The Princess Alice Disaster
3rd September 1878

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Once the Thames bustled with freight and cargo as well as pleasure craft and sightseers, but it has always been a busy stretch of water. Thankfully, accidents today are rare, but once the river was as dangerous as it was busy. The deadliest night in its history (indeed, the biggest peacetime disaster in Britain ever) was the 3rd of September 1878.

The Princess Alice was a 251ft, slim paddle steamer that plied its way up and down river each day, taking sightseers from the city centre to Sheerness and Gravesend. On the evening of that fateful day, the Princess Alice was making a two-shilling 'Moonlight Trip' - with hundreds of Londoners on board, returning from the attractions at Rosherville Gardens.

As it was heading against the flow of the river , the boat's captain William Grinstead followed the usual practice of seeking slack water on the southern side of the river in an area known as Galleon's Reach. But heading the opposite was the huge Bywell Castle - a coal-carrying, iron-built ship weighing some 890 tonnes. The Bywell Castle's Captain Harrison saw the lights of the Princess Alice and threw his engines into reverse, but it was too late and the Bywell Castle ploughed into the slender wooden Princess Alice.

Just four minutes later, the Princess Alice had split into two and sunk forever beneath the Thames. Just an hour previously, the sewage works a little way upriver at Barking and Crossness had emptied some 75 million gallons of raw sewage into the waters. Literally swimming in faeces, the hundreds of passengers stood no chance of making shore and within 20 minutes of the impact as many as 650 were dead in the water. Such was the speed at which the disaster overtook the vessel that no lifeboats were able to be launched.

How many were aboard the Princess Alice could never be definitely ascertained - partly because tickets were not needed for children. The inquest into the disaster held that it was almost certainly far in excess of its capacity, although most of the blame was put on the captain of the Bywell Castle (who was so traumatised by the weight of guilt that he never put to see again). Only 69-120 people survived the disaster, with the re

120 victims were buried in a mass grave at Woolwich Old Cemetery, Kings Highway, Plumstead. A memorial cross was erected to mark the spot, "paid for by national sixpenny subscription to which more than 23,000 persons contributed".

While largely forgotten today, it lingered long in the collective subconscious of Londoners. Elizabeth Stride - killed by Jack the Ripper a decade later - would claim to have survived the disaster while losing her children and husband - a complete fabrication.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 8th March 2015 | © Weird Island 2010-2019
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