1902 Encyclopedia > Wreck


WRECK (in Low Latin wreccum or ivarectum maris) is a ship or goods cast on land by the sea in tidal waters. While still at sea such ship or goods do not constitute wreck but derelict, which includes flotsam, jetsam, and lagan (see FLOTSAM). In Roman law wreck was restored to the owner if he claimed it before a judicial tribunal within a year and a day, the flscus waiving its claim after a constitution attributed to either Marcus Aurelius or Constantine. Theft from a wreck was regarded as aggra-vated by the helpless position of the owner, and the thief was liable for fourfold the loss if an action was brought against him within a year, after that time for the loss simply. Plunderers of wreck and exhibitors of false lights were also punished criminally. Most of the Roman law on the subject is contained in Digest xlvii. 9, Code xi. 5. The Leonine Constitutions, c. 64, made a concealer of wreck liable to the fourfold penalty. In France it was provided by the laws of Oleron (see SEA LAWS) that succour was to be afforded to shipwrecked persons, and their property returned to them. Wreck afterwards became a right of the crown (a right limited to one-third of the. value by an ordinance of Francis I.), but was often granted to feudal seigneurs under the name of droit de bris. In England the rule seems in the time of Bracton (the reign of Henry III.) to have been the same as that of the Roman law, that wreck only belonged to the king if no claimant appeared within a year and a day. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that it vested in the crown, subject to be divested on proof of ownership within the period limited. The reason for this rule of law appears to be the necessity of enabling persons in authority to protect wreck from the pillage which it was otherwise certain to have undergone at a time when wreck was looked upon as legitimate prey of the wrecker. In Bracton (120, 5) it is said that even if a dog escaped, or if any certain mark were put upon the goods, it was no wreck. The Statute of Westminster the First (3 Edw. I. c. 4) is merely declaratory of the common law as it is found in Bracton. It enacts that, where a man, a dog, or a cat escaped alive out of a ship, such ship should not be adjudged wreck, but the goods should be saved and kept by view of the sheriff, coroner, or king's bailiff, and delivered into the hands of such as were of the town where the goods were found, so that if any sued for the goods, and proved that they were his or perished in his keeping within a year and a day, they should be restored to him without delay ; if not, they should remain to the king, and where wreck belonged to another than the king he should have it in like manner. In both Bracton and the statute the escape of a living thing appears to be used rather as an example of a means of proof than as the sole means of proof. The latter, however, became the doctrine of the courts for centuries ; it was wreck unless a living thing escaped, and as such part of the hereditary revenue of the crown, and expressly recognized by the Statute De Prmrogativa Regis (see PREROGATIVE). To hold inquests of wreck was by the Statute De Officio Coroncttoris (4 Edw. I. c. 2) one of the duties of the coroner, of which he has only recently been relieved by the Coroners Act, 1887, repealing the Act of Edward I. In 1771 a return was made by Lord Mansfield to the older and more reasonable view of the common law as it stood in Bracton. That distinguished judge considered that the rule that it was wreck unless a living thing came to shore was contrary to principles of law, justice, and humanity, and that the escape of an animal was simply a medium of proof. It was the proof and not the escape that was the important fact. Claims to wreck were, by Ric. II. c. 3, not cognizable in the Admiralty Court as was derelict, for that was in and upon the sea, while wreck must have touched the land before it became wreck. Unclaimed derelict was, like unclaimed wreck, a right of the crown, but in a different way. It was not a direct right jure corona;, but claimed by the king in his office of Admiralty as an admiralty droit. As wreck in the last resort became crown property, it was never subject to forfeiture as a DEODAND (q.v.) where lives were lost. Wreck was frequently granted to subjects as a franchise, e.g., to lords of manors and to various maritime cities and boroughs, among others to the Cinque Ports. Within the Cinque Ports the Serjeants of the Admiralty of the Cinque Ports still act as receivers of wreck (17 and 18 Vict. c. 120).

So stood the common law as affected by early legislation. It is now of comparatively small importance, as the law now depends chiefly on the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854, part viii., and the amendments introduced by later Acts.

The definition of wreck for the purposes of the Merchant Shipping Acts (which is in effect for all practical purposes) is considerably extended beyond its common law meaning. By s. 2 of the Act of 1854, it includes jetsam, flotsam, lagan, and derelict. By the Sea Fisheries Act, 1883, it is still further extended to include all fish-ing boats, all their small boats, all rigging gear or other appur-tenances of fishing boats, all nets, lines, buoys, floats, or other fishing implements whatsoever found or picked up at sea whether marked or unmarked. The principal provisions of the Act of 1854 are as follows. The general superintendence throughout the United Kingdom of all matters relating to wreck is committed to the Board of Trade. No person exercising Admiralty jurisdiction is to interfere with wreck. Whenever any ship or boat is stranded or in distress at any place on the shore of the sea, or of any tidal water, the receiver of wreck of the district is to proceed thither and take command, and issue such directions as he may think fit with a view to the preservation of the ship. All cargo and other articles washed ashore, or lost or taken from the ship, are to be delivered to the receiver. In the absence of the receiver, customs officers, justices of the peace, and others have the power of the receiver. The receiver is as soon as possible to examine on oath any person who may be able to give any account of a ship in distress or her cargo or stores, and forward the result of his examination to the Board of Trade (where it is deposited in the wreck register) and to Lloyd's. On proof of title of a lord of the manor or other person entitled to unclaimed wreck, the receiver is to hold it on behalf of such person. The receiver is aided and protected by numerous provisions making it punishable to refuse men or vehicles on his demand, to secrete or fail to give notice of wreck, to obstruct the receiver or any other person on his way to the wreck, &c. In case of suspected concealment of wreck, he may obtain a search warrant (see WARRANT) from a justice of the peace. Whenever any wreck is saved by any person other than a receiver, SALVAGE (q.v.) is payable. In case of no claim being made within a year by the owner, and in the absence of any private right of a lord of a manor or other person, the receiver is to sell the wreck, and pay the pro-ceeds, after deducting expenses and salvage, to the exchequer, to become part of the consolidated fund. The Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice has jurisdiction to decide upon all claims of salvage, whether the wreck is found at sea or cast upon the land, or partly in the sea and partly on land. Wreck, if foreign goods, is liable to customs duties. Goods saved from a ship wrecked on its homeward voyage are to be forwarded to the port of its original destination. A seaman is entitled to wages up to the time of a vessel being wrecked, unless he has not exerted himself to the ut-most to save the ship, cargo, and stores. Receivers' districts under the Act of 1854 were formed by a Board of Trade order of October 7, 1856. The Merchant Shipping Act, 1862, provides, inter alia, that the receiver may appoint a valuer in salvage cases, that the delivery of wreck by the receiver to any person is not to prejudice the right of third parties, and that the payment of proceeds of wreck claimed by the crown is to be made to the consolidated fund or the revenues of the duchies of Cornwall or Lancaster according to circumstances. Instructions to receivers were issued by the Board of Trade in 1865 and 1886. In 1876 a new tribunal for the investigation of shipping casualties was created by the Merchant Shipping Act, 1876, which has in most cases superseded the pro-cedure provided by the Act of 1854. The Act enabled the lord chancellor to appoint a wreck commissioner, or wreck commis-sioners not exceeding three, and gave the commissioner or com-missioners power to act with or without skilled assessors, and in . certain cases which were not within the purview of the Act of 1854, viz., where a ship on the coast of the United Kingdom or a British ship elsewhere has been stranded or damaged and any witness is found at any place in the United Kingdom, and where a British ship has been lost or is supposed to have been lost, and any evidence can be obtained in the United Kingdom as to the circumstances under which she proceeded to sea or was last heard of. In addition to the Acts mentioned, there are several others which affect the subject of wreck more or less directly. By 6 Geo. IV. e. 87 consuls in foreign ports are to have credit for disburse-ments on behalf of shipwrecked persons. Where a foreign ship is wrecked, the consul-general or other consular officer is by 18 and 19 Vict. c. 91 to be deemed the owner. Removal of wrecks is provided for in dockyards by 28 and 29 Vict. c. 125, in most other cases by the Harbours Clauses Act, 1847, and the Removal of Wrecks Act, 1877, giving powers of removal to the harbour or general lighthouse authorities. Provision is made by special Acts for raising wreck in the Thames, Mersey, Humber, Clyde, and other rivers. Burial of bodies washed ashore from wrecks is regulated by 48 Geo. III. c. 75 and 49 Viet. c. 20. The criminal law relating to wreck has been the subject of a considerable mass of legis-lation. The protection of the receiver in his duties by the Act of 1854 has been already mentioned. The Act further provides against wrongfully carrying off or removing wreck, impeding or hindering the saving of wreck, and secreting wreck or obliterating or defacing any marks thereon. Taking wreck into a foreign port and there disposing of it is made felony, punishable with ten years' penal servitude. Other provisions are made by the Criminal Law Consolidation Acts of 1861. To plunder or steal any part of a wrecked ship or vessel, or any goods belonging to such vessel, is a felony, punishable with fourteeen years' penal servitude. Any person in possession of such goods, and not giving a satisfactory account of how he came by them, may be committed to prison on summary conviction, and such goods, if exposed for sale, may be seized and carried before a justice of the peace, and the vendor called upon to satisfy the justice that he came lawfully by them, 24 and 25 Vict, c. 96, ss. 64-66. Destruction of and injury to ships or wrecks, and masking, alteration, or removal of lights or exhibition of false lights, and injury to or concealment of buoys and other marks of navigation, are all punishable by 24 and 25 Vict. c. 97, ss. 42-49, penal servitude for life being the maximum penalty. To impede a shipwrecked person or any person in his endeavour to save him, and to assault any magistrate, officer, or other person in the exercise of his duty in the preservation of wreck, are crimes by 24 and 25 Vict, c. 100, ss. 17, 37. In the case of plunder, damage, or destruction of any ship or boat stranded or in distress ou the shore of the sea or tidal water, or of any part of its cargo or apparel, by persons riotously and tumultuously assembled, either ashore or atioat, the owner has a right to compensation against the police authority of the district under the Riot (Damages) Act, 1886.

Scotland.—As in England, unclaimed wreck was a right of the crown, often granted to subjects, generally under the style of "wrak, waith, and ware," the last two words signifying derelict and seaweed. It was so granted to the earl of Orkney in 1581. It was occasionally dealt with by the Scottish Parliament. Thus by 1426, c. 15, ships wrecked on the coast of Scotland were to be escheat to the king if they belonged to a country observing a simi-lar law, otherwise to have the favour shown to ships of Scotland. Compensation for destruction of wreck by a riotous assembly is to be made by the inhabitants of the nearest county, city, or borough under the Riot Act of George I. (see RIOT), the Act of 1886 not applying to Scotland.

United States.—The State legislation as to disposition of wrecked property is generally in favour of the owner on his claim being made within a limited time. As to the Acts of Congress ou the subject, the secretary of the treasury is empowered to make contracts and provisions for the preservation, sale, or collection of wrecked property, llevised Statutes, § 3755, and may issue a register for a foreign vessel wrecked in the United States and purchased and repaired by a citizen of the United States, § 4136. Special provisions are made as to wreck in Florida, §§ 4239-4241. Plundering wreck, or impeding the escape of a shipwrecked person, or showing false or extinguishing true lights in order to cause wreck are punishable offences, § 5358. Wreck is not confined as in England to loss on tidal waters, but extends to that happening on the great freshwater lakes and rivers. Wreck commissioners and wreck masters are generally appointed, with powers and duties similar to those of the receiver in the United Kingdom. (J. Wt.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries