‘In scenes of indescribable panic and confusion, men, women and children fought to escape the sinking vessel, but it was hopeless. Of the 700 believed to have been on board, at least 650 perished’
On the evening of Tuesday 3 September 1878, the Princess Alice paddle steamer was making her way up the Thames on her return journey from Sheerness to London. The weather had been fine and her passengers had enjoyed a day’s pleasure trip to the Kent coast.
The Princess Alice, was one of the most popular of all the early excursion pleasure craft on the Thames, was shattered like an eggshell and cut in half by the knife-edge bows of a sea-going outward-bound coal boat. In a split second, the 700 passengers were at the mercy of the river.
There could have been little thought of danger in the minds of the 700, day-trippers who boarded Princess Alice on a fine autumn morning. A day’s river trip outing to the seaside was the only holiday many London kids got in those days. Everything seemed just right, even the weather. The Princess Alice was making what was billed as a ‘Moonlight Trip’ from Swan Pier, near London Bridge, downstream to Sheerness, Kent, and back.
On the morning of the disaster, the weather was bright, and the passengers were excited as the pleasure steamer set off from London and headed out to catch the end of the summer sun and the fresh sea air of Sheerness.
It was an inexpensive trip – tickets were about two shillings, depending on which stop passengers travelled to. Most of the approximately 700 people on board were upper working-class or lower-middle-class families.
The boat left London about 11.00 in the morning, heading downstream for Gravesend, a distance of thirty-one miles, and from there, on to Sheerness. The trip to Gravesend normally took less than ninety minutes and once there, many of the excursionists went on to one or the other of the tourist attractions, for Gravesend was becoming a popular resort town in the nineteenth century.
The Princess Alice pulled out of Gravesend and headed back up the Thames at just after 6.00 pm. The passengers who had paid 2shillings for the day trip must have felt that their money was well spent. The weather had been kind, although by 7.40 pm, as the boat approached Woolwich pier there was an almighty crash. The passengers then heard a grazing and grinding at the side of the vessel, then a sudden stop, and then another terrible crash of shivered and splintering timbers. Amid the confusion and screams of the passengers, water was rushing in below and the boat began to sink.
Passengers then saw the bows of the huge iron-cased ship towering above as high and inaccessible as the walls of a castle. The Bywell Castle was a newly repainted steam collier of 890 tons bound for Newcastle to pick up a cargo of coal for Alexandria, Egypt.
In the ensuing chaos, some threw themselves into the water, others attempted to climb aboard the Bywell Castle, and a great number were trapped below decks when the two boats collided. A few were hanging onto the chain at the bows, but what was one chain for 700 people, most of them helpless women and children, all crowding and trampling one another in a boat which was doomed to sink to the bottom of the Thames. The shrieks, prayers, and wails of helpless agony were heartrending.
The Princess Alice didn’t stand a chance against a ship four times her size. Within minutes she sank to the bottom of the river. In scenes of indescribable panic and confusion, men, women and children fought to escape the sinking vessel. But it was hopeless. Of the 700 believed to have been on board, at least 650 have perished.
Although there were a dozen lifebuoys on board and several lifeboats, the accident took place with such speed it would have been impossible to organise their use. They rescued about 130 people from the collision, but many died later from ingesting the water. Princess Alice sank at the point where London’s sewage pumping stations were sited. The twice-daily release of 75 million gallons of raw sewage from the sewer outfalls Abbey Mills, at Barking, and the Crossness Pumping Station had occurred one hour before the collision.
In a letter to The Times shortly after the collision, a chemist described the outflow as: Two continuous columns of decomposed fermenting sewage, hissing like soda-water, with gases so black the water was stained for miles.
For weeks decaying bodies were washed up on the riverbank. The tragedy, now largely forgotten, dominated newspaper headlines for weeks and led to changes to the shipping industry.
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