The UK’s most dangerous rivers
Rick Edwards and renown river detectorist, Beau Ouimette plumb the depths of the UK’s rivers and waterways for archaeological treasures and artefacts, shedding invaluable light on our past lives in our brand new series. River Hunters, is a fascinating journey of exploration and discovery, but let’s not forget the risks involved. Before we don our diving gear and check our maps, we must respect our waterways and rivers as being unpredictable at best, and at worst downright dangerous.
Break down ‘Britain’s most dangerous river’ into its basic form then look no further than the Bolton Strid, a section of the river Wharfe located a stone’s throw from Bolton Abby in the southern aspect of the Yorkshire Moors.
According to locals, no one that has gone in has come out alive, some have even claimed it to be the most dangerous stretch of water in the world, based on its deceptively calm appearance when beneath are twisting currents that can trap bodies underwater or pulverise them against hidden rocks. At its narrowest, most picturesque point, the slippery banks either of the Strid are temptingly close enough to invite unwary visitors to jump. Legend has it that it even claimed the life of the heir to the Scottish throne in the 12th century.
On the 7th January 1928, a perfect cocktail of thawing snow and heavy rain caused the River Thames to swell and burst its banks. In addition to destroying buildings and infrastructure from the east to the west of London, it claimed the lives of 14 Londoners, many of them poor families huddled in cramped basements, and made thousands more homeless.
The Thames estuary was badly hit during the North Sea flood in 1953, which claimed the lives of 2,100 souls in the UK and the Netherlands, directly resulting in the building of the Thames Barrier which opened in 1984. However, some experts have questioned the barriers' effectiveness in the face of global warming.
Vikings, pestilence and the Ouse
From the North Sea via the Humber, Vikings could easily access York directly from the River Ouse. Following the Danish invasion of 865, the Ouse allowed the conquers tactical and trade access to the seas, and there they settled until their defeat in 1066.
In addition to their huge contribution to shipbuilding, Vikings introduced the Brits to the magnetic compass, ridgeback tents and skis, all thanks in part to the River Ouse… Unfortunately, the Ouse was also partially to blame for spreading the black death that killed half of York’s population in 1349.
River Tay Disaster
On the stormy evening of Sunday, the 28th December in 1879 a locomotive, its tender and five railway carriages crashed into the River Tay following the collapse of the vast iron bridge that connected Dundee and the Newport of Tay, claiming the lives of all the (estimated) 75 people on board.
The subsequent inquest discovered that in addition to poor design, materials and construction, Sir Thomas Bouch, the celebrated engineer that oversaw the project hadn’t allowed for wind loading. With his reputation in tatters, Bouch died within the year, but the locomotive involved in the disaster lived on. Incredibly, No. 224, was recovered from the river, repaired and returned to many years of active service under the moniker of 'The Diver’.
SS Princess Alice
Despite claiming the lives of approximately 650 predominately working-class men, women and children, the horrific tale of the SS Princess Alice is relatively unknown. It was the evening of the 3rd of September 1878, SS Princess Alice had just returned from a day trip to the seaside in Kent with approximately 700 people on board when it was struck and sliced in two by a collier, The Bywell Castle, at Tripcock Point, close to North Woolwich Pier.
Most of the passengers drowned (hundreds remained in the water for weeks after) though many died later due to the raw sewage they ingested in the filthy Thames water. A public inquest concluded that The Bywell Castle was at fault and the captain narrowly avoiding manslaughter charges but, suspiciously, the Board of Trade - a committee of the Privy Council- blamed The Captain of Princess Alice. Despite this, the disaster resulted in a cleaner Thames, the global use of emergency signalling lights and the Royal Albert dock which helped separate the smaller vessels from the large. It remains the worst single maritime disaster in the Thames, with the victims and their families all but forgotten.