canal disaster paisley

Canal Disaster

The launch of the first passenger boat on the Paisley Canal caused great excitement in the town. The boat, The Countess of Eglinton, was designed to carry 150 passengers and was drawn by two horses at a speed of four miles an hour. Launched on 31st October, 1810, the boat began plying the canal between Paisley and Johnstone on 6th November that year.Canal Disaster paisley

Martinmass Fair was held on Saturday 10th November and a large number of holidaymakers were curious to sail on the new boat, to taste the delights of aquatic travel, possibly for the first time. Paisley weavers and their families thronged the banks of the Paisley Canal wharf in anticipation of a pleasure cruise.

“danger of capsizing”

When the Countess of Eglinton touched the landing stage, the eager Paisley folks rushed to board the boat as the passengers from Johnstone disembarked. The boatmen, realising the danger of capsizing, quickly pushed the boat a few feet out from the bank. Hoping to balance the boat, they shouted to the passengers to go into the cabin below. But, amid the noise and confusion, their warnings went unheeded. Eager passengers crowded the deck before the cabins and steerage below were filled. In seconds the boat capsized and two hundred people, men, women and children were thrown into the cold, winter water.

A contemporary account describes the scene as heart-rending. Hats, bonnets, cloaks and shawls floated all over the surface of the canal basin. Many people helplessly drowned in the crush of fallen bodies. Although the canal basin was only 6 feet deep and about the size of a large fishpond, it had steep sides and very few could swim.

“men shouted for help and women screamed”

When the boat righted, a small number of passengers were clinging to her side, but some, chilled by cold of the severe November weather, lost hold, fell back and were drowned. Others were pulled down by those struggling in the water. Men shouted for help and women screamed.

Soon, a cry went up in the town centre that the canal boat had capsized and her passengers drowned. Everyone ran to the basin to see if friends or relatives were victims. The water was being dragged with poles and hooks in a vain search for survivors. People grasped the garments of the drowned as they rose to the surface and sudden screams would be heard as the living recognised the dead. One old woman in a red cloak with “anxious face and hurried step” made her way to the scene. As two men passed her, she realised they were carrying her dead daughter. Victims presumed dead were taken to nearby houses and laid out. However, medical men managed to revive twenty of them by “rubbing” the bodies.

“the disater claimed 85 lives”

Many paisley homes lost two, three or, in some case, four relatives. The disaster had claimed 85 lives. 115 were providentially saved, with many being dragged to safety from the banks of the wharf. Only ten people managed to swim out of the freezing cold waters of the canal basin. The list made grim reading. Practically all the victims were weavers. More than half the number were children, who at the period worked in the weaving trade. Boys of nine or ten were listed as weavers or draw boys, while girls aged between twelve and fourteen were listed as clippers, darners or tambourers. The magistrates decreed that a fund be set up to relieve the suffering of families bereft of any income.

Shortly after the disaster, questions were asked in the town about the construction and design of the boat. The manufacturers replied, “we shall only state what we believe to be contradicted. She is built on what was conceived the best model of those employed on other canals……. Is equal to any packet boat on the Forth-Clyde canal and in some respects superior. To prevent tumbling, her keel acts as a ballast of a few tons, but it is not easy to comprehend how one should be constructed that shall not heel from the improper movements of an irregular crowd on the top”.

“the area now forms a new housing area”

Despite the disaster the “Countess of Eglinton” continued to sail for many years on the canal. She carried countless passengers without further losses. The old canal basin, the scene of paisleys worst tragedy, was filled in around 1883. It became a coal yard attached to Canal Street Railway Station. The area now forms part of Castlegait housing development.