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   Back to Introduction

'What was London's worst peace-time disaster?'


The 'Princess Alice' disaster on 3 September 1878.

  • On the evening of 3 September 1878, the Princess Alice was returning up river from Sheerness with over 700 passengers on board. Many of the passengers were on deck, listening to the band as the steamer approached Woolwich. They were unaware of the impending danger as the steam collier Bywell Castle approached them en route to Newcastle.
  • To Captain Harrison on the bridge of the Bywell Castle, the Princess Alice appeared to be coming across his bow, making for the north side of the river. He therefore altered course accordingly, intending to pass safely astern of her. But the passenger steamer suddenly changed course directly into the path of the oncoming collier.
  • The captain of the Princess Alice, realizing that a collision was imminent, attempted to change course but it was too late and the bows of the collier struck the steamer just forward of the starboard paddlebox almost cutting her in two.
  • The Princess Alice sank in less than four minutes and over 640 people were drowned making it the worst river disaster on record in Britain.
  • The subsequent Board of Trade inquiry concluded that Captain Grinstead of the Princess Alice (who was among those drowned) was to blame as he had run directly across the path of the Bywell Castle contrary to the 'Rule of the Road'.
The forward part of the Princess Alice brought up on the south side of the Thames.
The forward part of the Princess Alice brought up on the south side of the Thames.
© National Maritime Museum, London
Repro ID: H2509
Description: The forward part of the 'Princess Alice' brought up on the south side of the Thames. The figures on board are removing bodies from the wreck.
Creator: 'Illustrated London News'
Date: 1878
Credit line: Newham Archives and Local Studies Library Collection
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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