The day of the 4 April 1817 began just like any other April day – but that wasn’t how the morning would turn out to be. The day was. in fact, Good Friday and Wright’s ‘Norwich & Yarmouth Steam Packet’ was preparing to take on twenty-two passengers, for an Easter trip to Great Yarmouth, some 24 river miles down-stream on the coast of Norfolk. The date of April 4, 1817 was also the sixth anniversary of the opening of Foundry Bridge from where the steam packet had regularly sailed ever since 10 August 1813. It was also the place where, during the construction of the Bridge, a ten-year-old boy drowned. That Good Friday morning was another tragic incident when, this time, the steam packet was lost.
At the appointed moment on the clock and with all passengers on board, the crew of John Wright’s boat undertook to ‘cast off’, but had hardly moved twenty yards from Foundry Bridge and its regular mooring there, when a huge explosion of its engine’s boiler took place. That moment claimed the lives of nine men, women and children and caused many other injuries of varying severity on board. Of the twenty-two passengers on board, five men, three women and one child were killed instantly. A number of other people, from Acle, Norwich, North Creake and Yarmouth had fractured arms and legs and were taken to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital for treatment of those injuries, which included some loss of limbs and where one person died. The remaining seven escaped with minor injuries. It was said at the time that when the tragedy happened ‘the River Wensum turned red and many citizens cried’.
Those city citizens who heard that explosion rushed to the scene out of initial curiosity, but for some, curiosity quickly turned to a desire to help – from the very moment they witnessed the terrible scene of destruction and carnage that greeted them. The Norwich Mercury of the day reported:
“One of those unfortunate accidents which attend even the best arranged establishments that carry with them a certain though remote danger, occurred yesterday morning, and we state the extensive calamity with much acute pain. The horrible spectacle of eight mangled carcases, is yet before our eyes. These are the miserable victims of the bursting of the steam boiler in the packet which sails from Foundry bridge. Just after the boat has started, it had not gone twenty yards, when the tremendous explosion took place. The vessel was rent to atoms, so that little remains entire, from the stern to the engine room, except the keel and flooring,”
“Twenty-two passengers appear to have been on board. The bodies of eight are found – five men and three women, one child is missing, and six have been sent to hospital in a wounded state: six escaped unhurt. One person later died in hospital of their injuries.”
“Of these, one man was standing over the boiler when the explosion happened. It is said Major Mason was another, whose clothes were torn by the shock, but was otherwise uninjured. The third was an infant, two months old, and the little innocent was discovered at the bottom of the vessel in a profound sleep, after the removal of the dreadful wreck”.
“The boiler is a cylindrical vessel, playing fore and aft the vessel, about eight ft long and four ft in diameter, made of wrought iron, excepting one end, which laid towards the stem of the vessel, and is of cast iron. In consequence of the stress of stream being greater than the boiler was capable of sustaining, the cast iron part of the boiler gave way, and flew in a direction towards the stem of the vessel.”
Those who died were later named at a Court of Mayoralty which examined the cause of the accident. Such was the impact that the tragedy had on the city that its citizens raised a princely sum of £350 through a public subscription for the injured and the families of those who lost their lives. They were: John Bleasey (aged 4), Mary Bleasey (40) his mother, William Battledur, William Richardson, John Marron, Richard Squire, Thomas Luise, Elizabeth Stevens, Diana Smith.
Soon after the Foundry Bridge tragedy, a replacement packet was introduced on the river. It was worked by four horses, as in a thrashing machine with the animals walking on a path 18 feet in diameter. The vessel itself was propelled from six to seven miles an hour, as wind and tide dictated. However, this particular packet did sail for long; improved steam packets were soon introduced which went from Norwich to Yarmouth daily.
Being the way of all newspapers for having a ‘nose for a good story’, the Norwich Mercury picked up on the fact that the steam packet owner, John Wright, had bought a French boat and fitted it with a steam boiler. They reported that Wright had been challenged to a race but ‘someone’, maybe with a wager place on the outcome of the race – who knows, had strapped down the steam escape value to make the boat go faster. This was to determine that the incident that day had not been an accident and, as a result, John Wright had to pay compensation to the injured which made him destitute. The incident was later raised in Parliament where, under the heading of ‘STEAM BOATS’, Hansard recorded in ‘HC Deb 08 May 1817 vol 36 cc271-2’:
Mr. Harvey said, the House must all have heard of the unfortunate accident which happened some time ago at Norwich, when so many persons lost their lives in consequence of the explosion of the boiler of a Steam Packet. The cause of that explosion was owing, he understood, to the boiler not being of a right construction. It was from its being made of cast iron, and not of cast iron only, but cast iron mixed with other metals, which greatly increased the danger. As there were at present a great number of steam vessels in the different rivers of the country, and several other steam vessels were building, it became a matter of great importance to inquire into the means by which these vessels could be so constructed as to be attended with the least danger to the lives of the passengers. The hon. gentleman concluded with moving, “That a committee be appointed to consider of the means of preventing the mischief of explosion from happening on board steam boats, to the danger or destruction of his majesty’s subjects on board such boats.”
Mr. Curwen said, the accident at Norwich could not have happened, had it not been for gross neglect with respect to the management of the safety valve. It was not from any deficiency in the materials of which the boiler was composed.
Mr. W. Smith said, the accident was owing to the safety valve being overloaded. The object of the committee should be, by examining engineers, to learn how the safety of the passengers might be best secured. It might be impossible to prevent the bursting of the boiler, but the boiler might burst without causing those inconveniences with which the bursting of cast-iron boilers was attended.
Mr. Thompson expressed his hope that the inquiry in a committee might remove the alarm of the country.
The motion was then agreed to.
Steam packets were suspended by parliamentary decree for extra safety measures to be carried out nationally; existing packets were replaced by ones’ worked by horses, as on a threshing machine where the animals trundled on a circular on-board path, which was about 18ft in diameter. By this means, the vessels were propelled 6 – 7 mph, as wind and tide dictated. However, this type of packet did not run for long before improved steam packets were introduced.
Banner Photo: A picture by artist John Thirtle: Boat Builder’s Yard, near the Cow’s Tower, Norwich, c 1812. Picture: Norfolk Museums Service