13 London Disasters

1. The Fatal Vespers, 1623

In the early part of the seventeenth century, the French ambassador’s residence was Hunsdon House, Blackfriars. On the afternoon of 5 November 1623, more than 300 people were gathered in an upper room of the house to take part in a religious service conducted by two Jesuit priests. The floor beams, not designed to support the weight of so many, gave way and large numbers of the congregation were plunged into the room below. Ninety-five people, including the two priests, were killed and dozens more injured. The disaster, which has been variously called ‘the

Fatal Vespers’, ‘the Blackfriars Downfall’ and ‘the Doleful

Evensong’, was assumed by many Londoners at the time to be the judgement of God on the French Catholics who had offended the Almighty with their idolatrous practices.

2.Execution of Lord Lovat, 1747

The Jacobite Lord Lovat, the last man to be executed by beheading in Britain, faced his death on Tower Hill in 1747. Huge crowds had gathered to see him die and grandstands had been erected to allow spectators a better view of the executioner’s block. One of these stands became so crowded that it collapsed and twenty people were killed. Lovat, waiting to approach the block, witnessed the disaster and appeared to be grimly amused by it. The mair mischief, the mair sport’, he is reported to have said.

3.The London Beer Flood, 1814

On 17 October 1814, in the Horseshoe Brewery in Tottenham Court Road, a huge vat burst its hoops, rupturing other vats, and more than a million litres of beer swept through the brewery walls and into the streets. The sea of beer carried away neighbouring houses and drowned nine people. After the disaster the brewery was brought to court but the judge, deciding that the beer flood qualified as an Act of God, refused to hold it responsible for the deaths. The site of the Horseshoe Brewery is now occupied by the Dominion Theatre.

4.The Sinking of the Princess Alice, 1878

On the evening of 3 September 1878 the pleasure steamer the Princess Alice was returning from a day-trip down the Thames with more than 700 passengers aboard. Near Woolwich, a collier called the Bywell Castle approached the pleasure boat and the captain of the Princess Alice made a tragic mistake in manoeuvring his ship. He ran

directly across the path of the collier. The Princess Alice as almost cut in two and sank in less than five minutes. ^More than 640 people drowned in what was the worst e^ver river disaster in Britain.

5. HHebrew Dramatic Club, 1887

Ifn March 1886 the Hebrew Dramatic Club, the first Ft>urpose-built Yiddish theatre in London, was opened in Princes Street (now Princelet Street), off Brick Lane. Less tthan a year later, disaster struck the theatre. During a performance of an operetta called The Gypsy Princess on 118 January 1887, a fire was mistakenly believed to have tbroken out. As the audience panicked and stampeded for title exits, seventeen people were crushed to death.

6. The Albion Disaster, 1898

On 21 June 1898, the Duchess of York arrived at the Trhames Ironworks dockyard in Canning Town to launch tthe Royal Navy cruiser HMS Albion. Thousands of spectators had gathered to watch the launch and several hiundreds, ignoring danger notices, made their way onto a* temporary bridge that had been erected by the side of smother ship in the dock. As the Albion travelled down tlhe slipway and hit the water, its momentum created a l^arge wave which smashed into the temporary bridge aind plunged many of those standing on it into the water. Trhirty-eight people died. The Scottish ‘poet’ William M4cGonagall, a connoisseur of Victorian disasters, wrote 0)f the Albion tragedy in his own inimitable bad verse: ‘Just ais the vessel entered the water the bridge and staging gave Way/Immersing some three hundred people which caused g>reat dismay/Amongst the thousands of spectators that Were standing there/And in the faces of the bystanders, Were depicted despair.’

7. Trhe Silvertown Explosion, 1917

AV fire broke out at Brunner Mond’s chemical works in Siilvertown on 19 January and ignited 50 tons of TNT that were being stored there. The resulting explosion was devastating, destroying many of the surrounding streets and killing 73 people. A memorial to those who died still stands in North Woolwich Road, El 6, near the site of what was once the factory.

8.Bombing of the Cafe de Paris, 1941

One of the worst disasters of the Blitz took place on the night of 8 March 1941, when a bomb fell on the well- known and fashionable nightspot, the Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street, while the band, led by Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, was playing. Eighty people, including ‘Snakehips’ and several members of his band, were killed.

9.Bethnal Green Tube, 1943

During an air raid warning on 3 March, crowds were making an orderly way into the station when they were panicked, probably by the unfamiliar noise of a new type of anti-aircraft rocket being launched in nearby Victoria Park. A woman carrying a baby lost her footing. Those behind her kept on coming and bodies began to pile up in the stairwell. One hundred and seventy-three people died, mostly from suffocation. Although the government acknowledged immediately that an accident had happened at a tube station, the name of the station was not officially released until two years after the disaster.

10.Ronan Point, 1968

On the morning of 16 May, a gas explosion destroyed much of a twenty-three-storey block of flats called Ronan Point which stood in Clever Road, Newham. Four people died in the disaster (another person died later from injuries sustained in the blast) and Ronan Point had enormous impact on housing policy in the city as those who objected to high-rise blocks found the perfect argument against them.

11.Moorgate Tube Crash, 1975

Just after 8.45 on the morning of 28 February the Northern Line train from Drayton Park, packed with commuters, drew into Moorgate station. Instead of coming to a halt at the platform, it seemed to accelerate and carried on into a dead-end tunnel, crashing into the brick wall at the end of it. The driver and forty-two passengers were killed. Mystery still surrounds the cause of the crash.

12.The King’s Cross Fire, 1987

Thirty-one people died in the devastating fire of 18 November 1987, which began when rubbish and grease under one of the old, wooden escalators were ignited, almost certainly by a discarded match or cigarette end. Full of commuters even at 7.30 p.m., when the fire broke out, the station rapidly became a death trap as a fireball swept up the escalator and into the ticket hall. One of the victims of the fire was not identified until 2004. Alexander Fallon, a homeless, seventy-two-year-old man was so severely burned that it was impossible for forensic scientists to identify his remains until, nearly seventeen years later, new evidence emerged to link him with the fire scene.

13.The Marchioness Disaster, 1989

On 20 August, a collision between the dredger Bowbelle and the pleasure ship the Marchioness just upstream of Cannon Street Bridge resulted in the deaths of fifty-one people. Most of the victims were young people who were attending a party and disco on the Marchioness, and there has been much controversy, still unresolved today, about the exact causes of the disaster, the worst on the Thames since the Princess Alice sinking 111 years earlier.

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