Sudden sinking of a steamship

FOR MANY the River Clyde is the lifeblood of Glasgow. The shipbuilding industry provided thousands with work and was a major economic benefit to many lives - but tragically the river was also to claim the lives of many.

On 3 July 1883 rescue diver Thomas Fisher swam down through the Clyde to SS Daphne a 500-ton steamer that lay submerged on the bottom. The visibility was poor; only 18 inches below the surface, the water was so thick Fisher had to work by touch. He worked his way down into the ship to the port rail and along the companionway, or staircase, leading to the cabin, but, in Fisher's words:

"The companionway was blocked with one solid mass of bodies. The men were lying there thick together, the one crowded on top of the other." They had rushed from their tasks on board and had "jammed each other in a struggle to reach the deck."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Hours earlier, before the launch of the Daphne, the joiners and engineers were working below, and the deck of the ship was crowded with about 200 men. The boatyard was busy completing the vessel just before the shipyard was to close for the Glasgow Fair holidays.

At about 11.30am, the supports were knocked away and the ship slid off the slip. Survivor Alexander Crammond, a foreman joiner onboard, told The Scotsman: "I noticed she moved very quickly, more quickly than is usually the case."

The ship ran off the slip and hit the water stern first. Once afloat she suddenly tipped to her port side and went under and only part of the starboard hull reappeared. Crammond called out, "Look out boys … we will all be drowned."

Workers on deck fled the sinking ship, swimming to the shipyards on either side of the river. Cramond, standing on the sinking ship up to his waist in water, was rescued by a tugboat.

SS Daphne had been fitted with engines but without boilers. The boiler hatchway was open and the decks were removed on the starboard side to enable the fitting of the boiler. The waters of the Clyde poured in.

Hesey O'Farrell a riveter from Govan thought the current had caused the ship to capsize. He ran along to the pilot at the wheel. Along with two other men he said they "worked hard at the wheel". They turned it several times but to no avail. Becoming worried for his safety O'Farrell jumped off the stern of the ship.

Timber and bodies filled the water and a number of men were seen clinging to the keel before it disappeared. Shocked spectators threw boards from the dockside to help survivors swimming from the ship.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Two tugboats aided the men in the water and a flotilla of small boats quickly attended the scene.

By lunchtime grapnels were used to search for bodies trapped in the ship. Families that had converged on the area when they heard news were finally allowed in to the area to identify the bodies. As the day progressed more bodies were recovered from the murky waters of the Clyde.

Day turned to night and lights were placed around the vessel to ensure no boats ran into her. It was noted by The Scotsman that many men recovered from the water "still grasped in their hands the instruments with which they had been working when death overtook them. The foreman joiner who had died, Crawford Dick, held in his hand a rule when his body was drawn from the cabin."

Sir Edward Reed MP headed an accident enquiry. The theory that river currents had caused the ship to tip were dismissed. Sir Edward felt that the presence of the propeller & shafting and of the engines gave the ship a low enough centre of gravity so the theory that the ship was top heavy was incorrect.

The accident was caused by a "fatal deficiency in 'angular stability'" as "an inability to right herself when she heeled over to the port side". Reed said that the problem lay not in any "load placed within her, but the error in the line and proportions of the ship." In other words, the design was flawed.

What Reed had called "the practice of building ships by rule of thumb" resulted in the deaths of 124 men who drowned that day - a devastating blow to the community and the shipbuilding industry.

Such was the scale and tragedy of the disaster that there are two SS Daphne Memorials in Glasgow - one in Elder Park, Govan and another in Victoria Park, Whiteinch - both sides of the Clyde representing the loss to those communities involved.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Daphne was salvaged, refitted and renamed SS Rose. She plied a route between Northern Ireland and Scotland for the Glasgow & Londonderry Steam Packet Company. Her first visit – where she claimed the lives of 124 – was brief but memorable.

You may also want to read:

The passengers "precipitated into Eternity" when their steamship sank

Related topics: