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The Dee Ferry Disaster
5th April 1876

Lantern Slide Picture by kind permission of Patricia Newman showing the Dee Ferry returning from Old Torry to Pocra Lower Jetty

The ferry is of shallow draft and doesn’t look adequately stable, even with only 6 people on board (it is coming from the Torry side or Pocra side). A fisher Quine, 4 men clearly affect the trim and the Tacksman is peering into the water all perfectly reflected in the Dee stream.
  The reflection is informative and it looks like a landing plank is lying across the bows so perhaps the Torry side was by a beaching rather than a quayside but a causeway is mentioned.  The sun must have been behind the boat to create such a shadow so effectively so that suggests that on the occasion of this image it may be heading to Pocra about noon.  They must have been near the destination for so close a picture to be taken.  The navigation channel on this occasion is like a mill pond revealing a gentle bow wave from slow steady pulling.  No sign of the Centre Drive Wheel unless it is hidden by the Tacksman's body but the wire seems to run the length of vessel as described.  His stance here may have been to clear any debris lifted by the wire from the deep.  The Passengers normally assisted during the 20 minute passage by turning the Drive Wheel and pulling the hawser.

Site of the Lower Dee Ferry Boat  -
The FerryFor centuries the ferry boat shuttled people between the Lower Jetty, New Quay on the north shore of the Dee and Torry 'Beach' near St Fittick's Road on its southern shore. The ferry was latterly operated by means of a Steel Wire Hawser strung across the river. The rights to run the Ferry were lucrative and the Council regularly sold (or rouped) them to the highest bidder. The ferry was eventually replaced by Victoria Bridge, following the Dee Ferry Boat Disaster of April 15th 1876 was a feast day and a holiday for most people in Aberdeen. There was a fair at Torry and many people were crossing the Dee by ferry in order to get to it.  People waiting at at each side had become impatient waiting for the ferry to arrive. When it did they pushed onto the boat without allowing time for those already on board to disembark. The boat set off, overloaded with more than 70 people when its compliment was designed for Board of Trade Limit of 32 passengers. The ferry started to sally in mid stream, the rope was loosened on the Torry side and the boat drifted seaward only to snap the rope when it re-tightened. As she capsized a number of passengers were able to swim to safety, but 32 people drowned.

Gibbs Map of Aberdeen 1888 shows the route of the Ferry via Point Law at that later date

The Fishermen of Footdee did not object to this popular crossing of the water; it was also a lucrative custom for them, but they were often fined and censured for hiring their boats on Sunday's.  Watchmen were also stationed at the ferry boat to note such persons that crossed the water to Torry, and order them before the Session for reprimand and fine. The old records will illustrate this state of matters existed some 300 years ago.


The Torry Reaction or Cable Ferry linked somewhere between the Lower Jetty and Torry 'Beach' near St Fitticks Road.  Quite a wide stretch of busy navigation channel water and it is hard to see how and when it would function as a 25 x 9 x 2.3ft Flat Bottomed Vessel secured and driven on a Wire Hawser which could perhaps snag commercial shipping.  The local Fishermen deemed the William Hall built ferry construction unsuitable for the running tides and a river in spate but it was allowed to ply on with its trade regardless.  
They were probably right as it had little displacement or freeboard and was likely to tilt with undertow water pressure sending the passengers scrambling to one side.  With added free surface water on board this would inducing her to capsize.  Such behavioural characteristics should have been observed from the Roundhouse by such well trained pilots eyes and a stop put to it before the Ferry disaster occurred.  It was poorly supervised yet Police were present, The on board returning passengers could not get off while anxious late in the day passengers crowded aboard filling her to over capacity and severely testing the wire rope linkage (spliced  twice to extend the hawser length) and with the River Dee heavily in spate from melting snows and a falling spring tide.  It should never have been allowed to leave the quay at twice overload and in such a chaotic manner.  Despite returning to shore twice for direly demanded reasons yet more got on and it finally set out to a well anticipated fate driven onwards by the reward of multiple fares.

Cable ferries so called, hang on a long wire rope, which divides itself briefly before the ferry. A rope end is passed through friction rollers on the stem and one to the stern of the ferry with a central control wheel (See Inset).  Now as the length of the cable ends changes ratio to each other, so also does the angle of incidence of the ferry so change to the river. Only the adjusting of the rope ends allows an engineless ferry to traverse the channel. The pressure of the flowing water against the vessel pushes it to the appropriate bank with minimal effort. The wire rope is submerged in the river and for navigation would be marked by Buoys. When the ferry is docked at either bank the cable is probably allowed to sink to the river bottom, so as not to interfere with navigation as they would have a considerable amount of slack built into them, in order that they sink below the surface as the ferry moves.

The New Quay Jetty

On Wednesday April 5th 1876 some 32 lives were lost in the Dee Ferry Boat Disaster.  Large numbers of people were crossing the River Dee by ferry, heading for the entertainment at the fair. The ferry operated on a pulley system, attached by a wire rope looped at each end to either bank, allowing it to be pulled across the navigation channel, without the need for an engine, sails or rudder on the boat.  It was a public holiday and hundreds of people from Aberdeen took advantage of the good weather by going to a funfair in Torry.  At the end of the day, everyone clamoured to get on board the ferry over the River Dee to go home to Aberdeen.   In a vessel designed to carry 32, at least 77 people managed to clamber on board.  But while crossing the the new channel of the River Dee, the ferryboat tipped over and all the passengers fell into the fast-running spate current and ebbing tidal flow.  There are differing opinions as to why the accident happened.  Some said when the boat hit the current it cantered and water came in, with the passengers running to the other side which made the freeboard less.  Others said it was the slackening of a rope on the Torry side of the river that caused the boat to heel.  The tragedy was watched by hundreds of people on both shores.  One of the problems highlighted by the Government Board of Trade inquiry into the Dee disaster was that the boat, which had a wire line used to pull the vessel from the shore to shore, was the wrong type for the circumstances of the currents.  The boat, a 25 foot-long substantially-built flat-bottomed vessel, was built by Aberdeen Shipbuilders, William Hall and Company, and had only been in service 2 months.  Before the ferryboat was constructed, local fishermen had warned it was the wrong type of ferry for the channel, because of the fast and strong currents.  However, it was decided the ferryboat was the best - and the cheaper option compared to a bridge.  The Government inquiry criticised the role of the Police, and mentioned the over-laden boat, the spate of the river and the poorly spliced rope.  The outcome of the Board of Trade enquiry prompted the construction of a stone and lime bridge – the Victoria Bridge, which still stands today.

As queues began to form on each of the ferry terminals, people became impatient and pushed their way on to the boat before those already onboard had a chance to get off. Heavily overloaded, it set off with more than 70 people on board. After several days of heavy rain, the Dee was swollen and fast flowing. The ferry started to list as it moved into mid-stream of the main river current. The tension on the ropes was too great and they were cast off, causing the boat to drift towards the sea. When she capsized, over half the passengers were able to swim to safety but 32 drownedThere had been plans for some time for a new bridge across to Torry but the final impetus was provided by the disaster and Queen Victoria Bridge was formally opened on July 2, 1881.  The bridge was partly funded by public subscription and partly by the Corporation of Aberdeen Council, providing direct access from Torry into the heart of Aberdeen.  A plaque commemorating those who lost their lives in this disaster was erected on the bridge belatedly in 2005 instead of at its original inauguration and while still fresh in the memory of the inhabitants and mourners.

5 April 1876, ABERDEEN FERRY BOAT, Owner Alexander Kennedy, Tacksman, Aberdeen, capsized while crossing the River Dee, between Aberdeen and the village of Torry, 32 lives lost, partial loss, due to overcrowding of boat with passengers. A prominent cause of the disaster was an obstruction in the rollers underneath the fly-wheel, caused by an ill-made splice in the wire rope, by means of which the boat was worked. Inquiry held at Aberdeen. 
Table 46: Statement of Official Inquiries in the United Kingdom into the Causes of Wrecks, Casualties, and Collisions, ordered by the
Board of Trade during the Year 1875-6.
Source: PP Abstracts Returns of Wrecks and Casualties on Coasts of the UK 1875 - 76 (1876 [C.1632] LXVII.191).
NMRS, MS/829/69 (no. 2664).

The precise location of this incident is unclear but it presumably occurred within the wide area of the Harbour Navigation Channel in the region of the new River Dee cutting on the first return half between Old Torry and Lower Jetty, Pocra The River Dee enters the North Sea by a newly cut channel through Aberdeen Harbour and was designed to self scour the sand bar for navigation entry and egress. The present entrance reflects development towards the East through the construction of successive piers and breakwaters.  The loss of this Ferry vessel is not cited by I G Whittaker (1998), presumably on grounds of her subsequent recovery.   Nothing is said about the temporary obstruction this may have caused in the Navigation Channel during its operation or what happened to the recovered vessel.

It was the afternoon of a Sacramental Fast Day. (Wednesday before the 1st Sunday of April and September)
For years these days, set apart for religious observance, had been changing their character and had come to be largely spent as holidays, and
crowds of pleasure-seekers left the city to seek a change in the moors and glens and by the sea shore. Torry had been from time immemorial a favourite haunt of the townspeople, and on this day many hundreds had crossed the river and wandered to St. Fittick's, the Downies, and Tullos Hill. As the afternoon advanced the crowds seeking the ferry became more numerous and more impatient. About 3 o'clock over 70 passengers crowded into the boat before all its freight to the south shore had been able to disembark. One poor girl, who had just crossed from Aberdeen, was obliged to return with the doomed boat, and she was among the drowned. The boat, propelled by a wheel round which a steel rope fixed on each bank worked, set out on its fateful journey. The gunwales of the over-loaded craft were within an inch or two of the water; the tide was ebbing ; the river, swollen by the snows melting on its upper reaches, was in flood, and the boat was swept down stream until the rope, stretched to its utmost limit, formed a sharp bight beyond which the boat found itself unable to advance. Tilting to the west side, the water began to flow in. The passengers, who till now had been quiet and orderly, became panic-stricken. Many leapt from the boat and saved themselves; but with the intention of relieving the boat the rope was slackened at the north end. The boat was swept further down, the rope tightened again and snapped, and at the same moment the boat turned violently over and 32 of the 73 passengers were drowned.

The Book of St Fittick

The Aberdeen Journal Report suggests a maximum standing capacity of 75 passengers which was about the actual compliment when she floundered in the River Dee Channel spate.  75-80 standing would reduce the stability of the vessel dramatically and no room to sit except on the water lapped gunwales. The ferry was designed to hold 32 passengers maximum load although it was tested by William Hall's to 60 standing as proven stability with 12" of freeboard in calm waters.

The 1.75” circumference wire hawser is quite light - about half inch dia - (Bound to fail under such load strain even without the 2 added cable lengthening splices) and overall may have been made generous enough in length to lie on the bottom except when under tension.  This could have been a navigation hazard on the Pocra Quay side if draped from a flywheel crank – not much info about on how that machinery was hand cranked to draw the new William Hall Built vessel 25ft x 9ft x 2.33ft flat bottom with grounding copings across the channel in each direction and perhaps only from the Pocra side with a simple pulley on the Torry side

It is significant that one of the on board ferry operators Mr Masson – (a family name common in Portlethen) demanded the Tacksman to returned him to shore in fear for his life - he clearly foresaw the increasing risk of disaster – the Tacksman it seems, was driven onward by balancing the ample fares reward against the risk.  He did the right thing trying to attempt to use passengers to further trim the boat but as it naturally aligned itself with the spate current this ever shifting 'in panic' high centre mobile weight may have capsized her on the seaward side while also taking on spate water.  The bow landing plank saved the life of one witness who reported the line breaking en route to the Aberdeen shore.

A Mrs Craig sadly was drowned - hampered by the harness of her own creel which others desperately clung to: a fatal folly in the impending doom;  she should have freed herself from her burden – such are the value of hard won possessions.  Her death was made more poignant by her husband urgently attempting to rescue her urgently by dingy before she had traversed too far with this increasingly dangerous crossing.  Trusting souls, careless operation pressed by financial gain and  overseen by the Aberdeen Police presence and perhaps even the Harbour Master in the Octagon (Roundhouse).

Alexander Kennedy (Tacksman) Lessee of the Ferry survived the sinking of his twice overloaded vessel - only to drink himself to death and he died at 5.30am on 2nd January 1877 aged 42 after 14 days of intemperance in the Ferryboat Inn, at Pocra Quay, Aberdeen close the scene of the disaster and before his indictment for Culpable Homicide Trial which was due to take place on the 2nd of October.


Precognition against Alexander Kennedy for the crime of culpable homicide and culpable violation and neglect of duty on the River Dee between the shore known as 'The Reclaimed Ground' (Pocra) and the south side

Cause of Death: DROWNING

Inherited the estate from his older brother Robert following his drowning in Aberdeen Harbour in a ferry accident in 1827.   Alexander never married.

Alexander had Probate granted of his will on 12 April 1869.  He left pecuniary legacies and the Craigshaw part of the estate to James Molison, his nephew, and the Balnagask portion of the estate to his grand nephew James Davidson. James Molison, in turn, died the following year.

Alexander was a flour miller in London, and made a lot of money at this trade. 

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Last modified: 01/09/2013