London has seen its fair share of tragedy over the centuries. But surprisingly few are still remembered or commemorated. Here are the 10 worst disasters from history*. How many did you know about?
10. Silvertown explosion (1917)
The largest explosion in London's history took place in a Docklands munitions factory, when 50 tons of TNT went up. The death toll might have been much higher had it not occurred on a Friday evening when the factory was at its least busy. Some 70,000 properties were damaged. The blast reportedly smashed a window at the Savoy, many miles away. More here.
9. Lewisham rail crash (1957)
The most recent tragedy in our list took place midway between Lewisham and St Johns stations. Two trains collided during thick fog. The impact caused an overhead bridge to crash down onto one of the trains, compounding the injuries. A plaque in Lewisham station records the disaster. More here.
8. The Fatal Vespers (1623)
Estimated 95 fatalities
Around 300 Catholics had gathered for Vespers — or evening prayers — in the third floor of a house in Blackfriars (the exact location is lost to history). The congregation was too heavy for the building and the floor beams gave way. Almost 100 lost their lives in what remains the worst peacetime disaster in central London since medieval times. More here.
7. Harrow train crash (1952)
London's worst rail accident (and the worst peacetime accident in the UK) occurred at Harrow and Wealdstone station on 8 October 1952. An express train rammed into the back of a stationary passenger train waiting at platform. The wreckage was then struck by a third train coming the other way. The ultimate cause of the crash was never fully unravelled as the driver of the express train was killed. More here.
6. V1 flying bomb hits the Guards' Chapel
V1 flying bombs were not quite as devastating as the V2 rocket, but they could still cause more damage than conventional bombs. The worst incident in London happened on 18 June 1944 when one of the drones slammed into the Guards' Chapel just off Birdcage Walk — a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace. The strike occurred just as a mixed congregation of soldiers and civilians gathered in the chapel. The building was obliterated and 121 lost their lives. The chapel has since been rebuilt. More here.
5. V2 rocket hits New Cross (1944)
Germany's V2 rockets were terrifying weapons, and distinct from conventional bombs. They were the first objects to enter space, from where they would fall down onto London and other cities at supersonic speed. Entire blocks could be destroyed by one rocket. Such was the case when a V2 landed on a branch of Woolworth's in New Cross. 168 people lost their lives and many more were injured. The site, roughly where Iceland stands today, is marked by three plaques. More here.
Two other V2 attacks killed more than 100 people. On 27 March 1945, in one of the last strikes of the war, a rocket hit Hughes Mansions on Vallance Road, Whitechapel. 134 were killed. Another missile landed on Smithfield Market on 8 March 1945, leaving 110 dead. See our map of V2 strikes for more.
4. Bethnal Green tube crush (1943)
Because of the uncertainty over South Hallsville (see the next disaster in our list), Britain's worst civilian disaster of the second world war is usually cited as the Bethnal Green disaster. This came not from German bombs but a crush of people seeking shelter. On the evening of 3 March 1943, hundreds of Londoners headed to Bethnal Green tube station in response to an air raid siren. A woman and child slipped near the bottom of the stairs leading into the station. This caused others to topple. With others piling in from behind, the dimly lit staircase became dangerously overcrowded. 173 people would lose their lives from asphyxiation or crush injuries. The site is today marked by the Stairway to Heaven memorial. More here.
3. Bombing of South Hallsville School (1941)
Estimated 400 fatalities
Nobody knows how many perished when a parachute bomb made a direct hit on this Canning Town school. The building collapsed, crushing those sheltering in the basement. The official toll was 77, but survivors always claimed the loss of life was much higher. Recently discovered archive documents seem to back that up, and it's now thought as many as 400 people perished in the raid. The true horror may have been covered up by the authorities. More here.
Other second world war air raid incidents, such as a strike on Bank station that killed 111, might also be included. However, figures for many of these are sketchy, and so we leave South Hallsville to represent the many fatal bombing events of the war.
2. Sinking of the Princess Alice (1878)
Estimated 650 fatalities
The worst maritime disaster in London's history occurred at Tripcock Point, near modern day Thamesmead. Paddle steamer the Princess Alice collided with a commercial boat called the Bywell Castle, and quickly went under. Many of the passengers were trapped below decks, some could not swim, and others were weighed down by heavy Victorian dress. Their fate was made all the worse by a recent release of raw sewage from outfalls at Barking and Crossness. More here.
1. Fire on London Bridge (1212)
Up to 3,000 fatalities
Everyone remembers the Great Fire of London of 1666, but the city has suffered many other fires. The worst in terms of death toll came in 1212 — just a few years after completion of the medieval London Bridge. A fire broke out at both ends of the bridge trapping many in the middle. No reliable account survives from the time but later chroniclers estimate up to 3,000 people died. It was probably not that high, but even a fraction of that number would make this the biggest disaster in London's history. The bridge remained a charred ruin for many years after. More here.
These and other tragedies are shown on our map of London disasters.
*Notes on inclusions: The list does not include deaths from disease, which are difficult to quantify, and are not pinned to one location. For example, the Great Smog of 1952 may have caused 12,000 early deaths, while the 1665 Great Plague took some 100,000 Londoners.
The list includes events within the current border of Greater London. Not all would have been considered part of London at the time. The Staines air crash of 1972, which killed 118, would count as the seventh worst disaster, but falls just outside the Greater London boundary, in Surrey.