PortCities London

The 'Princess Alice' tragedy

The collision

A fatal misunderstanding

At the time, there were no strict rules as to how vessels were to pass each other. With its many reaches and its strong tides, the Thames had variable currents, and vessels navigated the river accordingly.

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 altered course, intending to pass safely astern of her. At this crucial moment, the captain of the Princess Alice became confused about the collier's intended course. He suddenly changed direction and brought the paddle steamer into the path of the oncoming collier.

Model of the Princess Alice disaster.
View full size imageA model of the Princess Alice disaster. © NMM
When the ships were about 400 metres apart, the Bywell Castle reversed her engines, but it was too late. The collier struck the Princess Alice near her starboard paddle wheel. Unable to survive such a blow, the paddle steamer split in two and sank in four minutes.

Ordeal in the water

Very few passengers would have been killed by the collision. Hundreds were trapped inside the ship and died trying to escape, but most were thrown into the Thames before the Princess Alice sank.

Plan showing the locality of the Princess Alice collision on 14 September 1878.
View full size imageA contemporary map of the collision. © NMM
For the survivors, the accident could hardly have come at a worse time or in a worse spot. This part of the Thames was heavily polluted from the industrial plants of North Greenwich and Silvertown.

Even worse was the fact that at nearby Beckton, the North Outfall Sewer poured huge quantities of raw sewage directly into the river.

Already confused by the crash, the survivors found themselves in the darkness in a river full of pollutants and sewage. Few Victorians could swim, and the clothes worn at the time made movement more difficult, especially for the women.

The rescue attempt

The darkness and the filthy state of the river made the rescue more difficult. The crew of the Bywell Castle threw down ropes and launched boats, but picked up only a handful of survivors.  

The manager of the Beckton Gasworks sent out a boat, which returned with 25 people. According to different sources, between 69 and 175 were saved. Whatever the figure, it was immediately clear that most passengers on the Princess Alice had died.


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