130 years ago today: the sinking of the Daphne

By Aline Brodin:

During the 19th century and beyond, the district of Govan, well-known for its ship-building industry, was an important centre for the naval power of the British Empire. Its three yards, which sent ships all around the world, had a considerable influence on the prosperity of the River Clyde industry. But on Tuesday 3rd of July 1883, the launching of the ship Daphne, which should have been a mere matter of routine, turned into a disaster which claimed 124 lives.

Photograph of the Daphne after it capsized.

Photograph of the capsized ship (UGD4/18/1/2)

The SS Daphne had been built by the Glaswegian company Alexander Stephen and Sons Limited, based in Linthouse. It was an ordinary ship, rather small, which should not have caused any particular difficulties. However, the vessel capsized under the eyes of the crowd moments after she was launched. The causes for this were said to be a little initial instability combined with too much loose gear and too many people on board. Indeed, since the building of the ship was not completely finished, there were about 120 workmen aboard, as well as dozens of curious people here to enjoy the thrill of the launching. When the ship sunk, many were trapped inside and drowned; only 70 people survived.

The archives of Glasgow University hold many documents recounting the tragic event. We can have an idea of what the Daphne looked like through the ‘Specifications’ of the ship (UCS 3/10/153), which thoroughly describe how she should be built and list all the elements needed. About the day of the disaster itself, we hold a poignant photograph (see above), but also the diary of Alexander Stephen, the director of the company, for the year 1883 (UGD 4/8/25). The entry for the 3rd of July is rather evocative: it is the only one, in the whole diary, which is totally blank. But the followings days and weeks relate the event from his point of view, and recount his concerns for the victims, the families, the state of the ship, and his interaction with Edward Reed, the man in charge of the investigation.

ugd4-22-1-2b

Front page of the Illustrated London News on 14th July 1883 (UGD4/22/1/2b)

The incident attracted much attention. An official inquiry was conducted by Edward J. Reed, M.P. (UGD 4/22/1/4), and the national and local press devoted many articles and front pages to the sinking. It is possible to review these contemporary press releases through bound volumes containing the newspaper clippings on the subject, which are kept in the archives under the references UGD 4/22/1/1, 2, and 3. Newspapers such as the Glasgow Herald, the North British Daily Mail, and the Scotsman presented lengthy articles and evocative engravings describing the event in detail, giving an idea of the magnitude of the disaster and the shock it caused to the community.



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