Albion’s sailors remember one of the Thames’ darkest hours

Topic: Fighting armsSurface Fleet Storyline: HMS Albion

Sailors from HMS Albion paid their respects to 38 civilians killed when the ship’s predecessor was launched over a century ago.

They took advantage of the assault ship’s visit to the capital in support of International Shipping Week to make the short trip to Plaistow in East London, where an impressive memorial – a large anchor resting on five mass graves – stands.

The victims were drowned during the launch of the fifth HMS Albion (the current vessel is No.7) in June 1898.

Albion was the third of six new battleships intended to protect Britain’s Pacific territories, serving on the China Station.

It had been more than a decade since the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company had built a battleship for the Royal Navy and local schoolchildren were given the day off to attend the launch.

An estimated 30,000 people packed into the yard ­– roughly opposite the present-day O2 Arena/Millennium Dome – to see the Duchess of York launch the Royal Navy’s latest ship-of-the-line.

The bottle of champagne slammed into the side of the hull by the Lady Sponsor to begin the launch failed to shatter – viewed by seafarers as bad luck.

When the ship eventually entered the Thames, she threw up a huge wave which swamped an unsuitable makeshift stand where scores of onlookers had gathered. It collapsed, toppling the crowd into the river.

Thirty-eight people drowned – the youngest victim was just three months old, the oldest 64. Twelve of those killed were aged under 18. It remains one of the worst disasters in the history of the Thames.

Most victims are buried in the five communal graves in East London Cemetery where, 123 years later, the present-day Albion’s chaplain Paul Andrew led shipmates in tribute to those lost.