Mr Barking - Sid Wade's memories

IN THE gleaming of an autumn evening in 1878 shift workers followed the path, now Jenkins Lane, to Beckton Gasworks. Each man swung in his hand his dinner between two plates and tightly knocked into a clean, poppy red handkerchief adding a splash of colou

IN THE gleaming of an autumn evening in 1878 shift workers followed the path, now Jenkins Lane, to Beckton Gasworks.

Each man swung in his hand his dinner between two plates and tightly knocked into a clean, poppy red handkerchief adding a splash of colour to the surrounding drab March. Happy men, content in well paid employment among poverty of the time.

But they were not to know that before those dinners were eaten they were to witness a calamity that shook the country.

Down river at Sheerness, weary but happy day trippers were streaming aboard the pleasure steamer Princess Alice. All were Londoners who, that morning, in glad escape from the City's streets and clamour had left London Bridge to enjoy a beano as only Cockney's can.


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The merry day had streaked by in the sun's warm and friendly glow and the merriment lingered on as they clattered up the gang-plank. It was a small paddle steamer licensed to carry fewer than 500 passengers.

More than 900 packed the decks and tiny saloon. With each burden she settled lower in the water.

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With a farewell blast she moved off; her paddles thrashing the water into a creaming foam and thudding fitfully against its overload.

No matter, they were on holiday so they sang and cleared small places to dance a "knees up" while men played cards and lovers linked hands and leaned over the deck rails in dreams of romance.

For a few couples this day trip was their honeymoon. Never can there have been a more tragic honeymoon.

At 8pm the night had closed in and the little ship, hugging the bank, was passing Beckton to enter Gallions Reach.

Out of the darkness the Byward Castle, a collier, loomed toward the little pleasure boat.

Having just discharged her cargo of coal at the gasworks she towered high in the water above the Princess Alice like a menacing mouth of the deep.

Nearer it came. Fear stifled the songs in the throats of the trippers. It was over in seconds. A massed scream rose in the night and was heard all over Barking as a dull ripping crash splintered the paddle box and the knife edge iron bow of the Byward Castle cut into the doomed craft.

Slowly, the wreck lifted until, in a perpendicular position, it resembled a huge, fantastic tombstone. It settled and sank.

Those flung clear tried to swim ashore but were caught in a surge of poisonous sewage released from the sewage works.

Look, you get enough horror daily on your television screens. Let it suffice that Beckton and Lawes Chemical Works became a temporary mortuary and the Thames the Grave of 700 of the 900 trippers.

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