Film History Essentials: The Launch of H.M.S. Albion (1898)

What it’s about:

Filming from a small boat on the river, Robert Paul captures views of the crowds gathered to see the launch of the H.M.S. Albion. He gets a distant shot of the ship sliding out into the Thames, followed by a confusing scene of smaller boats crowded together to pull people from the water.

Why it’s essential:

21 June 1898 was a bright, clear day at Blackwall, London. Some 30,000 people had gathered for the launch of the battleship HMS Albion, just completed by the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company. The ship, which had been under construction for a year and a half, was the yard’s first project for the Royal Navy since the 1880s. At over 420 feet in length, with a displacement of over 13,000 tons, she would be the largest warship ever launched in the Thames. The atmosphere was festive. The Duke and Duchess of York (the future rulers, and grandparents of Elizabeth II, see right) were in attendance. Local schools were closed, although it was a Tuesday, to allow children to witness the event.

Three film crews were present to capture the scene: Robert Paul and Birt Acres, once partners and now somewhat bitter rivals, were set up close to the action, on boats out in the river. E.P. Prestwich, an associate of William Friese-Greene, had chosen a position high up, across the river, were he could capture a sweeping shot and the crowds choking the banks of the Thames and crammed into boats clogging the waterway to the ship’s starboard side. The size of the crowd far exceeded the available space for the best views, prompting some spectators to look for additional space.

One such spot was a small, rickety bridge crossing a little creek that ran in from the river, separating two different areas of the yard. Described as “flimsy” and “makeshift,” the bridge was certainly not meant to accommodate the 200-300 people who crowded onto it. In fact, the bridge had been marked off as dangerous, but reportedly many of the people who had decided it was a choice vantage point, mostly dock workers and their families, jeered at the few police present when they were warned to get off.

Meanwhile, the Duchess of York at last stepped forward to christen the ship, taking three swings before the champagne bottle broke. As the Albion slid back into the water, a large wave rushed back in its wake and swept over the overloaded bridge, causing it to partially collapse, and washing most of the occupants into the filthy water of the Thames at a depth of 10-12 feet.

This was the moment when the noise of the cheering crowd was the loudest, and all eyes were on the ship itself. As a result, even people standing nearby didn’t immediately notice what had happened. The cries of the people in the water were overwhelmed by all of the other noise. Many of the upper-class people in attendance, including the Duke and Duchess, departed without having heard of the commotion at all.

As those nearest began to take notice and some idea of what was going on rippled outward, a belated rescue effort began. Bystanders who could swim dove in to haul out anyone they could. Small boats that were nearby (including those carrying both Paul and Acres) rushed to help pull people from the water. The scene was horrific and chaotic, and those who dove into the water risked their lives repeatedly to do so. With so many struggling people, most of whom couldn’t swim, some rescuers reported nearly being pulled under, and the water was full of hazardous debris, from the bridge and from other detritus carried along by the wave.

In the end, thirty-eight people were drowned: 12 children (the youngest only three months old), and the rest mostly women, likely due to their heavier and more restrictive clothing. We have a glimpse of what the rescue efforts looked like, thanks to Paul’s camera, which continued running as those on his boat provided aid. Acres had plenty to say about that in the press, indirectly criticizing his rival by noting that he had not been able to film the tragedy because he was too busy helping with the rescue. He also suppressed his footage of the launch, presumably believing it was in poor taste to exhibit it.

Paul seems to have had no such reservations. However, he did claim that his camera had continued to film automatically while he, too, aided in the rescue, and that the earnings from exhibitions of his film were going to charity. The two men had just prompted one of the first debates on the ethics of cinema journalism. No one seems to have taken issue with Prestwich’s footage, but he neither captured any part of the tragedy, nor was he in a position to help. His view of the launch can be seen here.

Finally, although this was a terrible tragedy, meriting a tone of somber gravity, I would be remiss if I did not note that the event was also commemorated in verse by the Scottish poet William McGonagall (see right), the worst poet in British history. His 17-stanza poem is actually full of a lot of specific and detailed description, but . . . Well, it rather defies description, so here’s an excerpt:

’Twas in the year of 1898, and on the 21st of June,
The launching of the Battleship Albion caused a great gloom,
Amongst the relatives of many persons who were drowned in the River Thames,
Which their relatives will remember while life remains.
Oh! little did the Duchess of York think that day
That so many lives would be taken away
At the launching of the good ship Albion,
But when she heard of the catastrophe she felt woebegone.
Part of them were the wives and daughters of the dockyard hands,
And as they gazed upon them they in amazement stands;
And several bodies were hauled up quite dead.
Which filled the onlookers’ hearts with pity and dread.
There’s one brave man in particular I must mention,
And I’m sure he’s worthy of the people’s attention.
His name is Thomas Cooke, of No. 6 Percy Road, Canning Town,
Who’s name ought to be to posterity handed down,
Because he leapt into the River Thames and heroically did behave,
And rescued five persons from a watery grave.
Her Majesty has sent a message of sympathy to the bereaved ones in distress,
And the Duke and Duchess of York have sent 25 guineas I must confess.
And £1000 from the Directors of the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company.
Which I hope will help to fill the bereaved one’s hearts with glee.

And in conclusion I will venture to say,
That accidents will happen by night and by day;
And I will say without any fear,
Because to me it appears quite clear,
That the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

The Albion Battleship Calamity

Why you should see it:

The Launch of H.M.S. Albion is nearly two minutes long, but only about 20 seconds of it shows the actual launch (0:56-1:16), and you almost have to know what you’re looking at to recognize it for what it is. The film begins with what seems to be a traveling shot of the Albion already in the water, presumably taken after all the excitement had died down. The next 35 seconds are views of the crowds lining the banks, and the other boats in the water, as Paul’s boat approached the site of the launch. The woman standing in front of the camera at the beginning of this shot (who moves aside, apparently by direction of the cameraman) is Paul’s wife, Ellen (see left).

There’s something really raw and dynamic about all of this footage, but particularly that of the launch and the rescue efforts. Part of this is just that the camera is constantly in motion. But also, the launch itself is filmed through a crowd of people, giving it a feeling of presence and immediacy, like you’re standing among them. There is a great depth of field to the shot, as well.

Finally, the last shot is just an incredible glimpse of a moment of crisis. The “rescue” portion of the recovery effort seems to be mostly over, and the men are gravely scouring the water for casualties. My eye is drawn to a woman near the center of the frame from about 1:21-1:34. She is sitting down, and she may be soaked, but it’s difficult to tell. She seems to be staring blankly and rocking slowly back and forth. A man seems to comfort her, or perhaps he is steadying them both as he steps around her. Had she just been pulled from the water, or is she mourning some terrible loss? Both? The passage of time lends an emotional distance to accounts of tragedies like this, but the power of a moving image can give it an immediacy that it is hard to ignore.


~ by Jared on March 23, 2023.

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