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The Marchioness disaster: 30 years on

1989: On a warm evening in late summer, partygoers gathered onboard the Marchioness pleasure boat, travelling along the River Thames in London. What happened that evening shocked the nation and dominated news coverage. 

Tower Lifeboat Station at night, with the London skyline

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

The Marchioness collided with a dredger, Bowbelle, and sunk. That night, 51 people lost their lives in the waters of the River Thames. 

The legacy

An inquiry into the disaster recommended that London should be served by a dedicated rescue service on the Thames. 

And in 2002, the RNLI began its lifesaving service on the Thames, with four lifeboat stations at Teddington, Chiswick, Tower, and Gravesend

The crews have never forgotten the reasons behind introducing lifeboats on the Thames. 

Following the naming ceremony of Chiswick RNLI’s lifeboat Legacy in 2004, 51 roses were laid in the Thames in memory of those who lost their lives. The lifeboat was named in memory of the Marchioness, and still serves as a relief boat at Chiswick.

Chiswick E class lifeboat on the River Thames

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

Chiswick crew aboard their E class lifeboat on the River Thames

Jon Chapman, Helm at Teddington RNLI, was training with his Putney rowing club on the morning after the Marchioness disaster. He remembers: ‘A lot of us were waiting to get on the water and nobody had any idea what had happened. But we saw a helicopter hovering overhead, and there were lots of police on and around the riverbanks.

‘When we found out what had happened, we were all extremely shocked. At the time, we didn’t have a full grasp of what had happened, of how many people had lost their lives that night.

‘The tragic events of that night played a part in my decision to join the crew at Teddington, 6 years ago. All of our crew are very aware of the Marchioness disaster and how it led to the RNLI being present on the Thames. 

‘Some of our crew are too young to remember the tragic events of that night – in fact, some weren’t even born then – but we make sure that everyone knows what happened and understands why we’re there.’

Tower's E class lifeboat, Hurley Burley, during a training exercise on The Thames

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

Tower's E class lifeboat, Hurley Burley, during a training exercise on The Thames

The RNLI on the Thames

It’s been 17 years since the RNLI’s lifeboat service began on the Thames. Since then, they’ve launched a total of 14,096 times, saving 580 lives and helping 4,994 people.

You might be surprised to learn that Tower is the busiest of all our 238 lifeboat stations around the UK and Ireland. In 2018 alone, the crew launched 624 times and helped 132 people. 

Tower, Chiswick and Gravesend are all crewed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by full-time helms and dedicated volunteers who work shifts and sleep on station. This means that they can launch to emergencies in a matter of seconds. Here’s what life is like for our crew at Tower Lifeboat Station.

When the Thames service began in 2002, the RNLI had expected to deal with between 100 to 200 incidents each year. Last year, the four Thames lifeboat stations launched 1,022 times. That’s 10 times the number originally predicted, which goes to show just how important our lifesaving service on the Thames is.  

Find out more about the history of our lifeboats on the River Thames

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