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An essay by Charles Lever

A New Hansard

Title:     A New Hansard
Author: Charles Lever [More Titles by Lever]

There is an annual publication called the 'Wreck Register,' which probably few of us have ever seen, if even heard of. Its object is to record all the wrecks which have occurred during the preceding year, accompanying the narrative by such remarks or observations as may contribute to explain each catastrophe, or offer likelihood of prevention in future. It is, though thoroughly divested of any sensational character, one of the dreariest volumes one can take up. Disaster follows disaster so fast, that at length the reader begins to imagine that shipwreck is the all but invariable event of a voyage, and that they who cross the ocean in safety are the lucky mortals of humanity.

Fortunately, however, long as the catalogue of misfortune is, this is not the case, and we have the satisfaction of learning that the percentage of loss is decreasing with every year. The higher knowledge and attainments of merchant captains, and the increase of refuge harbours, are the chief sources of this security. The old ignorance, in which a degree or two of latitude more or less was a light error in a ship's reckoning, is now unheard of, and they who command merchant-ships in our day are a very well informed and superior order of men. With reference to the conduct and capacity of these captains, this 'Wreck Register,' is a very instructive publication. If, for instance, you find that Captain Brace, who was wrecked on the Azores in '52, was again waterlogged at sea in '61, and ran into an iceberg off Newfoundland in '62, you begin, mayhap unfairly, to couple him too closely with disaster, and you turn to the inquest over his calamities to see what estimate was formed of his conduct. You learn, possibly, that in one case he was admonished to more caution; in another, honourably acquitted; and in the last instance smartly reprimanded, and his certificate suspended for six months or a year. Now, though you have never heard of Captain Brace in your life, nor are probably likely to encounter him on sea or land, you cannot avoid a certain sense of relief at the thought that so unlucky a commander, to say the least of it, is not likely for a while to imperil more lives, and that the warning impressed by his fate will also be a salutary lesson to many others.

It was in reflecting over this system of inquiry and sentence, that it occurred to me what to admirable thing it would be to introduce the 'Wreck Register' into politics, and to have a yearly record of all parliamentary shipwrecks; all the bills that foundered, the motions that were stranded, the amendments lost in a fog!--to be able to look back and reflect over the causes of these disasters, investigating patiently how and why and where they happened, and asking ourselves, Have we any better security for the future? are we better acquainted with the currents, the soundings, or the headlands? and, above all, what amount of blame, if any, is attributable to the commander?

If we find, for instance, that the barque Young Reform, no matter how carefully fitted out for sea--new sheathed and coppered, with bran-new canvass, and a very likely crew on board--never leaves the port that she does not come back crippled; and that old and experienced captains, however confidently they may take the command at first, frankly own that they'll never put foot in her again, you very naturally begin to suspect that there's something wrong in her build. She is either too unwieldy, like the Great Eastern, or she is too long to turn well, or she requires such incessant repair; or, most fatal of all, she is entered for a trade where nobody wants her; and therefore you resolve that, come what will, you'll avoid her.

What an inestimable benefit to the student of politics would a few such brief notices be, instead of sending him, as we send him now, to the dreary pages of Hansard! Imagine what a neat system of mnemonics would grow out of the plan, when, instead of poring over interminable columns of tiresome repetition, you had the whole narrative in few words--thus: "Barque Reform, John Russell, commander, lost A.D. 1854 The Commissioners seeing that this vessel was built for the most part of old materials, totally unseaworthy, are of opinion that she ought not to have sailed at all; and severely censure the commander, J. R, for foolhardiness and obstinacy, he having, as it has been proved, acted in entire opposition to 'his owners.' On the pressing recommendation, however, of the owners, and at the representation that E. has been long in the service, and is, although too self-confident, a very respectable man, his certificate has been restored to him."

Lower down comes the entry:--

"The Young Reform.--This was a full-rigged ship, in great part constructed on the lines of the barque lost in 1854. She sailed on the 28th February 1859, commanded by Captain Dizzy. No insurance could be effected upon her on any terms, as the crew were chiefly apprentices, and a very mutinous spirit aboard. She put back, completely crippled, after three days' stormy weather; and though the commander averred that some enemies of his owners had laid down false buoys in the channel, he was not listened to by the Commissioners, who withheld his certificate. Has never been employed since, and his case by many considered a very hard one."

Of course, all the small class of coasting vessels--railroad bills and suchlike--suffer great losses. They are usually ill-found and badly manned; but now and then we come upon curious escapes, where a measure slips through unobserved, like a blockade-runner; and it is ten to one in such cases they have that crafty old pilot Pam on board, who has been more than fifty years at sea, and is as wide awake now as on his first day.

What analogies press in on every hand! Look at the way each party bids for and buys up the old materials of the other, fancying they have some "lines" of their own that will turn out a clipper to beat everything. And think of those "Sailors' Homes," where old salts chew their quids at ease--those snug permanent Under-Secretaryships, those pleasant asylums in the Treasury or the Mint! Picture to your mind the dark den in Downing Street, where the Whipper-in confers in secret, and have you not at once before you the shipping-office, and the crimp, and the "ordinary seaman" higgling for an extra ten shillings of wages, or begging that his grog may not be watered? And, last of all, see the old lighthouse-keepers, the veteran First Clerks who serve every Administration, and keep their lamps bright for all parties--a fine set of fellows in their way, though some people will tell you that they have their favourites too, and are not so brisk about the fog-signals if they don't like the skipper.

I think I have done enough to show that such a work as I speak of would redound to public benefit; and I only ask, if my suggestion be approved of, that I may be remembered as the inventor, and not treated as Admiralty Lords do the constructors of new targets, testing the metal and torturing the man. Bear in mind, therefore, if the political 'Wreck Register' be ever carried into execution, its device must be "O'Dowdius fecit."

It might not be amiss, in the spirit that has suggested this improvement, to organise in connection with the proceedings of the House a code of signals on the plan of Admiral Fitzroy's storm-signals, and which, from the great tower, or some similar eminence, might acquaint members what necessity for their presence existed. Fancy, for instance, the relief an honourable gentleman would experience on seeing the fine-weather flag up, and knowing thereby that something of no moment was being discussed--a local railroad, a bill to enable some one to marry his grandmother, or a measure for Ireland! Imagine the fog-signal flying, and see how instantaneously it would he apprehended that D. G. was asking the noble Lord at the head of the Government a question so intensely absurd as to show a state of obscurity in his own faculties, in comparison to which fog is a thin atmosphere! Or mark what excitement would be felt as the storm-drum was hoisted, telling how the Government craft was being buffeted and knocked about, and the lifeboat of the Opposition manned to take charge of the ship if abandoned! What a mercy to those poor, hard-worked, harassed, and wearied "whips"! what a saving there would be in club-frequenting and in cab-hire! Now would the lounger, as he strolled along Pall-Mall, say, "No need to hurry." "light airs of wind from the east" means a member for Galway and some balderdash about the Greeks. "Thick weather in the Channel" implies troubles in Ireland--nothing very new or interesting. "Dirty weather to the east'ard" would show mischief in the Danubian provinces, and a general sense of unquiet in the regions of the Sultan Redcliffe. These are hints which I have not patented, and the chances are that "My Lords" will speedily adopt them, and call them their own.

[The end]
Charles Lever's essay: New Hansard