PortCities London

The 'Princess Alice' (1865 – 1878)
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'