24 May 2010

Victoria Day Poetry Disaster

Poems of James McIntyre (Ingersoll, ON: Chronicle, 1889)

Returning to James McIntyre – for the final time, I think – this poem inspired by the 1881 capsizing of the Victoria. The horrific event took place 129 years ago today, by sad coincidence Victoria Day, on Canada's River Thames, just outside London, Ontario. It remains one of the country's greatest maritime disasters, and like so any of the others was entirely avoidable. One likes to think that with current regulations such a thing could not happen. Perhaps. But on 24 May 1881, no law prevented a poorly-designed paddle-wheeler from accepting 600 passengers, 200 more than capacity. The captain, Donald Rankin, seemed able; he recognized the vessel was in trouble. His attempt to beach the Victoria was thwarted by a race that had begun by two members of the London City Rowing Club. Enthusiastic spectators rushed starboard to watch, the boiler rolled off its mount, the upper deck collapsed and hundreds of passengers were thrown in the river.

All took place within 30 metres of shore, yet at least 182 people died – infants and children who couldn't swim, ladies who were pulled to the riverbed by their long, heavy dresses.

The loss of life approached one percent of the population of London.

It was Victoria's 62nd birthday. She sent her condolences.

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