Now that I’m working amongst the glass towers of Canary Wharf, the history of Docklands is of particular interest to me at the moment. I regularly find myself stalking the exhibits of the Museum of London during my lunch hour and last week I paid a visit to Tunnel, the Archaeology of Crossrail where I learnt more about a Victorian disaster most of us have never heard about. Remarkably, bits of it were filmed.
On June 21st 1898, close to where Royal Victoria Dock DLR station is now, the first of six Canopus class battleships named the HMS Albion was preparing to leave her dock and enter open water. It would be the sixth ship to bear that name for the British Navy since 1763 and what better way to christen this battleship than with an almighty party?
Grandstands were prepared, local children were given the day off from school and an estimated thirty thousand people lined the river banks to watch the spectacle. What should have been a time of celebration was marred by calamity.
Below we can see the Albion, all 12,900 tonnes of her, slip into the water. It’s hard to imagine that this footage is over 119 years old and is almost certainly one of the oldest ship launching’s ever captured on film.
The Duchess of York, latterly Queen Mary, tried three times to break a bottle of wine against the ship. The third time, the ship was just slightly out of reach for the bottle to be broken so Mr Arnold Hills, chairman of the Thames Ironworks, instead smashes it on one of the struts of the Royal Box where esteemed guests have been watching the pageantry.
A number of onlookers – roughly two hundred in number – had gathered on a wooden bridge which had been built across the stern of the Shikishima, a neighbouring battleship which was being built for the Imperial Japanese Navy. The bridge, 130ft long and supported with piles set deep into the mud, was built to enable workers to get to and from the ship/docks more easily and also happened to be a perfect platform to watch the massive iron ship float proudly down the river. It was a temporary structure and labelled ‘dangerous’ – it certainly shouldn’t have had as many people on it as it did, despite Police intervention warning them to move on.
As the Albion sailed past, a mini tidal wave, created from the sheer weight of the boat crashed into the bridge, flinging all spectators into the murky waters. Exacerbated by a high tide, only when a ship returning visitors to Westminster passed a number of boats with people standing up in them clearly looking at something, was there any indication that things were dreadfully amiss.
In the film below, the bunting and merriment soursfrom 1:16 onwards as dockers scramble in boats, trying to save the poor souls washed into the river. Thirty nine people ended up losing their lives.
Look at the bloke clearly shouting ‘turn that camera off’ as people try and stage a rescue operation, as well as the guy to the right of the shot of the gentleman at 1:25 blowing bubblegum.
The search for survivors carried on until dusk. As night gave way to day, the bodies of five men, eighteen women, six girls and six boys were taken to a shed for identification. The Morning Post commented:
“The most heart rending scenes were witnessed, parents and other relatives anxiously waiting for information of piteously inquiring for missing friends.“
An inquiry into the disaster recorded ‘accidental death’ and twelve of the victims were buried in a mass grave in East London Cemetery, under a giant anchor. Their funerals were covered by Mr Arnold Hills, chairman of the Thames Ironworks, who also contributed to a fund which was set up by West Ham Council to financially support the survivors and their families – Queen Victoria herself donated fifty pounds towards it.
Whilst this wasn’t the first river tragedy – memories of the Princess Alice in 1865 still lingered in people’s minds – it was a stark reminder of the dangers of the river; something we’re not free from even in today’s times – look at the marchioness, for example. And yet, the event, despite having footage of parts of it, is largely forgotten by Londoners.
The Albion herself saw just over twenty years active service. Stationed in the China Station after her commissioning in 1901, she then served in the Channel and saw action in the Dardanelles, as well as landings at Gallipoli. She was then used for accommodation and then scrapped in Morecambe in 1920.
My thanks to Tincture of Museum for informing me about the Albion.
References & Source Material
The Morning Post, 22/06/1898 – The Hampshire Telegraph, 25/06/1898 – The Diss Express, 01/07/1898 – via The British Newspaper Archive/British Library Board.