On the evening of Tuesday, 3rd September, 1878, the pleasure steamer the Princess Alice, under the command of Captain Grinstead, was returning to London from Sheerness, loaded with between 700 and 800 passengers who had enjoyed sundry day excursions to Kent.
Having made several stops, the steamer was continuing up the river with most of the passengers on the upper deck.
With dusk falling, Captain Grinstead headed for midstream. Unbeknown to him, a large collier ship was, at that moment, heading downriver, and London’s worst River disaster was about to occur.
THE DISASTER UNFOLDS
The Dundee Courier reported on the horror of what followed in its edition of Thursday, 5th September, 1878:-
“[The Captian] hove into midstream, with all the lights lit, one at the masthead and the one on each paddle box, came out into the middle of the Thames, intending to cross over to the other side with all these lights set, and everything went well until he got into midstream.
THE BYWELL CASTLE APPEARS
At the moment the steamer cleared the point, a big ship was reported coming right across her, and many passengers hearing this at once began to shout for help.
Captain Grinstead ordered the engines to be reversed and her helm to be put up with the view of avoiding the collision, but his efforts were of no avail.
On came the big ship, the steamer Bywell Castle, of London, and it was apparent to all on board the pleasure boat that collision must ensue.
THERE WAS NO ESCAPE
Do what the Captain of the Princess Alice would he could not escape.
His ship, with her engines reversed, must, with the impetus given her, cross the Bywell Castle, which the latter could not get clear, as although her engines were stopped, the tide was carrying her on with great velocity.
The consternation on board the steamer can be better imagined than described.
A rush was at once made to clear the vessel amidships as it was seen she must be struck there. This effort was partially successful, but some had to remain in the centre part of the ship, and many of these were injured by the actual collision, as evidenced by the injured features of some of the deceased persons.
The actual crash of the collision was not very great, and as the two vessels hung together, there was a general belief among all the passengers that the damage was not serious. Thus the entreaties of the men in charge not be afraid had some effect, but this was only of temporary character.
SHE MUST SINK
No sooner had the Captain of the collier given orders to go astern than the powerful engines of the Bywell Castle separated the two craft, and it became apparent to the excursionists on board the Princess Alice that she must go down.
The water rushed into the immense aperture which had been made in the sides of so fragile a craft, and in a minute the Princess Alice went to the bottom, carrying with her a large number of her late merrymaking cargo.
The cries of distress from the poor creatures struggling in the water were most heartrending…”
A SALOON STEAMER RUN DOWN IN THE THAMES
GREAT LOSS OF LIFE
The Pall Mall Gazette had, on Wednesday, 4th September, 1878, given a detailed account of the awful aftermath of the collision:-
About twenty minutes to eight o’clock last night the well-known saloon steamer Princess Alice was returning from Sheerness with a load of passengers on board variously estimated at 700 to 800, when, just off what is known as Tripcock’s Point, a bend in the river about a mile below Woolwich, she was run into by an iron screw collier named the Bywell Castle, bound in ballast from Millwall Docks to the Tyne, the latter being at the time in the charge of a pilot named Christopher Dicks, of Stepney.
The huge iron vessel appears to have come full tilt on to the Princess Alice, striking her on the port side, near the sponson, and almost literally cutting her in halves, and causing her to sink in about eighteen feet of water in something like five minutes.
OTHER SHIPS TO THE RESCUE
The steamer appears to have at once stopped, and thrown over her lifebuoys and lines, afterwards lowering some boats, in which some of the survivors and a number of dead bodies were picked up.
There happened, fortunately, to be a few shore boats in the vicinity, and they rendered all the assistance they could, which was, however, but little comparatively, so many of the unfortunate travellers being imprisoned like the sailors in the Eurydice [HMS Eurydice was a 26-gun Royal Navy corvette which was the victim of one of Britain’s worst peacetime naval disasters when she sank in 1878.]
The steamer Duke of Teck, belonging, like the Princess Alice, to the London Steamboat Company, was about ten minutes behind her; but when she arrived it was too late to be of any assistance.
MANY LIVES LOST
She, however, took on board the survivors and dead bodies that were on board the Bywell Castle, and conveyed them to the Arsenal Pier, where the bodies were laid out in the board-room of the company’s offices, and those rescued received such attention as they required.
The total number of lives lost cannot be stated with accuracy, but is believed to be more than 700.
A despatch dated from Woolwich, Wednesday, eight o’clock, says:- “The bodies of the unfortunate victims are distributed over a large area, in consequence of the tide running out at the time of the accident, and it would be difficult to say how many have yet to be recovered. There are upwards of twenty lying in the pier-house waiting to be identified, and four more in the town hall.”
There is little to be added to the terrible story of the loss of the Princess Alice. The later information received, indeed, makes it seem probable that the loss of life is even more serious than was at first anticipated. There are believed to have been about 800 souls on board, and, of these, only about seventy are known to survive.
FRIENDS AND RELATIVES ARRIVE
Great numbers of persons are arriving in Woolwich seeking their lost friends, and it is painful to see them hurrying from place to place without gaining tidings.
Several bodies have been recovered this morning, and more are being hourly picked up. The other places being full they are now being taken to the town hall. Sixteen of the survivors are at the union infirmary, Plumstead, where, after their night’s rest, and removed from the scene of excitement, they are able to give a calm account of the peril through which they have passed.
A SURVIVOR’S ACCOUNT
One survivor in his account of the catastrophe says:- “My brother and I swam together to the screw-ship and caught hold of a rope which someone threw over to us. The screw had stopped, and did what it could to save life, but it did not lower any boats. I saw four or five men on board, and they said they had no boats.
The money-taker of the Princess Alice climbed up the chain of the funnel, and got on board the screw as she came flashing in, and I also saw one of the stewards catch hold of the anchor chain. I believe these two afterwards came ashore.
My brother and I got faint clinging to the rope, and let go. We swam about till we got hold of a boat, and dragged on there for a while, until at last the man in charge of the boat took us in. ti was busy looking for timber.
We were taken on shore at Barking Creek, and lodged at the Crooked Billet, together with a woman who was lying in the boat alive. We were in the water about twenty minutes before there was any apparent danger. I saw two clergymen on the saloon deck singing hymns and the fellows down aft were singing songs. The captain and crew were all steady.”
Wednesday Morning, Gravesend:-
The steamer which ran down the Princess Alice is undoubtedly the Bywell Castle.
One of the crew of the Princess Alice named Rand, who was at the wheel last night when the collision occurred, saved himself by getting into the fore chains of the Bywell Castle.
Mr. Jury, a pilot, of Gravesend, says that as he was coming down the river last night with the screw steamer Hugh Taylor he heard that a steamer had been run down, and lowered a boat to render assistance.
The scene was a most appalling one. The unfortunate passengers were in the water in great numbers, and every small boat seemed full, while others were clinging to them and frantically calling out to be taken in.
The Hugh Taylor lowered four boats, and anchored near the spot. Lifebuoys were thrown over, and other buoyant articles cast adrift.
Everything was done with the utmost alacrity and promptitude to save life, but they only succeeded in rescuing four persons, all of whom, however, died shortly afterwards.”
A THURSDAY MORNING UPDATE
The Pall Mall Gazette, on Thursday, 5th September, 1878, provided the following update on the disaster:-
Mrs. Emma Standish, one of the rescued, who was taken to the union infirmary at Plumstead, died this morning of chronic bronchitis, accelerated by the shock and immersion. She was sixty-one years of age, and resided at 87, Cornwall-road, Lambeth.
A boy about five years old has been found at a house in Woolwich, and taken to the infirmary He says his name is Freddy Lambert.
Several of the survivors remain at the infirmary, and there is the same continual procession to and fro of persons with mournful, anxious faces, vainly hoping to find among the few who are there the friends whom they miss.
The Rev. Mr. Balchin, the chaplain, Dr. Rice, the medical superintendent, Miss Wilkinson, the matron, and all the officials receive the unhappy wanderers with great kindness, as well as taking care of the patients left under their charge. Colonel Travers, Royal Artillery, chairman of the guardians, and several of his colleagues, are at their post in the crisis; and a telegram was early received from Mrs. Mynn of the Nursing Institution, Oxford-street, proffering the aid of as many nurses as might be required.
A man named Frederick Grebler, pork butcher, of 18, Three Colt-street, Limehouse, has been carried to the infirmary with a broken leg, sustained in jumping from a boat to the Plumstead shore after visiting the wreck.
The names of missing persons received by the police exceed three hundred, and of these more than thirty belong to Woolwich and Plumstead.
FROM ANOTHER CORRESPONDENT
Woolwich, Thursday Morning.
All the bodies which have been recovered in West Kent have been brought for identification to the Woolwich Dockyard. Two large sheds have been set aside for their reception. Those which are identified are laid on one side and those not identified are laid on the other.
The work of clearing the sheds, which were full of cannons, ambulance waggons, and all sorts of war material began about eight o’clock last night.
After the sheds had been cleared, a large number of the men of the ambulance department set to work in real earnest. The military ambulance waggons were despatched, and at nine o’clock seven waggons with twenty-eight dead, four in each carriage, arrived.
By this time the floors of the sheds had been all laid with blankets and a number of large lanterns had been placed all round the shed; other lanterns were hung from the roof.
MORE DEAD BROUGHT IN
At ten o’clock, the ambulance waggons with many more dead began to arrive fast, and for some hours the ambulance corps were occupied in bringing them in on litters. While this was going on at the town entrance, a messenger arrived to say that a steamer was coming up the river with another large number of dead from Erith and places on the Essex shore.
As it was nearing eleven, a red light from a steamer was seen approaching the dockyard pier. Shortly afterwards the captain was calling out, “We have brought the dead from Erith. Have you any stretchers?”
“Yes”, was the reply. And the steamer then pulled up at the dockyard pier, and the men of the ambulance corps with lanterns and litters boarded her and brought in the bodies, and as before laid them side by side.
At a late hour, many distressed friends were in Woolwich streets. Your correspondent talked to many who from the early part of yesterday had been going from place to place in search of their friends without finding them, and were anxiously waiting every arrival at the dock yard sheds.
THE FIRST OFFICER’S ACCOUNT
The following is the narrative of George Thomas Long, the first officer of the Princess Alice, who was saved from the wreck:-
“The crew of our boat consisted of thirteen hands all told, and when we left Sheerness on the return trip we had as nearly as possible 550 passengers. As we called at Gravesend and Rosherville later on, however, we must on leaving the latter place have had fully 600 passengers on board.
We started from Rosherville at a quarter past six, and all went well until on running up Gullior’s Reach, while standing on the fore saloon, the captain being on the bridge and a man and a boy on the look-out, I observed a large black steamer coming down the river.
THE BYWELL CASTLE APPEARS
It was then just half-past seven, and the weather was fine and calm, and the moon shining beautifully over the water.
On rounding Tripcock Point, the vessel’s helm had been starboarded to pass a screw steamer bound down the river, and still remained so, and at this moment we saw the vessel, which proved to be the Bywell Castle.
Our engines were immediately stopped.
The other vessel appeared to be coming down upon us stem on, and, looming in the evening haze like a great black phantom, gave me a foreboding of the unhappy disaster. She was then about 15o yards distant, and each vessel was, of course, rapidly nearing the other.
IT WAS TOO LATE
Our whistle was at once sounded and loud shouts raised by the man at the look-out and others on deck to the Bywell Castle; but it was then, I fear, too late.
Seeing the collision inevitable, I ran to the life-boat, but before I could reach it the Bywell Castle had twice crashed into us. She struck our vessel with her stern on the fore sponson, cutting clean through into the engine-room.
For a moment we were locked together, and then we heard the water rushing in below, and a minute later we sank with the boat. I soon rose to the surface, and striking out for shore was picked up by a waterman. We rescued our second mate and six passengers. The helm of the vessel was still at starboard when we struck and the engines stopped.”
GREAT LOSS OF LIFE
The Princess Alice disaster resulted in the greatest loss of life of any British inland shipping accident. The death toll was put at between 600 and 700 people, but since no headcount of passengers was actually done as they boarded the vessel, the true total has never been known.