Launch of HMS Albion (partially found footage of battleship launch and subsequent disaster; 1898)

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This article has been tagged as NSFL due to its disturbing subject matter.


Image from EP Prestwich's film showing HMS Albion entering the River Thames.

Status: EP Prestwich and Robert W. Paul's films - Found / Birt Acres and Philipp Wolff's films - Lost

On 21st June 1898, battleship HMS Albion was launched at Blackwall in the River Thames. While the ship departed safely, she inadvertently triggered a major disaster when a wave she produced caused a nearby gangway to collapse, resulting in over 30 people drowning. The launch was filmed by pioneers EP Prestwich and Robert W. Paul, who distributed their productions. However, it is also known that Birt Acres recorded footage with two cameras, but elected not to publicly release his work following the disaster. German company Philipp Wolff is also confirmed to have filmed the launch and subsequent disaster.


HMS Albion was a Royal Navy pre-dreadnaught battleship, and the fifth vessel designated with that name.[1][2][3] Laid down by the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company on 3rd December 1896, she would not be fully commissioned until June 1901.[2] She was one of six new battleships that were initially tasked to defend the China Station, located within the Pacific lands controlled by the British Empire.[1][2][3] After performing this role for her first few years, she would later see plenty of action during the First World War.[2][3]

After protecting cruiser squadrons in the Atlantic from potential German attacks, her main role was during the Dardanelles campaign.[2][3] The Dardanelles campaign was integral to the Gallipoli campaign, which aimed to conquer the Ottoman straits.[4][5][3] If successful, the bombardment of Constantinople could commence, theoretically leading to defeating Turkey and subsequently knock the Ottoman Empire out of the War.[5][4][3] It could have also led to boosting Russia's war effort, undermine Germany's, secure Middle Eastern oil, and convince Greece and Bulgaria to join the Allies.[4][5] The Dardanelles campaign saw HMS Albion and other Royal Navy, French Navy, and Imperial Russian Navy ships attempt to muscle through the Dardanelles, including via bombardment.[2][4][3] Occurring from 19th February to 18th March 1915, the campaign was decisively won by the Ottoman Empire, as its defences, especially its naval mines, inflicted heavy losses on the Allies.[4][3] HMS Albion also suffered extensive damage from Ottoman artillery, but survived the failed campaign.[2][3] This proved to be her main campaign, as after participating in a blockade within the Bulgarian and Greek coasts, she was relegated back to being a guard ship.[2] After the War, she was decommissioned in August 1919, and scrapped on 6th January 1920.[2]

Prelude to Launch

By June 1898, enough construction work had been completed for HMS Albion's official launch.[6][7][1][2] This launch would be historic in London as she was then the largest warship to ever be launched on the River Thames, with her also becoming the first Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company-constructed Royal Navy battleship for more than ten years.[8][1][7] To commemorate the occasion, Mary of Teck, the Duchess of York and wife of future King George V, was to christen the ship.[6][7][8][1] Around 30,000 attended to witness the occasion; the occasion was seen as a holiday for many workmen and their wives.[6][8][9][1] Also among them were plenty of London schoolchildren who also received time off for this very event.[8][1]

A major ship launch was considered a viable prospect for the fledgling filmmaking industry.[10][11][12][13] No fewer than four film pioneers were on-hand to capture the event: Prestwich Manufacturing Company's E.P. Prestwich;[14][10] German company Philipp Wolff;[15][16][10] Robert W. Paul for his Paul's Animatograph Works;[17][10][16][11][8] and Birt Acres as intended for The Northern Photographic Works.[18][16][10][11] Paul and Acres had previously entered a short-lived partnership from 1894 to 1895, producing thirteen films together.[19][20][18][17][10] But by 1898, they had long transitioned into a bitter rivalry, the pair frequently attacking each other in the photographic press.[20][18][17][10] Likely considering his specialism in actuality films, Acres was selected by Thames Ironworks as their official filmmaker.[21][10][18] Therefore, he was able to place two cameras that were ideally positioned to capture the christening and subsequent launch respectively.[12] Meanwhile, Paul would film the launch on a nearby tug, his motivation being to accumulate a series of maritime events.[9][10][11][8] Prestwich aimed to record his from a high spot around 150 feet above the Thames, in 35 and 60 mm formats.[8][10][9] It is unclear regarding the location Philipp Wolff recorded their footage.[10]

The Launch and Disaster

On 21st June 1898, the Duchess of York christened HMS Albion.[9][6][8][1][7][2] It took three attempts to break the champagne bottle against the ship's bow, an ominous sign of bad luck according to some mariners.[8][1][9] Despite this, HMS Albion departed and proceeded to slide down the slipway into the Thames.[6][9][1][7][8] Under normal circumstances, this was a safe and successful launch for the battleship, further demonstrating Britain's pride in its growing naval fleet as the large crowd cheered upon her launch down the slipway.[6][7][9] Prestwich captured HMS Albion sliding into the Thames, and ceased recording following this.[22][9][8]

While the ship was safe, she produced a massive wave upon entering the narrow Thames.[6][9][7][8][1] The wave reached a gangway with around 200 people situated on it.[6][9][7][8][1] According to eyewitnesses, the gangway was temporarily erected near a small creek.[6] Made of wood, this makeshift bridge was reportedly not designed to hold the weight of so many spectators, having also become dilapidated.[9][6][7][8][1] Police had warned people not to crowd onto the structure, with cardboard "danger" signs placed nearby.[6][9][7] However, these warnings were ignored for many were eager to obtain a grand view of the launch.[6][9] Thus, when the wave struck the wooden structure, the overloaded gangway collapsed into the river.[6][9][8][1][7] Suddenly, at least 100 people, consisting mainly of women and children, were desperately attempting to keep their heads above water and sought urgent assistance.[9][6][7] Not everyone initially came to their rescue, as the horns from the ships proved to be louder than the resulting cries for help.[9][6]

In the wake of the disaster, some people were hailed as heroes.[9][6] Among those included workmen who valiantly dived into the Thames to rescue some women and their babies.[9][6] 25 casualties were successfully revived, with a Mr Robinson of the St. John's Ambulance Society credited for saving four lives.[9] Boats nearby HMS Albion aided in rescue efforts, one noted to have rescue 50.[9] Meanwhile, Paul claimed that his boat saved 25 people.[21][10] He elected to continue filming the ordeal, though later wrote that "no consideration of the result was allowed to interfere with the rescue".[21][11][10] In total, 24 people were awarded bronze medals by the Royal Humane Society for their rescue efforts.[6] But despite their best endeavours, none were able to prevent between 34 to 39 people succumbing to drowning, in one of the Thames' worst disasters during a peacetime period.[7][6][9][8][1] The oldest victim was 64, while the youngest was only three months old.[8][1] It is also believed several women drowned as their heavy clothing increased the difficulty of surviving the Thames' rapid currents.[9]

Investigation and Film Controversy

An investigation into the disaster was quick to blame two factors for the disaster: the bridge itself and the riotous crowd.[6][9] The gangway was reportedly only designed for a few workmen to embark on, not a couple of hundred people.[6] While it remains unclear precisely what triggered the bridge's collapse, the factors of a forceful wave, over-loading of the gangway, and a possible hit from debris all were likely key contributing factors.[6] The investigation decided neither Thames Ironworks nor police at the event were to blame for the catastrophe.[23][9][6] Instead, it and print media publications cited the "stupidity" of the crowd, which primarily consisted of working-class Plaistow and Canning Town residents, for failing to heed repeated warnings concerning the bridge's lack of safety and insulting police officers.[9][23][6] However, contemporary accounts believe the police and Thames Ironworks could have done more to prevent an excess of people in a small area.[9][6] Particularly, it was revealed Thames Ironworks sold around 20,000 tickets for the event, 8,000 for wooden stages, and 12,000 across the docks. But it also instructed gatekeepers to allow a further 10,000 into the vicinity should they be "respectably dressed".[6] The overcrowding probably increased the likelihood of disaster.[9][6]

Elsewhere, Prestwich, Wolff, and Paul publicly showcased their films.[10][11][8][16] Wolff's footage was around 120 feet long, whereas Paul split his into two 40 feet recordings.[16] While Prestwich and Wolff's recordings attracted little controversy, major attention was directed at Paul's.[10][21][11][8][6] Particularly, whereas Prestwich only filmed the actual launch, Paul had also publicly distributed his footage of the disaster aftermath under the title "Disaster".[10][21][11] This move received harsh criticism, with Acres quickly leading backlash against his former colleague.[10][21][11][20] Acres deemed the recording unethical and wished to "dissociate myself in the most emphatic manner possible from the producers of these photographs."[21][10][11][12][20] He subsequently decided not to publicly release his films of the launch, while also insisting he had quickly ended recording to aid rescue efforts.[21][10][13] The Amateur Photographer, a noted strong supporter of Acres, praised him for promptly stopping filming following the disaster, while criticising Paul as a "less delicately-minded individual" for recording the aftermath.[21][10]

Paul's decision to screen the film just 30 hours following the ordeal also attracted criticism by Living Pictures author Henry Hopwood.[11] Premiering at the Royal Music Hall in Holborn, the audience treated the footage with dignity and remained silent yet emotional.[10][21] In response to the criticism, Paul wrote that he had turned his attentions away from filming to aid rescue efforts.[10][21][11] He also claimed he had plans to distribute the footage across other music halls, adding that the film's proceedings would be donated to the relatives of the bereaved.[10][21] The Photogram was mainly neutral reporting on Paul and Acres' latest comments, though did add Paul's electric camera could remain functional without assistance from operators.[21][10] It also questioned the truthfulness of Acres' claims, believing his high filming location prevented him from assisting in the rescue.[21][10]

While Paul did not capture the gangway's collapse, his aftermath footage has been declared as among the earliest examples of a disaster being filmed.[8][10] It also triggered one of filmmaking's oldest ethical debates concerning the boundaries of film reporting.[24][6][10]


Of the film's produced of HMS Albion's launch, two have survived.[25][22][13][8] Prestwich's footage provided a clear view of the battleship entering the Thames via the slipway, and was preserved in the National Film Archive.[12][22][13][8] Meanwhile, Paul's film was also preserved, providing a side-on view of the ship and the franticness of the rescue efforts.[25][13][8][10] Of these films, Prestwich's has been declared as the best preserved.[22] However, Acres' unreleased films have since been declared missing by the British Film Institute.[13] Considering he was the official filmmaker, the christening footage has been lost to time, as well as additional footage of the launch.[12][13]

It is unclear whether Acres captured the gangway's collapse. However, The Photogram, in another contradiction of Acres' comments, stated that he had "kinetographed the whole scene".[21][10] It is therefore possible that the key event was captured in the 150 feet of film.[16] Philipp Wolff's recording is by far the most obscure, though the fact The British Film Catalogue lists the 120-foot film as having been titled The Albion Disaster, it is again possible that the collapse and aftermath were captured on tape.[16] But like with Acres' recordings, this other film is lost media.



Prestwich's footage of the launch.
Paul's footage of the launch and disaster aftermath.
Remastering and colourisation of both films.

See Also

Maritime Media

Birt Acres and Robert W. Paul Films


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 Royal Navy summarising HMS Albion's name and purpose, and the disaster. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Wartime Memories summarising HMS Albion, the missions she was involved in, and her eventual scrapping. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Naval Operations detailing the campaigns HMS Albion was linked to. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Imperial War Museum summarising the Dardanelles campaign. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Imperial War Museum summarising the Gallipoli campaign. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 6.17 6.18 6.19 6.20 6.21 6.22 6.23 6.24 6.25 6.26 6.27 6.28 McGonagall Online providing a detailed overview of the disaster, and a poem about said disaster from Sir William Topaz McGonagall. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 7.11 7.12 Londonist noting the disaster was one of the worst in the Thames' history. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 8.11 8.12 8.13 8.14 8.15 8.16 8.17 8.18 8.19 8.20 8.21 8.22 Old Salt Blog detailing the historic nature of the launch, summarising the disaster, and the two available films of the event. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 9.11 9.12 9.13 9.14 9.15 9.16 9.17 9.18 9.19 9.20 9.21 9.22 9.23 9.24 9.25 9.26 Isle of Dogs Life summarising the surviving films of the launch, and providing quotes from newspapers blaming the crowd for the disaster. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 10.11 10.12 10.13 10.14 10.15 10.16 10.17 10.18 10.19 10.20 10.21 10.22 10.23 10.24 10.25 10.26 10.27 10.28 Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema detailing the four filmmakers present at the event, Paul's motivations for filming it, and the controversy he faced. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  11. 11.00 11.01 11.02 11.03 11.04 11.05 11.06 11.07 11.08 11.09 11.10 11.11 The Optilogue summarising the controversy of Paul's film. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 The Beginnings of The Cinema in England summarising the preservation of Prestwich's film and Acre's status as the official filmmaker for the event, and noting Acres' has disappeared. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 British Film Institute summarising Prestwich and Paul's surviving films, and noting Acres' is lost. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  14. Who's Who of Victorian Cinema page on the Prestwich family. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  15. Who's Who of Victorian Cinema page on Philipp Wolff. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 16.6 The British Film Catalogue listing the films from Philipp Wolff, Paul, and Acres. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Who's Who of Victorian Cinema page on Robert W. Paul. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 Who's Who of Victorian Cinema page on Birt Acres. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  19. Silent Era noting Acres and Paul produced thirteen films together before their split. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 British Film Institute summarising Acres and Paul's rivalry and Acres' criticism of the latter's film. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  21. 21.00 21.01 21.02 21.03 21.04 21.05 21.06 21.07 21.08 21.09 21.10 21.11 21.12 21.13 21.14 The Beginnings of Cinema in England quoting the letters from Acres and Paul, as well as quotes from The Photogram and Amateur Photographer. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 British Film Institute summarising Prestwich's film and claiming it is the best preserved. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  23. 23.0 23.1 Mary Evans Picture Library noting the investigation primarily blamed the predominantly working-class crowd for the disaster. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  24. Thames Discovery noting Paul's film triggered an early debate regarding the ethics of film reporting. Retrieved 24th Mar '23
  25. 25.0 25.1 British Film Institute summarising Paul's film. Retrieved 24th Mar '23