Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Victoria (Steamboat), capsized, 24 May 1881
Full Text

      Two Hundred Canadian Excursionists Drowned by the Upsetting
      of a Steamer -- A Whole City in Mourning for its dead.
London, Ont., May 24. -- The celebration of the Queen's birthday here today was marked by an accident, the like of which has never before occurred in Dominion waters, costing as it did the lives of 200 persons, all residents of the one city and immediate suburbs. A fleet of pleasure steamers ply on the river between the city and the water works, four miles below the city. The water generally is not deep, and it was not until the erection of a dam to give power for the water works machinery, a few years since, that the stream was navigable at all. Three large flat-bottomed steamers are used, capable of carrying from 500 to 1,000 passengers each, and today they were taxed to their utmost.
      On the return trip very few came up until evening, and the consequence was that towards evening the boats were greatly overcrowded, and about 6 o'clock two of them, the VICTORIA and the PRINCESS LOUISE passed each other about a mile from the city. The crowd on the VICTORIA
      Rushed to the Side of the Boat
to greet the passengers on the LOUISE. The consequence was that the boat careened and the lower deck became partially sbmerged. The passengers on that deck rushed to the other side of the boat and the consequence was that she toppled over in the water. The boat fell to pieces and by the shifting of the machinery a large number of the people were jammed in the water, which at that point, is higher than the average. Up to midnight nearly 200 bodies were taken from the water. Scarcely a family in the city but has lost a relative or friend. A great deal of indignation is expressed at the management of the fleet which resulted in such overcrowding, and the citizens probably will not permit the boats ever to run again. All classes and conditions of people were represented, mostly, however, being
      Mechanics and Working People.
Among the people known outside of their own circle were Mr. C. J. Meredith, the father of the leader of the Opposition in the local Legislature; Mr. James Robertson, manager of the Bank of British North America; Mr. William McBride, secretary of the Western Fair Association, and W. H. Millman, a well-known commercial traveler. A large portion of the victims were persons of tender age and females, and up to this hour the task of recognition has been a very tedious and difficuly one. As it is, many are unreconnized. A great many heartrending scenes were witnessed on the river bank as the bodies were received from the water, and one man who had
      Lost His Whole Family
was with difficulty prevented from throwing himself in the water. A woman who had escaped had her babe torn from her breast by the falling of some of the timbers from the upper deck. She was taken to shore and in a few minutes saw her child float on top of the water. With a wild shriek she threw herself into the stream and saved the child, when she was with difficulty revived a second time herself. Scores of such incidents were noticed. The authorities here will take the matter in hand and a strict investigation will be held.

      T H E T E R R I B L E D I S A S T E R.
      (by Associated Press)
London, Ont., May 24. -- This evening at 6 o'clock the steamer VICTORIA, with over 600 excursionists on board, was returning from Spring Bank, when and near the Cove Railway Bridge, one mile below the city, the boat suddenly collapsed like an egg shell, and becam a total wreck level with the water's edge. All the passengers were instantly plunged into the stream, more than half of them being underneath the debris. The first news that reached the city was brought by survivors who struggled through the streets, wet and weary. The news spread like a thunderbolt, and a stampede took place for the spot. Arriving there a horrible sight met the view. Fifty or sixty bodies had already been recovered and were lying on the greensward, some distance up the bank. Those arriving from the city from every direction crowded around anxious to see if any relatives were on board. Several hundred families were represented on the excursion, and the wail of anguish that arose at the sight of the victims was heartrending. Fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters rushed about panic striken, endeavoring to identify relatives. By 7 o'clock about eighty bodies were recovered from under the wreck where the water is twelve feet in depth. Almost every minute some victim was brought to the surface and conveyed to the bank. The steamer PRINCESS LOUISE was early brought to the spot and the victims placed on the upper decks. Fires were lit on the bank overlooking the river, and petroleum torches were brought and the search continued. Up to the present hour about 150 corpses have been secured. Among the dead are James Robertson, manager of the Ban of British North American; J. C. Meredith, clerk of the Division Court; William McBride, assessor and secretary of the Western Fair Association; Mrs. William Ashbury, Wm. Millman, a Montreal, commercial agent, and two sone of J. Rogers, plumber. All is confusion at the present moment. The landing at the foot of Dundas street is now crowded with people, all waiting in breathless expectation for the arrival of the steamer PRINCESS LOUISE with the bodies. The total will aggregate 175 lives
      The Death Roll.
Among the others drowned are John Clarke, shoemaker; Miss Cox, Nellie, Johnny, and Willie Morrison, three children of James Morrison, merchant, London, East; Lillian Skinner, Hobbs, plumber, and three children, A. Westman, Lizzie Baskerville, John Darch, Sr., Miss Connell, Willie Glass and Miss Nancy Cooper, daughter of John Cooper, his affianced. These two were sitting together when the machinery was observed to fall over upon them. Mr. Matthews, night editor of the Advertiser, lost his wife and two children. Harry Mart of the Free Press, lost his wife and two children, and sister-in-law. Mr. J. Siddons, of the Customs, lost one boy. Dr. Oronoyatkha lost a boy aged ten. Miss Bayler is among the missing, also Alice deadman, of new Brighton, Miss Griffiths, of Bucks street. Albert Tremble is probably lost. A full list cannot yet be obtained. All is in the deepest confusion. The newspaper staff like all else are sadly demoralized, all having friends involved in the calamity. The whole city seems almost demented tonight. The accident was certainly due to gross carelessness. The boat was overcrowded to a disgraceful extent.
Manager George Parish was expostulated with by several at Springbank, and urged not to let the boat go out in that overcrowded condition, but he is reported to have replied, " All right, I know my business," or something of that sort. Mr. Samuel Stewart, stove merchant, one of those who protested, left the boat at Springbank with his family. Several hundreds more remained there unable to get passage and had to walk home, a distance of four miles tonight, no conveyance of any kind being available. The telephone was in constant use between the water works and city by friendly inquiries. This disaster will put an end to the pleasure steamer buisness, as hereafter people will not venture on the river, which has been the subject of many jokes and puns on account of its supposed shallowness, but is in reality in many places twenty or thirty feet deep.
      Cleveland Herald
      Wednesday, May 25, 1881

      . . . . .

      G H A S T L Y.
      - - - - - - - -
      (By Special to the Cleveland Herald.)
London, Ont., May 25. -- London today is a city of mourning. Every street has its victims by last evening's terrible disaster. The number of dead so far recovered is over 200, and more are said to be under the wreck. The ill-fated steamer VICTORIA was 80 feet long and 32 feet wide; depth of hold 3 feet 10 inches. She was built to carry 400 passengers, but frequently took from 600 to 800. The number on board when the disaster occurred was supposed to be 600 or 700. One survivor says they were standing on both decks as thick together as a man's fingers. The lower deck shipped water frequently by the heavy weight upon it, causing the people to shift their positions. The oscillation became so great as to dislodge the sixty-horse boiler, which set upon the main deck unsecured, and it slid over the side, carrying away the supports of the upper deck and letting it fall upon the crowd below, as well as shunting those overhead into the water. The scene that followed baffles description. All were struggling together in one heterogeneous mass of humanity. There was a crash, a general shriek and nearly all were immersed. A silence of the grave followed. Gradually one after another rose panting to the surface, and the more thoughtful at once set to work to rescue the people, but despite all exertions full two hundred fell victims. The work of taking up the bodies went on all night, and today and this afternoon the interment of the dead began. There is a wail in every household of deep stricken grief. The entire population is personally affected by the loss of relations or friends. The council met today and gave authority to the mayor to deal with cases of distress and use his discretion. Votes of condolence and sympathy were passed. A Citizen's committee has also been formed to act as may be called for. An inquest was begun this afternoon and adjourned till Friday. A solemn service will be heard in the Catholic cathedral on Friday. Tomorrow will be a day of public mourning. The victims include the names of our leading citizens, as well as the humblest. Many families are too poor to bury their dead. It is impossible as yet to get a complete list of the victims, as it is being hourly corrected and revised.

      THE SURGE.
      (By Associated Press)
London, Ont., May 25. -- The work of securing the dead from under the wreck of the VICTORIA is still going actively on. One hundred and seventy bodies have been recovered and most of them brought to the city. All the undertakers' shops are besieged and
      Coffins Are Going Out By The Scores.
The crowd at the river banks and steamer landing are not diminished. Among the identified are two daughters of James Barnes. The list of the identified is still incomplete. A large number of bodies remain on the grounds at Sulphur Springs Baths awaiting claimants.
      Graphic Description Of The Disaster.
During the day a large number oc citizens sought employment the various excursions leading from the city to adjoining town, and for others the chief outdoor attraction was a series of steamboat excursions on the Thames river. This enjoyment was rendered more attractive from the fact that this was the first day of the season to run regular trips, and this circumstance, taken in connection with the public holiday, naturally drew large crowds of pleasure seekers to the river. Trips were made down the river a distance about four miles, to Spring Bank, a place of popular resort where the water works are located, and three or four steamboats took down large loads of excursionists at regular intervals throughout the day. At about 4 o'clock in the afternoon the VICTORIA, of the Thames Navigation Company's line, started from the dock on her fourth and last trip for the day with a large load of passengers of all ages, variously estimated at from 400 to 600, all went well on the down trip, though the boat was
      So Heavily Laden
that she shipped water in small quantities occasionally when the crowd would happen to surge to any particular side. On the return trip, when more than half way home, a slight commotion on the boat, and by some to have been the playful pranks of a number of youths on the lower deck, and by others ascribed to the boat striking a snag, caused the crowd out of curiosity to rush to one side, and as the side of the boat sank with the additional weight, a volume of water, a foot or two in depth poured in upon the lower deck, which was crowded with passengers. Instantly the crowd on both decks rushed to the opposite side, and their weight, together with that of the water shipped by the boat, caused a lurch in the opposite direction. Then it was that the disaster occurred. The side of the boat sank in the water to a depth of one or two feet, and while the crowd on the lower deck were struggling to save themselves from slipping down into the river, the stanchions supporting the upper decks suddenly gave way, and the whole structure with its load of human beings came down on those who were below, crushing them on the deck and rendering
      Escape Out Of The Question.
It is impossible to describe the scene that followed. The boat continued to settle on its side deeper into the water, taking with it many of the passengers who were stunned by the fall of the upper deck and were unable to help themselves. Scores sank in the water without effort, while many others who were precipitated in the river unhurt, rent the air with their vain appeals for that succor which those of the passengers who were safe were powerless to extend. The utmost exertions were put forth to rescue as many of the drowning ones as possible, and many were saved from watery graves. As soon as possible help was secured and the work of recovering bodies from the river and from the wreck was proceeded with. The bodies were placed on the steamboat LOUISE as fast as the were brought up and then taken to the Company's dock, where the task of identification began. The accident occurred at about a quarter past six. It was midnight before the bodies so far recovered were brought back to the city. Here a most
      Heartrending Scene
occurred. The bodies as fast as transferred from the steamer were laid out in rows on the grass by the river side, all in their holiday attire, and with the aid of torches their faces were eagerly scanned by hundreds of anxious friends looking for their missing ones. A goodly proportion of the drowned are men in middle life and many are children of tender years. Many were the
      Wails Of Sorrow
which followed the identification of a relative -- perhaps it is the mother who discovered her child or the children a parent. One man was heard inquiring for four children. As fast as the corpses were claimed they were taken in charge by their friends and removed to their homes. The utmost confusion prevails. It is impossible at present to secure a complete list of the drowned, but many prominent citizens and their families are included in the number.
      The Search.
When the water was let off by the removal of the splash boards the search was continued for those under the lower deck, and twenty-two more bodies brought to the surface, making about 200 in all recovered. It is not known how many more, if any, are lost. The city council met today and passed resolutions of condolence. A settled gloom hangs over the city. Mr. O. Montgomery, leather merchant of Toronto, was on board, but escaped and succeeded in saving many others. He states that on the passage up the Captain went among the passengers urging them to keep on the other side. He said "For God's sake, keep on the other side; if you don't you'll have to swim for it." A little later on he saw water pass in over the deck and the boiler go by the board, when the crash immediately followed. Almost all business is at a standstill, and crowds line the streets discussing the calamity. The burial of victims at this hour: 2:30 P. M., is proceeding. Solemn stillness prevails, the city flags at at half-mast, and bells are tolling a knell.
      Those Identified.
      The following is a list of the drowned, so far as identified:
      Mrs. William Ashbury, Maple street.
      Hudson Abbott, son of H. G. Abbott.
      Minnie Amesbury, London, east.
      Charles Bonner, aged sixteen.
      Lillie Brown, aged fourteen.
      Harry Beston, aged six.
      James Burns, Albert street.
      Lizzie Baskerville, daughter of a workman at Carling's brewery.
      Ida Batchello.
      Rose Bailey.
      John Baskerville.
      Edna Burns, daughter of James Burns; another daughter is missing.
      Albert Cole, aged seven years, son of Colonel Cole.
      John Clarke, shoemaker.
      Miss Maria Connelly, Richmond street.
      Miss Fanny Cooper.
      Jennie Coughlay.
      May Craddock, daughter of george Craddock.
      Miss W. Cline.
      Mrs. John Curran.
      Miss Cornish, King street.
      Mrs. Debean (Mr. Debean is missing).
      Miss Hannah Denis, Parlemo, Ont.
      William Dwyer.
      James Davey, son-in-law of Martin O'Meara.
      John Darcy, Sr.
      Alice Deadman.
      Misses Fox (2)
      Mr. Clinton Fryer, Sr.
      Mr. Fryer, Jr., wife and niece.
      Joseph Graham.
      Miss Julia Griffith, of Westminster.
      Miss Gibson.
      Mrs. M. Glaren and child.
      Willie Glass.
      Plumber Hobbs and three children
Miss Mary Hogan, of Waterloo.
Mrs. Stevens, of William street.
James Hearn, cigar maker.
Mrs. Kelly (an emigrant) and two sisters living in the city.
Miss Hendrick, of Adelaide street.
Mrs. William Laskie and child.
Eddie Longbrey, of West London.
Johhn Leckaire, of West London.
Mr. C. J. Meredith, clerk of the division court, and father of W. R. Meredith, M. P. P.
Wm. McBride, city assessor and secretary of the Western Fair Association.
W. H. Millman, commercial traveler, of Montreal, and two sons.
Willie Morrison, John Morrison aged thirteen, Bertie Morrison, aged five. The above three are children of James Morrison, of London East.
Mrs. Matthews, wife of the night editor of the Advertiser, and two children.
Mary McPherson, aged fifteen, daughter of Mr. Archibald McPherson of Lang & McPherson.
Miss Ida McIntosh, of Dundas street.
Miss W. MacMoygal
William Addiner, of Westminster
Mr. McLennan, a blacksmith.
Miss Annie McAllister, of Porton street.
Harvie Magee, aged fifteen.
Miss Priscilla M. Justice.
A son of Dr. Oronyatekha, aged ten.
Mrs. Parish Poke.
Mr. Herbert Purser, son of the manager of the boat.
Mr. A. R. Powell and two nephews.
Margaret Quinn, aged seventeen.
J. Rogers, plumber.
Manager Robertson, of the Bank of British North America.
Mrs. Scott, Ann street.
The two Misses Sipley.
Charles Siddons, aged thirteen.
Willie Stixely.
Orville Smith, aged seventeen.
Lizzie Stuart, aged eighteen.
Mrs. Smart, wife of H. Smart, of the Free Press, and two children.
Mr. C. J. Siddon, of the Customs.
Lizzie Skinner, daughter of Alderman Skinner.
Ewdin Smith, clerk in the office of Glass, Grass & Barrett.
Mrs. W. Scott, Oxford street.
George Street.
Thomas Stephens.
Mr. C. Thayer, of Carling's brewery.
Willie Tremer, London West.
George Tremer, London West.
Dollie Lathan, Colborne street.
Willie Westman, Dundas street.
James Weatherhead, of Carling's brewery.
Mrs. Walla, Mr. Walla, and three other members of that family missing.
Fred Wastie, aged fifteen, son of Thomas Wastie.
John Wall, showmaker.
Ben Hall, shoemaker, and child.
Rosetta Markham.
J. Perkins, son of J. Perkins, butcher.
William Wannecott, city.
Mr. Mosuret's two children.
Polly Gretton.
Willie D. Glass.
Charles Siddons.
Miss Meekey.
Mrs. Jones.
Mrs. Hall.
S. P. Graham.
Mrs. Fitzgibbons.
Dillie Latham.
Mrs. W. Chine.
John Curran.
Mrs. Thomas Stephenson and three children.
Mr. Thayer.
Mr. Shipley.
Carlyle O. Smith.
J. Shires.
Thomas Lester.
Miss McConnell.
George Ferrogoods and two boys.
Mr. Smallman and two children.
J. W. Kilburn.
Emma and Nellie Prescott.
Sam Caldwell.
Richard Fitzgibbon.
Lizzie Colling.
Anna F. Goss.
H. Anderson.
Joseph Young.
Mrs. Stonehouse.
Miss Taylor.
Frank Stevens, wife and four children.
Mr. Short.
S. P. Eblo.
Miss Middleton.
John Moore's wife and child.
Mrs. Jones' two children.
Man named Jones.
Graydon, son of S. H. Graydon.
Miss Minnie Smith.
Miss McDonald.
Mr. and Mrs. Heman and child.
Mrs. Smith.
Henry Courge.
George Walsh.
John Boyd.
Miss Maloney.
George Evans and two children.
James Short.
Mr. Diver, wife and two children.
Mrs. Smith.
Mrs. Elizabeth Evans.
Ida Barnes.
Miss Ferguson.
Mrs. Smith and daughter.
J. Perkins.
Thomas Davidson.
W. Edmuns.
Mrs. Nilborne.
Alf Share.
Annie Jones.
Charles Gorman.
Charles Martin.
Thomas Breeze.
John Phillips.
James Harris.
Nellie Mastin.
William Wannacott.
Miss Swanville.
Henry Shay.
Samuel Pile.
Henry Hay.
      238 Bodies recovered.
London, Ont., May 25. --A committee of merchants met this afternoon to consider the situation and concert measures. It was decided to ask the Mayor to proclaim tomorrow a day of public mourning by the suspension of business; to call upon those who are in straitened circumstances, and extend such relief as may be necessary, to care for such bodies as are neglected, and devise means for the erection of a public monument. It is probable such monument will be erected in Woodland Cemetery, situated on the banks of the river almost overlooking the scene of the disaster. An inquest was begun this evening. The jury formally viewed the body of Miss Fannie Cooper and adjourned until tomorrow. A field battery was called out this afternoon for the purpose of blowing up the boiler, under which several bodies are supposed to be. A large number of remains were taken to the drill shed, there to await further action. The people throughout the city feel stunned and stupefied by the blow, and weeping men are seen on every side. Up to the present time (10:30) 238 bodies have been recovered. It is believed there are several yet beneath the wreck.

The terrible disaster which occurred at London, Ontario, on Tuesday night, by which more than two hundred lives were lost, is a sad opening of the awful record of death that is the invariable accompaniment of the summer pleasure season. It is a lamentable commentary upon the laxity of the law and the still greater laxity in its enforcement, that a large majority of the fatalities of this class are such as would never occur, were reasonable care taken to secure the safety of railroad and steamship excursionists. Rotten and unseaworthy boats like the VICTORIA, fall to pieces and carry hundreds down to death, collide, explode and overset, with the same result; railroad trains "telescope" and run over embankments, yet no one of the criminals responsible goes to the prison that should yawn to receive him and, three days after such a visitation as that in question, our people eagerly crowd upon boats equally unsafe and trains as recklessly conducted, in search of the small measure of amusement possible to be derived.
      There is little use in moralizing on the subject which can find no effective remedy until the repetition of such horrible and inexcusable sacrifices of precious human life shall have so far aroused the people as to create a demand for reform that shall be irresistible. That such result may speedily come is surely the wish of every man who does not run a dangerous "pleasure" boat or mismanage cheap railroad excursions.
      Canadians are apt to be more stringent in the law and more conscientious in its enforcement than we on this side of the lakes, and it is much to be hoped that the homicide, who is guilty of this stupendous crime, will meet the prompt and severe punishment that he so richly deserves.
      Cleveland Herald
      Thursday, May 26, 1881

      . . . . .

      The VICTORIA was a sternwheel, two decker, with hurricane roof, and measured over
all, from bow to stern 80 feet, beam 23 feet, depth of hold, 3 feet 10 inches. The boiler which was made by Messrs. H. Winnett aud sons of this city, is 60 horsepower, 14 feet in length, 3½ in diameter and had ninety tubes. There was a steam pump, handle pump, and inspirator to keep the boiler supplied with water. The engine was furnished by Mr. J. White of Forest City Machine Works, King Street. It was a single cylinder, 10½ inches in diameter, 29 inches stroke and fitted to a wheel crank. The shaft was 17 feet in length, upon which were two paddle wheels ten by four feet each. The steering apparatus was regarded as an improvement on the old system, the pilot house being open. The seats encircled both decks, affording aecomodation for about four hundred.
The height between decks was between seven and eight feet. The woodwork was done under the superintendenee of L. C. Rogers, Messrs. White and Saunders supervising the steam fittings. The steamer was also supplied with lire-preservers, and all the appointments
required by law. Mr. Meneilly, acting chairman of the steambaot Board of Inspectors for
Ontario made a thorough inspection of the steamer last season, and pronounced her in every respect a model craft, and her machinery to be A 1. She is registered at Port Stanley, gross tonnage 58 tons; net tons 38 tons - the steamer cost about $5,000
      Toronto Globe
      May 27th. 1881

      . . . . .

      T H E B L A M E
      Verdict In The VICTORIA Disaster.
London, Ont., June 14. -- The following is the verdict in the VICTORIA investigation:-- We do find that the capsizing of the steamer VICTORIA was caused by water in the hold. We believe the water leaked in through a hole stove in the bottom from some unknown cause. We suppose this injury was caused by coming in contact with a stone or snag in the river. We are also convinced that the boiler was not secerely fastened, and that the stanchions supporting the promenade and hurricane decks were of too slender a nature and made chiefly of pine and not properly braced. We are also of the opinion that the engineer was guilty of great negligence in the discharge of his duty in not seeing that the hold was clear of water and in not conveying in person to the captain the dangerous condition of the boat. We think the captain was to blame in accepting the dual position of captain and wheelsman, which prevented him from giving his undivided attention to the proper management of the boat. We are also of the opinion that he was to blame for leaving Spring Bank without making a proper examination of his boat, and there was undoubtedly water in the hold at that time. We are further of the opinion that the manager failed in his duty in not employing sufficient hands to man his boat; that he should have had the boat inspected and a certificate for the same.
      The jury think the Government inspector deserves blame for the manner in which he inspected and passed the boat VICTORIA last year, as from the evidence her upper construction was not fit to carry a large load of passengers, and we would strongly urge upon the Governement the necessity of making more stringent inspection regulations in regard to passenger steamboats.
      Cleveland Herald
      Wednesday, June 15, 1881

      . . . . .

The wooden steamer "VICTORIA", 27 tons register, of Port Stanley, was wrecked in the River Thames near London, Ont. on the 24th. May last, while returning to London with a load of excursionists. The primary cause of this accident was no doubt overcrowding her with passengers beyond her capacity. The passengers moving from side to side caused her to lurch, and with each lurch came a movement of passengers to the opposite side each time ingreater numbers, until the final lurch came which nearly upset her. When the last lurch came the supports of the upper deck, on which were probably over 500 passengers, gave way, and it came down on those who were on the main deck imprisoning them underneath it. Over the upper or Promanade deck there was a light wooden awning, called a hurricane deck, which fell on those underneath it on the promanade deck. In the meanwhile the boiler had turned over on it's side, and slid overboard, and the vessel being freed of it's weigt, righted itself and sank, leaving the upper deck floating and covering those underneath it in the water.
By this casualty 182 lives were lost. The vessel was valued at 5,OOO Dollars, and was owned by Mr. George Parish, of London.
      Report of the Chairman of the
      steamboat inspection for 1881
      Sessional Papers (No. 5) Canada. A 1882
      . . . . .
The construction of the London Water Works System in 1878-79, by building a dam at Springbank had the effect of raising the water in the river, and providing a beautiful stretch of some four miles for boating purposes. Some enterprising citizens took advantage of this by placing a couple of small steam boats on the river, which ran regular trips through the summer, and were especially patronized by excursion parties.
The 24th May, 1881, was a very pleasant spring day, and large numbers of people availed themselves of the river ride. About five p. m., one of the boats - the VICTORIA - left Springbank for the city, crowded with passengers, probably seven or eight hundred. The boat was of 43 tons burthen, 70 feet long, with a 26-foot beam. It was probably loaded to three times its normal capacity. Besides which it is said to have been very lightly constructed; and, further, its timbers had been wrenched in the ice the previous winter.
      As the boat neared the Cove Bridge, about two hundred yards below the bend, it careened, the boiler broke loose, and carried away the pillars supporting the upper deck, and the entire structure sank to the bottom in some twelve feel of water. Estimates varied as to the exact number drowned, from 200 to 215, Four-fifths of these were residents of London, and the remainder from the immediate vicinity with very few exceptions. To mark the event, and the scene of the disaster, the London and Middlesex Historical Society has erected a memorial boulder. It is on the north side of the river within a few feet of where the VICTORIA was wrecked.
      Report of the London & Middlesex
      Historical Society for 1916. page 63
      (Photo of the memorial included in article)
      . . . . .

      By Ken Armstrong
      Seventy-Three years have almost erased the memory of Canada's most shocking marine disaster, the sinking of the steamboat VICTORIA with the loss of 215 lives. But in 1881 the newspapers of two continents chronicled the tragedy in bold black headlines, and in England the London Illustrated News devoted its entire front page to an artists vivid if inaccurate conception, of the steamer's death plunge.
      The Victoria capsized in a quiet pastoral setting, miles from any sizeable body of water and the victims were gay picnickers celebrating the birthday of Queen Victoria. Scene of the sinking was the Thames River, two miles west of London, Ont.
      Ideal holiday weather, clear and warm, greeted Londoners on May 24, 1881. Long before noon dozens of pleasure craft were plying the river between the city and Snringbank, a 75-acre municipal park four miles down-river. Among them were the excursion boats S. S. VICTORIA, the PRINCESS LOUISE and the FOREST CITY, typical side-wheel, shallow draft river boats of the day. Loaded to the gunwales, they transported thousand, of happy picnickers to the park from a dock at the foot of Dundas St.
      Bustled matrons hovered over plcnic tables groaning with kitchen delicacies. Hoop-rolling and croquet occupied the youngsters on gently terraced lawns and somewhere back among the shade trees were casks of cool beverages to slake the thirst of the family heads.
      Shadows from the nearby hills were lengthening over the river when Capt. Thomas Wastie warped the VICTORIA into the park's dock and blew a long whistle signalizing the 5 p.m. return trip to the city. Men, women and children, intent upon reaching home by the supper hour, swarmed aboard the VICTORIA as it toucbed the wharf. It was later revealed at the
Inquest that Capt. Wastie was aware of the danger of overloading a craft to carry 100 passengers. He even had the boat removed to midstream for a few minutes in the hope that order would be restored n the dock. But as the VICTORIA returned to the berth, almost 800 people surged aboard. They wedged themselves on the hurricane deck and overflowed onto every square foot of the main deck - a boisterous, sunburned, laughing mass of humanity.
      Riding low, her decks almost awash, the VICTORIA headed up-river, it was near Woodland Cemetery that the VICTORIA passed her sister ship, the FOREST CITY. Scores of passengers moved to the port side to wave at friends, and slowly the VICTORIA began to list until the lower deck began to ship water. The crew frantically urged the passengers to return to the other side of the boat but amid the huhbuh only a few sensed the calamity that lay ahead.
      In the wheelhouse a young girl asked Capt Wastie if the boat was sinking.
      "If those people don't be still I'll run them all ashore and they will have to walk home." he replied.
      Had Wastie heeded his own advice the catastrophe of a few moments later could have been averted, for the VICTORIA was only a few yards from a shallow beach.
      Now the boat entered a narrow, deep running section of the river where it was barely 15 yards from shore to shore. But water was beginning to lap over the main foredeck and the VICTORIA lurched to starboard as female passengers sought to keep their feet dry.
      Almost imperceptibly the bow dipped, the craft swung far aport and with a rending crash the stanchions of the upper structure collapsed. Instantly the boiler rolled from its moorings and in less than 10 seconds the VICTORIA had overturned, ouickly silencing the screams of the main deck passengers, many of whom were crushed to death.
      Horrified witnesses and survivors brought the shocking news to London. But the full impact of the tragedy did not strike rescue workers until they reached the scene. They found great bonfires burning, and crowds of grieving survivors so numbed by shock that they were unable to aid rescue operations.
      First newspaperman to reach the spot was J. Lambert Payne, a cub reporter on The London Free Press. Payne worked for two sleepless days. combining reporting with rescue work. He was choked with emotion when he sat down to write the story, but was cautioned by a wise editor to wrile the facts "just as you saw them." His simple, moving recital of the VICTORIA disaster told of the suddenness of the sinking and the first moments of panic as hundreds of Londoners found themselves swimming for their lives. It told of dozens of cases of heroism. Stripped to the waist, many men who had narrowly escaped with their lives, dived repeatedly into the cold waters to pull ashore the living and dead.
      William Lewis, who still resides in London, told of running to the river to see heads bobbing in the current and the cries of desperate parents as they sought their children. A strong swimmer, Lewis pulled so many from the water that he soon lost count.
      The PRINCESS LOUISE was at the scene of the sinking minutes after it happened. The deck forward of its wheelhouse became a temporary morgue where friends and relatives sought the bodies of dear ones.
      Four days later the London newspapers carried black-bordered death lists. Farmers, housewives, tradesmen and some of Western Ontario's most prominent citizens of the day, as well as infants and children of all ages, were recorded as lost. Almost every family in London suffered the loss of a relative or friend as the death list mounted. Undertakers from miles came to aid their city colleagues. All business activity was suspended and funeral corteges filled the streets for days after the fateful May 24.
      In bitterness born of sorrow, many who criticized were brutally direct. Sittings of an official board of investigation were jammed With spectators and more than once, Captain Wastie and members of the crew were threatened with abusive violence. The investigation's findings deemed the VICTORIA, PRINCESS LOUISE and FOREST CITY as unseaworthy and they never again sailed the Thames. No conclusive proof of negligence on the part of the boat's owners or operators was ever found. But if there was, as some claimed, a weakness in the construction of the 70-foot, 43-ton VICTORIA, the boat builder paid dearly for it. His 15-year-old son was a drowning victim.
A city in mourning heard Capt. Wastie declare before a coroner's inquest that some of the passengers had been drinking and were in an irresponsible mood. "When I found there was such danger I prayed to God to keep her afloat until I could run her on a sand bar. Three minutes more would have done it," he said.
For many years after the VICTORIA tragedy, boating all but disappeared from the Thames. A trip on the river was the surest way to revive bitter memories. And May 24. a holiday for rejoicing In other parts of Canada, was solemnly marked in a sorrowing London by memorial services in the churches and family visits to the two maple-studded cemeteries, overlooking the placid Thames.
Today, almost hidden by weeds on the north bank of the river at the site of the VICTORIA's plunge, is a mutilated monument. Its almost illegible bronze plaque tells briefly the story of the riverboat disaster. That and a file of faded newspaper clippings at London's public library are all that remain to remind today's hustling city of 100,000 people of the worst river disaster in Canadian history.
      The Globe and Mail
      May 22, 1954
      . . . . .
      T H E M O R G U E T H A T S A I L E D F R O M S P R I N G B A N K.
      Almost Every Home In London, Ontario,
      Was Draped In Mourning When The Bodies Of a Hundred And Eighty-One
      Victoria Day Excursionists
      Formed The Final Link In An Incredible Chain Of Blundering Irresponsibility.
      (by Stanley Fillmore)
      On a sparkling Tuesday in May 1881, while Queen Victoria was celebrating her sixty- second birthday in London, England, a steamboat, also named VICTORIA, was cruising
on the Thames River near London, Ontario, crowded with more than six hundred exuberant excursionists. Suddenly, something happened.
From his seat in a racing skiff less than a hundred yards off the VICTORIA's starboard bow, Harry Nicholls watched the boat wallow toward London. He saw her rock ponderously from side to side responding to the motion of the upper-deck passengers who were running from rail to rail. The unusual swaying did not startle Nicholls who was aware of the VICTORIA's shallow draft, but as he watched he saw the rocking increase until inches of water were shipped at each swing. Suddenly, with a roar of hissing steam, the boat's huge boiler broke
loose from its mounting and crashed through the bulwarks. Water poured through the opening and Nicholls was enwrapped in a cloud of live steam. With a slow, almost deliberate, movement the VICTORIA settled on her side. From both decks passengers were catapulted into the river. Nicholls heard the muffled screams of those trapped between decks. His slim shell was almost swamped in the wake as the VICTORIA went down.
      At least a hundred and eighty-one persons drowned on the May 24 excursion; of these, a
hundred and ten were children. It was the blackest day in London's history, the result of an almost incredible series of blunders that could easily have been averted.
      By nightfall the flags that bedecked London homes and businesses to mark the Queen's birthday were lowered to half-mast. For eight days afterward, the dead who had been hooked from the river were carried to their graves. Funeral directors started work before dawn and were still conducting services long after dark. The supply of coffins in London was exhausted the first day and one infant was buried in an adult casket.
      All London's nineteen thousand residents lost relatives or friends. One family, the Fryers, lost five members. By official decree a black armband became a Londoner's badge of mourning for a thirty-day period. Business firms and schools closed for two days. Most homes in the city were draped in mourning. One milliner advertised in the London Advertiser: "Family mournings at A. B. Powell and Co. who are showing a large range of crapes and mourning-dress material. Our prices are low. Millinery orders executed at the shortest
possible notice. Also dressmaking orders." Draymen charged double their usual funeral rates.
      The tragedy had its start in the fall of 1880 when George Parish, London secondhand merchant and moneylender, assumed control of the VICTORIA. Parish had supplied the capital for Captain Thomas Wastie to build her seven months earlier and the vessel was returned to Parish in lieu of mortgage payment when Wastie moved from London.
      Parish planned to use the VICTORIA as an excursion boat on the Thames between London and Springbank Park, four miles downstream. The 73-acre park with its landscaped grounds, refreshment booth and tavern was London's favorite picnic and play area.
In a deal with the Thames Navigation Company, Parish agreed to supply the 400-passenger VICTORIA and his services as manager in return for a one-third split of the summer's profit. On its part, the company was to put up its two boats, the FOREST CITY, a side-wheeler of 150-passenger capacity, and the PRINCESS LOUISE, another side-wheeler carrying three
hundred and fifty. The boats were to sail from the London dock at hourly intervals. A fifteen-cent ticket for the round trip entitled passengers to pick their own time and boat.
      Square on both ends, the VICTORIA was seventy-nine feet, six inches long, twenty-six feet in the beam and drew a scant two and a half feet of water. She had two decks. A glass wheelhouse occupied part of the upper deck. Parish had installed a new steel-plated boiler aft of the broad staircase connecting the decks. It was ten feet long, three and a
half feet in diameter and had ninety pipes inside as heating coils. It delivered sixty horsepower to the two stern wheels. Stacked beside the boiler was cordwood fuel. Parish had hired as captain Donald Rankin, a solid, mustached Londoner of forty-eight. Disaster struck the first day she sailed on the Thames River.
      Spanking white, the VICTORIA glided easily on her course on the first trip of that fateful May 24, 1881. Sailing time was 9 a.m. The crowd aboard was gay and laughing. Children ran wildly about the decks, shouting at farmers working along the shore and startling placid cows drinking at the river's edge. As she slipped into the dogleg turn under the Great Western Railway bridge a mile from the city, the passengers waved at travelers aboard a
Windsor-bound train.
Another mile downstream the boat put into the Woodland Cemetery dock where several people disembarked totend relatives' graves. Another mile and the VICTORIA stopped at Ward's Hotel where London's young sporting bloods gathered to enjoy cock fighting and drinking. At this time of day, however, the only passengers who got off were a few tavern employees who used the boat for commuting. The VICTORIA continued to the Springbank landing stage where Captain Rankin eased her into the jetty. When her passengers went ashore the VICTORIA returned to London for another load.
      Twice more she made the same round trip without incident. But then, at 3.30 p.m., as she was putting into the mooring basin at the London docks to stand by for her scheduled loading at five o'clock, Rankin saw the FOREST CITY smallest of the three-boat excursion fleet, aground on a shoal in midstream. The third boat, the PRINCESS LOUISE, was straining at the FOREST CITY with lines but she refused to budge.
      Skirting the sand bar and the two ships, Rankin brought the VICTORIA into the dock. Coming out of his wheelhouse, he shouted to the FOREST CITY's skipper to ask how long the boat had been mired. "She struck just after loading at three o'clock as we were backing away from the dock," the captain replied. "The PRINCESS LOUISE will stay to help float us free."
      The information upset Rankin. The three craft had carried thousands to the park. As yet, at almost 4:30 p. m. few had given a thought to returning. Now, with one boat grounded and a second trying to pull her free, the burden of taking the swollen crowds back to London would fall to the VICTORIA alone. At that moment Rankin was acutely aware his ship was constructed and licensed to carry no more than four hundred passengers.
      Instead of waiting for the scheduled 5 p.m. sailing he decided to cast off immediately. He first persuaded the skipper of the PRINCESS LOUISE to agree to follow him to Springbank instead of staying with the FOREST CITY.
      As the Victoria docked at Springbank several youths leaped from the landing and scrambled over the bulwarks. Then hundreds rushed aboard. Many had been patronizing the park's tavern. Rankin saw the crowd was not only large but rowdy. He assembled his six man crew and instructed them: "Walk about and tell people we are overcrowded. Tell them
the captain will not sail until many of them leave the boat. There will be more trips coming and all of them will get rides to London if they wait."
      "Not more than fifteen or twenty obeyed my commands," Rankin reported later. From the dock george Parish, the cruise manager, was signaling him to take the boat out. Packed to the gunwales with more than six hundred men, women and children, the VICTORIA left the Springbank dock.
      In its natural state the Thames had been a meandering stream nowhere wider than seventy five feet nor deeper than five. Steamboat navigation had been made possible when a dam was built across the Thames at Springbank in 1879, raising the water level. Londoners recalled the harmless stream and scoffed at suggestions that the deepened river could be dangerous. When the Victoria went into service Londoners joked that the job of a
farmer's son hired as a crew member was to shoo drinking cattle from the course. Other wits claimed the boat had once grounded herself while attempting to pass over a tin can lying on the river bed.
      John Drennan, a reporter for the London Advertiser, was standing on the VICTORIA's lower deck on her last voyage. "I don't like the way the boat is rocking," Drennan heard a young father with two small daughters by the hand complain to a friend. "What does it matter?" the friend asked. "If the boat capsizes, we can walk to shore even those two young ones of yours. Minutes later, Drennan saw the father, one of his daughters and the friend disappear into twelve feet of water.
      As the Victoria nosed out of Springbank under half steam, she was taking small rivulets of water over her lower deck but otherwise holding a reasonably steady course. Since she was already loaded past the danger point, Captain Rankin refused to put in at Ward's Hotel where several would-be patrons waited. He also refused to stop at Woodland Cemetery.
      The Boiler Broke Loose
      Just past Woodland high spirited youths on the upper deck started running from side to side. As more passengers took up the amusement the boat rocked ponderously, swinging
farther and farther with each surge. At the end of each swing water gushed over the lower deck and passengers scrambled to the opposite side to avoid wet feet.
      In his wheelhouse Rankin was terrified. Two hundred yards upstream the river took a sharp turn north under the Great Western Railway bridge and the current at the spot had thrown a sand spit into the stream. Rankin steered the ship toward the spit, determined to ground his boat and order the passengers off. The steamer was starting to respond when he felt a jar as if the bottom had scraped.
      At the same moment the crowd noticed two racing shells off the starboard bow and swarmed to the starboard rail to watch them. The VICTORIA dipped sharply enough to frighten her passengers, who tried to right her by pressing to her port side. Their weight
overbalanced her and she toppled port side down. The cant of the lower deck dislodged the boiler. It crashed through the bulwarks opening a hole through which water poured by the ton. Steam scalded several on the spot. The pine stanchions supporting the upper deck
crumpled and the whole superstructure collapsed, trapping the crowd on the lower level. It was 6 p.m.
      Until the moment of the disaster, not more than a handful of the six hundred passengers had a premonition of danger. One of those who could sense death in the air was Benjamin Eilber, a fourteen-year-old London schoolboy who had saved fifteen cents from his
allowance for his excursion fare. Eilber survived the wreck and is still actively managing his own general store in Ubly, Mich., at the age of eighty seven.
      "I was riding on the upper deck when the boat started to rock," he recalls.
"Some of the passengers thought the rolling motion was great fun; they even started to sing One More River to Cross. I went down to the lower deck so that if the worst came I would be nearer the water and could swim. I was standing beside the pile of cordwood fuel talking to a policeman and after several bad lurches we decided to swim for shore. As soon as we were in the water the boat took a violent lurch and started to go down. The policeman and I were far enough away by this time that we were not trapped in the falling wreckage."
      Eilber was a poor swimmer and barely made the seventy-five yards to land. He and the policeman gathered boards lying along the bank and flung them into the water to assist those struggling to shore. Eilber and a young friend started into the city with news of the disaster.
      Some of the first survivors ashore were met by the farmer on whose field they landed. Unfeelingly he ordered them from his land, But his bluster soon faded when John Mitcheltree, a strapping butcher, coolly surveyed him, called for a coil of rope and cast his eye about for a convenient branch to hang it from.
      At the time of the disaster, Frank Moore was driving a horse-drawn hack to London along the banks of the Thames. His passenger was John (later Sir John) Carling, London MP and founder of the Carling Brewing and Malting Company, who had spent the afternoon at Springbank. Moore later recalled: "We saw the VICTORIA on its way to the London wharf. There was a great merry crowd aboard and we could hear them laughing and singing and
having a gay time generally.
      "We lost sight of the boat -- just for a couple of minutes or so. There was a rise-a kind of hump in the contour of the land-that obstructed our view. And while we were driving around it we heard the most fearful, sudden, terrible wails and cries and shouts. It rings in my ears; the day was so beautiful and everything was so happy and all holiday-like, and then came those awful wails."
      On Carling's instructions, Moore ran the hack close to the riverbank. "The victims were fighting like mad things," Moore remembered. "The worst thing was to see mothers and fathers trying to reach down and pull up their children who had been crowded under and
were drowning. Then the parents beat and pulled each other down. They were walking-yes, walking-on each other!" Moore attributed the heavy loss of life to the fantastic scramble.
      Carling and the hack driver helped many survivors ashore. At Carling's suggestion Moore used the hack to carry several women to their homes. Moore drove to the city so fast that
one of his two horses died that night.
      Two sisters who had made the excursion cruise alone, nine-year-old Henrietta and twelve-year-old Mabel Hogan, were hurled from the upper deck into the water. Mabel sank immediately. Henrietta lunged and grasped her by a ribbon about her throat, but the child was stunned and could do nothing to support herself. She sank again before her sister's eyes. A priest returned the hysterical youngster, still clutching the sodden ribbon, to her parents. The boat's pursers, Alfred Wastie and Herbert Parish, sixteen-year-old sons of the builder and the cruise manager, perished in the wreck.
      By 6.30, news of the disaster had reached the city and started a stampede to the scene. One of the first to reach the river was a robust butcher, John Courtis, who worked in a shop near the London wharf. Courtis threw off his shoes and shirt and waded into the water, scooping up bodies of victims and carting them ashore. Many of the ship's passengers had saved themselves by clinging to the wreck of the VICTORIA until some of the congestion in the water cleared. Courtis helped many of these ashore. While he pulled the bodies of friends and acquaintances from the river, Courtis was spared the horror of finding one of his own family but was himself a victim of the VICTORIA; the exertions of his work coupled with the cold water gave him pneu monia and he died two weeks later.
      Searching the Rows of Dead
      Five minutes after the VICTORIA overturned, the PRINCESS LOUISE, which had followed her to Springbank, came in sight. Her captain ran her ashore and discharged his load: -
      The PRINCESS LOUISE was turned into a floating morgue and by 10 p.m. a hundred and fifty-seven bodies were removed from the river and placed aboard. It was an eerie scene with petroleum-soaked torches and huge bonfires throwing grotesque shadows as workers toiled to load the gruesome cargo. Police Chief W. T. T. Wiliams had mounted a three-man detail on the morgue boat to prevent looting or removal of bodies before identification could be made.
      John Mustil, a blacksmith of immense build, searched the riverbank in vain for the body of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Priscilla. Now he mounted the gangway of the PRINCESS LOUISE to look for her there. He thrust aside constable William Hodge and searched the rows of dead. He found her lying beside the body of an old man whose arm had fallen loosely about her neck. Tenderly, Mustill lifted the child's body to his arms and walked from the boat.
      Another frantic parent was Jake Brown, a piano tuner. That morning his twelve-year-old son John had begged to be allowed to spend the day at the park. Against his better judgment Brown had sent the boy off with a picnic lunch under his arm. Brown hurled himself into the recovery work and rushed to see each body as it was retrieved from the water; John was not to be found. Throughout the night Brown stayed, whipping his tired body to work.
      At dawn he returned home and was pouring out his grief to his wife when the boy walked in, dirty, disheveled, but showing no sign of having been in the water. When taut nerves calmed, the story came out: as he set out that morning, the boy had changed his mind, decided to go by train to Port Stanley, had missed the last train home and had walked the entire twenty-five miles to London.
While retrieving of bodies proceeded, many of the rescued found themselves re-living the incidents leading to the disaster. Most agreed that had the upper-deck crowd not seen the rowing race, the tragedy might have been averted.
Harry Nicholls and Michael Reidy, the unwitting triggers of that final rocking of the VICTORIA, were ardent oarsmen, both members of the Forest City Rowing Club. During the afternoon of May 24 they had been practicing on the stretch of river between the clubhouse dock adjoining the London steamer wharf, and Springbank. Most of the afternoon's rowing had been routine training but occasionally they would stage impromptu races. They were heading for the clubhouse when the VICTORIA wobbled up just at six o'clock. "Let's give them a race, Reidy shouted and the two shells streaked upstream. The two scullers were horrified as they watched the VICTORIA heel over and collapse. They swung their shells around and glided close to the wreck. Each man pulled survivors into his light craft and stroked for shore. More than fifteen were saved in this manner.
      A Second Son Drowned
      Those passengers who were thrown clear had the best chance to save them selves. John Fitzpatrick, a railway baggageman, saved his wife, daughter and baby granddaughter by taking a woman under each arm, grasping the baby's clothes in his teeth and then floating and flutter-kicking his way to shore. A five-year-old girl saved herself by grabbing hold of Thomas Atwood's long white beard and being towed to safety.
      The collapse of the boat was a complete surprise to James Perkins. Listening to the chatter of his eight-year-old son, Jimmy, Perkins was caught off guard. He and his son were thrown from their lower-deck seats and were separated in the water. Perkins saw a
boy he thought was his son bobbing about several feet from him. An excellent swimmer, he reached the boy in two strokes. Grabbing the child under the chin, he fought his way to
shore. Pulling the lad up the bank, he laid him on the grass and screamed in anguish; he had rescued the wrong boy. Jimmy, whose body was not found until two days later, was the second son Perkins had lost in drowning accidents. Two years earlier an older boy had perished.
      The PRINCESS LOUISE returned to London at 10 p.m. with her cargo of a hundred and fifty-seven dead. Men worked on through the night and another eighteen bodies had been re covered by eight o'clock the following morning. Another four were pulled to the surface that day. Artillery pieces from the London Field Battery were fired over the wreck in the belief that explosions would raise sunken bodies. The experiment was a failure.
      During the next five days rowboats with grappling hooks and pike poles probed the river depths for more victime; the Springbank dam was opened to lower the water and help the search. Two more bodies were brought ashore. The total reached a hundred and eighty-one. A medical student, writing to a London paper, hotly denied the rumor that students had stolen bodies for dissection.
      On May 25, London began to bury her dead. A note in the London Free Press told of hackmen raising their customary rates, of liverymen charging five dollars for one and a half hours service and of draymen demanding "all sort of exorbitant fees, at least one getting as high as ten dollars for two hours." One wagon owner hit on a grisly C.O.D. plan. He spent May 25 hauling from the disaster scene bodies of victims he recognized. When he delivered the body to the victim's family, he would claim a fee. In one instance he drew up in front of a victim's home to find that the family was absent at the river, searching their son. Undismayed, the wagon driver lifted the body from his cart, pushed it through an open window and left.
      The funerals of twenty-three-year-old Willie Glass and his nineteen-year-old sweetheart, Fanny Cooper, were held from the separate homes but blended into one procession on the way to the cemetery. The young couple were to have been married two weeks from the day of the wreck. Today in Mount Pleasant Cemetery they rest in adjoining graves. A single headstone supporting a tall pillared arch covers the graves. The inscription, "They
were lovely in their lives," begins on one pillar and continues, "and in death they were not divided," on the other.
      A hastily formed citizens' committee met on May 25 to plan a suitable memorial. John Carling and John Labatt, also a brewer, were members. First plans favored a stone monument in a city park but the apparent need of many families whose breadwinners had
died in the disaster wrote an end to this. One committee member commented, "The families of the victims are crying for bread. How ridiculous to offer them a stone!"
      Some months later a subscription, taken among the parents who lost children in the disaster, raised a sum to erect a small brick building on the grounds of the Protestant Orphans' Home in north London. For fifty years the cottage was used by the orphanage
as an infirmary and school. A lintel stone above the front door carried the simple inscription: "In Memoriam, May, 1881." Twenty years ago, when the orphanage sold some of its property, the cottage was razed. Today the only public monument to the disaster is a
small cairn erected in 1916 by the London and Middlesex Historical Society at the site of the sinking.
      Public outcry and official reaction to the tragedy condemned the FOREST CITY. Her rotting hulk lies on the river bed at the old landing stage in Springbank Park where she was tied up. For years the huge steel-plated boiler which crashed through the Victoria's hull, rested on the river bed beside her. Several generations of small boys used it as a diving tower while swimming.
      On June 1, seven days after the VICTORIA capsized, Coroner Dr. J. R. Flock assembled a jury to enquire into the disaster. The case for the jury's consideration was the manner in which Fanny Cooper met her death. Incredibly the verdict did not mention Fanny Cooper nor any of the other victims. Instead, the jury parceled out responsibility for the wreck to Captain Rankin, george Parish, the VICTORIA's engineer and the Steamboat Inspector who passed her as fit.
      In part the verdict read "We do find that the capsizing of the steamer VICTORIA was caused by water in the hold. We believe this water leaked from a hole in the bottom from some unknown cause. We suppose that this injury was caused by coming in contact with a stone or snag in the river. (At the time of the wreck, Captain Rankin said the boat jarred just before she capsized. Subsequent examination of the raised hull confirmed that the hull
had been punctured.) We are also convinced that the boiler was not securely fastened and that the stanchions supporting the hurricane and promenade decks were too slender and made chiefly of pine and not properly braced."
      The jury found the ship's engineer guilty of neglecting to inform Rankin of the boat's condition. Rankin, too, was censured for not inspecting his boat before leaving Springbank. But in both these criticisms the jury overlooked testimony which proved that Rankin as captain, was well aware of his ship's condition: he had refused to sail with the overloaded ship until ordered to do so by Parish. In his turn, Parish was criticized for not hiring a wheelsman. The jury felt this lack took Rankin's full attention from the safety of his ship
and passengers. The steamship engineer was found at fault for his inspection of the boat.
      The verdict found little favor with the press. One of the sharpest criticisms came from a Toronto Globe editorial: "The verdict of the coroner's jury is by no means satisfactory. The
death of Miss Cooper was entirely ignored and it is impossible to discover whether the jury believed she perished as the result of carelessness or negligence of individuals. The capsizing of the boat is said to have been caused by water in the hold, a finding that in our opinion is very ill-supported by the evidence."
      As Rankin and Parish were leaving the courtroom, they were arrested on charges of manslaughter but released on $3,000 bail each. The case came before the Middlesex Grand Jury at the fall assizes which opened in London on Sept. 10. On Sept. 22, the grand jury
handed down its verdict: it refused to indict the two men. Rankin and Parish were freed.
      Almost overlooked at the time was the most curious aspect of the whole case. It concerned the inspection of the VICTORIA and the subsequent issuance of a license for her operation as a passenger-carrying vessel.
      On May 22, 1880, while Captain Wastie was still operating her, the VICTORIA was inspected by a government man from Toronto. Wastie was given verbal clearance permitting him to sail for the season. Through a governmental mix-up, the actual certificate of seaworthiness did not arrives until October of the same year although the expiry date was clearly marked as May 22, 1881-two days before the disaster. By the time the license arrived, Parish had assumed control of the boat.
      On the morning of the wreck, the collector of customs at London approached Parish at the city docks and demanded to see his license. "I have it at my home but I assure you it is in
order," Parish replied. Later, his defense was that he assumed the certificate was good for one year from the time he had received it; he thought it expired in October 1881. Was Parish honestly mistaken about the license or did he know the facts and ignored them ? The Coroner's Jury made no effort to find out. But the plain truth was staring them in the face: When the VICTORIA, loaded with six hundred passengers went down with the loss of a hundred and eighty-one lives, she was sailing illegally.
      Macleans Magazine
      May 28, 1955


Item Type
Reason: capsized
Lives: 181
Remarks: Total loss
Date of Original
Local identifier
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.98339 Longitude: -81.23304
William R. McNeil
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Victoria (Steamboat), capsized, 24 May 1881