The sinking of the Thames pleasure-cruiser Marchioness shocked the capital and the wider country: that such an accident could happen in the middle of the city seemed incredible; and that so many young people drowned who should have been embarking on fulfilling professional lives made it doubly so.
At 1.46am, just 20 minutes into the private cruise to celebrate the birthday of 26-year-old Cambridge-educated banker Antonio de Vasconcellos, the 1457 ton dredger Bowbelle ploughed directly into the 90 ton pleasure craft. It is said that from impact to total submersion of the smaller vessel took just 30 seconds. Neither of the boats had lookouts both correctly positioned and made properly aware of their duties.
Of the 51 who died that night 24 were found still inside the sunken Marchioness. Many of the 80 aboard the Marchioness who survived were saved by other passing vessels, notably the pleasure-vessel Hurlingham, from which men dived to rescue victims floundering in the water. Tragically the initial official rescue effort was directed to Battersea Bridge rather than Southwark Bridge, under which the collision had actually occurred, thus delaying additional help. Some who escaped the stricken boat by jumping into the Thames were swept to their deaths by the strong currents in that spot.
As is too often the case the aftermath of the disaster was handled less than sensitively: families were denied access to the remains of their relatives for some time; body parts removed ‘for identification purposes’; an inquiry denied for too long for no readily comprehensible reason. In the end the owners of both vessels were given slaps on the wrist, the captain of the Bowbelle was twice tried in connection with the events but not convicted despite some serious failings both in the run-up to and immediately after the moment of the disaster.
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