Forgotten Disasters: Steamboat Explosion Near Waterloo Bridge

By M@ Last edited 26 months ago

Last Updated 15 March 2022

Forgotten Disasters: Steamboat Explosion Near Waterloo Bridge

Next time you're strolling through Embankment Gardens, spare a thought for the 30 people who perished here in one of the capital's worst peacetime explosions.

On 27 August 1847, the passenger steamboat Cricket was preparing to depart from Adelphi Pier.

Location of Adelphi Pier, from 1862 Stanford's map of London.

The Cricket began to build up a head of steam in its high-pressure boilers. But something was wrong. The engine driver had tied down the safety valves in a dangerous bid for efficiency. One of the boilers became over-pressurised. A noise like an erupting volcano was heard, before the boiler burst with a terrific explosion.

The boat was packed with over 100 passengers. 15 years before the opening of the Underground, the river was still the quickest way to move east-west across London. The Cricket was one of three steamboats, along with the Ant and the Bee, to offer halfpenny tickets between the Adelphi and London Bridge.

Those standing on the aft deck stood no chance. "To the horror of beholders," said one news report, "fragments of the vessel and human beings were seen scattered in the air in every direction". The screams of onlookers were "...of a most heart-rending character".

A scene of devastation, as depicted in the Illustrated London News.

A group of coal heavers were first on the scene and reportedly saved many lives. Their names deserve to be recorded: James Dodd, Jeremiah Leary, John Connor and Joseph Taylor.

Initial rumours put the death toll at over 60, but that was quickly revised downward. No accurate number was ever agreed. The strong tide at the time of the accident probably washed many bodies away from the scene. Estimates range from five to 30 fatalities.

The wreck of the Cricket, with Waterloo Bridge in the background. From the Illustrated London News. Image © Illustrated London News Group, courtesy of the British Library Board.

The Cricket tragedy was probably the worst peacetime explosion in the West End's history. Even so, it remains a little-known event. There is no plaque in Embankment Gardens, which today covers the site. We reckon the pier would have stood roughly here — the memorial to Lord Cheylesmore who was, coincidentally, born just just a few months after the Cricket explosion.

Approximate site of the Cricket explosion, as photographed in Google Street View.

Read about further forgotten disasters from London's history, or browse our map.