Posts Tagged ‘disaster’

Book Review: Bloody London by David Fathers.
’20 Walks in London, Tracing its Gruesome and Horrific History’

coverLondon’s history is nothing if not turbulent. Over the years, authors and historians in their dozens if not hundreds have latched onto this city’s violent past to produce books which are often sensationalised or speculative or both. Equally, there have been a shedload of guide books, also varying in quality. A sub-genre of this – becoming quite popular in recent times –  are the self-guided walk publications. This new book, by David Fathers, combines all of this in a volume which is of exceptionally high standard in all departments.

The book’s title and indeed his informative introduction, focuses strongly on death, murder and execution. I’ve always been quite interested in execution and even more so on duels. Yet there’s a lot here that’s new to me, for example the mid 18C axeman John Thrift who was particularly unpopular even by the standards of his trade; and on the very same page, the sword duel between Beau Wilson and John Law. All good, bloody stuff.  But actually you’ll find a huge diversity of topics. Riots, raids, disasters. The 1878 Princess Alice disaster is, of course covered. In the immediate aftermath of my previous review, it was pleasing to see a six page treatment of the first Zeppelin bombing of London on 31 May 1915 with the murderous route of LZ38 and every single one of its bombs mapped.

zeppelin page

So you’ll find both the familiar and a pleasing amount of the unfamiliar here, but the point is, all of it comes across as fresh.

The walks vary in distance from just under a kilometre to around 10K. Of course, one isn’t obliged to stay the distance. Each route is laid out by the author in elegant, easy-to-read maps which spread across the pages, skilfully integrated with the text descriptions and illustrations.

Bloody London is written in an interesting and matter-of-fact style, compelling material handled in a non-sensational way: as the reader, you feel in good hands. But for me the most impressive thing about this book is that the author has designed and illustrated it himself, and done it quite beautifully. Very few people indeed can do this. Ben Schott is the only other writer I can think of who does this successfully. The upshot is that the pages here are fit to bursting without seeming cluttered. And there are nice touches; every spread contains a tiny diagram telling you the exact distance of that part of the walk. Little additions which produce a very satisfactory whole.

At 174 x 150 mm the book is slightly larger than what one might call pocket size, but still small enough for easy handling and legibility on  your walks.

This is definitely a book worth owning, whether you use it on the road or simply to have an enjoyable read.

Bloody London (128pp) by David Fathers is published by Conway in paperback, fully illustrated in full colour, with a cover price of £9.99.

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Today is the anniversary of this rather bizarre industrial disaster that occurred near what is now the Dominion Theatre on 17 October 1814.

Back then, London’s drinking classes were supplied by dozens of competing breweries dotted around the capital and its outskirts. The competition between some of these manifested itself by their building ever bigger vats. Prior to going into commission, the brew-houses, as PR stunts, would typically use these massive containers to host big swanky dinners for the directors and their guests.

The monolithic porter vat of Messrs. Meux and Co. had a capacity of over a million pints. On the fateful day, at about 6pm, one of the steel bands (each weighing over 500 lb) split, allowing a pressure explosion that could be heard five miles away*.

The tsunami of beer smashed down the brewery wall, destroyed immediately two houses and severely damaged many others plus the Tavistock Arms. The beer then flooded the basement rooms of numerous adjacent buildings. A huge throng immediately assembled many of whom had the presence of mind to harvest beer in pots, pans, teapots, jars, bottles – anything that came to hand. Many others simply embarked on an immediate free piss-up.* All of this severely hampered rescue work while the constabulary struggled to control the mayhem.

The Times report “Dreadful Accident” of 19 October stated:

The bursting of the brew-house walls, and the fall of heavy timber, materially contributed to aggravate the mischief. The crowd collected  from the time of the accident to a late hour was immense. It presented many distressing scenes of children and other inquiring for and lamenting their parents, relatives, and friends.

In the end there were eight fatalities and many more severely injured. Rescue workers were literally up to their waists in beer while attempting to find and retrieve the dead and the hurt, some of them injuring themselves in the process. Some of the bereaved displayed the bodies of the dead in their front rooms, charging the curious to take a look. Such was the crowd in one such house, that the floor collapsed, causing further injuries*.

The smell of beer pervaded the area for months.

A little bit more at Wikipedia, here.

Update 17/10/2012: On the very day that I wrote this post two years ago another blogger was doing likewise. His is long, comprehensive and very well worth reading – the best on-line account of this incident I have seen so far. *He casts doubt, nay scorn, on some of the stories surrounding the saga, quite probably urban myths. I’ve repeated one or two in my account, now asterisked above, but will leave them to stand.

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Today is the anniversary of this massive tragedy which occurred 132 years ago.

We all remember the horrific Marchioness disaster of 20 August 1989 when 51 young revellers lost their lives after the pleasure boat was struck by the dredger Bowbelle and sank instantly. But apart from those directly involved, the memories of the incident are fading. We’re somewhere in the timeline of the Marchioness story between traumatic news headlines and historical footnote.

SS Princess Alice

The saloon steam boat Princess Alice. © National Maritime Museum, London

Small wonder then that few will have heard of the Princess Alice disaster of 3 September 1878, similar in many ways to the Marchioness affair, but with over 12 times the number of casualties. It remains Britain’s worst public transport disaster in either peacetime or war. As many as 650 people lost their lives when the vessel was smashed in two in broad daylight by the BywellCastle, an 890 ton steam collier departing London after a lick of paint at Millwall Dry Dock.

The paddle steamer sank in under four minutes.

The known facts are these. Princess Alice was carrying day trippers on a journey from London Bridge to Gravesend and Sheerness via Woolwich and back again. The fare was a not inexpensive two shillings. On the return leg, at about 7:45 pm, she was about to drop passengers off in Woolwich while the Bywell Castle, was heading downriver to pick up her next consignment of coal from Newcastle. The coal ship’s skipper, Captain Harrison, accompanied by an experienced river pilot, was following traditional Thames routes rather than obeying the new portside-to-portside regulations of 1872. When the boats became dangerously close to each other, what followed was a classic chain of misinterpreting what the other party was attempting to do, until a collision became inevitable. Despite her engines running in full reverse, Bywell Castle struck Princess Alice on the starboard side with such force that the pleasure steamer split in two and began to sink rapidly.

Bywell Castle did its best to rescue survivors, assisted by vessels scrambled from the shore. But many were trapped inside Princess Alice and of course, few people could swim back then. To make matters worse, the water was highly contaminated by 30 tons of raw sewage, the local sluices having been opened just an hour beforehand. Yuck.

People complain nowadays about ghoulish and sensationalist reporting of disasters, but as now, so it was then. Reporters flooded into Woolwich and remained for weeks afterwards as bodies continued to be recovered. “Our man at the scene”, reporter W. T. Vincent of the Kentish Independent, was inundated with requests for frequent news wires from newspapers further afield.

 “Telling the Dread News.—It was near midnight when I reached the post office with my budget of adversity. I had previously warned the telegraph clerks, as agents of the press are privileged to do, and they were ready.”

His slightly self-important, first-hand summary – in wonderfully mawkish Victorian style – can be found here.

princess alice flag

The Princess Alice’s flag, held at the Thames River Police museum in Wapping.

Most bodies were recovered and identified within seven days. According to W. T. Vincent “a dozen or so” bodies could not be identified, although other reports put the number as much, much higher. 120 of the victims were buried in rows at Woolwich cemetery behind a memorial cross in the Irish style, which was paid for by sixpenny subscription from over 23,000 donors.

Irish style memorial cross

The memorial cross at Woolwich Cemetery

The official inquest of the disaster lasted over 30 days; the jurors took more than 10 hours through the night to reach a majority verdict which found against the Princess Alice. Another jury in Millwall found against the Bywell and the Admiralty Court opined that both vessels were blameworthy – “the net result was of questionable value.”

Many safety measures were put into place soon after the disaster. The port-to-port rule was enforced on the river; sewage outlets were moved much further downstream; limits were placed on passenger numbers;  legislation was passed in 1880 for adequate lifebelts on ships; watertight bulkheads were introduced in ship design.

How many survived and how many died? Estimates remain horribly vague. Survivors have been numbered between 69 and 150, although it seems 120-150 to be closer to the mark. Contemporary estimates put 700 passengers on board and 150 survivors, leaving 550 dead. But W. T. Vincent pointed out at the time that the totals from two separate inquests alone numbered around 590 deaths.  Subsequent estimates of the total on board have gone up to 750. Taking this into account and the fact that Vincent’s estimate only included known dead i.e. excluding those never recovered, it is probably safe to say that the total fatalities were over 600, which seems now to be the accepted tally.

Disaster model

© National Maritime Museum, London

There is a dramatic model of the disaster at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and many pictures at the portcities.org web site (below).

 Mike Paterson




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