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HMS Albion Launch Disaster 1898
When Ernest Edward Loades was eighty in the early 1970s, he wrote about his eventful life which started from humble beginnings in Poplar before he worked in service to some members of the aristocracy before leaving the UK for the sake of his health to live in Australia.
A few weeks ago, I published the first part of Ernest’s ‘memories’ which included his not particularly happy time at school, the next part finds Ernest having to contend with local disasters.
Albion Disaster 1898
A sad tragedy occurred near our home in Tidal Basin. The Thames Ironworks had completed a destroyer in their shipyards, the Albion, and on the day of the launching the workmen were allowed to bring their families and friends to witness the ceremony. Just as the ship was leaving the slips the crowd surged forward and the staging collapsed, throwing a couple of hundred or more into the water or under the ruins of the staging. The death toll was very high and cast a gloom over the whole area. Hardly a street around did not have some member of the family involved or employed at the shipyards.
Only one ship of the size of a destroyer was built after this, the Cornwallis, the reason being that as bigger ships were now being built the Ironworks were too far up the River Thames to allow for launching and passage to the fitting basin. This caused a great deal of unemployment in the area.
An amusing item has just come to mind. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was quite an event. All schools were given a holiday and on the day before the official celebrations all the kids were marshalled in the playgrounds, provided with papers of different colours that, when we were all in place, would form a diagram (Man Proposes – God disposes).
Just as we got the signal to raise our papers and wave them along came a sudden gust of wind and bang went the diagram, up in the air went most of the coloured paper and after swirling overhead descended like coloured snow.
By the time I was ten, with the family still growing I was a real Mothers help, looking after the younger members – helping my mother all I could. She always did her best for us and I know she sometimes went short herself so as to give to us. She also made most of our clothes so she had a full time job, no wonder she died young.
My father was a good chap too. He was a good tradesman and worked hard. Of course there were periods of ” short time” at places that he worked, also periods of illness when things got pretty grim. Only one fault was that he was inclined to spend too much money on beer; money that would have been better spent at home. Oh well, perfect people have not been born yet.
The school hours were from nine to twelve and from two to half past four. This two hour break was not wasted time as I and very many more children had to take our fathers dinner to where they worked.
West India Dock Import Quay 1902 – Source British History Online
It was when I was so engaged that I saw two of the biggest dockside fires that London to that time had ever seen. The first was a building about a quarter of a mile long, five stories high and about ninety feet deep. This warehouse was full of sugar, jute and other flammable goods, not forgetting a lot of rum. Now, the fire started about eleven in the morning and when I got there at half past twelve the whole mass was alight and I was just in time to see the whole roof go down with a great roar. The other floors also collapsed and all their contents dropped so the whole area was like a huge furnace. With a fire such as this a general call had gone out and fire engines from all the London area had arrived. When we got to one road, the police stopped all us kids from crossing. The hoses were lying so close side by side that there was hardly room to put your foot down, but when all the kids started to howl that they would be late with their fathers dinners the Bobby relented and got us all across in a big convoy. We were unlucky when we got back however, they made us go a devil of a long way round to get back home.
In spite of the efforts of all these firemen and engines on land and four fire floats working from the water side, the fire took about a week to put out. Believe me that when those fire floats start pumping you can nearly see the tide go down. I saw one jet of water knock the bricks out of the wall and a big lump of the wall collapsed just after.
Wood Sheds Limehouse Basin 1902 – Source British History Online
Dad was lucky to get his dinner on this occasion. His luck ran out when the second fire occurred. There was a great place for the storage of Baltic Pine at the West India Docks. Great rafts of Pine were towed across the North Sea and up the river to London. Then these rafts were broken up and the baulks stacked for drying. Well, somehow the fire started and once it got a go on nothing could stop it. As I said earlier when the fire floats start to throw the water ashore anything can happen. I got so far with Dad’s dinner and then nobody could go along the road as the water was running out of a gateway over three feet deep, and an amusing sight was a fire engine on a platform, built out of the wood that was floating out, nearly five feet up in the air and water all around. The relief men had to be brought in by boat as well as fuel to keep the pumps going. This fire also lasted a week and some of the black ash was visible years after.
The Albion disaster is well known, however the fires at West India Docks are often overlooked but caused considerable damage. From Ernest’s description, I think he is referring to the fires in 1900 and 1903, these were major fires which were widely reported. It is quite amazing to consider that with widespread fires taking place, Ernest seemed more concerned that his dad would receive his dinner. It is very unusual that you get eye witness views of these kind of disasters and Ernest’s description of the fire engine on a wooden platform in the river and the fact the black ash was visible for years afterwards is fascinating.
Many thanks to Sharlene Jones-Martin from Brisbane, Australia for sharing the memories of her great grandfather.