Birkenhead Dock Disaster

Birkenhead Dock Disaster Postcard

The Birkenhead dock disaster was a tragedy that happened when a temporary dam collapsed during construction of the Vittoria Dock in Birkenhead, on 6 March 1909. It left 14 workers dead and three injured. The disaster led to a huge public outpouring of sympathy and grief in the local area. However, the Government refused to hold a public inquiry and the cause of the disaster was never definitively established.

Building the Vittoria Dock

The £206,000 contract to build a dock on the Vittoria Wharf area of Birkenhead was awarded by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board in 1905 to John Scott of Darlington. Scott was the son of Sir Walter Scott (1826-1910), one of the greatest regional civil engineering contractors of his era.

The Vittoria Dock, sited at the northern end of Vittoria Street, was to serve as a berthing facility for vessels which were increasing in size. Work began in 1905 and was due to be finished by the end of 1909. However, by March 1909 it was nine months ahead of schedule and project was merely hours from completion when the disaster occurred.

Disaster strikes

Just after midnight on 6 March 1909 disaster struck. A gang of navvies were working in a 45-foot-deep pit (14m) which formed the entrance channel to the new dock. They were clearing away rubble and timber, which was hauled up to the dockside by a crane which straddled the excavation. The waters of the neighbouring East Float were held back by a 200-foot-long (61m) temporary coffer dam built in 1907. The coffer dam was formed from pilings rammed with mud and cement.

At around 12:25 am the foundation of the coffer dam gave way without warning and the fifteen workers were overwhelmed by water and debris. A platform carrying the crane collapsed into the excavation and trapped the men underwater. Fourteen men were killed but one survived by clinging to the dock wall until he was rescued. The crane driver and a boy acting as a signaller, were swept into the water but were rescued. The boy who was trapped between baulks of timber later had his leg amputated. The disaster widowed seven women and left 13 children fatherless. It took a month for divers to recover all the bodies and the victims were buried in three graves in Flaybrick Hill Cemetery, now known as Flaybrick Memorial Gardens.

Aftermath

At the ensuing inquest, John Scott’s chief engineer claimed that the disaster was probably caused when the base of the coffer dam shifted after pilings from the old dock wall were removed, and this event could not have been foreseen. However, this explanation was never independently tested or verified. John Jones, the operator of the pile driving machine used to build the dam, bravely spoke out at the inquest. He claimed there had been shoddy workmanship and rotten building materials used on the project. But his evidence was disregarded and the jury, heavily influenced by the coroner’s summing-up, returned a verdict that no one was to blame. The Vittoria Dock opened for business four months after the disaster and is still in operation today.

References

Damburst by Tom McCarthy (Countyvise, 2006). ISBN 1-901231