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.

READ MORE:

 

Advertisements

Twitter 7-day book challenge – now with explanations!

I’d seen this challenge going around on Twitter for a while so I was delighted when Hisdoryan (check out her brilliant blog http://hisdoryan.co.uk/) tagged me in it. The challenge is to post the cover of a book you enjoy, one per day for seven days, but without any explanations of any further info. I’ve now completed the challenge, so decided to discuss the books I chose and why. (They are all historical novels, by the way). 

While I could easily have chosen 700 books here, never mind seven, these are books that truly left a mark on me. In fact, I read most of them many years ago but they still stick out for me. They are all novels, but in a historical setting, and I highly recommend them all.

(Click on the book titles for further information on them)

DAY ONE: BACK HOME by MICHELLE MAGORIAN

One of the first books that truly left a mark on me. I think I read it four times in as many months when I first came across it when I was 14. I’ve probably read it close to ten times now! Reading about the challenges faced by Rusty upon her return from evacuation in 1945 after 5 years away from her family encouraged me to dig much deeper into the topic of evacuees and the impact the war had on their lives and relationships with their families. You can truly get inside Rusty’s head in this story and you find yourself really identifying, sympathising and engaging with all the together. Such a favourite for me.

DAY TWO: THE SILVER THREAD by KYLIE FITZPATRICK

Okay, this one isn’t the most historically accurate book, but I just love the topic! This books tells the story of a wealthy Dublin woman whose family fall on hard times, and she must try and make her own way in Victorian London to support her family. However some unfortunate encounters thanks to her uncle’s business dealings lead to her to be wrongfully accused of theft and transported to Australia in the early days of the colony. A must read for those interested in 1800s Ireland, London and Australia alike.

DAY THREE: THE LAST RUNAWAY by TRACY CHEVALIER

Tracy Chevalier might be best known for her classic ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’, but she has produced so much more than that. I’ve read four of her novels to date, but ‘The Last Runaway’ remains my favourite. It was probably my first real introduction to the Underground Railroad, and tells the story of a British Quaker who reluctantly emigrates to America and finds herself obliged to assist the plight of runaway slaves trying to escape to the North – much to the horror of her family. Truly gripping and accessible, this is a brilliant read.

DAY FOUR: THE THORNBIRDS by COLLEEN MCCULLOUGH

Okay, so this was written well before my time, and I’ll confess I watched the 1983 TV series before I actually read the book – but as always, the book is much better. Set in rural Australia at the turn of the century, ‘The Thornbirds’ explores a forbidden relationship through numerous decades – that of a Catholic Priest and Meggie, the young daughter of a family he befriends in order to get access to their wealth to feed his political ambitions within the church. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is ‘chick-lit’! Rather, the book explores themes of poverty, hardship, wealth (and the loss of it), politics, religion and taboo – all the while against the backdrop of fledgling Australia.

DAY FIVE: A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS by KHALED HOSSEINI

Readers will no doubt be familiar with this one, and while it’s not set as far back in history as some of the other books I write about here, it is historic for sure. The follow up from Khaled Hosseini’s award-winning debut novel ‘The Kite Runner’, and set in Afghanistan, it tells the story of Mariam, an illegitimate child born in the 1950s, who, after her mother’s suicide, is sold into an abusive marriage by her father but forms an unlikely friendship with her neighbour Leila. Leila is many years younger than Mariam and has the complete opposite upbringing, but is forced to accept a marriage proposal from Mariam’s husband in order to survive after Afghanistan enters war and her home is destroyed by rockets. The books focuses primarily on female characters and their roles in Afghan society against the backdrop of war and Mariam’s lifelong struggle to escape from the stigma of her illegitimacy.

DAY SIX: WILDFLOWER GIRL BY MARITA CONLON-MCKENNA

My non-Irish readers might not be as familiar with this as my Irish readers undoubtedly will, but this is a classic, and a follow-on from the sensational Great Famine novel ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree’. I first read this book when I was very young having already been gripped by Under the Hawthorn Tree. This series, and the third instalment, ‘Fields of Home’, follows the lives of three young siblings during the Irish Great Famine and the years afterwards. In ‘Wildflower Girl’, the youngest sibling, Peggy, emigrates to America and experiences everything from coffin ships to the reality of domestic service in Victorian America. Despite being a children’s book, it is accessible to both young and old and is a real insight into the horror that was the Great Famine.

DAY SEVEN: PROPERTY by VALERIE MARTIN

This was the winner of the Orange Prize in 2003, and not without reason. This book is a history-lovers gem. It has two settings – New Orleans (where our protagonist grew up) and the sugar plantation she now lives on that is owned by her husband. It explores the subject of slavery from the perspective of a childless mistress who feels oppressed and worthless and stuck in a loveless marriage. However in a unusual move, the crux of the story is her resentment of her black maid, Sarah, who she was given as a wedding present. Sarah is also Manon’s husband’s sex slave and this causes increasing tension between the two women. The story is played out against the backdrop of the civil unrest and slave rebellion. A phenomenal insight, and a step back in time. I’d highly recommend this book.