Home » River Life » The Tragedy at the Launch of the HMS Albion at Blackwall 1898

The Tragedy at the Launch of the HMS Albion at Blackwall 1898

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Many thanks to Eric Pemberton who bought to my attention, two remarkable films about the launch of the HMS Albion in Blackwall in 1898.

This launch was made famous by the tragedy that occurred after the launch when over 30 people died when a bridge collapsed.

E.P. Prestwich’s footage of the launch of the battleship HMS Albion is from a high view and shows the ship gliding into the water. However the film by British film-pioneer R.W. Paul is remarkable because it shows from the water , the huge crowds both on and off the water.

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It was estimated that up to 30,000 attended the launch and Paul’s film shows the chaotic scenes along the riverbank. At the end of the film it suggests that a number of the boatmen were desperately trying to help with the rescue  but it is all a confusing scene.

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This tends to support the following news report of the disaster.

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THE ALBION DISASTER
SAD LOSS OF LIFE. GALLANT RESCUES.
36 BODIES RECOVERED. London June 22.

The catastrophe which occurred in connection with the launching of H.M.S. Albion at Blackwall yesterday, was of most appalling character. The Albion is a battleship of 12,900 tons which has just been completed for the Admiralty by the Thames Iron Works Company. Among those present at the launching were the Duke and Duchess of York, Mr. G. J. Goschen (First Lord of the Admiralty), Sir William Vernon Harcourt (Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons), Lord Brassey (the Governor of Victoria), some of the Ambassadors, and a large number of members of the House of Commons.

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The Duchess of York, who christened  the vessel, made three unsuccessful attempts to break a bottle against the ship’s side. Loud cheers greeted the vessel’s approach to the water. The guests then departed. There was a general holiday for the workmen and their wives. These people were massed together, wherever a view of the proceedings was obtainable. Two hundred of the spectators occupied an old wooden bridge, despite the police and placards warning them of the danger. A huge backwash, which followed the launching of the vessel, rose high above the bridge, and swept all the people on it into the river. A terrible scene ensued.

Owing to the shrieking of the siren horns on the boats, the departing guests did not hear the cries of the unfortunate people. Several workmen dived from the quay walls, and rescued some of the screaming women and the babies in arms. Others were saved by means of boats. One gallant sailor rescued no fewer than six persons. The greatest confusion prevailed, the depth of the water where the accident occurred was 12ft. Mr Robinson, of the St. John’s Ambulance Society  revived four of the rescued sufferers by artificial respiration, and altogether 25 were resuscitated by this means. Thirty-six bodies have been recovered. One boat rescued 50 persons. The Duke and Duchess of York have sent a telegram expressing their sorrow at the terrible accident.

The  result of the inquiry into the disaster a verdict of accidental causes, indeed the inquest was quick to point out the crowd itself was responsible for the disaster.

 “no blame was attributable to the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co., nor to the police. There was 30,000 people present, and the disaster  arose from the stupidity of the crowd, who would not accept any warnings of danger. Thousands crowded on to the  dilapidated  bridge which ultimately collapsed under their weight, and refused to obey all orders to got off, Warnings and entreaties were completely disregarded. and the police were jeered and mocked , while vainly attempting to avert the impending danger.”

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I doubt whether a modern inquiry would be so lenient with the police or the company who if they allowed so many people in a small area should have been more responsible. The great tragedy was most of the victims were women whose heavy clothing would have given them little chance of survival in the currents of the Thames.

If you would like to see the films here is a couple of links that will take you to You Tube.

Launch of HMS Albion at Blackwall (1898) Prestwich Film  here

‘The Launch of H.M.S. Albion’ (1898) Paul film here

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2 Comments

  1. maryorelse says:

    I discovered only a couple of days ago that there is now a memorial to the Albion disaster in West Ham’s Memorial Park. I did wonder how much the park was set up as a memorial to the Albion – and would be interested to hear a – hopefully football free – comment on this. I have been researching the Hills family for many years and I sure that knowing what Arnold felt about the disaster would be interesting – and important to his descendents, some of whom have been in touch with me.

    • Hi Mary

      I did know there was a memorial but was unsure where it was, in my research into the Albion disaster I did come across a piece that showed that Arnold Hills was very upset by the tragedy and was behind a fund for the relatives.
      I think Thames Ironworks contributed 1000 pounds.
      In my other research on Thames Ironworks, Arnold Hills always seems to be a person who cared about his employees and wider community.
      Many thanks for the comment

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