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The 'Princess Alice' tragedy

Disaster on the Thames
The setting
The collision
The aftermath
The investigation
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The investigation

The inquest

Woolwich Town Hall where the inquest into the Princess Alice disaster was held.
View full size imageWoolwich Town Hall at the time of the inquest. © NMM

Three days after the collision, an inquest at Woolwich Town Hall tried to establish what had happened.

Over the following ten weeks, more than 100 witnesses, including survivors from the Princess Alice, gave their accounts of the collision.

The jury returned a verdict of Death by Misadventure, accepting that the collision was an accident. However, they criticized the commanders of both vessels, claiming that:

  • the collier should have stopped her engines earlier
  • the paddle steamer should have stopped or made for the north side of the river.

The jury also criticized the number of passengers on the Princess Alice and the poor provision of lifeboats and lifebuoys.

The Board of Trade enquiry

The former Board of Trade building, East India Dock Road.
View full size imageThe former Board of Trade building on the East India Dock Road. © NMM
While the local coroner was presiding over the inquest, the Board of Trade was conducting its own hearing. They concluded that both commanders had shown poor judgement. They recommended that two vessels under steam should always 'pass each other on the port side'.

The outcome

As a result of the Board of Trade enquiry, new rules for navigating the Thames came into force in 1880. The new regulations:

  • tightened up the procedures for steamships passing on the river
  • reduced the number of passengers ships could carry
  • increased the number of lifebelts vessels had to provide for their passengers.

Princess Alice excursion ticket.
View full size imageAn unused ticket from the day of the Princess Alice disaster. © NMM

Another consequence of the disaster was that the Thames Division of the Metropolitan Police equipped itself with steam launches. Up to then the police had relied on rowing galleys. The first two launches were introduced in the early 1880s.

Memorial card to the victims.
View full size imageMemorial card to the victims of the Princess Alice disaster. © NMM
The Bywell Castle went back to sea, but not for long. She disappeared in the Bay of Biscay in 1883, and is still listed officially as 'missing'.





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Find out more
GalleriesFamous Thames ships
The great and the good
Fact fileThe 'Princess Alice’
The passenger steamship that collided with a collier in 1878 killing over 600 people
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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