20th August 1989. Thames Disasters.


The Marchioness in happier days. Built in 1923, she had served in the evacuation of Dunkirk.

In the early hours of a calm, moonlit morning the 90 tonne Pleasure Cruiser Marchioness set-out Today from Charing Cross Pier on the Thames with 151 partying passengers. Not long afterwards she sank after being rammed by the 800 tonne dredger Bowbelle:  51 sadly died and later many rescuers were honoured for their bravery.

The dredger out from Nine Elms, Battersea to the Shipwas Dredging Grounds was approaching Cannon Street Railway Bridge when disaster happened as she hit the Marchioness in the stern and then turning her over.


Bowbelle in port.

A year later a leaked Report from the Marine Accident Investigation Bureau blamed the look-out on the dredger and in 1991 Captain Henderson was tried by two juries but eventually acquitted; a private prosecution was lost. However an Inquest in 1994  declared a verdict of unlawful killing, but the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was no case to answer.

In February 2000 John Prescott, then Environmental Secretary ordered an Inquiry which under Lord Justice Clarke concluded both vessel owners had failed to monitor and instruct crews adequately. He also recommended that The Maritime Coastguard Association (MCA), Port of London Authority and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute get together to improve river safety.

After many years campaigning in 2001 an Inquiry by the MCA concluded that Capt. Henderson be allowed to keep his job as he met all service and medical conditions. However the Association deprecated that he had consumed 5 pints of lager in the previous afternoon, it also deplored Henderson’s forging of signatures and testimonials in the 1980.s.

As things stand it seems to be a case where blame couldn’t be fastened on one individual, as happens in many accidents, but one concrete development was the establishment of four Lifeboat Stations along the length of the River Thames.

Sadly the Marchioness disaster memory pales and few remember the biggest inland water calamity of all time, again on the Thames, on 3rd September 1878, when The Princess Alice, an excursion steamer on its return from Sheerness, at the mouth of Barking Creek, cannoned into the screw collier the Bywell Castle on its way to pick up coal from Newcastle.

640 died as people on the banks could only watch as passengers and crew suffocated in the poisonous miasma from the Northern Outfall Sewer.

Here again there was doubt as to blame: the official Inquest found against the Princess Alice; a Millwall Jury against the Bywell, and an Admiralty Court against both.

Flag of princess Alice now in River police HQ Wapping.

Flag of Princess Alice now in River Police HQ Wapping.

Again safety measures were recommended: limiting passenger numbers, having lifebelts and putting sewage outlets down stream, and the strict adoption of passing Port to Port. 

Nowadays we talk of learning lessons and putting new systems in place, sadly forgetting to err is human…


londonhistorians.wordpress.com/Pic of Flag.

Daily Mail. Tim Ecott. 15.8.2009.

BBC On This Day. 20.8.1989.

bbc.co.uk/England/London/2 Pics.

crimeand investigation.co.uk/marchioness-disaster.


BBC News. 3.12.2001. Bowbelle Skipper Keeps Licence.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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