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 sited. 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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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.

 

 

 

Random Historical Christmas Facts…

No particular order here; just some random facts about Christmas that got my attention…

JESUS WAS PROBABLY NOT BORN IN DECEMBER

Contrary to popular belief, there is actually no evidence that Jesus was born in December. In fact, most historians not only don’t believe he was born on December 25th, but we he also probably wasn’t born in 1AD, largely because we understand Jesus to have been born on the night of the census under the rule of the Roman Emperor Herod. But no census was taken under the rule of Herod.

So why, then, is Christmas celebrated in December? Well, like most traditions, it’s probably a hangover from Pagan Times. Christmas didn’t officially become a holiday until many years after Jesus was born, thus it is believed that the celebration of his birth was tied in with the pagan festival of Saturnalia, which honoured the god Saturn by celebrating and giving gifts. December 25th is also a few days after the Winter Solstice, so it’s believed the early Roman Catholic Church chose December 25th as a means to tie all the festivals together.

SAINT NICHOLAS DAY IS ACTUALLY ON 6 DECEMBER…

Following on from the post above, ever wondered why some countries celebrate the arrival of Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus on 6 December and then still observe Christmas on 25 December? Why do countries such as the Netherlands, Poland and more still celebrate the arrival of Saint Nick on 6 December?

It’s more likely another case of festivals being absorbed into one another. The American Santa Claus and the British Father Christmas likely originated from the Dutch Feast of Sinter Klaas (Saint Nick). Born in the 3rd century, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, and tradition holds that he had a long white beard, a red cape, rode a white horse and had a list of children who had been ‘naughty or nice’. He apparently gave away his inheritance to needy children and his feast day was 6 December.

Tradition holds that Saint Nicholas would bring gifts to children who had been well-behaved on the night of 5th/6th of December. So why then, do most Western countries observe his arrival on Christmas Day? Well, one of the main reasons we have the custom of giving and receiving presents at Christmas, is to remind us of the presents given to Jesus by the Wise Men, so that’s why Saint Nicholas is linked to Christmas. But after the reformation in northern Europe, stories and traditions about Saint Nicholas became unpopular. Reformists such as Martin Luther wanted a Protestant alternative to the feast of Saint Nicholas. So Saint Nick morphed into Father Christmas/Pére Noel/Kring Kindle (depending on where you are from). And his arrival in most countries was moved to December 25th.

NO-ONE KNOWS WHY WE USE CHRISTMAS STOCKINGS…

But there are some interesting stories behind the custom. Legend holds that in Saint Nicholas’ time, there was an old man with three daughters who couldn’t afford their marriage dowries. Saint Nicholas wanted to help, but he needed to do it discreetly, so as not to upset the old man or get the nosy neighbours talking. So one night, after dark, he threw three bags of gold through an open window, and one landed in a stocking. It is believed the tradition of putting Christmas presents in the stocking originates from this.

HENRY VIII WAS THE FIRST PERSON TO EAT TURKEY ON CHRISTMAS DAY

Most people know that turkeys are not native to Europe, so how did we end up eating them for Christmas in Europe? Well, turkeys were first brought to Britain from the Americas in 1525. Prior to that, Christmas day dinner often consisted of goose, boar head, or even peacock. Even when King Henry VIII ate turkey for Christmas Dinner in the 16th century, turkey did not become a staple Christmas dinner meal in Europe. Edward VII became a big fan of turkey on Christmas Day, but was popularised as Christmas Day dinner from the 1950s onwards.

The small Wexford village forever affected by the deaths of three young women during WWII

You can read my article for http://www.thejournal.ie in remembrance of the bombing of a small village in Wexford during WWII here: http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/campile-bombing-ireland-4203766-Aug2018/

The Irishwoman hanged for Witchcraft – Ann “Goody” Glover

 

Salem Witch TrialsNovember 16, 2018 this year will mark 30 years since Boston City Council announced a new remembrance day – Goody Glover Day, marking 400 years since the last person was hanged in Boston for supposed witchcraft. Her name? Ann Glover (known as ‘Goody’ Glover), born in Ireland earlier in the century. Four years before the infamous 1692 Salem Witch Trials, what circumstances led to this woman being hanged?

EARLY LIFE
Not much is known about Ann’s early life in Ireland. It’s known from her trial records that she was Irish, and a Roman Catholic. It’s understood that she was transported to Barbados, initially to work on a sugar plantation, probably as part of Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland the subsequent transportation of thousands of Irish people to the Caribbean to work as slaves. It is also alleged that her husband was executed in Barbados, allegedly for refusing to give us his Catholic faith. While this is doubtful (the authorities in the colonies, despite being anti-Catholic, were unlikely to execute a good worker for his faith alone), it wasn’t uncommon for Irish female slaves to go to New England from Barbados. And another allegation – it is rumoured that just before he died, Mr Glover declared that his wife Ann was a witch.

Records are thin, but we know from that by 1680s, Ann and her daughter Mary were living in Boston, working as housekeepers for a man named John Goodwin. In 1688, Goodwin’s 13 year-old daughter Martha accused Ann of stealing laundry, causing Ann to have an argument with Martha and the rest of the Glover children. Ann was arrested and her trial date arranged. The children are said to have then become unwell, and began to start acting strangely. Their doctor concluded that “nothing but hellish Witchcraft could be the origin of their maladies”. The medical diagnosis was that the Irish woman had “bewitched” the children of John Goodwin.

EVIDENCE
New England was a hotbed of religious conflict in the 1600s, and the witchcraft hysteria grew out that. Initially settled by Puritans from England looking to practice their faith free from persecution, by the 1680s various other denominations were found to be living in the region, causing a lot of religious hostile.

Cotton Mather was an infamous Puritan Boston prosecutor at the time (who would go on the work at the Salem Witch Trials). He led prosecuting Ann at her trial. The son of a Harvard president, Mather would later publish a book on the case of Ann Glover. When Cotton Mather visited her in prison before the trial, he claimed that she was engaged in night-time trysts with the Devil. To ensure she wasn’t mentally ill, a panel of physicians were engaged to examine her. Five of the six physicians who examined her had found her to be competent and her trial date set.

THE TRIAL
Initially, her answers could not be understood because she spoke Irish (although it was alleged that she was speaking the language of the devil). She did understand English, but apparently had lost all ability to speak it. An interpreter was found for her and the trial proceeded. Her inability to recite the Lord’s prayer would later be used as evidence against her.

Some small, doll-like images were found in a search of Ann’s house, which were used in the trial. Significance? When Mather was interrogating her she supposedly said that she prayed to a host of spirits and Mather took this to mean that these spirits were demons. Yet two male witnesses, allegedly Irish speakers, are said to have told the trial that Ann had previously confessed to them that she used the spirits for witchcraft. The identity of these two men is unknown, but it was later suggested that Ann may actually have been referring to Catholic saints.

It’s clear that a lot of the evidence used in the accusations against Ann was spectral. Either way, she was pronounced guilty of practicing witchcraft and sentenced to death by public hanging.

THE DAY OF THE HANGING
November 16, 1688 arrived, and with it, Ann’s execution date. Mocking crowds gathered to watch her life end. There are differing accounts of Ann’s final words. Some say that when she was taken to be hanged, she said that her death would not relieve the children of their “malady”. Others says that she not only said her death would not end the children’s suffering, but also that it would continue because she was not the only witch to have afflicted them. Another account claims that Ann still protested her innocence, and claimed that as a result, her death would have little effect on curing the affected children.

Tellingly, one contemporary writer recorded there having been “a great concourse of people to see if the Papist would relent.” The suggestion of her being Papist suggests some religious prejudice may have come into play. And even more tellingly, another writer, a Boston merchant named Robert Calef who knew Ann, said “Goody Glover was a despised, crazy, poor old woman, an Irish Catholic who was tried for afflicting the Goodwin children. Her behavior at her trial was like that of one distracted. They did her cruel. The proof against her was wholly deficient. The jury brought her guilty. She was hung. She died a Catholic.”

One contemporary writer recorded that, “There was a great concourse of people to see if the Papist would relent, her one cat was there, fearsome to see. They would to destroy the cat, but Mr. Calef would not permit it. Before her executioners she was bold and impudent, making to forgive her accusers and those who put her off. She predicted that her death would not relieve the children saying that it was not she that afflicted them.”

AFTER ANN’S DEATH
Ann was the last person hanged in Boston for witchcraft, but her hanging was part of a much wider fear of witchcraft in New England and Europe, and occurred just four years before the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Today, scientists are still trying to uncover a legitimate reason for the behaviour of those accused of witchcraft in New England.

After her death, Ann’s daughter Mary suffered a mental breakdown, and ended her days “a raving maniac”. However she may have been implicated in the witch trials herself. A “Mary Glover the Irish Catholic Witch” was recorded as being in a Boston jail with three pirates in 1689. We can’t be sure it was the same Mary, but it has been suggested.

Today, in Boston’s South End, there is a plaque to remember Ann “Goody” Glover, the last witch hanged in Salem, at a church on 27 Isabella Street.

 Read more about Ann Goody Glover’s story by clicking on the image here

Remembering the Balham Tube disaster

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Photo taken by the author in August 2018

The 14th of October marks the 76th anniversary of the one of the worst atrocities of the London blitz, in which nearly 70 people died while sheltered in a south London tube station, just two stops away from where I currently live.

The Battle of Britain and The Blitz were in full swing by 14th October, 1940. The population of Balham were well accustomed to their routine – once the air-raid siren went off, they proceeded to their shelters. Thousands upon thousands of people would seek shelter in Tube stations, sleeping on the platforms (and often on the tracks) for around 12 hours each night, while overhead the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign ravaged. Mid-October 1940 was midway through a consecutive 57 nights of bombing – but London fought on, determined not to be defeated by Hitler. Local communities were united nightly as they escaped the danger overhead.

13 metres below ground, around 500 people were sheltering at Balham on the night of October 14th, 1940. At 8.02pm a 1400 kilo semi-armour piercing bomb penetrated the ground above, causing a massive crater in the ground. A photo emerged of a number 88 bus with it’s head nose-dived into the ground, which was to become symbolic of the event.

However, the explosion fractured a water mains pipe below ground. The subsequent flood of water and soil into the tunnel was to kill nearly 70 people. Water, mud, sewage and sand flooded the tunnels, causing people to drown. A rescue boat was sent from Clapham South but failed to get through. Water-tight doors that were designed to keep floods out, instead kept this one in. The lights also fused, adding to the chaos. A gas explosion also hampered rescue efforts

The official death toll records 66 deaths, although there is some discrepancy, with figures ranging from 64 to 66 people. More than 70 people were injured. It’s ironic to think that people had taken had gone into the Tube for safety, and instead found themselves in unimaginable danger.

With propaganda and censorship being active, news of the event was kept to a minimum. The government feared that news of the event might discourage civilians from continuing to shelter in the underground.

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The bodies were not fully recovered until Christmas, yet remarkably the damage was repaired and trains were running through the station on 8th January 1841. The station itself reopened on the 19th January.

Today, as you pass through Balham station, all that reminds you of that terrible night is a tiny blue plaque commemorating the event. It’s hard to believe that if 70 people were killed today in a freak accident, that a blue plaque would be all to commemorate the site of it. However, this was not an isolated incident. The night before the Balham disaster, 16 people were killed when a bomb dropped on Bounds Green station. 56 were killed at Bank in 1941, due to a direct hit. But perhaps most shocking of all is the 1943 Bethnal Green station, in which 173 people were killed in a human crush was attempting to seek cover in the station. A previously unheard air-raid siren had struck panic into the people filing to safety. A woman and a child fell over, causing numerous people to scramble on top of them, leading to the crush.

Despite evacuations from cities, Anderson shelters, and crucially, the London Underground system, it is estimated that at least 32,000 civilians were killed in Britain during World War II.

balham-bus-crater
(I do not own this image)