The Marchioness Disaster

Crime Files

Terror on the Thames

It is a cruel twist of fate that the infamous Marchioness pleasure boat which once played an important role during the Dunkirk invasion was to become the victim of one of the worst maritime disasters fifty years later. Built in 1923 and after the war transformed into a pleasure cruiser sailing the Thames she met her tragic end when hit by the dredger Bowbelle causing the loss of 51 lives.

On the fateful night of the 20 August 1989, the boat party celebrating the 26th birthday of banker Antonio de Vasconcellos was arranged by friend and photographer’s agent Jonathan Phang. Vasconcellos, from a Portuguese family background, had studied Economics at Cambridge University and was marked for great success.

The group was a diverse bunch made up of family and friends as well as colleagues from the fashion and finance industries.

20 August 1989

The countdown to disaster began at 1.15 a.m. as the Marchioness set off from Charing Cross pier on the 20August 1989 on a calm moonlit night. The atmosphere was happy and carefree on the boat with passengers enjoying themselves on both the upper and lower decks.

At the same time, the 80 metre long suction dredger Bowbelle was heading from Nine Elms in Battersea to the Shipwash dredging grounds on the Thames. The dredger was approaching Cannon Street Railway Bridge when it struck the Marchioness, first from behind, and then on the side, rolling her over.

Immediately, the laughter of young people on board turned to terror as passengers tried to get off the boat. The Bowbelle’s anchor, rigid in its fixed and high position sliced through the upper deck of the Marchioness, shearing off the roof section.

As the Marchioness rolled over and took in water, the Bowbelle continued to push the passenger boat under its weight. The small cruiser capsized under the Bowbelle in seconds tipping party guests into the fast flowing waters of the Thames. The terrifying incident was described by witnesses as being ‘like a bicycle run over by a lorry’.

Some passengers clung to debris floating nearby, others to structures in the water, in order to avoid being swept away. Eighty nine people were plucked out of the river within ten minutes but fifty one passengers including the skipper of the Marchioness died, many trapped helplessly below deck. Among the dead were Antonio de Vasconcellos, his elder brother Domingos and Francesca Dallaglio, elder sister of future England rugby captain, Lawrence.

Of the deceased, 24 were recovered from the sunken hull. The majority of the survivors had been on the upper decks at the time of the collision. The loss of so many young people and why the victims died that night has been a contentious issue for twenty five years. It took little more than 30 seconds to sink the Marchioness with 131 passengers including crew and catering staff on board.

The Aftermath

Relatives and friends of the victims hoping to receive some form of financial compensation found that English law does not allow compensation for victims of accidents who do not have dependents. As the majority of the deceased were in their twenties with no long term careers or dependents few relatives were granted anything apart from receiving funds for funeral costs.

One of the issues looked at during the resumed inquest was the decision to remove the hands from victims for finger printing purposes rather than make arrangements for finger printing to be carried out at Westminster Morgue. Until the inquest proceedings, the families were unaware of this process having taken place.

Seven years after the tragedy the Bowbelle was sold to another dredging company and renamed Bom Rei. In 1996, caught in rough weather, she broke in half, sinking off the Portuguese island of Madeira. The wreck is now popular with scuba divers and tourists, many of whom have little knowledge of the ship’s infamous past. 

When the tragedy happened in 1989 London did not have a coastguard or Lifeboat on the Thames. In 2002, as part of recommendations to improve safety on the Thames the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) set up four lifeboat stations at Gravesend, Tower Pier, Chiswick Pier and Teddington.  They are now the busiest lifeboat stations in the RNLI network.

The 20th anniversary of the tragedy was held in August 2009 at Southwark Cathedral. Margaret Lockwood Croft, mother of victim 26 year old Shaun Lockwood Croft, who shortly after the tragedy began the Marchioness Action group, reflected on her loss twenty years later. “It’s a nightmare for any parent for it’s a death that should never be. I’m aware how powerful and dangerous the Thames is and although the powers that be are working hard there’s still tweaking along the way. But I’ve thrown them the rugby ball and going to leave them to run with it”

Lessons learned from the tragedy mean dredgers now move in and out of the Thames and are more aware of other ships and craft due to improved navigation and lookout.

Not far from the site of the disaster, a memorial to the victims can be found in the nave of Southwark Cathedral where every year a service of remembrance is held for those who lost their lives.

The 8 police officers and 11 civilians, who helped save 80 lives, were honoured with Royal Humane Society awards. Crewman Andrew McGowan, who risked his own life to free trapped passengers, was given a rare medal for courage. A society spokesman said: "The acts of heroism that dreadful night demonstrate raw courage”

Inquiry

From Dunkirk to Disaster

An inquest into the disaster returned a verdict of unlawful killing, but in July 1996 the Crown Prosecution Service said there was insufficient evidence to justify any further criminal proceedings. Also a number of families were unsuccessful in their bid to bring a private prosecution for corporate manslaughter against the owners of the vessels. On the 7 April 1995 a Coroner’s inquest found the victims had been unlawfully killed.

In 2001 an inquiry by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency into the competence and behaviour of Captain Henderson concluded that he should be allowed to keep his master's certificate. However, they "strongly deprecated" his conduct in drinking five pints of beer in the afternoon prior to the accident - and for his own admission that he had forged some signatures on certificates and testimonials to obtain his master mariner certificate of competency in 1988. Lord Justice Clarke reached the same conclusion as the 1991 report following a public inquiry. His summing up was that fault was due to poor visibility from each ship’s wheelhouses and a lack of clear instructions to the look-out on the bow of the Bowbelle.  "He should have broadcast a May Day and he should have deployed both the life boats on the Bowbelle and her life raft" said Lord Clarke of Captain Henderson. Lord Clarke made 30 recommendations to improve river safety to include far stricter alcohol regulations on the waterways and for very significant improvement of search and rescue services on rivers.

The Trial

Culpability?

n 1991, two years after the tragedy, the captain of the Bowbelle, Douglas Henderson - who had admitted to drinking five pints of beer during the afternoon of the accident -was tried for failing to keep a proper lookout. The Marine Accident Investigation Branch found fault was due to poor visibility from each ship’s wheelhouses and that a lack of clear instructions to the look-out on the bow of the Bowbelle contributed to the tragedy. Captain Henderson was charged with failing to keep an adequate lookout, twice.

On both occasions, the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict. The coroner, Dr Paul Knapman, opened and adjourned the inquests pending criminal proceedings. After two juries were deadlocked Henderson was formally acquitted. Friends and family of the victims of the tragedy were outraged by the original verdicts that they formed the Marchioness Action Group. Through publicity and pressure they eventually persuaded Labour MP John Prescott, Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to launch a formal investigation into the incident.

The Investigation and Arrest

The Investigation

The formal investigation put the time elapsed, from the instant of collision at 1.46 a.m. to complete immersion at close to 30 seconds. Witnesses quoted in the investigation described the Bowbelle as "hitting it [the Marchioness] in about its centre then (mounting) it, pushing it under the water like a toy boat."

The Captain of the Bowbelle, Douglas Henderson and his Second Mate were immediately put under arrest and taken to a nearby police station for questioning. At the time it was assumed (albeit wrongly) that the Marchioness had steered into the path of the Bowbelle as both vessels were using the centre of the river. This allegation was disputed by survivors’ testimonies many which stated that the dredger collided with the Marchioness.