Tales of the Riverbank – The Princess Alice Disaster

The Princess Alice Disaster

On Tuesday 3rd of September at 1030 the Paddle Steamer Princess Alice (named after Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter) set sail Swan Pier, London Bridge and sailed down river on what was advertised as “A Moonlight Cruise”. It’s final destination was The Rosherville Pleasure Gardens at Gravesend in Kent, a popular resort for Londoners wishing to escape the pollution of Central London.

Princess Alice was one of the best known of London’s passenger launches and was commanded by by it’s experienced Captain, William Grinsted. On a fine and sunny day, Princess Alice was licenced to carry around 900 passengers….On that Tuesday the vessel was crowded with men, women and children intent on enjoying a pleasurable excursion on the River Thames….A brass brand was playing and flags were flying as they passed under London Bridge on their outward bound voyage.The outward bound journey proved to be uneventful….The return voyage however would result in the Princess Alice being involved in one of the worst maritime accidents ever to occur in British waters.

At around 1930 that same evening Princess Alice was inward bound on its return voyage towards Central London. The vessel was approaching a bend in the river known as Margeretness or Tripcock’s Point. The tide was ebbing and dusk was starting to fall. Captain Grinsted had already ordered the navigation lights to be lit…He was planning to round Margeretness staying close to the South shore and then put into Woolwich Pier to let off some passengers….Before the vessel could head to Woolwich Pier it would first have to navigate around an ammunition barge that was tethered just down river from Woolwich.

Ahead In the distance, Grinsted could see the navigation lights of another and much larger vessel. This vessel was a coal carrying ‘collier’ ship the Bywell Castle that had recently left Millwall Dock having undergone a refit. It was under the command of its skipper Captain Harrison and a river pilot. The vessel was heading down river, bound for Newcastle….. Bywell Castle was not carrying any coal on this trip and was riding high in the water giving the skipper and his pilot a good view of what lay before them….The tide was ebbing and so Bywell Castle was making good use of the tide in order to speed its progress….Princess Alice of course was travelling inward bound against the tide and it’s speed was considerably less.

To approach Woolwich Pier on the South shore, Grinstead needed to steer to port (left)….However, he would have been watching the Bywell Castle getting rapidly closer and he would also be aware that if he could see all three of the approaching vessels navigation lights (which was the case) then the two vessels were on a possible collision course.

Today, maritime navigation is governed by a plethora of rules and regulations to prevent collisions….But in 1878 there was just one general rule in place to prevent possible collisions and that rule stated that two vessels on a possible head on collision course, MUST BOTH alter their course to Starboard (Right)….Grinsted did exactly that…and Princess Alice turned to starboard and headed towards the North shore. Aboard the Bywell Castle Harrison observed this and he too altered his course to starboard….This should have meant that the two vessels would pass each other safely port to port (Red light to Red light).

What happened next has always remained a mystery….Instead of passing each other safely….Harrison suddenly realised that he could now see all three of the Princess Alices’ navigation lights again and realised that they were once again on a collision course….Then to his horror he realised that he could now see the green starboard light of the Princess Alice which could only mean one thing….The Princess Alice had now altered course to port and was now cutting across the bows of the Bywell Castle.

Harrison tried desperately to prevent the collision by putting his engines full astern….But a collision was now inevitable and the Bywell Castle cleaved into the starboard side off the much smaller paddle steamer just forward of its starboard paddle wheel.

Had the two vessels remained locked together, possibly the loss of life may have been less…..But the engines of the Bywell Castle were still going astern and that action caused the two vessels to separate….The Princess Alice broke into two pieces and sank immediately…..Within just three minutes it was estimated that 640 passengers lost their lives.

Harrison and his crew did everything they could to save the desperate passengers aboard the Princess Alice now trying to save themselves in the water but there was little that could be done for most of the stricken people.

This collision occurred on a warm night in early September in perfect visibility and the dying passengers were all within 200 metres of shore….So the question must be “Why did so many people die so quickly”?

The answer to this question can be found when one examines the river’s history…Throughout the industrial era the Thames had been used as a dumping ground for all manner of waste….In the first half of the 19th Century flushing toilets were developed and became hugely popular with Londoners who wanted to replace the old cess pits….One problem was that although London’s drainage system could remove toilet waste from the houses….The waste had nowhere to go….Other than down hill until it finally discharged into the Thames….The more toilets that were introduced into London….The more sewage was discharged into the Thames until all life in the river had been destroyed and the river finally became an open sewer.

Many people complained bitterly about the repulsive nature of London’s main thoroughfare but Government declined to take any remedial action…..Until the Summer of 1858….August 1858 brought with it something of a heatwave….A hot sun beating down on a hugely polluted river made the river smell to such a degree that it was nicknamed “The Great Stink”….Despite soaking the curtains of Parliament in a solution of chloride of lime they were unable to prevent the smell disrupting Parliamentary business….And at last it was agreed that something should be done to remedy the huge amount of pollution in the Thames…..A civil engineer, Joseph Bazzalgette was contracted to deal with the problem and he decided to create a system of intercepting sewers….These sewers would be built beneath what are today know as the Victoria and Albert Embankments….These sewers would capture London’s effluent and convey it by using gravity several miles to the East to two pumping stations one on either side of the river….The station on the North shore was located at Beckton…These stations collected the effluent and stored it….But nothing was done to treat the raw sewage….It was simply retained in huge tanks until high water….And then, when the tide began to ebb….the sluice gates were opened and 95,000,000 gallons of raw sewage was discharged back into the Thames….Just a few miles further down river from London….The problem of London’s sewage had NOT been solved, merely moved a few miles further down river….Beckton was situated just a very short distance up river from where the Princess Alice sank….The tide was ebbing and so sewage was being discharged into the river at Beckton…..Therefore, the unfortunate victims of the Princess Alice Disaster were not trying to swim to safety in muddy river water….but through a toxic sludge of untreated raw sewage….And that is probably why 640 men, women and children lost their lives in just three short minutes.

Most of the dead were interred in Woolwich Cemetery where a memorial commemorates the collision.

The various inquests and enquiries laid most of the blame for the collision firmly with Captain Grinsted, but why the Princess Alice veered to port and across the bows of the Bywell Castle has never been fully explained and Grinsted and most of his crew died along with the others on board the Princess Alice that day.

My own theory….And it is only a theory is that that the collision occurred as a result of a misunderstanding of an order given by Grinsted to the helmsman on the wheel at the time….Who was, apparently a man of relatively little experience….I believe that Grinsted may have given the order to “Port the helm”….Which in those days meant ‘turn to starboard’….Instead the helmsman turned the wheel to port…..And the rest is history!

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