The Albion Battleship Calamity

’Twas in the year of 1898, and on the 21st of June,
The launching of the Battleship Albion caused a great gloom,
Amongst the relatives of many persons who were drowned in the River Thames,
Which their relatives will remember while life remains.

The vessel was christened by the Duchess of York,
And the spectators’ hearts felt light as cork
As the Duchess cut the cord that was holding the fine ship,
Then the spectators loudly cheered as the vessel slid down the slip.

The launching of the vessel was very well carried out,
While the guests on the stands cheered without any doubt,
Under the impression that everything would go well;
But, alas! instantaneously a bridge and staging fell.

Oh! little did the Duchess of York think that day
That so many lives would be taken away
At the launching of the good ship Albion,
But when she heard of the catastrophe she felt woebegone.

But accidents will happen without any doubt,
And often the cause thereof is hard to find out;
And according to report, I’ve heard people say,
’Twas the great crowd on the bridge caused it to give way.

Just as the vessel entered the water the bridge and staging gave way,
Immersing some three hundred people which caused great dismay
Amongst the thousands of spectators that were standing there,
And in the faces of the bystanders, were depicted despair.

Then the police boats instantly made for the fatal spot,
And with the aid of dockyard hands several people were got,
While some scrambled out themselves, the best way they could–
And the most of them were the inhabitants of the neighbourhood.

Part of them were the wives and daughters of the dockyard hands,
And as they gazed upon them they in amazement stands;
And several bodies were hauled up quite dead.
Which filled the onlookers’ hearts with pity and dread.

One of the first rescued was a little baby,
Which was conveyed away to the mortuary;
And several were taken to the fitter’s shed, and attended to there
By the firemen and several nurses with the greatest care.

Meanwhile, heartrending scenes were taking place,
Whilst the tears ran down many a Mother and Father’s face,
That had lost their children in the River Thames,
Which they will remember while life remains.

Oh, Heaven! it was horrible to see the bodies laid out in rows,
And as Fathers and Mothers passed along, adown their cheeks the tears flows,
While their poor, sickly hearts were throbbing with fear.

A great crowd had gathered to search for the missing dead,
And many strong men broke down because their heart with pity bled,
As they looked upon the distorted faces of their relatives dear,
While adown their cheeks flowed many a silent tear.

The tenderest sympathy, no doubt, was shown to them,
By the kind hearted Police and Firemen;
The scene in fact was most sickening to behold,
And enough to make one’s blood run cold,
To see tear-stained men and women there
Searching for their relatives, and in their eyes a pitiful stare.

There’s one brave man in particular I must mention,
And I’m sure he’s worthy of the people’s attention.
His name is Thomas Cooke, of No. 6 Percy Road, Canning Town,
Who’s name ought to be to posterity handed down,
Because he leapt into the River Thames and heroically did behave,
And rescued five persons from a watery grave.

Mr. Wilson, a young electrician, got a terrible fright,
When he saw his mother and sister dead– he was shocked at the sight,
Because his sister had not many days returned from her honeymoon,
And in his countenance, alas! there was a sad gloom.

Her Majesty has sent a message of sympathy to the bereaved ones in distress,
And the Duke and Duchess of York have sent 25 guineas I must confess.
And £1000 from the Directors of the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company.
Which I hope will hope to fill the bereaved one’s hearts with glee.

And in conclusion I will venture to say,
That accidents will happen by night and by day;
And I will say without any fear,
Because to me it appears quite clear,
That the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

The Blackwall Disaster

A tragic accident yesterday marred the interesting and picturesque ceremony of launching the new battleship Albion at Blackwall. An unusually large number of spectators had been atttracted by the knowledge that that the Duchess of York would christen the vessel and to the eagerness of many among them to gain a view at all risks must be attributed the deplorable loss of life that we have to chronicle today. There was no failure in the arrangements for launching the ship, such as caused the loss of a hundred lives in the case of the Daphne on the Clyde fifteen years ago. On the contrary, everything went without a hitch. But just when the huge hull had successfully taken the water and the vast concourse of spectators were shouting and cheering with the accompaniment of innumerable whistles and sirens, a number of persons, estimated at from one to two hundred, suddenly found themselves struggling for life in the water. So swiftly and noiselessly did the thing occur that persons only a few yards away remained in perfect ignorance, while the shrieks of the drowning people were lost in the general clamour of the moment. Many of the visitors heard only after their return to town of the catastrophe that occurred in the yard they had just left. It seems that between the slip on which the Albion was built and that occupied by a Japanese cruiser in process of construction there is an inlet or creek spanned by a light wooden bridge for the convenience of workmen passing from one part of the yard to another. This bridge, never having been intended to carry a crowd, was conspicuously marked as dangerous. It was, moreover, well inside of an area also declared to be dangerous on account of the great wave which the launching of the ship would inevitably produce. Policemen did their best to enforce the regulations and to warn people off the bridge and the dangerous area. But they were not in sufficient force to cope with a crowd which refused to give heed to warnings, and at the moment of the launch the bridge appears to have been loaded with as many unauthorised spectators as it could accommodate. Accounts differ as to what actually happened, but the best authenticated version is that the anticipated wave or backwash swept up the narrow inlet and carried away the structure with its living load. At all events, the occupants of the bridge were suddenly plunged into the seething water, to fight blindly and deperately for dear life. They were workmen with their wives and children, who had taken advantage of their position in the yard to occupy a site never intended or authorized for spectators. Of the thirty-four victims counted at a late hour last night, twenty-three were women and girls, but the list unhappily cannot be regarded as complete. Attention was so generally occupied with the event of the day, and all available boats were so busy in other directions, that some precious time was lost before the work of rescue could be energetically begun. But it is pleasing to note that there were several brave men who, at the imminent risk to their own lives, instantly plunged into the mass of strugglers and saved many by their exertions. Deeply as we must all sympathize with the unfortunate people who fell victims to a natural, but reckless, curiosity, it must be recognized that they wilfully risked their lives in spite of printed and verbal warnings, and in defiance of the regulations of the yard, and of the efforts of the police to enforce them. They crossed a well marked danger line and crowded onto a structure never meant to carry a crowd, or to withstand the rush of water caused by the launch of a great ship. In the present state of our knowledge it does not appear that blame can fairly attach to any but themselves.

The Times, 22nd June 1898

Notes

When the Duke and Duchess of York came to Canning Town to launch HMS Albion, the latest battleship to be built at the mighty Thames Ironworks, a huge crowd turned out to see the event. Unfortunately the day was to end in tragedy and the loss of 38 lives.

The Duke and Duchess of York would one day sit on the throne as George V and Queen Mary. They were a popular couple, and nobody wanted to miss out on a chance to see them. The Duke had served as a naval officer before the death of his elder brother had made him Heir Apparent to the throne, so he would have taken a keen interest in this latest addition to his grandmother’s fleet.

The Thames Ironworks had printed 20,000 tickets for the launch. 8,000 would sit in prepared wooden stages, the remainder would stand in various parts of the shipyard. In addition, the gatekeepers had been instructed to admit people without tickets, provided they were “respectably dressed”, so there were between 25 and 30 thousand spectators present.

At one point, a small creek ran into the dock and was crossed by a wooden bridge. This bridge was built to carry a few workmen rather than a huge crowd, and was in an area expected to be engulfed in water when the ship was launched. Consequently the area was marked with danger signs and guarded by a few policemen. Unfortunately, a few cardboard signs and a handful of London’s finest were not enough to deter a crowd who thought the bridge made a good vantage point. In vain the policemen attempted to clear the bridge, one of them later remarked:

“You know, people about here are not like a west-end crowd. Tell a west-end crowd to stand back and they do so, but these people, why, you would have to chuck them off before they would move!”

Eventually a crowd of some two hundred people had gathered on and around the bridge, mainly dock workers and their families. More experienced workers, who knew the launch would produce a large wave and had consequently picked a higher vantage point, joked that those on the bridge would soon “get their annual bath”.

Shortly before 3pm, the Albion was launched to tumultuous cheers from the assembled crowds. As predicted, 6000 tons of battleship hitting the water produced a huge wave which swept around the dock. As it hit the bridge, it collapsed, plunging the unlucky spectators into the river. Just what caused the collapse is uncertain – whether it was the unaccustomed weight of so many people, the force of the wave, or a blow from a piece of debris floating in the dock. Whatever the reason, maybe a hundred people, many unable to swim, suddenly found themselves in ten foot deep water fighting to stay afloat.

At first, few people noticed the collapse. All eyes had been focussed on the battleship and the Royal party, no-one was looking at the beaten-up old bridge. The cries of the victims were drowned out by the general tumult. However, once the alarm was raised, all hands were turned to rescuing the people from the water. As well as the police, several civilians played a prominent role in the rescue. One such man later told his story to The Times:

“My brother and I took off our coats and waistcoats and jumped into the struggling mass. I am a good swimmer, and have saved lives previously, and I was too excited to think of the danger. I kept diving underneath the spars and anywhere where I thought a body might be found, and my brother and I brought up five people, three of whom were alive and two dead. One woman pulled me underneath the water, and I should probably have been drowned, but assistance was at hand, and we were hauled up just in the nick of time. There were about ten of us in the water diving to save people, and I am afraid that, beyond the satisfaction of endeavouring to save life, I have gained little by the affair, for when I ceased my efforts I found that my waistcoat, containing my watch and chain which I had hurriedly left on the bank, had disappeared.”

Amongst the spectators was Robert Paul, an early filmmaker, who not only managed to catch the launch on camera, but also the aftermath of the disaster. With the ethics of photo journalism in its infancy, the film caused some controversy as many felt Paul should have been helping instead of filming. The resulting footage gives a unique picture of the fateful day:

The Royal Humane Society later awarded 24 bronze medals to various individuals for their life-saving efforts, including McGonagall’s hero Thomas Cook. Nonetheless 34 people perished in the water, and the shipyard was soon besieged by people looking for their loved ones.

Many of the better heeled spectators, including the Duke and Duchess, had made their way home without realising anything untoward had happened. Some members of the press had been similarly unobservant: one Duncombe Jewell, a reporter for the Daily Mail, came away with a purple prosed account of the launch that made no mention of the accident. When his furious editor heard of the drownings and confronted Duncombe Jewell with the omission, he replied

“Well I did see some people bobbing about in the water as I came away, but…”

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Comments (4) »

  1. Peter Brooker
    In the year 2011, on the 16th day of December at 1:27 pm

    Mr Wilson mentioned in the poem was my Great Great Uncle, and his mother my GG Grandmother.

    It was told to me that he never recovered from the shock…..

  2. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2011, on the 16th day of December at 4:10 pm

    Good job he never read this poem then – it might have finished him off!

  3. Roger cook
    In the year 2014, on the 2nd day of May at 6:37 pm

    Thomas Cook was my 2xgt uncle, he was a shipwright by trade, and worked at the Thames iron works along with his brothers Charles Cook my gt grandfather a platers foreman and William Cook a boilermaker.

  4. In the year 2015, on the 26th day of July at 1:04 am

    […] gerade den besten Ruf genießt, hat über die Katastrophe ein Gedicht geschrieben, das er “The Albion Battleship Calamity” […]

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