Courtesy of Shetland Archives, Angus Johnson, Archivist. Shetland Times, October 29, 1898

Liverpool Ship Blown Up


A TERRIBLE disaster happened Monday last week to the Blengfell, an iron barque of 1210 tons, belonging to Liverpool, the vessel, which carried a cargo of naptha, exploding, with frightful consequences, when near the Tongue Bank, off the North Foreland. The captain, with his wife and child, all the officers of the ship, is a Dover pilot, two apprentices, and a seaman—nine persons in all -- were blow to atoms, no trace whatsoever of their remains being found. A very graphic narrative of the occurrence was given by the captain of the London tug Simple (Mr James Hood) who was interviewed by a Dover correspondent. The conduct of the captain and the crew of the tug is spoken of by all hands here with the greatest praise, and there is no doubt it is due to Mr Hood’s great presence of mind and prompititude that so many lives were saved from the burning ship. Captain Hood states:--“We fell in with the Blengfell about 5.30 in the morning in the Downs. There was a nice up-Channel breeze. We steamed alongside the ship, and found that she was on a homeward voyage to London with naptha. The naptha was stowed away in the hold in barrels. We came to terms with the captain to tow his ship up the Thames, and I continued steaming alongside for a considerable time talking with the skipper and the pilot. The pilot, a man named Gilliman, belonging to Dover, had only shipped the previous evening. As I was not yet wanted to commence towing the ship, we stood off and sailed in company with her about 200 or 300 yards on the lee side, which is the usual thing to do. The disaster happened just before seven o’clock. We were “paddling” along easily, and had not left the side of the ship more than about 10 minutes when the explosiong occurred. Had we remained alongside the ship the consequences to ourselves must have been disastrous, considering how severely the effects were felt on the tug, nothwithstanding the distance which separated us.


One moment the vessel was all right, as trim a craft as one could wish to see; the next moment she had been blown to pieces, and was enveloped in a dense, belching mass of black fumes and fierce flames. Some of the crew afterwards said that they perceived a strong smell of naptha just before the explosion. However this may have been, all at once there was a fearful report, like a heavy clap of thunder, and we saw the ship in a mass of flames. It was a frightful sight. The explosion appeared to have been confined to the aft part of the ship, which was blown clean out and the hull rent open. The debris was shot up into the air with terrific force to a great height—three or four hundred feet. For a moment we could see nothing except the forecastle, the rest of the ship being enveloped in dense smoke. The mizzenmast was blown up, and we saw huge pieces of wreckage must have been into the air. The wreckage must have been carried a great distance, for although we were at least 200 yards away great quantities of it showered on to our decks. The whole of the ship’s deck and poop appeared to be heaved into the air. We felt the shock very much on the tug. It was as though the vessel was being lifted out of the water. So severely was the shock felt by us that it lifted off a part of the covering over the engine-room. The tug was bespattered with naptha. The stench from the spirit was very great, and seemed to pervade everything. We could see a number of the crew on the bows of the ship, some of them hanging over the side on the anchor. I saw it was a case in which it would be no use to send a boat. The only way to attempt a rescue was to make a run for it, and put our tug alongside. As we drew near the heat from the ship became intense. If we h ad not reached the vessel as quickly as we did I believe the men would have jumped into the sea. One or two had done so. Some of the men were half-dressed, and one was quite naked. In about five minutes.


I was alongside the burning ship. We ran under her bows. It looked like smashing my boat, but we sustained little or no damage. The water all around was literally covered with wreckage. We shouted to the survivors to jump to us as we drew near, which they did to windward. It was the only way to save them. The Blengfell drifted before the wind, and settled on the Tongue Bank. Having rescued these men we drew off. I then had a boat lowered, and we cruised about the spot amongst the wreckage for an hour and a half. One of the tug’s lifeboats sustained damage. In this way we were able to save one poor fellow. He was swimming but in the last stage of exhaustion. Our boat was able to reach him just in time to save him. He was unconscious when we got him aboard. We rolled him in hot blankets, and had great trouble to restore him to consciousness. In the course of the search amongst the debris no trace whatever of any of the bodies of the victims could be found. About nine o’clock we left the spot and steamed to Dover, where the survivors were received at the National Sailors’ Home by the Rev. J. Martin, the Secretary.


is given of the occurrence, whose narravative was borne out by the other members of the crew present. “Between 6 and 7 a.m. we were off the Tongue Buoy, some few miles out from Margate, when we were, suddenly startled by a terrific report. All of us who have been saved were in the fore-part of the ship, some being below at the time. This report occurred in the after hatch of the ship, which was blown up, and almost immediately afterwards another report of even greater violence occurred in the main hatch. This all took place within what seemed only a few seconds, and the ship was blown literally in two. The captain, who had his wife and child on boat with him, and the officers and pilots all had their quarters on the after-part of the ship, which was blown out. Our first care after the first explosion was to ascertain if anything could be done to assist them, but the second explosion followed with such appalling suddenness that we were able to do nothing before the ship was blown in tow, the portion they had been upon sinking almost immediately. I do not know what caused the explosion. The only explanation that occurs to me is that gas was given off by the oil, and heat caused the combustion. I have no idea how the captain and others met their death. There is every probability that they were killed in the explosion before the portion of the vessel sank. We did not expect that the fore part of the ship would survive the shock of the explosion and the inrush of water which immediately occurred. There was a fresh breeze at the time, and the hull was driving on the sandbank before it. The tug Simla, of London, took us off, and brought us to Dover. We were treated with great kindness by all on board the tug, and the clothes which some of us are now wearing were put at our disposal by the captain and crew. The hull of the Blengfell drove on to the Tongue Sands. We had only taken the pilot on board at Dover for the last stretch of our home journey to the Thames. We were unable to save any of our belongings.”

The following is a list of the KILLED:--

Captain Johnson, his wife and child; J. Walsh, first mate, Liverpool; A. Pearson, second mate, Bonnyrigg, Midlothian; E.H. Gillman, pilot, Dover; E. Shepherd, apprentice, Liverpool; W. Shone, apprentice, Liverpool; Collins, A.B., Liverpool.


Wm. Anderson, carpenter, Lerwick; Spearing, Gravesend; T.W. Snell, Guernsey, J. O’Donell, Londonderry, Ireland, H. Meek, Hereford; D. Burn, Ardlow, Ireland; H. Park, Sydney, New South Wales; J. Duffy, London; W. Wildridge, Workington, Cumberland; A.C. Olsen, Germany; P. Lertch, Germany; O. Steuver, Germany.


Copyright 2002 / To date