The sinking of the Princess Alice: How the worst inland water disaster in the UK influenced the disposal of sewage

The greatest inland water disaster in Britain took place in 1878 with the loss of an estimated 700 lives. Despite over 130 people being rescued, many perished afterwards from the horrific pollution of the river, leading to major changes in practices for waste disposal on the Thames, among improvements to safety on board the country’s waters.

Pamphlet showing Princess Alice being rammed by Bywell Castle; some people are seen in the water. The pamphlet is titled "The Loss of the Princess Alice"

SS Princess Alice, formerly PS Bute, was a passenger paddle steamer that sank on 3 September 1878 after a collision with the collier Bywell Castle on the River Thames. She began her career in Scotland, before being sold to the Woolwich Steampacket Company (later known as the London Steampacket Company) and was renamed Princess Alice after Queen Victoria’s fourth child.

Under the London Steamboat Company she was captained by William RH Grinstead. A passenger steamer, she carried passengers on a stopping service from Swan Pier (near London Bridge) down to Sheerness, Kent, and back. From 1873-78 she gained a reputation as a safe and reliable steamer, passing Board of Trade inspections and being deemed safe to carry up to 936 passengers. Some of her famous passengers included Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, the Shah of Persia, after which she became known to many locals as “The Shah’s boat”.

Collision

3 September 1878, Princess Alice was travelling in the dark when she collided with the Bywell Castle, breaking into three parts and sinking within four minutes, bringing hundreds of her passengers down with her.

The journey had been billed as a “Moonlight Trip” owing to the time of day. Some of her stops included Rosherville, where passengers often alighted to visit the Rosherville Pleasure Gardens.  Departing Rosherville at about 6.30pm on her return to Swan Pier, Princess Alice was believed to be at almost full capacity (without any records or passenger lists, however, this can never be proven).

Between 7:20 pm and 7:40 pm, Princess Alice come within sight of the North Woolwich Pier—where many passengers were to disembark—when Bywell Castle was sighted. Bywell Castle usually carried coal to Africa, but had just been repainted at a dry dock. Travelling down the river, she kept roughly to the middle of the river, except where other craft were in her way.

Around Gallions Reach, Grinstead, travelling up the river against the tide, followed the normal watermen’s practice of seeking the slack water on the south side of the river. He altered the ship’s course, bringing her into the path of Bywell Castle. The captain of Bywell Castle, Dix, tried to manoeuvre his vessel out of a collision course, and ordered the engines to be put in reverse, but it was too late.

Princess Alice was struck, she split in two and sank within four minutes—her boilers separating from the structure as it sank.

Rescue Operation

An immediate rescue operation got underway. The crew of Bywell Castle dropped ropes from their deck for the passengers of Princess Alice to climb; they also threw anything that would float into the water for people to hold. Other crew from Bywell Castle launched their lifeboat and rescued 14 people, and crews from boats moored nearby did the same. Nearby boatmen launched vessels to rescue who they could.

But it was a poisoned chalice. Victorian fashion meant that many of the female passengers couldn’t stay afloat due to their long, heavy dresses; furthermore many of the passengers were unable to swim. In total, about 130 people were rescued, but several died later from ingesting the water.

It was not possible to know exactly how many people were on board, but with 640 bodies recovered, it is understood to be close to the 700 mark. The search continued long after the vessel had gone under – local watermen were hired for £2 a day to search for bodies, with a minimum price of five shillings a day for those they recovered (although this often led to fights over corpses).

One of those bodies recovered was that of Captain Grinstead, but identifying the corpses was no mean feat. The pollution and sewage meant that the bodies were covered in slime and began to decay much quicker than normal. This fact was to lead to some major improvements in the disposal of Victorian London’s waste…

Sewage

Princess Alice sank at the point where London’s sewage pumping stations were. Twice per day, 75 million gallons of raw (untreated) sewage was pumped from nearby stations into the Thames. The water was also polluted by an untreated output from the nearby Beckton Gas Works, and several local gas work. And as if that wasn’t enough, a fire nearby earlier that day meant that oil and petroleum had entered the river.

The water was undoubtedly not fit for human survival.

Inquests

Two inquests were held into the sinking of the Princess Alice, one by the coroner, and another by the Board of Trade.

The coroner concluded that although the Princess Alice was seaworthy at the time of the incident, and within the limits for the number of passengers it should carry. However it concluded that the vessel was no properly manned and did not have adequate life-saving mechanisms on board.

The Board of Trade inquiry decided that the Princess Alice had violated regulations by not passing the Bywell Castle on the port side, and thus the Bywell Castle could not have avoided the collision. Grinstead died in the collision, so the subsequent investigations never established why he made the decisions he did. 

Aftermath

In the aftermath of the sinking, changes were made to the release and treatment of sewage, and it was transported to, and released into, the sea. The London Metropolitan Board of Works began to purify sewage, rather than dumping untreated waste into the river. Sludge boats were also commissioned to ship waste for dumping to the North Sea, a practise that continued until 1998.

Additionally, the Marine Police Force—the branch of the Metropolitan Police that had responsibility for policing the Thames—were provided with steam launches, after the rowing boats used up to that point had proved insufficient. The Royal Albert Dock, which opened in 1880, helped to separate heavy goods traffic from smaller boats; this and global adoption of emergency signalling lights on boats both helped avoid future tragedies.

But in a cruel twist of fate, five years after the collision, Bywell Castle sank in the Bay of Biscay with the loss of all 40 crew.

Memorials

23,000 people donated to a sixpennyfund, a memorial Celtic cross was erected in Woolwich Cemetery in May 1880.

In 2008 a National Lottery grant funded the installation of a memorial plaque at Barking Creek to mark the 130th anniversary of the sinking.

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Harvard’s Glass Flowers and the story of the father and son who made them

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants (known as the Glass Flowers) at Harvard Museum of Natural History, and was blown away by its story!

Yep, you read it right – GLASS Flowers. Over 4,300 of them to be exact, and all made by a father-and-son team – Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. Over 827 life-size models of glass flowers, as well as over 3,000 models of enlarged parts-of-flowers, representing nearly 800 different species of plants.

But here’s the twist – Leopold and Rudolf were not botanists (how’s that’s possible considering their attention to detail, I’ll never know).

This collection is unique, the only known collection of it’s kind in the world. Commissioned in 1886 by Professor George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum, the aim of the exhibition was as teaching mechanisms for teaching, botany and also serve as an exhibit it what was the Museum (forerunner of the Harvard Museum of Natural History).

Back to the bit on glass. At first glance, you would never believe these flowers were glass. How could they be? I had to be told before I believed it. Goodale wanted to have a collection of teaching tools that were nothing but the best and of a standard deemed acceptable for Harvard. Up to then, botany was taught using pressed and carefully labelled specimens, which presented problems: pressed plants were 2D and tended to lose their colour. So Goodale wanted to find a method of teaching botany that involved 3D specimens that were durable.

Enter the experts. Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf Blaschka (1857-1939), were glass artists who lived and worked in Hosterwitz, Germany, near Dresden. They had previously produced several glass marine invertebrates for Harvard. Goodale then had the brainwave to commission his specimens out of glass.

Now for the next challenge – the age-old chestnut of funding. Before sending samples, an advance payment of 200 marks was required. When the Blaschkas sent their sample glass models (which all got damaged at Customs), it was enough still to convince Goodale that he needed to proceed with the commission. So he approached his former student Mary Lee Ware and her mother with the idea. Enchanted by the (damaged) sample models, Mary and her mother agreed to funded the project.

Initially the contract was part-time, but after 3 years, in 1890, the Blaschkas agreed to a new contract. Now they worked full-time on the Harvard glass flowers collection, fully funded by the Wares. The collection still carries the name of its funders today. After the death of Leopold in 1895, Rudolf carried on making the collection up until 1936, amounting to over 4,300 pieces covering over 800 species in immense detail.

The Glass Flowers are now on permanent display in the Harvard Museum of Natural History where they draw nearly 200,000 visitors each year.

How Shakespeare influenced the introduction of one of America’s most widespread bird species

Starling (Public Domain)

March 6, 1890. The starling is released in Central Park, an invasive species brought over from Europe by a New Yorker named Eugene Scheiffelin. It was a love of Shakespeare that caused this enthusiast to introduce one of America’s greatest pests to continent.

When Eugene Schieffelin introduced 60 European starlings into New York’s Central Park as part of his ambition to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare to North America, he probably didn’t assess the damage liability.

Born in 1827, and the son of a prominent New York lawyer born into one Manhattan’s oldest families, Schieffelin was a drug manufacturer and amateur ornithologist with links to the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, and the New York Zoological Society. A Shakespeare enthusiast, he was also a founding member of the American Acclimatization Society, a group that aimed to help exchange plants and animals from one part of the world to another.

Victorian societies such as the American Acclimatization Society were fashionable in the late 1900s, but the scientific effects of introducing a non-native species to an ecosystem were not yet known. But after Schieffelin’s death 16 years later in 1906, these effects were to become known.

Indeed, it wasn’t the first time Schieffelin had introduced a non-native avian species to the US. 30 years earlier, he sponsored the introduction of the house sparrow to North America. They are now an estimated 540 million house sparrows in North America! And after the initial release of 60 starlings in 1890, Scheiffelin released a further 40 in 1891. He wanted them to stay…and they did.

Initially, the birds stayed within the realms of Central Park. When the first nesting pair were discovered in the eaves of the Museum of Natural History in 1896, people rejoiced. But the starling was soon to become a menace as it spread across the US, up to Alaska, down to Mexico, today numbering an estimated 200 million.

But why such a menace? Well, the introduction of this non-native species has come at the expense of many native birds that compete for nesting holes in trees. They have had a major impact on the US economy and ecosystem, and have even caused human deaths by nesting in aircraft, among other places.

For the Schieffelin, the project was down to two things: a love of Shakespeare, and a love of birds. When he opened that cage on that cold day in 1890, he probably couldn’t have estimated the impact his endeavour was to have on the continent.

But as numbers spread, so did novel methods to contain the starlings. In Hartford, Connecticut in 1914, residents tried scaring the birds away by tying teddy bears to the tree starlings were nesting in, and firing rockets through the branches. Over 30 years later, with numbers greater than ever, in 1948 the superintendent of sanitation in Washington, D.C., tried using artificial owls to scare away the birds, and when that didn’t work, he put itching powder on the trees to keep them out.

And the starling even made it’s way to the White House. The White House tried speakers that emitted owl calls. The famous columns of the House were fitted with electrified wires to discourage starlings from roosting in it.

But nothing worked. Soon they were expanding right across to the West Coast – in their MILLIONS. And they were taking their toll of human life, too. In October4, 1960, a Lockheed Electra plummeted seconds after taking off from Logan Airport in Boston, killing 62 people in what is to date America’s worst bird-strike. Some 10,000 starlings had flown straight into the plane, crippling its engines.

Today, from Alaska right down to Mexico, it’s believed that there are over 200 million starlings in North America – and it’s all down to one man and his love of literature.

What about Schieffelin’s endeavour to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare to the US? Well, his attempts to introduce bullfinches, chaffinches, song thrushes, nightingales, and skylarks were not so successful. They didn’t have the same staying power as starlings.

On the 100th anniversary of the introduction, the New York Times said Schieffelin’smotives were as romantic as they were ill fated.He probably couldn’t have estimated their drastic impact of ecology and human life. But the legacy of his feat is phenomenal.

Further Reading:

Remembering the Bethnal Green Tube disaster

The single-biggest loss of life of civilian life in London during WWII happened was not caused by a German bomb – in fact, it happened on a night when not a single bomb fell. It was a human crush which cost the lives of 173 people.

3 March 1943. By now, Londoners were well-accustomed to the air-raid siren. Tragedy had occurred not caused by the bombs themselves – earlier in the war, over 60 people had been killed when a mains pipe burst in Balham, causing people sheltering underground in the Tube station to perish. 

At 8.17pm, the air-raid Civil Defence siren sounded, triggering people to run down the blacked-out staircase from the street. The civilians of Bethnal Green were no doubt used to this practise, but on this particular night, a woman and a child fell over three steps from the base and others fell around her, triggering a human crush of nearly 300 people. Of these, 173 lost of their lives, being crushed and asphyxiated in what is thought to have been the largest single loss of civilian life in the UK in the Second World War and the largest loss of life in a single incident on the London Underground network. 27 men, 84 women and 62 children.

Cover-Up?

Thanks to wartime censorship, news of the disaster was withheld for 36 hours. The story which was reported by the media was that there had been a direct hit by a German bomb, and the official results of the investigation were not released until after the war had ended in 1946. Meanwhile, rumours circulated of the cause. It was suggested by the Minister of Home Security, Herbert Morrison that a panic had ensued caused by a discharge of anti-aircraft rockets from nearby Victoria Park. There is disagreement over this.

A secret official report showed that Bethan Green Council had warned London Civil Defence, in 1941, that the staircase was a liability and needed a crush barrier to slow down crowds, but was told that would be a waste of money. Damages cases were taken by those who were bereaved, such as Baker vs Bethnal Green Corporation. The Baker lawsuit was followed by other claims, resulting in a total payout of nearly £60,000, the last of which was made in the early 1950s.