Like many great disasters, one can see, with the hindsight of history, that the sinking of the Victoria on the Thames River seems entirely preventable. That it does so, only makes the disaster all the more tragic.
It occurred on May 24th, 1881 on what was the 62nd birthday of Queen Victoria. With Springbank Park becoming a popular tourist and picnic area, local riverboat companies sprang up to transport Londoners from the downtown area to the Park. However, the boats that were produced were shoddily built, one of the worst being a double-deck stern
Wheeler dubbed, ironically, Victoria. At the time, there were no regulations regarding the safe construction of boats or the maximum capacity at which they could operate.
With Queen Victoria’s birthday declared a holiday, more people than normal were taking an opportunity to visit Springbank Park. During the Victoria’s last run of the day, some 650 people were on board a 70-foot boat that was designed to carry only 400 passengers. Overloaded and with people milling about on board, the Victoria began to take on water.
As the boat began to near Cove Bridge, Captain Donald Rankin realized that his boat would never complete its run and decided to beach the Victoria on a sand bar near what is now Greenway Park. As he did so, Harry Nichols and Michael Reidy, two members of the London City Rowing Club, decided to race down the Thames.
Seeing the race, many of the passengers rushed to the right hand side of the ship. With all of that weight on one side of an already troubled ship, the Victoria began to keel over. Even though some tried to rush to the left side to reverse the momentum, the damage had been done. The boiler rolled off its mount and took out the main supports for the top deck, which, along with a large awning, crashed down on the passengers below.
The passengers, hurled into the water, fought what was often a losing battle to survive. Many of the victims were children or women in dresses that prevented them from easily swimming to shore. All of those who drowned did so within 30-40 feet of shore, with most coming within just fifteen feet.
So great was the extent of the tragedy that the burying of the dead was delayed because there simply were not enough coffins in London, and the funeral processions made their way along London streets for a week afterwards. Even the Queen herself sent her condolences. It was said that every Londoner lost a relative or friend in the disaster.
The toll was estimated at 182, although some will place that figure at nearly 200. It has been called the deadliest day in London’s history and ranks as one of the worst marine disasters in Canadian history. The captain and the owner of the ship were charged for their roles in the disaster, but were later acquitted.
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