The Wreck of the SS London

Simon Wills has written to say that he has just published a book about the SS London disaster of January 1866, a very famous disaster of its time. It’s one that is sometimes said to have added to the pressure to make sbhips safer, and which led to the introduction of the Plimsoll Line.

Here’s a relevant paragraph from Simon’s book:

‘The initial public reaction to the loss of the robust and modern SS London was an understandable grief, but mixed with disbelief. How could this possibly have happened to a luxury liner so close to home? The number of dead was uncertain and quoted figures initially varied widely. In fact, at least 243 people had died – 167 passengers and 76 crew – although the precise figure may never be known. Even the press struggled to break the news… The reaction to the loss of the SS London washed over the country like a huge melancholy wave – incredulity, personal grief, lessons in faith, national sorrow, a charitable fund, memorabilia, poetry, sermons, criticisms, and messages in bottles.’

Simon adds that one of the more poignant things about the disaster was that desperate passengers who knew they were going to die put messages to their loved ones in bottles, which were washed ashore and then found…

It’s interesting to compare how people reacted to a national disaster in Victorian times – nobody sued over the London, for example, and people were keen to buy SS London disaster commemorative mugs! We do things differently these days…

Of course the disaster was now almost exactly 150 years ago… Apart from Sam’s book I wonder whether it will be marked in any way?

Readers may remember that some time ago I learned Sam Larner’s version of a broadside ballad written about the disaster.

PS – Nigel S  has pointed out that astonishing Dundee poet William Topaz McGonagall wrote one of his legendary doggerel ballads about the disaster. It’s well worth checking out – and it comes with some interesting details…

4 thoughts on “The Wreck of the SS London”

      1. Yes, looks like a bit of poetic licence there.

        Thanks for another fascinating post. The overloading took me to ‘coffin ships’ sunk for the (inflated) insurance and from there to the astonishing tale of ‘Lucona’ blown up in 1977 with the loss of six crew by the Austrian owner of the cargo.

        Lang may yer lum reek!

        1. Any good links to share?

          In any reasonable sort of world, the SS London should have been very safe – it was only two years old, so not in any way a typical coffin ship.
          No, if even casual observers could see it was tooo low in the water – it was simply overloaded by irresponsible owners and captain and senior officers.

          I guess that, the numbers involved and some of the affecting stories about the sinking caught the public’s imagination.

          Have a great year Nigel!

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