When the party boat Marchioness was sunk on 20 August 1989, 51 people lost their lives in what was one of the worst disasters the Thames has ever seen.

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.