steamer ORION (in 1850 with the loss of 40 lives) the auxiliary steamer AMAZON (in 1852 with the loss of 104 lives) and the troopship BIRKENHEAD (In 1852 with the loss of 454 lives) were covered extensively by the British, Scottish and South African press, who provided details on the wrecking, the loss of life, and the stories of the survivors.

    Lacon examined the loss of each vessel, and using details from the survivors published in the daily newspapers, states that the high loss of life was caused by poorly maintained equipment and the inability of the ship's crew to get the boats out in time. Lacon built up a case for the need for better procedures in dealing with the ship board emergencies, the lowering, stowing and covering of boats and the duties of those in charge of the boats.

    Up until the late 1840s very few ships carried what today we would call lifeboats. Most boats on ships were general purpose watercraft more suited for the carrying of supplies and people between the ship at anchor and the port on shore than as lifeboats. Although many people were saved by these general purpose boats, there was no formal procedure on how they should be used in an emergency.

    Thanks to the work of Lacon and other advocates, by the mid-1850s the British Board of Trade had introduced legislation - The Merchant Shipping Act (1857) - which specified that each vessel carrying more than ten passengers must carry a lifeboat which could easily and quickly be deployed in case of an emergency.

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