RNLI commemorates Marchioness disaster anniversary
The RNLI is commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Marchioness disaster which claimed 51 lives on the River Thames in 1989. As a result of the disaster, the charity’s lifeboat service was set up on the Thames and has since saved 580 lives on the river.
In the early hours of 20 August 1989, partygoers were gathered onboard the Marchioness pleasure ship, travelling along the River Thames in London. The boat they were on collided with the Bowbelle dredger, and was sunk. Tragically, 51 people lost their lives.
Following the recommendations of the inquiry into the Marchioness disaster, the RNLI’s rescue service began on the Thames on 2 January 2002, with lifeboat stations at Teddington, Chiswick, Tower and Gravesend. In the RNLI’s 17 years of service on the Thames, the four stations have launched 14,906 times, saved 580 lives, and aided 4,994 people.
Tower Lifeboat Station is the busiest of the RNLI’s 238 lifeboat stations around the UK and Ireland, launching 624 times in 2018 alone. Tower RNLI, Chiswick RNLI and Gravesend RNLI are all crewed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by full-time helms who work on shifts. All of the Thames lifeboat stations rely on the bravery and commitment of volunteers, with Teddington RNLI crewed entirely by volunteers who operate on a pager system.
With lifeboats specially designed by the charity’s in-house engineers for saving lives on the Thames, the RNLI’s lifeboat crews are able to respond to an emergency in a matter of seconds.
Jon Chapman is a helm at Teddington RNLI, and was training with his rowing club at Putney the morning after the Marchioness disaster. He said, ‘I arrived at my rowing club early on the morning after the Marchioness sank. 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 was lots of police activity on and around the river banks.
‘When we found out what had happened, we were all extremely shocked. At the time, we didn’t have a grasp of the full extent of what had happened, of how many people had lost their lives that night.
‘I joined the crew at Teddington RNLI six years ago, and 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 were even born afterwards), but we make sure that everyone is aware of what happened and understands why we’re there.
‘I was already involved in safety on the Thames before I joined the crew through my work at the rowing club, and the tragic events of that night played a part in my decision to join the crew at Teddington.’
Kevin Maynard, Station Manager at Tower RNLI, said, ‘The tragic events of the 20 August 1989 are very much at the front of the minds of those of us who operate the RNLI’s lifesaving service on the Thames.
‘People are often surprised to hear that there are lifeboats on the Thames, and even more surprised when they learn that Tower RNLI is the busiest of the charity’s 238 lifeboat stations.
‘When we started the lifeboat service on the Thames on 2 January 2002, we anticipated a hundred or so call-outs or so every year on the Thames. Last year at Tower RNLI alone, we launched six times that number, which highlights how important having lifeboats on the Thames is, with the four lifeboat stations having assisted nearly 5,000 people since 2002.’
Following the naming ceremony of Tower RNLI’s lifeboat in 2004, 51 roses were laid in the Thames in memory of those who lost their lives. The lifeboat was named Legacy in memory of the Marchioness, and still serves as a relief boat at Chiswick.
On the evening of 19 August 2019, representatives from the RNLI attended a riverside vigil in memory of those involved in the incident.
Notes to editors
· Interviews available on request
 Stats correct as of 5 August 2019
Key facts about the RNLI
The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and, in a normal year, more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.