The sinking of the Princess Alice: How the worst inland water disaster in the UK influenced the disposal of sewage

The greatest inland water disaster in Britain took place in 1878 with the loss of an estimated 700 lives. Despite over 130 people being rescued, many perished afterwards from the horrific pollution of the river, leading to major changes in practices for waste disposal on the Thames, among improvements to safety on board the country’s waters.

Pamphlet showing Princess Alice being rammed by Bywell Castle; some people are seen in the water. The pamphlet is titled "The Loss of the Princess Alice"

SS Princess Alice, formerly PS Bute, was a passenger paddle steamer that sank on 3 September 1878 after a collision with the collier Bywell Castle on the River Thames. She began her career in Scotland, before being sold to the Woolwich Steampacket Company (later known as the London Steampacket Company) and was renamed Princess Alice after Queen Victoria’s fourth child.

Under the London Steamboat Company she was captained by William RH Grinstead. A passenger steamer, she carried passengers on a stopping service from Swan Pier (near London Bridge) down to Sheerness, Kent, and back. From 1873-78 she gained a reputation as a safe and reliable steamer, passing Board of Trade inspections and being deemed safe to carry up to 936 passengers. Some of her famous passengers included Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, the Shah of Persia, after which she became known to many locals as “The Shah’s boat”.

Collision

3 September 1878, Princess Alice was travelling in the dark when she collided with the Bywell Castle, breaking into three parts and sinking within four minutes, bringing hundreds of her passengers down with her.

The journey had been billed as a “Moonlight Trip” owing to the time of day. Some of her stops included Rosherville, where passengers often alighted to visit the Rosherville Pleasure Gardens.  Departing Rosherville at about 6.30pm on her return to Swan Pier, Princess Alice was believed to be at almost full capacity (without any records or passenger lists, however, this can never be proven).

Between 7:20 pm and 7:40 pm, Princess Alice come within sight of the North Woolwich Pier—where many passengers were to disembark—when Bywell Castle was sighted. Bywell Castle usually carried coal to Africa, but had just been repainted at a dry dock. Travelling down the river, she kept roughly to the middle of the river, except where other craft were in her way.

Around Gallions Reach, Grinstead, travelling up the river against the tide, followed the normal watermen’s practice of seeking the slack water on the south side of the river. He altered the ship’s course, bringing her into the path of Bywell Castle. The captain of Bywell Castle, Dix, tried to manoeuvre his vessel out of a collision course, and ordered the engines to be put in reverse, but it was too late.

Princess Alice was struck, she split in two and sank within four minutes—her boilers separating from the structure as it sank.

Rescue Operation

An immediate rescue operation got underway. The crew of Bywell Castle dropped ropes from their deck for the passengers of Princess Alice to climb; they also threw anything that would float into the water for people to hold. Other crew from Bywell Castle launched their lifeboat and rescued 14 people, and crews from boats moored nearby did the same. Nearby boatmen launched vessels to rescue who they could.

But it was a poisoned chalice. Victorian fashion meant that many of the female passengers couldn’t stay afloat due to their long, heavy dresses; furthermore many of the passengers were unable to swim. In total, about 130 people were rescued, but several died later from ingesting the water.

It was not possible to know exactly how many people were on board, but with 640 bodies recovered, it is understood to be close to the 700 mark. The search continued long after the vessel had gone under – local watermen were hired for £2 a day to search for bodies, with a minimum price of five shillings a day for those they recovered (although this often led to fights over corpses).

One of those bodies recovered was that of Captain Grinstead, but identifying the corpses was no mean feat. The pollution and sewage meant that the bodies were covered in slime and began to decay much quicker than normal. This fact was to lead to some major improvements in the disposal of Victorian London’s waste…

Sewage

Princess Alice sank at the point where London’s sewage pumping stations were. Twice per day, 75 million gallons of raw (untreated) sewage was pumped from nearby stations into the Thames. The water was also polluted by an untreated output from the nearby Beckton Gas Works, and several local gas work. And as if that wasn’t enough, a fire nearby earlier that day meant that oil and petroleum had entered the river.

The water was undoubtedly not fit for human survival.

Inquests

Two inquests were held into the sinking of the Princess Alice, one by the coroner, and another by the Board of Trade.

The coroner concluded that although the Princess Alice was seaworthy at the time of the incident, and within the limits for the number of passengers it should carry. However it concluded that the vessel was no properly manned and did not have adequate life-saving mechanisms on board.

The Board of Trade inquiry decided that the Princess Alice had violated regulations by not passing the Bywell Castle on the port side, and thus the Bywell Castle could not have avoided the collision. Grinstead died in the collision, so the subsequent investigations never established why he made the decisions he did. 

Aftermath

In the aftermath of the sinking, changes were made to the release and treatment of sewage, and it was transported to, and released into, the sea. The London Metropolitan Board of Works began to purify sewage, rather than dumping untreated waste into the river. Sludge boats were also commissioned to ship waste for dumping to the North Sea, a practise that continued until 1998.

Additionally, the Marine Police Force—the branch of the Metropolitan Police that had responsibility for policing the Thames—were provided with steam launches, after the rowing boats used up to that point had proved insufficient. The Royal Albert Dock, which opened in 1880, helped to separate heavy goods traffic from smaller boats; this and global adoption of emergency signalling lights on boats both helped avoid future tragedies.

But in a cruel twist of fate, five years after the collision, Bywell Castle sank in the Bay of Biscay with the loss of all 40 crew.

Memorials

23,000 people donated to a sixpennyfund, a memorial Celtic cross was erected in Woolwich Cemetery in May 1880.

In 2008 a National Lottery grant funded the installation of a memorial plaque at Barking Creek to mark the 130th anniversary of the sinking.

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Remembering the Bethnal Green Tube disaster

The single-biggest loss of life of civilian life in London during WWII happened was not caused by a German bomb – in fact, it happened on a night when not a single bomb fell. It was a human crush which cost the lives of 173 people.

3 March 1943. By now, Londoners were well-accustomed to the air-raid siren. Tragedy had occurred not caused by the bombs themselves – earlier in the war, over 60 people had been killed when a mains pipe burst in Balham, causing people sheltering underground in the Tube station to perish. 

At 8.17pm, the air-raid Civil Defence siren sounded, triggering people to run down the blacked-out staircase from the street. The civilians of Bethnal Green were no doubt used to this practise, but on this particular night, a woman and a child fell over three steps from the base and others fell around her, triggering a human crush of nearly 300 people. Of these, 173 lost of their lives, being crushed and asphyxiated in what is thought to have been the largest single loss of civilian life in the UK in the Second World War and the largest loss of life in a single incident on the London Underground network. 27 men, 84 women and 62 children.

Cover-Up?

Thanks to wartime censorship, news of the disaster was withheld for 36 hours. The story which was reported by the media was that there had been a direct hit by a German bomb, and the official results of the investigation were not released until after the war had ended in 1946. Meanwhile, rumours circulated of the cause. It was suggested by the Minister of Home Security, Herbert Morrison that a panic had ensued caused by a discharge of anti-aircraft rockets from nearby Victoria Park. There is disagreement over this.

A secret official report showed that Bethan Green Council had warned London Civil Defence, in 1941, that the staircase was a liability and needed a crush barrier to slow down crowds, but was told that would be a waste of money. Damages cases were taken by those who were bereaved, such as Baker vs Bethnal Green Corporation. The Baker lawsuit was followed by other claims, resulting in a total payout of nearly £60,000, the last of which was made in the early 1950s.

 

 

 

Remembering Cheiro, the Dublin man who became an infamous member of the Occult

82 years ago today, a man from Dublin passed away in Hollywood, California, having been one of the most famous figures of astrology of his time. Born in 1866, and also going by the name of Count Louis Hamon, ‘Cheiro’, as he is best known, was to become a symbol of the occult, a self-described clairvoyant and a world-renowned fortune-telling expert. Known for his ability to foresee world events, his clients are claimed to have included Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt and even Joseph Chamberlain. So how did a man from Dublin become arguably THE symbol of the occult in the early 20th century?Cheiroy

BACKGROUND

It was while travelling in India as a teenager that Cheiro met the Indian Brahmans, who was to become his Guru. Cheiro wrote in his memoirs that he was permitted by Brahmans to study an ancient book that has many studies on hands. After studying thoroughly for two years, he moved to London and started his career as a palmist, becoming popularly known as ‘Cheiro’ (taken from ‘chirology’ meaning studying the hands to tell fortunes).

PREDICTIONS

Some of the phenomenons Cheiro is purported to have predicted include the Boer War and the death of Queen Victoria. In 1925, he is alleged to have predicted the future partition of India. And he also claimed to have predicted the sinking of the Titanic, 13 years before it sank, while reading the palm of Harland and Wolff chairman William Pirrie. His office in the West End of London famously always had a queue of people waiting to hear about their future.

HIGH SOCIETY

But Cheiro’s unusual gift for the occult was not his only talent. He also befriended and read the palms some of the most eminent people of the day. Some of his clients included King Edward VII), General Kitchener, William Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain as well as other leading military, judicial and political figures from both sides of the Atlantic.

He also read the hands of many literary and artistic figures such as Mark Twain, Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde -and is alleged to have been a major source of inspiration along the way. Mark Twain included references to fingerprint identification in his novel Puddin’ Head Wilson, and Oscar Wilde is believed to have written the short story Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime based on his encounter with Cheiro. Mark Twain said of his visit: “Cheiro has exposed my character to me with humiliating accuracy. I ought not to confess this accuracy, still I am moved to do so.”

WRITER

And Cheiro was also a writer himself. He wrote numerous books on fortune-telling, some of which are still in print today. His books reveal something about his abilities. Although he undoubtedly had a gift for the occult, Cheiro was known to have ‘premonitions’ more so that actual reading things from people’s hands. In Confessions – Memoirs of a Modern Seer, it’s clear that Cheiro saw himself more as psychic than a palmist.

DEATH AND LEGACY

Moving to America is his later years, he read the palms of the Hollywood elite as the infamous neighbourhood was gathering pace. He is also alleged to have tried his hand at screenwriting. Upon his death on October 8, 1936, his widow claimed that he predicted his own death to the hour, the day before he died. Later that month, Time Magazine wrote: “On the night he died, said his nurse, the clock outside his room struck the hour of one thrice.”

CLICK ON THE LINKS BELOW TO READ MORE ABOUT CHEIRO:


10 Historic Facts you might not know about the London Underground (Tube)

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Photo: author’s own

Having lived in London for six years, I use the Tube virtually every single day. The history of it has always fascinated me – I was aware that civilians had sheltered in it during World War II, but actually descending into the stations…I couldn’t believe this was where they slept and it got me thinking about the creation of the Tube and what’s it become. 

    1. The London Underground was the first underground railway system in the world. In 1863, The Metropolitan Railway, as it was then known, began running between Paddington (then called Bishop’s Road) and Farringdon Street. Around 30,000 passengers went on The Metropolitan Railway on its first day of public business – January 10, 1863. It was not until 1890 that the phrase ‘Tube’ was used, and the name ‘Underground’ did not appear in stations until 1908.
    2. The Tube was originally steam-powered. Although the underground railway has opened in 1863, it wasn’t until 1869 that it began to run under the Thames and south of the river, through the Thames Tunnel. And it was not until December 1890 that the world’s first deep-level electric railway was opened, running from King William Street in the City of London, under the Thames, to Stockwell.
    3. As noted above, it wasn’t until 1869 that the Tube started running under the Thames, and through the Thames Tunnel. The Thames Tunnel had opened in 1843- the first tunnel under a river – and upon its opening became known as the Eigth Wonder of the World. Built by the Brunels, it’s construction was not without its flaws – the miners were subjected to sewage flows, ignited methane gas and some died during construction due to flooding – but the completed tunnel provided the basis for the Tube to run under the Thames.
    4. The Tube was designed so that illiterate people could navigate it. Ever noticed how some Tube stations are coloured/some tiles contrast? The reason for this is because the designs were originally created to help commuters recognise the station they had arrived at without the benefit of the blue and white signs commuters are used to seeing on a daily basis.
    5. It’s a well-known fact that many Tube stations were used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War, but the Central Line was even converted into a fighter aircraft factory that stretched for over two miles, with its own railway system. Its existence remained an official secret until the 1980s. Brompton Road (now disused) on the Piccadilly, Line was apparently used as a control room for anti-aircraft guns.
    6. But while the Tube acted as an air-raid shelter during World War II, it was not without its tragedies. The worst civilian death toll on the Underground occurred at Bethnal Green Tube tragedy in 1943, when 173 people died in a human crush. And earlier, than that, in 1940, 41 people were killed when a bomb burst a mains pipe,causing people sheltering in the Balham Tube station to drown.
    7. Winston Churchill had his own secret station during the World War II. Down Street was a working station between 1907 and 1932, and was converted into bomb-proof shelters during the Second World War. Initially on what was to become the Piccadilly Line, it was between Dover Street (now Green Park) and Hyde Park Corner stations. Mainly used as a shelter by the Railway Executive Committee during the war, it was also used by Winston Churchill and his war cabinet until the Cabinet War Rooms were ready for use. The London Transport Museum offer tours of Down Street as part of it’s Hidden London series – https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/hidden-london/down-street
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      Photo taken August 2018 by the author

      After the war, the deep level shelter at Clapham South housed 492 immigrants from the West Indies who arrived aboard the HMT Empire Windrush, having responded to an advertisement for labourers to come to London. When they arrived, the colonial Office didn’t have enough accommodation for them all, and they were sheltered in the deep-level shelter at Clapham South. You can visit the shelter today thanks to the London Transport Museum – https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/hidden-london/clapham-south

    9. One of the proposed names for the Victoria Line was Viking Line. Sadly though, this wasn’t for historical reasons, but more-so because it would run through the stations of Victoria and King’s Cross.
    10. And finally…on it’s inaugural journey in 1863, around 30,000 passengers traveled on the Tube. On 4 December 2015 (a day when I travelled to and from work at the BBC), I helped contribute to a new record – being one of 4.82 million people who traveled on the Tube that day.

THANK YOU TO THE AUTHORS OF THE FOLLOWING SOURCES FOR HELPING WITH MY RESEARCH FOR THIS POST:

 

The woman who dressed as a man and fought in World War One

The woman who dressed as a man and fought in World War One

I recently stumbled across a reference to Dorothy Lawrence while doing some research into the Great War. I was astounded by her story, and when I mentioned her name to a few friends, I was met with blank stats. Clearly, Dorothy Lawrence is one of the #AmazingWomenInHistory who needs to be remembered, not forgotten.

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Dorothy Lawrence in military uniform. I DO NOT OWN THE IMAGE.

Dorothy was born in Britain in 1896. Determined to be a journalist, at a young age she had some articles published in The Times. When war broke out, she pestered many people on Fleet Street with the hope of becoming a war reporter. When her calls went unnoticed, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Travelling to France in 1915, aged just 21, she applied to become an employee of the Voluntary Aid Detachment. When her application was rejected,  she decided to enter the war zone as a freelance war correspondent.

However she was arrested by French Police in Senlis, and ordered to leave. Spending the night sleeping on a haystack in a forest, she returned to Paris where she concluded that only in disguise could she get the story that she wanted to write. “I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money, can accomplish.”

Determined, Dorothy befriended two British Army soldiers in a Parisien café, and persuaded them to smuggle her khaki uniform, piece by piece, within their washing; ten men eventually shared in this exploit, later referred to in her book as “Khaki accomplices.”

Dorothy then began the process of transforming herself into a male soldier, by flattening her figure with a homemade corset, using sacking and cotton-wool to bulk out her shoulders, and with the help of two Scottish military policemen to cut her long, brown hair in a short military style. She used a disinfectant called Condy’s Fluid to darken her complexion, razored the pale skin of her cheeks to give herself a shaving rash, and finally added a shoe-polish tan. Lastly, she persuaded her soldier friends to teach her how to drill and march. She got her hands on forged identity papers, and headed for the frontline, as Private Denis Smith, 1st battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment.  

After being interrogated as a spy, she was declared a prisoner of war, and taken cross country to Calais and was unknowingly questioned about being a prostitute (or ‘camp follower’) as the term was.Targeting the British sector of the Somme, she set out by bicycle. On her way towards Albert, Somme, she met Lancashire coal-miner turned British Expeditionary Force (BEF) tunnel-digging sapper Tom Dunn, who offered to assist her. Fearing for the safety of a lone woman amongst female-companionship starved soldiers, Dunn found Lawrence an abandoned cottage in Senlis Forest to sleep in and she worked as a sapper (a soldier responsible for tasks such as building and repairing roads and bridges, laying and clearing mines, etc.) with the 179 Tunnelling Company. However after ten days in horrible conditions, a few bouts of chills and fainting, and with concern that if she needed medical attention her true gender would be discovered, Dorothy presented herself to the commanding sergeant, who placed her under military arrest.

The Army was embarrassed that a woman had breached security. Fearful of more women taking on main roles during the war if Dorothy’s story got out, Dorothy was made sign an affidavit swearing that she would not write about her experiences. Sent back to London, she moved to Canonbury, Islington, and only published an account of her experiences after the war, which was still heavily censored by the War Office.

With no income and no credibility as a journalist, by 1925 her increasingly erratic behaviour was brought to the attention of the authorities. After confiding to a doctor that she had been raped in her teenage years by her church guardian, and with no family to look after her, she was taken into care and later deemed insane. Committed first to the London County Mental Hospital at Hanwell in March 1925, she was later institutionalised at the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Barnet.

Dorothy Lawrence died in 1964. She was buried in a pauper’s grave in New Southgate Cemetery, where today the site of her plot is no longer clear.

Hetty Green: The Witch of Wall Street, and an eminent investor

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I recently read Charles Stack’s biography of Henrietta Howland Robinson Green, the American businesswoman and financier nicknamed as the “Witch of Wall Street”, who was one of the richest women in America during the Gilded Age, one of the few women on Wall Street. The book is entitled ‘Hetty Green: The Genius and Madness of America’s first female tycoon’, and both descriptions of her in the title are hugely appropriate.

Born in 1834, Henrietta ‘Hetty’ Green (nee Howland Robinson) was born into a rich whaling family in Massachusetts. The only surviving child of Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Howland, Hetty honed her craft reading the financial papers to her maternal grandfather and her father. At age 13, she became the family bookkeeper and was incredibly knowledgeable in financial affairs.

When Hetty was 26, her mother died, leaving her daughter $8,000 dollars (nearly $200,000 today’s money). But just a few short years later, Hetty would become embroiled in a bitter battle to inherit her mother’s sister’s fortune, which would ensure that all inheritance from her grandfather’s company would go to her.

From her mother’s death, Hetty was determined to ensure every penny of Aunt Sylvia’s fortune went to her. But the invalided Aunt Sylvia, whose relied on the care of servants and health professionals, had other ideas. Sylvia was aware of her niece’s greediness, and temper, and wanted to be sure that all the people who had given their lives to make hers a bit better were remembered. Hetty, knowing this, hastened to her aunt’s home to discourage Aunt Sylvia from bequeathing any money to anyone escape her, Hetty. When Hetty realised Aunt Sylvia’s plans to leave money with her servants, Hetty got so angry she pushed one of them down the stairs. Aunt Sylvia eventually relented and signed a will in Hetty’s presence, bequeathing her entire fortune to her niece.

Hetty was horrified to learn that Sylvia had created a new will after signing the aforementioned with Hetty, leaving most of her $2 million estate (nearly $31 million) to charity. Hetty challenged the will’s validity in court by producing an earlier will that would have bequeathed all of her aunt’s fortune to her. The case, Robinson v. Mandell, which is notable as an early example of the forensic use of mathematics. The court ultimately decided that the earlier will produced by Hetty was a forgery, although she was awarded $600,000 after five years of legal battles.

In 1865, Edward Robinson died, leaving Hetty approximately $5 million (equivalent to $77,293,000 in 2015) which included a $4 million trust fund that drew annual earnings, something she wasn’t pleased about.

Two years after her father’s death, at the age of 33, Hetty married 44 year-old Edward Henry Green, a Vermont businessman who had lived in Asia for several years making his fortune. Hetty requested that Edward sign a prenuptial agreement before the wedding, renouncing all his rights to her money. The couple soon fled to London, probably to get away from the hype created by the Robinson vs. Mandell case. They spent seven years living in the Langham Hotel off Regent Street, during which time Hetty bore two children – Edward Howland Robinson “Ned” Green, and Harriet Sylvia Ann Howland Green (known as Sylvia).

When her children were small, Hetty took to being a mother while her husband pursued investments. However, she soon wanted to make use of her astonishing fortune, and formulated her investment strategy which she stuck to all her life. She made conservative investments, always had substantial cash reserves, and never lost her cool. She began by investing in greenbacks, the notes printed by the U.S. government immediately after the Civil War. When more timid investors were wary of notes put forth by the still-recovering government, Hetty bought in majorly. She claimed to has amassed a fortune of $1.25 million from her bond investments in one year alone.

The family returned to the US in the mid 1870s, settling in Edward’s hometown of Bellows Falls, Vermont. Hetty spent a few years living her with the reputation of an eccentric. She famously quarrelled with all her in laws, servants and neighbours, and was noted for her stinginess in spite of her growing fortune.

The largest investor in the financial house John J. Cisco & Son, Hetty was horrified when the bank collapsed, in 1885 and hastened to New York. She soon learned that the bank’s greatest debtor was none other than her husband, Edward Green. The firm’s management had surreptitiously used her wealth as the basis for their loans to Edward. Emphasizing that their finances were separate, Green withdrew her securities and deposited them in Chemical Bank of New York. Enraged by his dealings, she and Edward would never live together again (although there is evidence that they did reconcile in later years).

Throughout her life, Hetty had a reputation for her stingyness – an ironic fact considering her enormous wealth. While most Wall Street tycoons took a coach in the mornings, Hetty opted to walk. She could have afforded numerous houses in the most affluent parts of New York, a mere stone’s throw to Wall Street, but instead she spent most of her later years in a simple apartment across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey (this was possibly also to avoid having a permanent residence that would bring her to the attention of any tax officials).

One tale claims that Green spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents. Another asserts that she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dresses (the hems) to save money on soap. Perhaps most interesting, instead of enjoying the new restaurants that were springing up in Downtown New York, Hetty’s lunch while she worked at a Wall Street bank (because she didn’t want to pay rent for her own office) in New York consisted of oatmeal cooked in a big vat on radiator. Her stingyness, combined with her dour dress-habits and austere personality would nickname her ‘The Witch of Wall Street’.

But for all her eccentricity, Hetty was a phenomenally successful businesswoman. While she often dealt in real estate, lending and mines, her main investments were to be in railroads during a golden era of railroad building across America. As soon as Ned became old enough, she stationed in him in Texas, where he learned the tricks of the trade while managing their railroad investments.

The City of New York came to Green for loans to keep the city afloat on several occasions, most particularly during the Panic of 1907. She would travel thousands of miles alone—in an era when few women would dare travel unescorted—to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars.

Edward and Hetty never lived as husband and wife after the John J. Cisco debacle, but there is evidence that they reconciled in later years. Hetty nursed Edward for a few months until his death in 1902.

Hetty was notoriously disapproving of all of Sylvia’s suitors, believing them to just be after her fortune. When Sylvia was in her late 30s, Hetty finally agreed for her daughter to marry Matthew Astor Wilks, a minor heir to the Astor fortune. With $2 million of his own, it was enough to convince Hetty that he wasn’t just a gold-digger. Nonetheless, she compelled him to sign a prenuptial agreement waiving his right to inherit Sylvia’s fortune.

Hetty Green died aged 81 at her son’s New York City home. She earned the title of ‘World’s Greatest Miser’ in the Guinness Book of Records, but left an estimated net work of somewhere between $100 and $200 million, equivalent to around $2-4 billion in today’s money.She was buried in Bellows Falls, Vermont, next to her husband. She had converted late in life to his Episcopalian faith (from her Quakerism) so that she could be interred with him.

You can buy Charles Stack’s biography of Hetty Green here.

Remembering the Balham Tube disaster

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Photo taken by the author in August 2018

The 14th of October marks the 76th anniversary of the one of the worst atrocities of the London blitz, in which nearly 70 people died while sheltered in a south London tube station, just two stops away from where I currently live.

The Battle of Britain and The Blitz were in full swing by 14th October, 1940. The population of Balham were well accustomed to their routine – once the air-raid siren went off, they proceeded to their shelters. Thousands upon thousands of people would seek shelter in Tube stations, sleeping on the platforms (and often on the tracks) for around 12 hours each night, while overhead the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign ravaged. Mid-October 1940 was midway through a consecutive 57 nights of bombing – but London fought on, determined not to be defeated by Hitler. Local communities were united nightly as they escaped the danger overhead.

13 metres below ground, around 500 people were sheltering at Balham on the night of October 14th, 1940. At 8.02pm a 1400 kilo semi-armour piercing bomb penetrated the ground above, causing a massive crater in the ground. A photo emerged of a number 88 bus with it’s head nose-dived into the ground, which was to become symbolic of the event.

However, the explosion fractured a water mains pipe below ground. The subsequent flood of water and soil into the tunnel was to kill nearly 70 people. Water, mud, sewage and sand flooded the tunnels, causing people to drown. A rescue boat was sent from Clapham South but failed to get through. Water-tight doors that were designed to keep floods out, instead kept this one in. The lights also fused, adding to the chaos. A gas explosion also hampered rescue efforts

The official death toll records 66 deaths, although there is some discrepancy, with figures ranging from 64 to 66 people. More than 70 people were injured. It’s ironic to think that people had taken had gone into the Tube for safety, and instead found themselves in unimaginable danger.

With propaganda and censorship being active, news of the event was kept to a minimum. The government feared that news of the event might discourage civilians from continuing to shelter in the underground.

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The bodies were not fully recovered until Christmas, yet remarkably the damage was repaired and trains were running through the station on 8th January 1841. The station itself reopened on the 19th January.

Today, as you pass through Balham station, all that reminds you of that terrible night is a tiny blue plaque commemorating the event. It’s hard to believe that if 70 people were killed today in a freak accident, that a blue plaque would be all to commemorate the site of it. However, this was not an isolated incident. The night before the Balham disaster, 16 people were killed when a bomb dropped on Bounds Green station. 56 were killed at Bank in 1941, due to a direct hit. But perhaps most shocking of all is the 1943 Bethnal Green station, in which 173 people were killed in a human crush was attempting to seek cover in the station. A previously unheard air-raid siren had struck panic into the people filing to safety. A woman and a child fell over, causing numerous people to scramble on top of them, leading to the crush.

Despite evacuations from cities, Anderson shelters, and crucially, the London Underground system, it is estimated that at least 32,000 civilians were killed in Britain during World War II.

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(I do not own this image)