Skip to main content

The Most Remarkable Event in the history of Southend

Southend-on-Sea may have had spectacular air shows in the past but for a week in July 1909 the town was witness to what was described at the time as the most remarkable event in its history.

On Saturday 17th July 1909, the weeklong Great Naval Pageant began. Taking up position in the River Thames were one hundred and fifty ships of the Home and Atlantic fleets with Southend the headquarters and command centre for the week’s pageant.

 During the day, spectators from all over country streamed into both Southend Central and Southend Victoria Railway stations on packed trains. Many others came by steamer from Kent and London.  It was reported that by early afternoon 1600 cyclists had also made their way into the town and a passenger on a tram car counted 75 motor cars on the London Road.  

Moored just off of Southend Pier was the mighty Dreadnought, the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief of the fleet, Admiral Sir William May. Close by, at anchor in a perfect line, were 23 other battleships. Towards the Nore, to the east, armoured cruisers and torpedo craft stretched as far as the eye could see, with scout vessels, submarines and auxiliary vessels lined up to the west on the Thames approach to London.

The Great Naval Pageant of 1909. Chart showing the position of ships of the Home and Atlantic Fleets in the River Thames, moored just off of Southend – 150 ships

The Saturday was described as a typical July day with fine weather. As the early morning mist lifted crowds lined the cliffs and seafront to witness and cheer the arrival of the mighty armada. Everywhere boarding houses and hotels had signs that read ‘no vacancies’.

Southend Council had been charged with arranging the onshore festivities and welcome for the fleet which was handled with great efficiency under the supervision of the Mayor, Alderman James Colbert Ingram JP. The town was a blaze of colour from end to end which easily eclipsed anything previously attempted.

Later in the afternoon the Mayor of Southend, Alderman Ingram, boarded the Admiral’s barge and was taken to the Dreadnought to be officially welcomed by the Commander of the fleet and was then invited to take tea on board.

The following day, the Sunday, with the weather described as ‘brilliantly’ fine, Southend became ever more packed as visitors arrived in their thousands with an estimated extra 100,000 people in the town.

The visitors, on leaving the train stations, swiftly made their way to the pier in the hope of getting the best view of the ships as possible. For the pageant the Navy warships would also be open to the public between 2pm to 6pm.

Commander of the Fleet.
Admiral William Henry May

For the week of the pageant, the council had doubled pier entrance charges from 1p to 2p but this didn’t deter the huge crowds seeking to get on the pier, which resulted in large queues outside the four pier turnstiles. The electric pier tramcars were bursting to capacity. By half past two the pier was a vast mass of moving humanity.

The congestion became so great that many found it impossible to reach the steamers at the end of the pier, so they turned around and headed back to shore which only added to the chaos.

At the same time, coming the other way, from the fleet, sailors who had been granted shore leave found the pier walkways jammed and electric trams full to overflowing. Some sailors climbed on the roofs of the pier trams whilst others vaulted the railings and walked along the railway track. This alarmed the pier authorities who were worried about the prospect of a sailor being electrocuted. So the Pier Master, Captain Hucker, immediately arranged for the power to be turned off. Hundreds of seamen then swarmed onto the track to complete their journey.

Desperate to see the ships. The Crush on the Pier

At one point in the afternoon a section of the crowd, impatient with the long wait, stormed the pier turnstiles.   Owing to the crush the gates to the pier were locked and a cordon of police was drawn across the entrance.

Meanwhile in Southend, such was the abnormal number of visitors in the town many restaurants ran out of supplies whilst others were accused of charging ‘fancy’ prices. A party from the Gardening Association called at the police station to complain that they couldn’t get anything to eat as several hotels had shut their doors to visitors clamouring for food. The Palace Hotel was reported to have turned away hundreds of people who wanted lunch.

Despite all the crowds and congestion, Superintendent Pryke in charge of policing arrangements, commented on the overall excellent conduct of huge crowds and the good behaviour of the seamen. Not a single arrest had been made. Referring to the seamen Superintendent  Pryke added,  in the whole of my 35 years of London and county experience, I never seen a more orderly and sober lot of men.

End of Part I

Continued in Part II

Sources, Essex Weekly News, Southend Standard, Illustrated London News 1909