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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10 Historic Facts you might not know about the London Underground (Tube)

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Photo: author’s own

Having lived in London for six years, I use the Tube virtually every single day. The history of it has always fascinated me – I was aware that civilians had sheltered in it during World War II, but actually descending into the stations…I couldn’t believe this was where they slept and it got me thinking about the creation of the Tube and what’s it become. 

    1. The London Underground was the first underground railway system in the world. In 1863, The Metropolitan Railway, as it was then known, began running between Paddington (then called Bishop’s Road) and Farringdon Street. Around 30,000 passengers went on The Metropolitan Railway on its first day of public business – January 10, 1863. It was not until 1890 that the phrase ‘Tube’ was used, and the name ‘Underground’ did not appear in stations until 1908.
    2. The Tube was originally steam-powered. Although the underground railway has opened in 1863, it wasn’t until 1869 that it began to run under the Thames and south of the river, through the Thames Tunnel. And it was not until December 1890 that the world’s first deep-level electric railway was opened, running from King William Street in the City of London, under the Thames, to Stockwell.
    3. As noted above, it wasn’t until 1869 that the Tube started running under the Thames, and through the Thames Tunnel. The Thames Tunnel had opened in 1843- the first tunnel under a river – and upon its opening became known as the Eigth Wonder of the World. Built by the Brunels, it’s construction was not without its flaws – the miners were subjected to sewage flows, ignited methane gas and some died during construction due to flooding – but the completed tunnel provided the basis for the Tube to run under the Thames.
    4. The Tube was designed so that illiterate people could navigate it. Ever noticed how some Tube stations are coloured/some tiles contrast? The reason for this is because the designs were originally created to help commuters recognise the station they had arrived at without the benefit of the blue and white signs commuters are used to seeing on a daily basis.
    5. It’s a well-known fact that many Tube stations were used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War, but the Central Line was even converted into a fighter aircraft factory that stretched for over two miles, with its own railway system. Its existence remained an official secret until the 1980s. Brompton Road (now disused) on the Piccadilly, Line was apparently used as a control room for anti-aircraft guns.
    6. But while the Tube acted as an air-raid shelter during World War II, it was not without its tragedies. The worst civilian death toll on the Underground occurred at Bethnal Green Tube tragedy in 1943, when 173 people died in a human crush. And earlier, than that, in 1940, 41 people were killed when a bomb burst a mains pipe,causing people sheltering in the Balham Tube station to drown.
    7. Winston Churchill had his own secret station during the World War II. Down Street was a working station between 1907 and 1932, and was converted into bomb-proof shelters during the Second World War. Initially on what was to become the Piccadilly Line, it was between Dover Street (now Green Park) and Hyde Park Corner stations. Mainly used as a shelter by the Railway Executive Committee during the war, it was also used by Winston Churchill and his war cabinet until the Cabinet War Rooms were ready for use. The London Transport Museum offer tours of Down Street as part of it’s Hidden London series – https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/hidden-london/down-street
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      Photo taken August 2018 by the author

      After the war, the deep level shelter at Clapham South housed 492 immigrants from the West Indies who arrived aboard the HMT Empire Windrush, having responded to an advertisement for labourers to come to London. When they arrived, the colonial Office didn’t have enough accommodation for them all, and they were sheltered in the deep-level shelter at Clapham South. You can visit the shelter today thanks to the London Transport Museum – https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/hidden-london/clapham-south

    9. One of the proposed names for the Victoria Line was Viking Line. Sadly though, this wasn’t for historical reasons, but more-so because it would run through the stations of Victoria and King’s Cross.
    10. And finally…on it’s inaugural journey in 1863, around 30,000 passengers traveled on the Tube. On 4 December 2015 (a day when I travelled to and from work at the BBC), I helped contribute to a new record – being one of 4.82 million people who traveled on the Tube that day.

THANK YOU TO THE AUTHORS OF THE FOLLOWING SOURCES FOR HELPING WITH MY RESEARCH FOR THIS POST: