When a ship hits the seabed you would think that its sailing days were over. No use to anyone but to be colonised by seaweed and become a home for crabs, fish and other sea-life. Not so with the SS London.
The London was built by the Dundee shipbuilding firm Gourlay Brothers & Co in 1856 and designed by Robert Simpson of Tayport. Although Dundee City Archives holds the plans for some ships built by Gourlays, sadly those for the London have not survived. We do know that she was launched on 18th April 1856 and was 225 feet long. Only Gourlay’s third ship off the line, she was commissioned by the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company as a cargo ship for the London route (hence the name) – the fourth D, P & L ship to bear that name. Generally described as ‘beautiful’, the iron steamer was apparently an impressive sight.
On the 18th November 1865, the London was readying to sail from the Earl Grey Dock. Although she had room for 40 passengers, she was only taking 19 down to London this time. She was however stuffed to the brim with cargo. Everything ranging from cloth and machinery to potatoes and confectionery from Keillers were being loaded into the hold. There was even a drove of pigs heading down south, along with a pedigree pointer dog.
At 3 o’clock she set sail. Heading out to sea she kept to the north side of the Tay. From the south came the Harvest Queen, laden with coal from Tyneside. The Harvest Queen, kept to the south side of the river. But the angles weren’t right. It soon became clear that the two steam ships were on a collision course. Around 4 o’clock, just off the coast of Monifieth, the Harvest Queen careened into the side of the SS London. The damage was extensive and the London was on the bed of the Tay in 15 minutes. Luckily all 19 passengers and 32 staff made it off the ship. Only one man was injured when a piece of luggage fell on his leg. Sadly the same can’t be said for the animals on board. The pigs were drowned and the body of the pointer was found by fishermen the next day. The Harvest Queen managed to limp to Newcombe Bank on the Tayport side.
At the time, the loss of the London and her cargo was thought to be the most expensive accident on the Tay. It was estimated to have resulted in losses on £25,000 to £30,000 – around £20 million today.
Her damaged hulk lay at the bottom of the busy shipping lane into the port of Dundee. At the low tide she was clearly visible. She couldn’t stay there. Despite pleas and offers to pay expenses, the Admiralty refused to help move the wreck. DP&L engaged a Mr Page to raise the ship but his attempt failed. In late 1866, the Admiralty threatened to blow up the wreck to clear the channel. Convinced that the ship still had value, Mr Couper of DP&L asked Henry Gourlay to come up with a scheme to raise the London. Gourlay devised a method of sealing the ship and pumping her empty during the low spring tide. He engaged the SS Queen, using her engine to power his pumps. During the first attempt the Queen was dragged close to the London and nearly sunk herself. On the second attempt they were beaten by the tide. It was third time lucky, however, on the shortest day of the year, 22nd December 1866. After 13 months on the riverbed, the London, covered in seaweed, was towed to the Gourlay yards.
Amazingly, despite a 12 foot by 14 foot hole, the ship was repaired and went back into service. She was refitted in 1872, gaining a bigger capacity. She continued to make the run down to London, and also made trips out to St Petersburg. In 1892 her name was changed to the Hull. Her bad luck wasn’t up just yet. On 20th January 1897 she was beached just off Tayport after colliding with the SS Alice Taylor. Again she was repaired and went back to work as a cargo ship. She was eventually broken up in 1910, after 53 years on the sea and 1 year under it.
Dundee City Archives holds Registers of Shipping for Dundee (CE70 – 1824-1931), Montrose (CE53 – 1824-1911) and Arbroath (CE80 – 1844-1987). The registers give details about the size and style of the ship, the names of the owners and the fate of the ship. If you would like to arrange a visit to view the shipping registers, or would like more information about the records, please contact us.