On this day in history : 20th August 1989 – A pleasure cruiser, ‘The Marchioness’ and a dredger, ‘The Bowbelle’, collide on the River Thames in London…. 51 people lose their lives….

The Marchioness, after she had been raised from the River Thames – Fair use

The accident happened during the early hours of the morning…. The Marchioness had been hired for a birthday party and most of the 126 party goers onboard were in their 20s…. Also onboard were 4 crew and bar staff…. Both the pleasure cruiser and the dredger were heading downstream, against the tide towards Southwark Bridge – with the larger vessel, The Bowbelle travelling the faster of the two….

Bowbelle – Fair use

It was a clear night, three days after a full moon and so the visibility was good…. The Bowbelle, at just under 80m long and weighing nearly 2,000 tons had left its berth at Nine Elms Pier near to Battersea Power Station at 1.12am…. The 26m, 90 ton Marchioness had been due to leave Embankment Pier at 1.00am but a delay meant departure was set back to 1.25am…. Its captain, Stephen Faldo, remained in the wheelhouse for the whole time until the collision…. His crew mate, Andrew McGowan, was also his business partner…. The pair ran Top Bar Enterprises, providing the bar and staff for onboard disco parties…. On this particular night there were two bar staff….

Just before Blackfriars Brisge the Marchioness passed her sister ship, ‘The Hurlingham’, which was also hosting a party…. The Bowbelle was fast catching up with them….

Around 1.46am the Marchioness had just passed under Southwark Bridge when it was suddenly hit twice to the stern by the bow of the Bowbelle…. The first blow caused the smaller vessel to turn to the port and the second turned it on its side…. The upper structure of the pleasure cruiser was torn off by the Bowbelle’s anchor; the dredger then ploughed over the Marchioness, pushing it under the water so that it sank…. It happened so quickly that it was impossible to use the life rafts or even life jackets….

Port side of Marchioness – Fair use

The Bowbelle’s captain, Douglas Henderson, was acquitted after a trial in 1991…. Families of the victims campaigned for ten years for a public inquiry, which finally began in 2000…. A report published in 2001 criticised Henderson for not setting up a proper lookout watch but he was allowed to keep his Master’s Certificate…. One of the report’s recommendations was that a River Thames life boat rescue service be established…. This first came into operation in 2002….

Tower Lifeboat Station – Image credit : SchroCat – own work – CC BY-SA 4.0

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