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…

The loss of the Steamship London, 1866

This is a recording of my singing of the ballad The Steamship London, which I learned from a recording of Sam Larner made in the late 1950s.

The British steamship SS London sank in the Bay of Biscay in January 1866 on a passage from Gravesend in England to Australia. It’s said that she was badly overloaded, and that of 239 people aboard, only 19 survivors were able to escape the foundering ship by lifeboat.

At the time, news was frequently conveyed in the form of printed ballads sold on the street, and were often sung by ballad salesmen and women. Many were learned as songs by those who bought them, and were then often passed orally from singer to singer – and so it is that more than nine decades after the SS London foundered in the Bay of Biscay, an elderly fisherman called Sam Larner was able to recall the lyrics and tune and sing the ballad for the folklorists (among other things) Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl.

Even in the age of the Internet, I have not been able to track down the original printed ballad, although I am sure that is what it was.

Read more about the SS London disaster here; and more about Sam Larner here and here.