A full capacity of passengers boarded the paddle steamer, the Princess Alice, on 3 September 1878 – many were on holiday, including a school children, as well as a party of invalids in wheel chairs, who were to partake of a breath of ozone at Sheerness. The journey down stream was uneventful, but things changed with the return trip. At each of the boarding stops, many day trippers pleaded for permission to board the already crowded steamer. A few hundred were squeezed onboard. Captain William Grinstead turned away many more. The return should have taken two hours; they were to set in at Woolwich Pier and the Old Stairs landing-stage by London Bridge – a 30 mile journey from the idyllic countryside to London’s “Smoke.”
The Princess Alice was a wooden paddle steamer, some 220 feet long and 35 feet wide. The 251 tons vessel belonged to the London Steamboat Company, having been built in Greenock in 1856. The Princess Alice had been a favorite of the day trippers and of those who followed the popular sailing barge races. These enthusiasts often hired the Princess Alice to follow in the wake of their favourite Spritty. The steamer had also once carried the Shad of Persia and was sometimes known as the “Shah’s Boat.” (The River Thames Police Museum)
In the mid 1850s, “International Law” had determined that steamship should follow specific rules of navigation when at sea: One such rule required they pass each other port side to port side. Unfortunately, these rules were not enforced on the River Thames. “Economics alone ruled. Time and money without consideration for such a regulation, forced shallow craft ‘punching the tide’ to short-shore; that is to cut the corners using a straight line from point to point or ness, and so passing across both shipping lanes. Of course, if there was no traffic coming in the opposite direction when carrying out the economy, it was all right. This not only reduced the distance considerably, but also permitted easier progress in the lee of each ness where the tide was less strong. Vessels traveling ‘with the tide’ used the middle of the river were the tide was fiercest and beneficial, and as navigation with the following tide was less accurate, safer. What was about to happen, or, on the minds of those controlling the Princess Alice that fateful evening is unknown; for most who did know, did not live to tell the tale.” (The River Thames Police Museum)
The Princess Alice approach was on the Kent or south-shore, coming up Barking Reach and passing Tripcock Point into Galleons Reach. Traveling down the centre of Galleons Reach was an empty collier in ‘ballast,’ journeying back to Newcastle. “With a high freeboard the Bywell Castle, an iron built screw-ship of 890 tons, 256 feet in length. Captained by master Mariner and part owner Thomas Harrison and controlled by a qualified pilot, Christopher Dix, had sailed from Millwall Dock at about 1830 at high water – on the turn of the tide – running seawards at half speed with it. The crew on the collier’s bridge saw the Princess Alice across the low headland as she rounded the point on their starboard hand, both vessels had their navigation lights on, so the paddler would at that moment be showing a red (port) light, and they a green (starboard) navigation light on the other vessel. Although it was not obvious at that angle to guess which shore the paddler was navigating, the collier was mid river. Shipping was light and the river about half a mile wide at that point; there appeared to be, and was, plenty of room for them to pass safely. The Bywell Castle‘s bridge party assumed at the time that the two vessels would pass according to the ‘International Law.'”
At a speed of about 18 knots (20 mph) the vessels meant to pass each other, with the Princess Alice to pass “across the bow of the collier towards the Essex shore, her correct station before straightening up into Galleons Reach.” All should have remained well, but when the Princess Alice made her turn for the Galleons Reach, she came across the bow of the collier again. It was 19:20 hours when the pilots ordered “stop engine” and then “full astern.” John Ayres, the lone survivor “from the raised walkway used as a bridge on the Princess Alice was ordered to: ‘…mind your helm, on account of the tide’ and to: ‘correct the swing.’ Captain Grinstead standing out on the port paddle box commanded him at the last moment before impact: ‘Hard over.’
The Bywell Castle first sliced into the starboard side of the Princess Alice at the paddle-box and nearly cut her in two. The heavier collier wrapped the Princess Alice about its bow. When the collier went full astern to pry the vessels apart, the water rushed in – the boiler of the steamer burst and the weakened hull broke in two. The passengers were dumped into the Thames to find the Barking sewer had released raw sewage into the river for it to be washed away with the tide.
Estimates said that the two parts of the steamer sank within four minutes. Those who had booked cabins between the decks had no opportunity for escape. “Nearly everything went wrong, costing the lives of almost everyone aboard, passengers and crew alike. There were only two lifeboats on davits carried, no rafts or lifebelts and just a few life rings, insufficient even if there had been time to launch them correctly. The tide began bearing some would be survivors away from the collier and possible rescue, while Captain Harrison, seeing all the people in the river around his vessel had stopped his engines and had drawn the fires. He could push ahead for fear of injuring those nearby and was unable to turn the propeller through lack of steam and anyway, his engineers and stokers were in his lifeboats trying to rescue the drowning. The collier’s crew did all they could to save as many people as possible: they launched their own lifeboats; other hands on the forecastle threw lifebuoys, ladders, and lines to those struggling in the river below. Swimming had never been a popular pastime in Victorian London, and the long many petticoated dresses of women were an impossible impediment. Many apparently, just clung to their children and sank from sight.” (The River Thames Police Museum)
The majority of those losing their lives were women and children. By all estimates, 640 perished that day. Those who investigated the accident believe 86% of those on board met their Maker that day. The inquest records show the majority of those who died in the water did so with 8 minutes time lapse. The Bywell Castle eventually was able to refire its boiler and moored at Deptford. The Illustrated London News ran a double page spread showing the Princess Alice being sliced by the Bywell Castle. For some time following the accident, Captain Harrison was looked upon as the culprit of the disaster.
Many bodies could not be identified, and those were washed and shrouded and placed in a mass grave. The Princess Alice’s sinking led to public outcry for new regulations. In addition to the proper passage, all passenger carrying vessels must stand for inspection and earn an annual license to operate. Qualified men must pilot the ship and the number of passengers is limited, with sufficient lifeboats and rafts available. On the Thames today, certain types of vessels are forbidden on specific stretches of the water. Unfortunately, although exonerated by the inquest, Captain Harrison faced continued public contempt. He suffered a breakdown and never sailed again.
For further information, consult The Great Thames Disaster by Galvin Thurston.