Maritime Monday for July 8th, 2013: It Puts BEEF Into You

Monkey Fist
Total Views: 50
July 7, 2013


“Even William Shatner can’t make me want to drink this stuff,
and William Shatner makes me want to do a lot of crazy shit.”


Bovril Prevents That Sinking Feeling
poster c. 1920 – Herbert H. Harris  (artist)
Prints & Drawings; Victoria and Albert Museum

2bonnyBovril is the trademarked name of a thick, salty meat extract, developed in the 1870s and sold in a distinctive, bulbous jar. It is made in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, owned and distributed by Unilever UK.

It can be used as a flavouring for soups, stews or porridge, or spread on bread or toast, rather like Marmite. It can also be made into a beverage by diluting with hot water, or less commonly with milk.


Bovril beef tea was the main warm drink that Ernest Shackleton‘s team consumed
while marooned on Elephant Island during the Endurance Expedition. +
(image source)

lord bovrilIn 1870, Napoleon III, (1808 – 1873) then mired in the Franco-Prussian War, ordered one million cans of beef to feed his troops. The job of supplying all this went to a Scotsman named John Lawson Johnston.

While working as a butcher in Edinburgh,  he decided to use the large quantity of beef trimmings produced in the butchery process to make his own glace de viande (meat glaze) – beef stock, concentrated by heating until it becomes dark brown and viscous, thus giving it a long shelf-life.  Johnston’s Fluid Beef (later the Bovril brand) was born.

For his services, he was awarded the Order of the French Red Cross. After his factory burned down in 1880, he returned to England and lived at “Bovril Castle”– Kingswood House, Sydenham. He was a keen yachtsman and died while aboard his boat in Cannes, France, on November 24, 1900. +

puts beef in you

Bovril Puts Beef Into You
Kitch-a-Gogo UK

death rows thames

La Grande Puanteur: Death Rows on the Thames
The Silent Highwayman; Punch Magazine, July 1858

The Great Stink

image_thumb.pngThe Great Stink, or the Big Stink, was a time in the summer of 1858 during which the smell of untreated human waste was very strong in central London.

rt: A microscopic examination of the water supplied to the inhabitants of London; Arthur Hill Hassall, 1850

During the 19th century, London became one of the world’s busiest (and filthiest) ports. The surrounding population, mostly slums, exploded.

Industrialization had turned the River Thames into a carrier of disease and pollution, threatening the lives of the people living nearby who relied on it for their water supply.

In the absence of proper sanitation, the effluent from the growing numbers of houses went directly into the river. There was also pollution from gas works, hospitals and slaughterhouses.

In addition to domestic waste, factories disgorged coloured dyes, lead, soap, offal, chemicals, minerals and all manner of poisons and solvents used in manufacturing.

The lack of planning and sanitation became key issues. Invention of the flush toilet in the 1840s caused the sewers to overflow.

In 1854, more than 10,000 people died in a rampaging cholera epidemic. +

History, photos, and diagrams of British Sewers

London sewage system
on wikipedia


coloured wood engraving of panorama London showing the Thames
(to see full panorama, chick here and enter “Thames” in the search box)

In 1845, Frederick Engels described the giant docks:

“…the thousand vessels that continually cover the Thames… The masses of buildings, the wharves on both sides, especially from Woolwich upwards, the countless ships along both shores, crowding ever closer and closer together, until, at last, only a narrow passage remains in the middle of the river, a passage through which hundreds of steamers shoot by one another; all this so vast, so impressive that a man cannot collect himself. “


Crossness Pumping Station
full size on steveparkerphotography
(many more photos)

Bazalgette and the London Sewer System:
on PortCities London

bazelTaking seven years to complete. Joseph Bazalgette‘s achievement was amazing even by modern standards. When completed in 1865, London had 2100 km (1300 miles) of sewers. Almost a century and a half later, London still relies on Bazalgette’s system.

inset: Memorial to Sir Joseph Bazalgette on Victoria Embankment


Coloured engraving 1828 By William Heath


Cholera Patient
”If any one is seized with sickness, slight vomiting, and purging,
a burning heat at the stomach, with cramp in various parts of the body,
and a feeling of cold all over, it probably is the Cholera

imageCholera is an infection in the small intestine caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. Transmission occurs primarily by drinking water or eating food that has been contaminated by the feces (waste product) of an infected person.

The main symptoms are watery diarrhea and vomiting. An untreated person with cholera may produce 10 to 20 litres (3 to 5 US gal) of diarrhea a day, with fatal results. Cholera has been nicknamed the “blue death” due to a patient’s skin turning a bluish-gray hue from extreme loss of fluids. abv rt: Cholera in Le Petit Journal; 1912: 3,420 × 5,057 pixels

Cholera on wikipedia


Tragedy of the Thames: the Princess Alice Disaster
c1878 – London Metropolitan Archives

The dreadful state of the Thames near the sewer outfalls was highlighted by the SS Princess Alice disaster of September 1878


 The Princess Alice Before the Disaster

Named for the third child of Queen Victoria, the SS Princess Alice was a long, slim, lightly built wooden paddle steamer of 251 tons. She sat low in the water, and had only two lifeboats and twelve lifebuoys. +

She was one of the most popular paddle steamers on the Thames, and on that Tuesday morning had left London Bridge at 10 am on a day-long cruise to Rosherville Gardens at Gravesend, one of London’s largest and most popular pleasure gardens in the nineteenth century. +

The SS Bywell Castle weighed much more than the Princess Alice. She was built of iron and powered by a single four-bladed screw. At 890 tons, she was nearly four times as heavy as the steamer, and sat much higher in the water.

She usually carried coal to Africa and had just been repainted at a dry dock and was headed downstream, Newcastle-bound, to pick up a load. Her Master was Captain Harrison, who was accompanied by an experienced Thames river pilot. +

Almost cut in half by the force of the impact, the Princess Alice sank in less than five minutes. The unfortunate passengers were thrown into the filthiest and most polluted stretch of the river; at Tripcock Point, a mile downstream from Woolwich. +


Sea Wreck 1878 Princess Alice/Thames Disaster
1280 x 844

rt: The GOOD news…image

The Princess Alice left Gravesend with somewhere between 750 and 800 passengers on board, mainly families.   At about 7:30 pm she came round Tripcock Point and into Galleons Reach, heading toward the sinking sun. It was a perfect late summer’s evening; many of the women were wearing long dresses, and the band was playing. The sound of music and happy children would have carried across the river as the ship headed back upstream.

The force of the ebb tide had pushed her to the north side of the river, and to regain her bearing she was in the process of turning and moving southwards to the centre of the stream. Her new course however took her across the bows of the Bywell Castle, which bore down upon her and cut her almost completely in half. +

The Bywell Castle went full astern, but this wrenched the two vessels apart, forcing the steamer to split in two. There was not even enough time to launch the two lifeboats, and the passengers were either trapped below decks or thrown into the river. There was no requirement at that time for children to have tickets, so the exact numbers of passengers will never be known.


1280 x 943 pixels

On the bridge of the Bywell Castle, Harrison observed the Princess Alice coming across his bow, making for the north side of the river; he set a course to pass astern of her. The Master of Princess Alice, 47 year-old Captain William R.H. Grinstead, was confused by this and altered her course, bringing her into the path of the Castle. Captain Harrison ordered his ship’s engines be reversed, but it was too late. +


The Wreck of the Princess Alice; unknown artist

The BAD News…

The twice-daily release of 75 million imperial gallons (340,000 m3) of raw sewage from sewer outfalls at Barking and Crossness had occurred one hour before the collision. +

Swallowing water at this part of the Thames, at that time, was usually fatal.  Few victims died in the actual collision – most suffocated and drowned in the toxic combination of raw sewage and industrial pollutants. +

A contemporary account described stated:

 “At high water, twice in 24 hours, the flood gates of the outfalls are opened when there is projected into the river two continuous columns of decomposed fermenting sewage, hissing like soda water with baneful gases, so black that the water is stained for miles and discharging a corrupt charnel house odour”.

Passenger Ship Disasters on


Recovering bodies from the Thames after the Princess Alice Disaster
Illustrated London News dated 14th September 1878 – 1280 x 957

It was all over very quickly. Within twenty minutes nothing was visible on the surface except for hats, caps, cloaks and other personal belongings. Rescue attempts began immediately, and lifeboats from the Bywell Castle, which was largely undamaged, picked up a handful of survivors. Some watermen came out from Woolwich to help, and a few passengers managed to swim to the foreshore.

Searching continued into the night, but proved fruitless. The next few days were taken up by the gruesome task of recovering the bodies. +

69 people were saved, many by another London Steamboat Company ship, Duchess of Teck, which arrived ten minutes after the disaster.


1146 x 1280 pixels

The bow section (above) was recovered with some difficulty in the early hours of Saturday 7th September and beached at Plumstead Marsh.  On Sunday 8th September, the aft part was raised by barges and beached at Woolwich. +

Most passengers never stood a chance. Piles of bodies were found around the exits of the saloon when the wreck was raised. +

see photo


Identifying the Dead; Woolwich Dockyard
1280 x 921

A central mortuary was established at the Woolwich Royal Dockyard, and the grim process of identification got under way. One hundred and twenty bodies were never identified. They were buried in a mass grave in the Woolwich Old Cemetery. +

The subsequent Board of Trade inquiry concluded that Captain Grinstead of the Princess Alice (who was among those drowned) was to blame as he had run directly across the path of the Bywell Castle, contrary to the “Rules of the Road”. +

Many Thames watermen considered that, as all experienced Thames pilots were well aware that ‘working the slack’ on the south side of the river was a common and accepted practice of the day, the pilot of Bywell Castle should have realised the situation and acted accordingly. The Thames Conservancy had published by-laws in 1872 which mandated the ‘port to port’ rule, with no provision for exceptions. (details of the inquest)

The wrecksite became a tourist attraction. Crowds of sightseers who had heard of the disaster came out on trains from London and clambered over the wreckage. Anything that “could be chipped or wrenched off was carried off as curiosities by visitors”.  +

The London Steamboat Company salvaged the engines and scraped what was left. +

SS Princess Alice (1865) on wikipedia


Gravesend; Remains of the West Street Pier, River Thames
from which the Princess Alice departed
‎(2,848  x 2,136 pixels)

Gravesend Town Pier and Gravesend West Street Pier
historic and contemporary (post-restoration) photos


The Doomed Ship; Pogues Forum


SS Princess Alice
Will’s Cigarettes Trading Card


Which brings us back to Bovril…

Bovril had been a staple in pantries all over France and Britain for generations.  It should come as no surprise, then, that when London found itself with a massive deadly human waste build up in the Thames, the vessels that came to the rescue were aptly dubbed the “Bovril boats”.

imagert: sludge vessel Henry Ward (1923)
National Maritime Museum, London

Bovril boats, also known as sludge vessels, were specially designed sewerage dumping vessels that operated on the River Thames from 1887 to 1998. The vessels were very well maintained, and crews could expect reasonably good pay and regular work.

A Royal Commission of 1882 concluded that it was necessary to create a cleaner river by separating the sludge part from the liquid sewage and remove it via boat for disposal at sea. In 1887 the first ship of a long line of ‘pump and dump’ effluent tanker vessels was launched.

European Union legislation forbidding the dumping of sewage at sea, coupled with concerns that sewage was contaminating beaches led to the phasing out of the fleet and many were scrapped or sold on to private companies. +


One of the sludge vessels, SS John Perring; 1926


Map of the Lower Thames; downstream from London 1840
‎(906 × 454 pixels)

Their task was to remove London’s sludge waste from Beckton and Crossness Pumping Stations for disposal (on the ebb tide) in the Black Deep, an extremely deep channel in the North Sea, located fifteen miles off (the aptly named) Foulness Island, on one of the main approaches to the Thames Estuary. It’s position has been known since the fourteenth century.

Deep-draught vessels in the North Sea, approaching from the north-east and making for the Port of London pass through the Black Deep, and thence into the Knock John channel to enter the Thames.

Thames Estuary; Black Deep: United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (pdf)

foulness flat 2

illustration by Bowsprite – concept & typesetting by Monkey Fist

shieldhall sm

Shieldhall on (2 more photos)
Steam driven sludge vessel built by Lobnitz & Co., Renfrew (1955)
Now preserved as a passenger ship operated by the Solent Steam Packet

“No trace of their humble task was ever seen. They were always spotlessly clean…”

Shieldhall is named after a district in the Scottish city of Glasgow, south of the River Clyde. It is the site of the King George V Dock and Shieldhall sewage treatment works, which are owned by Scottish Water. +

SS Shieldhall; A Grand Lady Returns Home
article on Clydesite

Shieldhall is a Heritage steamer and flagship of the National Historic Fleet,
and is recognised as the largest working steamship of her type in Britain.
photos of engine room here and here


Tanker Daystream;  Goole, United Kingdom
built 1965 by Bayerische Shipbuilding; Erlenbach, Germany


Bovril Boat Hounslow going for another dump in the Black Deep; 2005


Bovril Boat Bexley (1966) River Thames
on the Beckton Sewage Works-to-Black Deep run


The Gardyloo; built 1976

“Gardyloo!” was an old cry used in Edinburgh, to warn of slops about to be thrown from an upper window. It was appropriate therefore as the name of this sludge vessel, built in Glasgow in 1976. It currently sails under the name Shollar from Azerbaijan. see also: Leith Docks in June, 199o

How sewage boat MV Gardyloo became a tourist favourite


stern of the sludge vessel  North River on the Hudson
capable of carrying more than 100,000 cubic feet of sludge
photo by Mark Butkus on New York City Minute

The city pays a private company 32 million dollars to take the sludge off its hands and convert it into fertilizer. That happens at a facility operated by the New York Organic Fertilizer Company, or NYOFCO.

The smell from NYOFCO is just horrendous.+


DEP Sewage Sludge Ship RED HOOK
by PeetthePhotographer – (2048 x 946)
Red Hook can load up with a good 1.2 million gallons of sludge +


Captain Sean Riel:
“The cargo is not necessarily the most prestigious, shall we say… but it’s pretty safe.
It’s not really going to explode. It’s not going to make you sick.
You won’t get cancer from it.”

Field Trip Friday: Motor Vessel Red Hook Sludge Boat


Red Hook discharging its precious cargo at the North River wastewater treatment facility which processes 125 million US gallons (470,000 m3) of wastewater every day. Built on a 28-acre reinforced concrete platform over the Hudson River, the roof is home to Riverbank State Park,  the largest “green” roof in NYC.  (full size)

The crew of six including Captain Reil, an Engineer, Assistant Engineer, Mate, and two Sailors, makes 7-10 trips a week. +

AUDIO: Sailing Round Manhattan on the Sludge Boat on WNYC


NYC-DEP Marine Section uses three sludge vessels
(Newtown Creek, North River & Red Hook) for the transportation
of liquid sludge from wastewater treatment plants – (1024 x 682)
photo by Mitch Waxman; from his post on The Newtown Pentacle see also


Waste & Refuse Vessels
on ShipPhotosUK

Waste Disposal Vessels
on ShipSpotting

Editor’s Note:image_thumb.png

Friend Joel, a Workboat contributor, mentioned on Saturday that he had “interviewed some sludge boat guy” a while ago, but he couldn’t remember the name of the article and didn’t feel like looking for it, so it will not be included in this post.


Clarence Pier, Southsea – postmarked Portsmouth, September 1915
‎(953 × 587 pixels)



Adventures of the Blackgang on tumblr or twitter
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