PETER FROST discovers it often takes a disaster to introduce new safety regulation. Here are two examples
A huge party of friends and relatives took an emotional trip on London’s river this week to pay tribute to those who died in one of Britain’s worst peacetime disasters. Many of them had been on the party boat Marchioness 25 years before.
Fifty-one roses were floated on the murky river waters to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the tragedy exactly a quarter-century ago.
The party was going strong in the early hours of August 20 1989 after a balmy evening on the Thames Tideway.
There were 131 people on the Marchioness. She had been built 66 years before in 1923 and in 1940 she had become one of the hero little ships that brought a defeated army back from Dunkirk.
Suddenly out of the darkness, at 1.46am, near Cannon Street railway bridge, the huge bows of the dredger Bowbelle loomed above the Marchioness, dwarfing the pleasure boat. Fifty-one of the Marchioness’s passengers would die that night.
In the first seconds of collision the anchor of the dredger cut through the side of the Marchioness, which rolled over and was pushed under by the dredger. She quickly filled with water, capsized and her superstructure became detached.
It took less than half a minute for the Marchioness to go down. Witnesses described the Bowbelle as hitting the pleasure craft and then riding up on it, pushing it under the water like a toy boat.
Two dozen bodies were recovered from the sunken hull. The majority of the survivors had been on the upper decks at the time of the collision.
The party was organised by photographer agent Jonathan Phang to celebrate the 26th birthday of his merchant banker friend Antonio de Vasconcellos.
Many of those on board were also in their twenties. Some were students, many others models and workers in the fashion industry.
The dead included Francesca Dallaglio, older sister of future England national rugby team captain Lawrence Dallaglio.
The disaster was found by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to have been caused by the poor visibility from each ship’s wheelhouse, the fact that both vessels were using the centre of the river and the lack of clear instructions to the lookout at the bow of the Bowbelle.
In 1991, the Bowbelle’s skipper Douglas Henderson was tried for failing to keep a proper lookout but, after two juries were deadlocked, he was formally acquitted.
A coroner’s inquest on April 7 1995 found the victims had been unlawfully killed.
Following pressure from the Marchioness Action Group, John Prescott as secretary of state for the environment, transport and the regions ordered a formal investigation into the circumstances of the collision, to be chaired by Lord Justice Clarke.
Lord Clarke’s report blamed poor lookouts on both vessels for the collision and criticised the owners and managers of both vessels for failing to instruct and monitor their crews in proper fashion.
Clarke also criticised the authorities’ decision to cut off a hand from each body pulled from the river to make identification easier.
In 2001 an inquiry by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency into the competence and behaviour of Captain Henderson of the Bowbelle concluded that he should be allowed to keep his master’s certificate.
However, it “strongly deprecated” his conduct in drinking five pints of lager in the afternoon prior to the accident and for his admission that he had forged some signatures on certificates and testimonials in order to obtain his master mariner certificate of competency in 1988.
The government asked the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Port of London Authority and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) to work together to set up a dedicated search and rescue service for the tidal river Thames. Today there are four RNLI lifeboat stations, at Gravesend, Tower pier, Chiswick pier and Teddington.
Seven years after the disaster, the Bowbelle was also lost. She broke in half and sank off Madeira.
The Princess Alice disaster
In 1878, 111 years before the Marchioness disaster, another tragic collision happened on the Thames.
Some of the similarities with the Marchioness incident give you an unnerving sense of deja vu.
SS Princess Alice was a passenger paddle steamer that collided with the collier Bywell Castle off Tripcock Point.
Over 650 lives were lost, making this the greatest loss of life in any Thames shipping disaster before or since.
On September 3 1878, the Princess Alice was making a moonlight trip from Swan Pier near London Bridge to Gravesend and back.
By 7.40pm, the Princess Alice was on her return journey and within sight of the North Woolwich pier — where many passengers would get off.
Here her crew spotted the much larger Bywell Castle. She usually carried coal to Africa but had just had a refit and repaint on the Thames.
Captain Harrison was at the helm of the collier, accompanied by an experienced Thames river pilot. The collier was coming down the river with the tide at half speed.
On the bridge of the Bywell Castle, Harrison saw the port light of the Princess Alice. He set a course to pass her.
However, the master of Princess Alice, 47-year-old Captain William RH Grinstead, fighting the tide upriver, followed the normal watermen’s practice of seeking the slack water on the south side and altered Princess Alice’s course to port, bringing her into the path of the Bywell Castle.
Harrison ordered his ship’s engines reversed, but it was too late. Princess Alice was struck on the starboard side. She split in two and sank within four minutes.
To add to the disaster, just one hour before the collision huge amounts of raw London sewage had been pumped into the river. Those who managed to swim clear of the wreck had this to deal with.
Between 69 and 170 people were rescued. Over 650 died.
One-hundred and twenty victims were buried in a mass grave at Woolwich Old Cemetery in Plumstead.
A memorial cross there tells you it was “paid for by a national sixpenny subscription to which more than 23,000 persons contributed.”
The subsequent Board of Trade inquiry blamed Captain Grinstead — who died in the disaster — finding that “the Princess Alice was not properly and efficiently manned; also, that the numbers of persons aboard were more than was prudent and that the means of saving life onboard the paddle steamer was inadequate for a vessel of her class.”
At this time there was no official body responsible for marine safety in the Thames.
The subsequent inquiry resolved that the Marine Police Force, based at Wapping, be equipped with steam launches to replace its rowing boats and make it better able to perform rescues.
A new plan for dumping sewage far out at sea by ship was also formulated.
The most unlucky survivor of the Princess Alice disaster was London prostitute Elizabeth Stride.
Ten years after escaping drowning she was plying her trade in Whitechapel when she fell victim to Jack the Ripper.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 20 August 2014