The 1980’s was a decade of major disasters that stunned the world and made household names of the incidents that occurred. Names like Lockerbie, Hillsborough, Challenger, Zeebrugge were constantly in the news, but one name still stands out today as being a tragedy that should not have happened and certainly shouldn’t have had the aftermath that it did – the Marchioness.
Built in 1923, the Marchioness was an old pleasure boat that was designed for inland cruising and had undergone many modifications over the years. At just over 85 feet long, she was just 46 gross tons and had made a name for herself during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, where thousands of stranded British troops were rescued from the beaches by the “little ships” that would then earn their place in history.
Owned by Tidal Cruises in the late 1970s, she was carrying over 100 passengers at a time by the time further modifications had made an upper and lower saloon internally, where parties could hire the vessel for celebrations and go on a cruise down the River Thames in London. The Marchioness, along with her sister ship Hurlingham, were popular vessels and it was in this role that she found herself in the early hours of 20th August 1989.
Setting off from Embankment pier at around 0125 hours, she was carrying around 133 people including her two crew members, for a celebration of the 26th birthday of city banker Antonio de Vasconcellos. The party was in full swing as the vessel slowly edged away and headed eastwards. At around the same time, further up the river was the dredger Bowbelle that had just departed from Nine Elms near Battersea Power Station. This much larger vessel was 25 years old and 262 feet long, at 1474 gross tons she was much bigger than the pleasure boat.
The Bowbelle continued on and hit the Canon Street bridge as radio messages were transmitted for immediate assistance. Pandemonium broke out on the banks of the Thames as people were being dragged out of the freezing water and onto dry land, several clinging on to wreckage, the Marchioness completely underwater and trapping many within the confines of the boat.
As a huge rescue operation was mounted, it soon became apparent that 51 people on board would not be returning from this party. What happened next would shock the already grieving families as the inquest revealed that hands were removed from the bodies of the dead in order to identify them, the fact that the Bowbelle’s crew had been consuming alcohol before sailing led to it being highlighted at the inquest, but the main cause of the disaster was blamed on both vessels not keeping a proper lookout.
The wreck of the Marchioness was raised the morning after the collision, she was eventually scrapped. Bowbelle was later sold on and renamedBom Rei, she went down off Madeira after breaking in two with the loss of one crew member. She is today a popular site for SCUBA diving expeditions.
Memorials to the victims of the disaster appear in several locations down the Thames bank at various rescue points; a large one is in Southwark Cathedral where memorial services are conducted on the anniversaries. But the greatest legacy of this tragic event is the building of the new RNLI lifeboat station just up the river from where it happened. Today if there is any water-borne emergency, including attempted suicide or falling off pleasure vessels, the fast boat and its professional crew are there to save the lives. Thanks to this being put in place, it is hoped that the likes of another disaster on this scale will never be seen again on the Thames.