London's Forgotten Disasters: Gigantic Wave Kills 35

By M@ Last edited 73 months ago
London's Forgotten Disasters: Gigantic Wave Kills 35
HMS Albion in 1914, image public domain.

It should have been an occasion of pride and wonder. HMS Albion was the largest warship ever launched on the Thames. Unfortunately, its royal christening was followed by one of the worst disasters ever to happen on the Thames.

The date was 21 June 1898. Thousands of Londoners had gathered at Blackwall, to the north-east of the Isle of Dogs, to watch the launch of a new battleship from the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company.

Presiding over the event were the Duke and Duchess of York, the future King George V and Queen Mary. The Duchess launched the vessel with the customary champagne christening. All seemed well as the 40,000 tonne vessel slid down its ramps. The crowd cheered at this impressive addition to the fleet. Then, tragedy struck.

The scene of the disaster from the Illustrated Police News, 2 July 1898. (c) The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved. Via the British Newspaper Archive.

The mass of spectators had crammed into every available space to watch the launch. An eyewitness later recounted that some 200 people had crowded onto a flimsy bridge structure, which was clearly marked 'dangerous'. As the ship hit the water, it sent a colossal backwash crashing over this structure. Over 100 people were swept into the 'filthy, greasy' water.

Small boats raced to the scene and pulled many out of the Thames. Even so, at least 35 people lost their lives in the incident, most of them women and children. The Duke and Duchess left the scene completely unaware of the tragedy that had unfolded.

HMS Albion went on to see distinguished service during the first world war, before being scrapped in 1919. The tragedy of her launch still ranks as the third worst incident on the Thames, after the Princess Alice disaster of 1878 and the sinking of the Marchioness in 1989.

See also: A map of every London disaster to claim at least five lives, and further forgotten disasters.

Last Updated 09 January 2018