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Port Cities: The working Thames - Thames Ironworks
PortCities London

Thames Ironworks

The HMS 'Albion' disaster

Building the 'Albion'

HMS Albion in Victoria Docks
View full size imageHMS Albion in the Royal Victoria Dock. © NMM
The Albion was a first-class cruiser of around 119 m (390 ft) in length and 23 m (74 ft) in width. The Admiralty had commissioned her from the Thames Ironworks at the height of the Anglo-German naval race.

Work on the ship had been delayed partly because the yard was undermanned and also because the 1898 engineering strike had put contractors behind in their deliveries of parts.

Eventually the work was completed and the Albion was ready for launch. But at 6000 tons, she was less than her intended weight. This was because the contractors did not supply enough armour plating to clad the ship.

The day of the launch

Thames Ironworks.
View full size imageThe Shikishima and the Albion under construction at the Thames Ironworks. © NMM
The launch was due to take place on 21 June 1898. Around 30,000 spectators had crammed into the shipyard to watch the launch by the Duchess of York. Yard workers and local schools were given the day off.

Up to 200 people, keen to get a good view, had made their way to a temporary slipway 'bridge'. This was next to a nearly completed vessel, the Shikishima, being built for the Japanese navy. The bridge was not designed to hold so many, and in fact, was signposted as dangerous. But a large crowd had gathered, ignoring the warnings from yard workers and police.

The launch of the HMS Albion.

View full size imageThe launch of HMS Albion. © NMM

The width of the river at Bow Creek was relatively narrow. As a result the larger vessels were built parallel to the shore and launched sideways into the water. This was to be the case with the launch of the Albion.

Launch... and disaster

After three failed attempts to smash a bottle of champagne against the hull, the Duchess cut the cord. This signalled to workmen to release the dogstores holding the Albion.

The momentum of the vessel's launch created a large wave. This raced along and engulfed the bridge, smashing it to pieces and plunging onlookers into the river. Many were killed and injured. Their cries of panic were drowned out by the cheers of the main crowd applauding the launch. The Duke and Duchess, unaware of any problem, returned to their own boat and the crowds began to move away.

Rescue efforts

Thames Ironworks Ambulance Corps
View full size imageThames Ironworks ambulance corps. © NMM
It was at least 10 minutes before news of the accident came through to the yard managers, although spectators and workers nearby had begun immediate rescue efforts. Onlookers dived into the muddy waters to help the survivors.

The Thames police used rowing boats to rescue people and the ironworks ambulance corps was soon on the scene. Despite their best efforts, 38 people, including women and children, died in the incident.

Effect on Hills

Memorial in East London Cemetery to the victims of the Albion disaster
View full size imageMemorial to the victims of the Albion disaster at East London Cemetery. © NMM
Arnold Hills, the Chairman of the works, was devastated by the disaster. In the following days he visited the families of the bereaved.

Hills promised to meet all funeral expenses and contributed to a fund set up by West Ham Council to help the survivors. Many of the dead were among the poorest people in London.

Burying the dead

Most of the dead were buried in a communal grave at East London Cemetery the week after the accident. Huge crowds gathered along the routes of the funeral processions. Mrs Eliza Tarbot was the oldest victim at 64 and she was first to be buried.

Mrs Tarbot was followed by Mrs Isabel White, 30, and her two children, Lottie, five, and Queenie, two. When Mrs White was pulled out of the water, rescuers found her daughters still clinging to her frock. All were drowned.

As for the Albion, she served in the Middle East during World War I before being sold for scrap in December 1918.