The Sinking of The Princess Alice

A tale of a pleasure trip on the River Thames from London Bridge that turned into a terrible tragedy that shocked the nation. The text is taken from a book passed down to me by my grandfather called: Fifty Great Disasters & Tragedies That Shocked The World. Published in the opening years of the 1930s and a book I read many times as a young child. Fascinated by the stories.

The Princess Alice – History Repeats Itself

I will keep the text of the tragedy in the context it was written as much as possible, to give you an idea of how shocked the nation was at this terrible event. Visitors to the River Thames in modern times will be hard pushed to image the filthy stinking water that once flowed through London’s very heart.

Tuesday September 3rd 1878

No maritime disaster within living memory awakened such a pity and horror as the fate of the pleasure steamer Princess Alice within sight and call of the banks of London’s own River Thames. It was a calamity of lightning speed and indescribable confusion, in which over 700 carefree day trippers, most of them women and children, were plunged without warning to their doom in a fleeting time span of fewer than five minutes.

The Princess Alice, one of the most popular of all the early excursion pleasure craft on the Thames, was shattered like an egg-shell and cut completely in half by the knife-edge bows of a sea-going outward bound collier (coal transport). In a split second the 900 passengers were at the mercy of the river. Heart-rending scenes were witnessed in the gloaming of an autumn evening.

History of That Fateful Pleasure Cruise

Tuesday, September 3rd, 1878, was a perfect day for a river cruise and a holiday adventure. In the sun’s warm and friendly glow the Thames ran like a carnival ribbon through London and outwards towards the sea and the Thames Estuary. Nearly a thousand strong, the day trippers flocked to London Bridge, in glad escape from London’s hot streets, its sounds and smells and clamour. London in 1878 was a very busy and dirty city. The River Thames would offer an escape for many.

The day trippers came from many parts of the metropolis. People arrived by horse-drawn coach, by horse-bus, wedged in so that they could scarcely move, bouncing over the rough cobbled streets. Some walked to London, starting before dawn was in the sky, to reach the Princess Alice in good time. Such was the excitement of a river excursion out of London.

London Bridge Pier

At London Bridge, at the Old Shades Pier near water’s edge, the ripple of laughter joined with the lap of the water. In all of the world there is no merrier crowd than the London trippers on holiday, the duties and anxieties of everyday life forgotten for a few hours. This day’s throng was no exception. Woman and children predominated. There were old Coaster women (sellers of fruit and vegetables from a cart or barrow), taking their pinch of snuff; young mothers, with babies in their arms, or slapping and rebuking their elder children, calling admonishments in high shrill voices , as the mothers among trippers always did and always will.

The children made a brave parade, gazing wide-eyed in wonderment at the movement of the pier’s incidents and events. Clutching pennies and halfpennies in hot fingers, sucking on oranges, some carrying home-made spades and tin cans fashioned into makeshift buckets. The scene I doubt would have changed much today, the currency different, the buckets made of plastic but the excitement the same.

The History of The Princess Alice

Alongside the pier lay the Princess Alice. For those days she was a proud and graceful pleasure craft, though she had none of the fine lines that distinguishes the miniature liners that take today’s Londoners down to the sea on holiday. No kid-gloved officers posed on the bridge near shining brass telegraphs, no dapper purser hovered on the sponson or near the gang-plank as a welcoming host, no chefs, immaculate in white, peeped out from the ports of perfect galleys.

The Princess Alice was a vessel of only 158 tons. She was only 220 feet long, with a beam of 20 feet. A toy of a paddle-steamer, yet to those at London Bridge that day, she was a dream ship. They looked with fascination upon the few flags that dressed her rigging, the tall, murky funnel, the sailors who crossed the decks.

Over 10 years old and in the service of the London Steamboat Company, the Princess Alice had originally been licensed to carry fewer than 500 passengers; but now, for the smooth-water service on the River Thames, she had a Board of Trade certificate enabling her to carry as many as 936. The ghastly events of this day were to prove that both in construction and capacity the ship was totally unsuited for so heavy and intensive a human cargo.

The River Thames Excursion Begins

A cheer rose as the rail-gates were opened. The multitude of trippers streamed aboard, jumping, swinging, clattering on the gang-plank. Nine hundred people boarded the vessel. The Princess Alice sank lower in the water under the burden of the happy day trippers. The trippers were packed in like merchandise destined for stormy seas. Every inch of space was strained. Few could move about. Parents took their children on their knees. Men squatted on the bulwarks, squeezed themselves into strange corners, lounged on the companionways.

Captain Grinstead, a man with over 20 years experience of the Thames, was active on the bridge with the first mate, Mr.Long. With tight little blasts on her shrill whistle, a round of cheering and applause from the pier, the thrash of the paddles, the Princess Alice got under way. It was 11am.

None sensed disaster, not even danger. Why would they? With the perfect sky above, the river as smooth as glass, land and the security that offered available on either side, and with the knowledge that home and friends were only a few miles distant, who would have predicted that, before the day was done, this happy ship’s company, on London’;s own Thames, was to encounter peril more sudden, more terrifying, more devastating than any deep-sea wreck might know?

Downstream River Thames

Downstream she sailed, the day-trippers cheering each popular landmark they passed. Bread was thrown to the gulls that darted, dipped and dived in the wake of the steamer. Cockney repartee was exchanged with fluent and friendly bargees. Sailors on the towering decks of steamers waved and called their cheerful greetings. Cheeky, puffing tugs whistled a welcome. The Princess Alice had the freedom of the river that fateful day.

This happy day, its events and joys, its discoveries and adventures, speeded by. In the early evening, as the Princess Alice was homeward bound from Sheerness in Kent, the 900 people aboard were tied but content. It had been a lovely escape from the noise and smell of 19th century London. The merriment lingered on and the Princess Alice steamed homeward bound.

Even the sleepy children could still find in the operations of the officers and crew, in the funnel, engines, ropes and windlasses, and in the passing pageant of the river, an endless source of fascination. There was no room to dance, save in an occasional huddled group, but voices rose in song to the accompaniment of concertina and flute, and the ship’s band.

Sweethearts linked hands as they leaned over the rails, seeing beyond the river into strange realms of romance. It is on record that there were several newly married couples on board, and for none can there have ever been any more tragic a honeymoon. Below decks in the big forward and aft saloons, the crowds were dense, surging even along the alleyways.

Calling at Gravesend Kent

At 6pm the Princess Alice called at Gravesend in Kent, and then began the last, fateful, unforgettable twenty-mile run back towards the London Bridge that hundreds aboard her were never to see again. Those on the shore at Gravesend who waved her farewell, saw her steer for London, her paddles thumping fitfully, very low in the water, did not dream that her cheerful parting whistle was indeed a tragic salute, that they were gazing on a ship of doom.

Between Gravesend and London Bridge, as every student of the river knows, the Thames winds tortuously, and the biggest bend of all is called Gallion’s Reach. The very name has a ring that is sinister. Gallion’s Reach, a name that was destined to be on the lips of millions – the sound of it to chill their hearts cold.

At Gallion’s Reach the navigator knows the need for caution. At least one serious collision had occurred here before the disaster to the Princess Alice. On this occasion the tide was running at the ebb, and to defeat its force the Princess Alice, whenever possible, hugged the bank of the Thames. She was in midstream, however, half-way down the Reach, off the City of London Gasworks at Beckton, and in sight of North Woolwich Pier, when catastrophe dealt the death-blow.

North Woolwich Pier

North Woolwich Pier

The Princess Alice Fateful Collision

It was about 8pm. The night had closed in. The moon was up.  There was a stillness and magic in the air.

Straight for the Princess Alice came the Bywell Castle, a collier (bulk coal carrying ship) of some 890 tons bound for the Tyne in the North of England, a “great black phantom,” as she was afterwards described. Without her cargo of coal, she stood high in the water, and to those aboard the little excursions steamer she seemed indeed a mammoth of the deep. Nearer she came, nearer still, until her great iron walls appeared to loom like a cliff overhead.

At first the day-trippers were blind to the danger. Strange and unaccustomed to the ways of ships and the river, they saw no menace in the close proximity of the Bywell Castle. With simple trust and honest faith, they knew no fear. Some even waved to shadowy forms high up on the Bywell Castle, for they could not see the faces of these men, nor the horror and apprehension written upon them.

The ship’s band played on. The singing continued. An all too familiar occurrence in tragic British maritime disasters.

Panic, Mayhem, Tragedy on The Thames

Then came the inevitable. For a second, like a great angry avenger, the Bywell Castle hovered over the starboard bow of the Princess Alice. With a dull, ripping crash of awful havoc, relentless and certain, the sharp edge of the great steel bow cut right into the vitals of the doomed pleasure steamer. The fatal blow was struck.

The Princess Alice, split and smashed, shook and quivered under the brutality of that fearful impact. But there was only one tremor. It was a death blow, ruthless, complete. The starboard paddle-box was splintered to fragments. The knife-edge bow of the Bywell Castle had driven right through to the engine-room. For all that mattered, the Princess Alice was sliced in two. Water gushed in, filling every void in its path. The forward part of the vessel sank like a bag of nails. Lifting slowly, almost to the perpendicular, the aft part stood for a few moments in the fashion of a huge, fantastic gravestone, and then was gone.

The sea-gulls wheeled and screeched overhead.

The Blame Falls Strongly

How did this dreadful thing happen? Who was to blame? the general public were stunned by the scale of the disaster, as well as baffled by the cause. So close to London’s bustling city. The technical and navigational issues were examined at both the subsequent inquest and inquiry, and there is no shadow of doubt that the Princess Alice was chiefly to blame, though Captain Grinstead, her master, who had perished, was never able, therefore, to enter a personal defence or explanation.

A popular and forgiving belief at the time was that both vessels blundered in a moment of crisis, but Captain Harrison, of the Bywell Castle, declared that as the two vessels were upon each other the Princess Alice went first to port and then to starboard across the collier’s bows. Knowing that a collision was inevitable, Captain Harrison gave the only possible orders – for the engines to be stopped and reversed at full speed, in what proved to be an unavailing effort to lessen the violence of the crash.

The Princess Alice was further to blame, inasmuch as there was carelessness in maintaining an adequate look-out, and for this the Court of Inquiry severely censured Mr. Long, the first mate. This lapse was also stressed at the inquest, and the coroner went so far as to assert that the Princess Alice was a totally unsuitable vessel to carry some 900 passengers, let alone provide for their safety in time of great peril.

Princess Alice

The Princess Alice

Fighting For Survival

In the moments that elapsed before the Princess Alice took the final plunge the scenes on deck were as fearful as any in disaster’s long and awful story. So sudden had been the calamity, so oblivious were the trippers to peril, that their very laughter was strangled in their throats by the surge of surprise, panic and terror. The first great mass scream that rose to the night sky was heard far inshore.

Many were mercifully killed outright where they sat or stood. Splinters of wreckage stabbed them, they were crushed and broken, but they lived scarcely long enough to know of feel the end.

Those in the two saloons below decks must have endured minutes of agony. When the vessel was raised evidence was found of a ghastly struggle for life in the aft saloon. Most of the men, it was conjectured, had fought their way out. Women and children, hampered in the stampede, lay huddled and crushed on the floor and in corners, jammed in the doorway in the last desperate bid to follow their menfolk. Women and children first was a blessing many years away.

To add to their sufferings the surge of the river water brought with it a screen of foul, black poisonous sewage. One uncanny discovery in the saloon was the ranks of drowned passengers, close together, in an upright position. They had died on their feet.

Above deck, left longer to endure the ordeal, a jumbled and hysterical mass of human beings struggled on the sloping deck of half a ship. So tightly were they jammed, as the deck inclined and shot them forward, that many who felt the urge found it impossible to jump overboard. Inhuman passions were unleashed.

How poignant, that a moment before these people were happy, friendly, with not selfish thought. “Can you picture for yourself what that sudden change from merriment to death meant?” Mr. G. W. Linnecar, a survivor answers his own question.

“It was eventide, and the loud laughter was succeeded by the wildest and most pitiful shrieks that could rend the still air. All of us seemed to drop down like skittles. Then there was a frightful struggle on the deck. Men, women and children rolled over and clutched and tore at each other; and all through were the ceaseless screaming and appeals for help. How, in such a sudden and unexpected catastrophe, could help be given?”

The River Thames Consumes

Mothers saw their babies wrenched from their arms, then fought, like wounded animals, even with their teeth, to regain them. In vain fathers endeavoured to fist and shove their way to the side of their loved ones; the wall of bodies was too strong, time too short, the curtain of eternity too quick to fall. Even the little children, with primitive impulse, fought to survive.

No words can be fitted into any sequence that will adequately mirror the anguish of those poor, demented souls. None shall blame them for their passions in these last moments in the Princess Alice. It was something more than panic. The conditions of that overcrowded deck were such that all reason was lost, no scruples existed. Trapped, baffled at every turn, crushed and in pain, the living piled on the dead, they could not even think. Instinct, blind and cruel, was all.

The screams lessened. They were gone.

But the tragedy of the Princess Alice had still another poignant act to play. In the water there were more terrible scenes. All around the spot where the vessel had sunk the river was black with heads. Their numbers were decimated as the no-swimmers sank; there was little wreckage to which they could cling on to.

The Princess Alice had carried a few small lifeboats and a number of lifebuoys, but even had the ship remained afloat sufficiently long for these to be lowered and distributed there would have been nowhere near enough to have ensured the safety of the nine hundred passengers. As it was, in view of the swift finality of the disaster, plus the overcrowding, there were useless.

The Bywell Castle Rescue Attempts

Captain Harrison, of the Bywell Castle, mustered all hands to assist in the work of rescue. The crew of the collier was a small one, but from master to deck hand, from fireman to steward, they worked in a frenzy of speed to save as many lives as possible from the struggling masses in the foul water of the Thames. Boats were lowered and life-lines thrown. The ship’s siren was sounded unceasingly in a call for assistance that was heard for miles around.

Not the least dreadful incident of the calamity was the tragedy of the Bywell Castle’s great iron anchor chain. A number of people upon the upper deck of the doomed steamer had leaped and climbed onto the anchor chain after the bow of the collier had crashed into the side of the Princess Alice. And there they hung suspended from the iron links, from the anchor itself, crying pitifully for aid.

By the irony of fate the answer to their prayers was yet another grim twist of circumstance. The Bywell Castle let go its anchor! Those clinging on disappeared with anchor and heavy chain into the murky waters of the Thames. The Bywell Castle had begun to drift downstream with the ebb tide, and it was probably to avert this that the order to lower the anchor had been given and obeyed.

In the history of ships and shipwrecks there has been no more poignant a requiem than the clank of that chain through the hawse-hole, as it carried those poor wretches who had thought it their salvation to a watery grave.

Many of those ropes cast as lifelines became death-lines. As one floundering , screaming victim caught as a ropes’ end. so another victim would cling desperately to him. Then another and another would do the same, forming a human chain. The result was inevitable. The victim holding the rope’s end would weaken under the strain and let go, the human chain would break – the River Thames would win again in the battle of life and death.

Nevertheless many were dragged to safety aboard the collier. Small craft sped in all directions from the shore. The Duke of Teck, another vessel belonging to the London Steamboat Company, arrived on the scene to join in the rescue work. A number of the strongest swimmers swam to the banks.

Beckton Gas Works

Search For The Dead in The Thames

The search for the dead continued all through the night down the river banks, and as the bodies were recovered they were placed temporarily in such places as Beckton Gas Works, Lawes’ Chemical Works and North Woolwich Gardens. The following day, for the convenience of relatives, they were collected, labelled and laid out reverently in a big shed in Woolwich Dockyard. Many of the dead, of course, were not discovered until the raising of the fore and aft parts of the Princess Alice, a morbid operation that was watched by large contingents of sightseers who poured into the area by rail, road and steamer.

Pitiful scenes were witnessed as bereaved relatives and friends identified the dead. One man had lost his father, mother and fiancée; one woman her husband and seven children. A superintendent of the London Steamboat Company lost his wife and four children, but remained courageous on duty. Saddest of all was the sight of little babies, looking in death as fragile as china, that lay unclaimed by any one.

International Grief Over The Tragedy

Of the nine hundred who had left London Bridge that delightful September morning over 700 perished. Never, perhaps, has the price of pleasure been so appalling. Certainly the Thames has never known so ghastly an incident before or since (written 1930s). Queen Victoria expressed constant sympathy, and a relief Fund was opened by the Lord Mayor of London.

The entire world was stunned by a disaster that was so near to the everyday lives of the common people, that drowned the laugher of innocents in the river’s guilty waters.

The End.

Original text from Michael Geelan and the book, Fifty Great Disasters &amp: Tragedies That Shocked The World.

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Malcolm Oakley - East London History - A Guide to London's East End.

I grew up on the fringes of London's true East End and have been fascinated by the ever changing history and landscape of the area.

Visitors and tourists to London may only ever explore the City centre but for those that care to travel further east, a rich and rewarding travel adventure awaits. So much of London's history owes a debt to the East End. Colourful characters, famous architecture, hidden treasures of changing life over the years.

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11 comments on “The Sinking of The Princess Alice
  1. Harry Wiggins says:

    Is there a museum with momento’s of the Princess Alice Disaster..?
    I have a Sterling Silver Handled walking stick, with the year of the disaster engraved in the silver.
    It was commissioned to forever remember the loss of life, thought to be by a man who lost his family.
    An interesting item

  2. Jim Denney says:

    Thank you for a very informative article. I recently visited Plumstead Old Cemetery London SE18 2DF where there is a very fine memorial to those who were killed in this tragedy, many of whom were buried in this cemetery. The memorial was funded by a sixpenny collection from members of the public. This demonstrates the impact that the disaster had. Well worth looking at if you are ever in the Plumstead area.

  3. Alexander Wilson says:

    I have a newspaper cutting from the British Weekly of October 1936. Entitled ‘George Woolcott’
    DEAR SIR,- I have been a constant reader of your paper for 20 years, and you can imagine my delight on reading the life of George Woolcott. As a boy I was at work on the pier at Beckton and the son of George Woolcott was a watchman at the time. This was the year 1878. On the night of that terrible disaster to the Princess Alice, I saw Woolcott go out in the river and rescue a small boy and a young girl in a small boat. He had a great struggle and was a dear old man. I am now an old man but such remembrances make me think of the old days, when men were men and christians. He was also like his father, a Christian man, and the latter part of his life I believe he was a great sufferer through an accident. – I am, yours faithfully, J.OAKLEY.

    George Woolcott is my great great grandfather and his son (the rescuer) is George Theophilus Woolcott born 16.7.1825 @ Exeter, Devon. Merchant Mariner. Died 1890 Barking . Lived at 32 Queens Road, Barking (1891) and at 12 White St, Bethnal Green (1852).

    • Thank you very much for your comment. Very informative, in a twist of fate I live very close now to Exeter. Having lived as a child in Ilford, spending many hours cycling around Beckton and North Woolwich.

      • Alexander Wilson says:

        Thanks Malcolm,
        My Dad was from Exmouth; lovely part of the world!

        My great great grandfather was George Woolcott, he fought in Nelsons Navy as a marine and after 23 years service became an evangelist and preacher at the Mariners’ Church in Wellclose Square, which I’m sure you know. George left a diary from 1828 which details his work in the ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ of London docklands. I will be happy to send you a digitised version of the diary if you are interested. It deals at length with the destruction of the Brunswick Theatre in Wellclose Square in 1828. This event was also described by Dickens.

  4. Peter Conium says:

    I have a penny that has been engraved ” CH saved from the princess Alice sept 3rd 1878″. It was amongst coins given to me by my grandfather 50 years ago. I have no idea how he got it but assume it was in general circulation..

  5. Hello I have been reading the accounts of this for the last few days ,I have lived in the east end all my life and cant believe I have only just heard of this disaster, my family was ment to be on the marcheness that night as my dad was ment to be working there white his friends but for some reason they all stayed at home ,I have found a few pages with lists this may help you thanks and all the best ,glen http://www.alsbury.co.uk/princessalice/alice0.htm

  6. Beryl Flint says:

    I have just read the above account of the Thje Princess Alice disaster. I am
    the grand-daughter of one of the survivors – George Ernest Everist (he was about 7years old at the time). But he had a brother who also survived.
    I wonder if anyone who may read this can advise me how I can get a list of the survivors names.
    (I am doing my family history).
    I would be very grateful for any assistance/info.
    Regards
    Beryl Flint

    • Ray Dodge says:

      I have just finished reading. The princess Alice disaster. Written by joan lock currently available. It has a list of survivors and victims included

    • Phyllis Clark says:

      I don’t know if you have you have found what you were looking for but I just come across the Passsenger List of the Princess Alice.. It is very informative, just type into Google Princess Alice 1978 Passenger List.

      Our family lived in North Woolwich and the sinking was remembered by Grandmother.

      Enjoy your read.

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