The wreck of the Marchioness

The tail end of summer is very much fun time for evening party goers who crowd the numerous chartered craft both large and small.  As they cruise past, the punters’ choice of music is much to be desired as they slip downstream to the Barrier, then pass again for a second dose as they head back home to London’s numerous piers.

The shocking memories of some 25 years ago, when a packed party launch – the historic ‘Marchioness’ – was charged down by ‘Bowbelle’, an aggregate ship which discharged upstream and was returning for even more cargo from the estuary.  The tide was rushing through the darkened areas under the trio of bridges prior to London Bridge.  The impact of this large ship on the frail ‘Marchioness’ was horrendous.

Much has happened to improve the safety of craft, and monitoring passage of vessels in now controlled by port control at the Barrier.

A few nights ago, TV coverage included the remembrance service and the memorial, just inside the main entrance in Southwark Cathedral, which soberly records the lost souls.

I can recall seeing the wrecked craft retrieved in Pipers Yard close to Lovells Wharf.  On an afternoon river path stroll I bumped into Peter Piper (a prominent waterman) dressed in his summer shorts, who explained the tragedy to me.  Just then we both heard the recognisable thump of ‘Bowbelle’s engines as she passed by on the tideway.  Trade still carried on as legislative actions awaited a coroner’s decision.  Now ‘Bowbelle’ has gone to the scrap yard, but the trade up to Battersea Wharf is continued by a pair of continental freighters, purpose designed to manoeuvre in narrow waters, their superstructure lowered to pass under the numerous bridges, continuing this important traditional trade.



The 1834 Royal Commission reported on Trinity House’s Ballastage Office which controlled the traditional ballasted aggregates. They stated that  400 million tons of ballast had been moved since 1594. The ballast was required by sailing craft for their homeward-bound voyages having discharged their cargoes in the Port of London.  The introduction of water ballast killed off their trade.

Imported aggregates arriving by barges and ships can still be seen playing a significant role in the construction industry as supply to upriver wharves is so important for the major Civil Engineering projects which are interlacing the capital.

The thriving ballast business operated from Greenwich’s Ballast Quay, with raw material obtained from the high ground above Maze Hill Station.  A visit to the gastro Cutty Sark pub at Ballast Quay is a great place to see the working wharves close to the O2 and the startling skyscraper hotel under construction.


About RiverWatch returns

Peter Kent shares his Thames riverside studio viewpoint

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