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What follows is a (un-comprehensive) list of London's deadliest and often forgotten disasters, complete with links in red to any interesting articles, so you can read about them for yourself and share with friends so those who died won't have died in vain and will no longer be forgotten.
The Denmark Place Fire - On the 16th August 1980, in an illegal nightclub at 18 Denmark Place, a disgruntled customer - who felt he'd been overcharged for a drink - set fire to the building, killing 37 occupants. Although there has never been a memorial to the dead, this remains London's deadliest blaze since the Blitz. Murder Mile Walks is the only walk in London that covers this forgotten tragedy. To hear the full story, download episode one of the Murder Mile podcast.
The Colney Hatch Fire - On 27th January 1903, in a timber-framed annex of The Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, 52 patients (all female) were burned alive in the Jewish wing, either in their beds or huddled in corners. This remains the worst peacetime fire in London's history since the medieval period. In 1993, Colney Hatch (renamed Friern Hospital) ceased being a psychiatric unit and is now private luxury apartments.
The Great Beer Flood - On the 17th October 1814, a colossal beer vat at The Horse Shoe Brewery situated on Tottenham Court Road ruptured, causing a wave of 135,000 gallons of locally brewed Porter Ale to flood the street, killing eight people, including a family who drowned in their own basement. Read more about it in my blog.
The Soho Cholera Outbreak - On the 31st August 1856, several outbreaks of cholera erupted in Soho, killing 616 people (one sixth of Soho's population). How did it start? Who solved it? How was it solved? Why is there a pub named after Dr John Snow on Lexington Street? And how did this tragedy change the way that we all live today? Read the full story in my blog
The Bethnal Green Tube Disaster - On a rainy night on the 3rd March 1943, an air-raid siren sounded, which lured hundreds of people to come to Bethnal Green Underground for shelter from the bombs. Unfortunately in the rush for safety, one person slipped on the wet steps and what followed became the London Underground's deadliest accident, with 173 people killed and 62 injured. Read more here.
The Fatal Vespers of Blackfriars - On the 3rd July 1322, 52 men & women were crushed to death, as they waited for alms (money for the poor) when the floors of the Blackfriars Monastery collapsed. The only accurate account I can find is this tiny morsel. And yet, on 26th October 1623, 95 members of a Catholic Congregation were killed (with many more injured) when the chapel floor gave way.
The Toxic Sewer of Pimlico - On the 12th October 1849, three workers - Thomas Gee, Daniel Peart and John Attwood — entered a sewer on Willow Way and never returned alive. When their bodies were finally recovered, their faces, necks and chest were completely bronzed, as a result of deadly carbonic acid. Read more here.
The SS Princess Alice Disaster - On the evening of the 3rd September 1878, a paddle-steamer named the SS Princess Alice collided on the River Thames with military coal-ship called the Bywell Castle just by Tripcock Point (near North Woolwich Pier) and sunk, with the loss of 650 lives. This is the greatest loss of life in any shipping disaster in the history of the Thames.
The Marchioness Disaster - On the evening of the 20th August 1989, a pleasure steamer called 'The Marchioness' - which was hosting a private party - fatally collided with a Thames dredger known as 'Bowbelle'. The heavier dredger pulled the much lighter pleasure-craft under the water, killing 51 people.
The Great Fire of London (1212AD) - When anyone mentions The Great Fire of London we all think of the 1666 fire, which destroyed great swathes of medieval London, but which miraculously only killed six people. A much deadlier Great Fire of London (of which there have been many) occurred on the 10th July 1212 and killed 3000+ people on London Bridge alone. Read more.
Regent's Park Skating Disaster - On the 15th January 1867, with ice-skating being the latest craze and winter in full swing, hundreds of people flocked to Regent's Park. But with the thin ice unable to cope under the weight, 200+ skaters plunged into the icy cold waters, with many being weighed down by heavy Victorian winter clothing. Only 40 bodies were recovered.
Moorgate Tube Crash - On the 28th February 1975, on the HIghbury branch of the Northern Line, a packed tube train failed to stop and came to an abrupt stop when it hit the wall of the southern terminus, killing 43 people and injuring 74. Of course, something (or should I say someone) more horrific was riding the Northern Line around that time. He was the London's Underground's very own serial killer.
Battersea Park Big-Dipper Accident - On the afternoon of 30th May 1972, five children were killed and thirteen were injured when a three-car wooden train on the Big Dipper at Battersea Park detached from its drive train and hurtled backwards at great speed, fifteen metres above the park. Read more.
Theatre Royal Fire - On the 30th September 1808, a fire broke out at The Theatre Royal in Covent Garden killing 26 theatre goers, fire-fighters and even bystanders. Read more.
Regents Park & Hyde Park Bombing - On the 20th July 1982, the IRA (Irish republican Army) detonated - within 2hrs of each other - a bomb at Regent's Park & Hyde Park. The first explosion in Hyde Park killed two soldiers and injured twenty-three others, with the second bomb in Regent's Park killing six soldiers and injuring twenty-four people and numerous horses. Read more. Warning: graphic images.
Oddly, given that London is surrounded by two of the busiest airports in the world (Heathrow and Gatwick), as well as Luton and Stanstead, London has had very few peacetime air disasters.
And one infamous "near (but now nearly forgotten) air-accident" almost occurred on 5th April 1968 when RAF pilot Alan Pollock performed a series of dangerous and unauthorised low-level flights over several famous London landmarks, including the Houses of Parliament, Embankment as well as flying through the upper span of Tower Bridge. (image is an artist's interpretation of the incident)
Obviously this isn't a comprehensive list of many of London's forgotten disasters, there are many disasters in London (and across the world) which often go unreported; sometimes because a more important news-story has taken precidence (as with the sinking of Titanic's twin sister - The Britannia - barely a few years later) or because - in the case of the Denmark Street Fire - the bulding was primarily full of illegal immigrants, so nobody (including the press) cared.
If you liked this blog, you may also like London's Bloodiest Execution Sites.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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Note: This blog contains only licence-free images or photos shot by myself in compliance with UK & EU copyright laws. If any image breaches these laws, blame Google Images.