Astute readers may already have noticed that tomorrow [Saturday 14th April] is the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic striking an iceberg.
For Obiter, the most remarkable aspect of the tragedy is not the speed with which the White Star liner sank but the speed with which the government and legal establishment got together to conduct a full-blown public inquiry. And to publish a report. The British Board of Trade inquiry, presided over by the commissioner of wrecks, Lord Mersey of Toxteth, president of the probate, divorce and admiralty division of the High Court, opened on 2 May 1912 and lasted five weeks.
By contrast, the Finnish government’s inquiry into the 1994 sinking of the MV Estonia took three years to report. Let’s not even mention the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. The Mersey inquiry (to use an anachronism) assembled some remarkable legal figures. For the Board of Trade appeared attorney general Sir Rufus Isaacs KC MP (pictured), while another KC MP, Sir Robert Finlay, appeared as counsel for the shipping line.
The radical Sligo MP Thomas Scanlan appeared on behalf of victims and survivors who were members of the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union of Great Britain and Ireland, which then boasted 80,000 members. Predictably, day two of the inquiry opened with an argument about whether the breakaway British Seafarers’ union should be represented (it was).
Another contemporary ring was provided in the runup to the hearings when the US Senate sought to detain the Titanic’s quartermaster, Robert Hichens, for its own committee of inquiry, despite the Titanic being a British ship and the disaster taking place in international waters. In all, the Mersey inquiry heard from 96 witnesses and on 30 June found ‘that the loss of the said ship was due to collision with an iceberg, brought about by the excessive speed at which the ship was being navigated’. The cost of the inquiry, including printing the report: £20,751, five shillings and 10 (old) pence.
A speedy whitewash? The arguments have been flying ever since. But Gazette readers can make up their own minds, as the whole proceedings are now online.