I mentioned before that among my surprise gifts from a friend who had finished with them, were the 2006/7 editions (40 and 41) of the magazine “Topsail” of the Society for Sailing Barge Research. Those of you who were members of SSBR back in 2006 may recall edition 40 for being jammed full of articles and items about fire. There is “The Night the Thames Caught Fire” by Richard Walsh, “Burning Ambition” and “Before and After the Fire” (both these two are photo features) and “Some Old Flames” by Capt. Mark Boyle, to name but a few.
It was the Thames piece which caught my eye and then had me gripped. It is the amazing story of the Sailing Barge Dorcas, in 1900 a hoy barge making regular runs to Sandwich for the Sandwich Hoy Company and on this occasion loaded above and below decks with barrels of petrol. The lack of attention to safety, says Richard Walsh, was “incomprehensible”. The coal range was alight in the aft cabin for cooking, there was a stove for’d, navigation lamps were lit, there was “probably a binnacle oil lamp” and cabin lights; “collectively enough naked flame to create an enormous risk for barge, cargo and crew” but they had been transporting petrol this way for 20 years without incident.
With 20/20 hindsight it seems almost inevitable that there was a huge explosion, a massive fire and many more blasts as the cargo started to go up. The barge had been heading downstream and now, with skipper and crew blown overboard or having abandoned ship in a bit of a hurry went drifting off down the Thames on a strong ebb with a tailwind, burning furiously like a fire ship in the days of the old ‘Man of War’ naval battles. It bounced off Woolwich Ferry landing stage setting fire to a steam ferry, a sailing barge, 7 dumb barges and drove on surrounded by burning river towards Woolwich Arsenal wharf setting fire to ten fire engines, 2 warehouses a stationery store and various railway trucks. It took just over an hour to sink. It’s an amazing story and well worth either a read if you can get hold of it, or a re-read if it’s sitting gathering dust on your book shelves. Well done to Richard Walsh, the SSBR and the editorship of Topsail.