PortCities London
You are here:  PortCities London home > Historical events > Ceremony and catastrophe
Text Only About this Site Feedback
Explore this site
About maritime London
Early port
Tudor and Stuart port
18th-century port
19th-century port
20th-century port
People and places
Port communities
Crime and punishment
Leisure, health and housing
Thames art, literature and architecture
The working Thames
London's docks and shipping
Trades, industries and institutions
Port of science and discovery
Historical events
Ceremony and catastrophe
London in war and conflict
Fun and games
Things to do
Timeline games
Matching games
Send an e-card
The 'Princess Alice' (1865 – 1878)

Send this story to a friendSend this story to a friend
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version
View this story in picturesView this story in pictures
The worst British river accident on record
Known for

The saloon steam boat Princess Alice.
View full size imageThe saloon steam boat Princess Alice. © NMM
The Princess Alice, owned by the London Steamboat Company, was a large passenger steamship, which operated on the Thames. In 1878, she was involved in the worst British river disaster on record.

After-part of the Princess Alice brought on shore below Woolwich.
View full size imageAfter-part of the Princess Alice brought on shore below Woolwich. © NMM
During her return voyage from Gravesend on 3 September, the Princess Alice was carrying her full compliment of passengers. At around 8.00 p.m., she was approaching the North Woolwich Pier, keeping close to shore due to the tide. While passing Beckton Gas Works, the Princess Alice sighted the collier Bywell Castle, which had just discharged her cargo of coal.

While heading across the river, towards the pier, the Princess Alice was struck by the Bywell Castle near the starboard paddle-box, and nearly cut in half. She sank in less than five minutes, with the loss of approximately some 640 lives.

Captain Grinstead, commander of the Princess Alice.
View full size imageCaptain Grinstead, commander of the Princess Alice. © NMM
There was a subsequent enquiry by the Board of Trade, which concluded that Captain W. Grinstead of the Princess Alice was to blame for the tragedy. Captain Grinstead, who died in the disaster, had suddenly changed course, and ran directly across the path of the Bywell Castle. There was nothing Captain T. Harrison of the collier could do to avoid the collision. The disaster had a severe effect on the busy Thames passenger steamers, and the industry never fully recovered.

Port Connection
Princess Alice.
View full size imagePrincess Alice. © NMM
The Princess Alice was originally built in 1865 as the Bute, by the shipbuilders Caird & Co. of Greenock. The Wemyss Bay Railway Company sold her to the Woolwich based Waterman’s Company, the London Steamboat Company in 1867.
· Length: 66.8 metres (219.4 feet)
· Beam: 6.2 metres (20.2 feet)
· Depth: 2.5 metres (8.4 feet)
· Weight: (251 tons)
· Oscillating engines: 112 x 114 centimetres (44 x 45 inches)
· Two funnels
· One mast
· Two haystack boilers working at 30lbs per square inch
· Licensed to carry 936 passengers
Life Story
1865The 'Bute' is launched
1866The 'Bute' and her sister ship 'Kyles' are delivered to the Thames during heavy winter storms
1867The 'Bute' is sold to the London Steamboat Company and renamed the 'Princess Alice'
1873'Princess Alice' is used to transport the Shah of Persia on a tour of the London docks
3 Sept 187810 am - 'Princess Alice' leaves her Thames berth bound for Gravesend and Sheerness
3 Sept 18786 pm - She leaves Gravesend on her return journey
3 Sept 18787.40 pm - At Gallion’s Reach, 'Princess Alice' was involved in a collision with the 'Bywell Castle'

Find out more
GalleriesFamous Thames ships
The great and the good
StoriesThe 'Princess Alice' tragedy
More than 600 people died in the worst ever disaster on a British waterway
Related Resources
Related Galleries1 Galleries
Related Images146 Images
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
Legal & CopyrightPartner sites:BristolHartlepoolLiverpoolSouthamptonAbout this SiteFeedbackText Only