Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tragedy on the Thames

Tuesday, the third of September 1878, was a fine day for an excursion. Around seven-hundred men, women and children took advantage of the weather to cram aboard the saloon steamer, the Princess Alice, for a day on the river. The boat left London about 11.00 in the morning, heading downstream for Gravesend, a distance of thirty-one miles, and from there, on to Sheerness. The trip to Gravesend normally took less than ninety minutes and once there, many of the excursionists went on to one or the other of the tourist attractions, for Gravesend was becoming a popular resort town in the nineteenth century.

A number of those on the Princess Alice had come to Gravesend to spend the day at Rosherville Gardens. A favourite destination for London excursionists, John Marius Wilson in his Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-72), described it as a

highly picturesque grounds of about 18 acres, constantly open for a small admission fee, and possessing a rich combination of attractions, variously natural and artificial. Tea gardens, taverns, archery grounds, gipsy tents, abundant lodging houses, salubrious air, cheap living, good bathing appliances, the stir on the river, fine rambling grounds in the neighbourhood, and ready communication by steamer and by railway with London, also draw hither a great and constant concourse of visitors. The town is full of these during all the summer months, and absolutely swarms with them on Sundays.
By Tuesday evening the weather had turned “muggy” and tired but happy the excursionists boarded the steamer at Gravesend for the “moonlight” return to London. The Rev. Mr Gill, who had gone to Sheerness for the day, noted that “the passengers on board were a quiet, well-behaved, and respectable company.”

The Princess Alice pulled out of Gravesend and headed back up the Thames at just after 6.00 pm. The passengers, who had paid 2s. for the day trip must have felt that their money was well spent. The weather had been kind although by 7.40 pm, as the boat approached Woolwich, pier to disembark some of the sight-seers, a chill had descended which led the Rev. Gill to go from the front seat of the saloon deck, inside to the saloon cabin where there were about fifteen people. Suddenly there was a crash and William Alexander Law, second steward on board the Princess Alice, said to the stewardess “There’s some barge alongside.” Another crash and Law ran up to the deck where he saw unbelievable carnage.

… amid the confusion and screams of the passengers I heard the water rushing in below, and saw that we were sinking. I then rushed to the top of the saloon gangway and shouted, ‘Come on deck; we are sinking.’
Meanwhile, in the saloon cabin, the Rev. Mr Gill “heard a grazing and grinding of the side of the vessel, then a sudden stop, and then a terrible crash of shivered and splintering timbers.” Running from the cabin to the lower deck on the port side, he saw “the bows of the huge iron-cased ship towering above as high and inaccessible as the walls of a castle.” It was the Bywell Castle, a newly repainted steam collier of 890 tons bound for Newcastle to pick up a cargo of coal for Alexandria, Egypt.

In the ensuing chaos, those passengers who could, rushed to the rear of the steamer. Some threw themselves into the water, others attempted to climb aboard the Bywell Castle, and a great number were trapped below decks when the two boats collided. The Rev. Gill saw that

A few were hanging onto the chain at the bows, but what was one chain for 700 people, most of them helpless women and children, all crowding and trampling one another in a boat which was doomed to sink in a minute or two? The shrieks, ejaculations, prayers, and wails of helpless agony … were heartrending…
William Law, the second steward, ran to a young woman with whom he “was keeping company,” and tried to rescue her, jumping overboard and with her on his shoulders struck out for shore.

But as I was going my poor girl slipped off my shoulders, or was dragged off, and I lost her, although I dived for her. I saw a gentleman … who was sinking, and caught hold of him and held him up till we were picked up.
Although there were a dozen or more lifebuoys on board and several lifeboats, the accident took place with such speed it would have been impossible to organize their use. Although every effort was made to rescue the survivors, there were very few and many died in the weeks following as a result of the terrible and toxic industrial pollution of the Thames. Of the approximately 700 on board the Princess Alice, the best estimates suggest that 600 died either in the crash or as a result of the collision.

Twelve years earlier in almost the same location, a steamer and a collier had collided and while only four lives had been lost in that accident it was probably more good fortune than good management as the excursion steamer, the Metis, ran aground immediately after the collision. Little, if any, change came as a result of the earlier accident, but after the Princess Alice sank with its horrendous loss of life, efforts were made to make the Thames safer both in terms of public health and in terms of safety for navigation.

To see a picture of Rosherville Gardens, click here.
To see a contemporary drawing of the moment the Bywell Castle hit the Princess Alice, click here.


  1. Anonymous8:26 pm

    Bruce you have an attractive and very interesting site. Bearing in mind the subject matter, and your treatment of it,it is amazing that so few people make a comment. Wake up people and smell the coffee - hail Bruce!

  2. I think this is an amazing story, not only for the poor people on board The Princess Alice and the people waiting for them at home, but also the consequences later for pleasure cruising on the Thames.

    I am very aware of the consequences of the shipping accident on the Rosherville Gardens. Thanks for the link