Mapped: Britain's Worst Disasters

By M@ Last edited 16 months ago
Mapped: Britain's Worst Disasters

As a counterpart to our map of London's worst disasters, we've broadened the scope to include the rest of Britain.

Today, tragedies claiming over 100 lives are extremely rare. That wasn't always the case. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, such a disaster happened every couple of years.

Most incidents involved shipwrecks and mining disasters, but poorer safety standards led to other kinds of tragedy. Perhaps the most affecting was the 1883 Victoria Hall stampede in Sunderland, in which 183 children were killed in the rush to claim a prize.

The map above shows every disaster we can find that killed 100 or more people. Click the 'view larger map' icon at top-right, to see the disasters listed in order of severity.

What the map does not include

  • Deaths caused by enemy action.
  • Floods, plagues, storms, famines and other events that led to deaths in more than one location.
  • Disasters in the Republic of Ireland and its waters, even though this was part of the UK until 1922.
  • Disasters that claimed British lives, but happened in foreign territory.

Some thoughts

London has had its fair share of disasters. The worst tragedy in British history is (probably) the 1212 fire on London Bridge. Secondary sources reckon up to 3,000 people were killed in the inferno, although no reliable record exists. Four other tragedies with more than 100 deaths have occurred within the boundary of the M25: the 1865 Princess Alice disaster on the Thames, the 1943 Bethnal Green tube disaster, the 1952 Harrow train crash, and the 1972 Staines air crash.

The Princess Alice disaster is reasonably well known. Its sinking on the Thames claimed the lives of 640 people, the worst disaster on the Thames. The boat was named after one of the daughters of Queen Victoria. Less well known is that the second-worst disaster on the Thames (or, at least, the Thames-Medway), which involved a boat named after Alice's daughter. The Princess Irene disaster killed 352 people.

The Harrow train crash, from The Sphere, 18 October 1952. Image © Illustrated London News Group

It's amazing how many of these disasters are little-known. Many lack pages on Wikipedia, and some are barely mentioned on the internet. Remember, these are incidents that killed over 100 people.

One of the most dangerous jobs in history: a 19th or early 20th century Welsh coal miner. We found 10 explosions that each claimed more than 100 lives, as well as many other mine disasters with lower death tolls.

Britain's worst air disaster (Lockerbie) and worst train disaster (Quintinshill) occurred within 14 miles of one another.

Just look at all those shipwrecks. We count 41 in British waters that have claimed more than 100 lives. Four have claimed more than 500 lives. There are probably more that we haven't yet found.

The decade from 1910 to 1920 was by far the country's worst for major disasters. The war effort accounts for many of the tragedies, including collisions between military vessels, and munitions factory explosions.

Tragedies in Britain that kill over 100 people are thankfully now very rare. The last was the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. Only five events since the second world war have claimed so many lives (not counting floods, smog, epidemics etc. that can't readily be mapped).

Wreckage from the Lockerbie disaster, 1988. Image Open Government Licence.

This Wikipedia list is a good resource for finding out further information, although it's not comprehensive.

Have we missed anything? Please let us know in the comments.

See also: London's worst disasters mapped

Last Updated 17 January 2018