The Marchioness disaster was a fatal collision between two vessels on the River Thames in London on 20 August 1989, which resulted in the drowning of 51 people. The pleasure steamer Marchioness sank after being pushed under by the dredger Bowbelle, late at night close to Cannon Street Railway Bridge. A formal inquiry blamed poor lookouts on both vessels, and inadequate instruction of both crews. Four new lifeboat stations were later installed on the river.
Marchioness was a pleasure steamer built in 1923 and was one of the little ships of Dunkirk in 1940. On 19 August 1989, the boat was hired for a party organised by photographer agent Jonathan Phang to celebrate the 26th birthday of Antonio de Vasconcellos, who worked in a merchant bank. The pair were good friends and business partners in a photographic agency. Of Portuguese family background, Vasconcellos had studied economics at Cambridge University.
Phang organised a three-part celebration: an eight-person dinner in a flat on Meard Street (only two of the diners survived); a birthday cake and champagne celebration for a group of 30 at the flat; and the party on Marchioness. Many of those at the party were also in their twenties; some were former student friends and others worked in the fashion industry.
The dredger Bowbelle collided with Marchioness in the early hours of 20 August 1989. At the instant of collision the anchor of the dredger cut through the side of Marchioness, which capsized and quickly filled with water, while being pushed under by Bowbelle. As Marchioness capsized, her entire superstructure became detached. 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 that investigation described Bowbelle as "hitting it [Marchioness] in about its centre then (mounting) it, pushing it under the water like a toy boat."
Of the dead, 24 were recovered from the sunken hull. Most of the survivors were on the upper decks at the time of the collision. The dead included Francesca Dallaglio, elder sister of future England national rugby union captain Lawrence Dallaglio, and the skipper of Marchioness, Stephen Faldo, father of Lee Faldo and of reality TV star Jeff Brazier.
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The disaster was found by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to have been caused by the poor visibility from each ship's wheelhouse, the fact that both vessels were using the centre of the river and the lack of clear instructions to the lookout at the bow of Bowbelle. In 1991, the skipper of Bowbelle, Douglas Henderson, was tried for failing to keep a proper look-out but, after two juries were unable to reach a verdict, he was acquitted. A coroner's inquest on 7 April 1995 found the victims had been unlawfully killed.
Following pressure from the Marchioness Action Group, whose publicity front had been handled by photographer and party guest Ian Philpott, on 14 February 2000, Environment Secretary John Prescott ordered a formal investigation into the circumstances of the collision, to be chaired by Lord Justice Clarke. Lord Justice Clarke's report blamed poor lookouts on both vessels for the collision and criticised the owners and managers of both vessels for failing to instruct and monitor their crews in proper fashion.
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 as he met all the service and medical fitness requirements. They "strongly deprecated" his conduct in drinking 5 pints of lager in the afternoon prior to the accident, although it was noted that this would not have affected him by the time of the incident, and "deplored" his forging of some signatures on certificates and testimonials in the mid-1980s. Also in 2001, the Royal Humane Society made 19 bravery awards to people involved in rescues at the sinking.
After recommendations made in the Clarke report relating to the improvement of river safety, the British government asked the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Port of London Authority and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) to work together to set up a dedicated search and rescue service for the Thames. Consequently, on 2 January 2002, the RNLI set up four lifeboat stations: Gravesend, Tower, Chiswick and Teddington.
Seven years after the disaster, Bowbelle was also lost. Having been sold to a Madeiran dredging company and renamed Bom Rei, she split in half and sank on 25 March 1996 off the coast of Ponta do Sol, Madeira. The Tubarao Madeira Diving Organisation discovered the wreck six months after it sank. The wreck is still in good condition and offers refuge to a varied range of fish and marine life. After only a short time, marine plants grew in abundance on the wreck and the boat has become an attraction for divers.
A drama about the events surrounding the disaster, filmed by ITV Productions in association with Chameleon TV, was scheduled for broadcast on ITV in late 2007. Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival on 25 August 2007, former ITV Director of Drama Nick Elliot confirmed that the drama would not be shown "in its present form", though it has since been shown on French television. Relatives of some of those killed in the disaster had previously asked ITV not to broadcast the programme, although others thought it "crucial" that it be broadcast, "an excellent adaptation of the full horror of what happened."
The hands of 21 of the victims were deliberately severed for the purposes of fingerprint identification, prompting criticism from the families of the deceased.
English law provides no compensation for fatal accidents, other than for funeral expenses, unless financial dependence at the time of death can be proven. In most cases, the victims' families received little more than the cost of the funeral. Civil claims for compensation were brought on behalf of the victims' families; the amounts received ranged between £3,000 and £190,000. These relatively small amounts were because many of those killed were young, single, without dependants and had no established careers.
In 2009, various acts of remembrance were organised to mark the 20th anniversary. The Coastguard placed 51 roses in the Thames, near the site of the disaster. At Southwark Cathedral, the names of the victims were read at both Eucharists on 20 August 2009. Survivors and those who lost loved ones attended a service of choral evensong, sung by the Southwark Cathedral Merbecke Choir. The names of all 51 people who died in the tragedy were read out and two wreaths—one for the survivors, one for the dead—were laid at the Marchioness memorial within the cathedral. A documentary aired on BBC One in October 2009 was called "The Marchioness: A Survivor's Story"; it followed Jonathan Phang's efforts to come to terms with the disaster.
In August 2014, to mark the 25th anniversary, the names of all 51 people who died aboard Marchioness were again read out in a service at Southwark Cathedral, 51 candles were lit, and 51 roses laid.
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