Fifty-one people on the pleasure cruiser Marchioness died when she sank after a collision with the massive dredger Bowbelle on the river Thames in the centre of London in the early hours of August 20, 1989. A birthday party was at full swing aboard the Marchioness when she was struck fully under Southwark Bridge. Survivors told of the dredger looming up out of the darkness without warning, prompting calls for urgent improvements in river safety standards. The average age of the victims was 25.
The Bowbelle dredger had a chequered history. She had been involved in half of the 18 collisions that had occurred on the Thames in the previous 20 years. The wheelhouse was placed at the back of the boat which meant that visibility ahead was poor. There was no designated search and rescue service on the river Thames. On the night of the Marchioness disaster a probable 25+ people escaped from the Marchioness but died in the strong tidal water of the Thames.
Some time after the tradedy, the victims' families were shocked again, when it emerged that coroner Dr. Paul Knapman had ordered the hands of 25 of the victims to be cut off for identification purposes, without the consent of relatives. The bereaved were originally told that just blood and urine samples were taken for toxicology tests for drugs and alcohol. The shock findings emerged through a public inquiry into how the victims of the disaster were identified. Some families considered holding second funerals to reunite those who died with their hands and major organs.