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On the 3rd September 1878, the Princess Alice, a 252-ton Paddle Steamer, belonging to the London Steamboat Company sailed for the last time.

It had been a poor summer that year, and the prospect of a fine day had encouraged people from all over London to take a trip on the River Thames to the Pleaser gardens at Rosherville, near Gravesend. Rosherville was advertised as “ The Place to spend a Happy Day”. The passengers left the Old Swan Pier at 10-30. They were dressed in their Sunday Best Clothes, and were looking forward to a grand day out, for many it would be their last.

The Princess Alice was licensed to carry 936 passengers on the route between London and Gravesend. With the day being so nice, she had picked up many more passengers along the route. She soon arrived at Rosherville, and her passengers spent many happy hours amongst the Gardens various delights.

The Alice then proceeded down to Sheernees.

The Alice left Sheerness at 16-15, and begun her last fateful journey back to London.

It was soon time to return home, and as the Alice arrived at Rosherville, so many tried to board her that a lot of passengers that was already on board got of because of the overcrowding and returned on other ships, they were the lucky ones. As the sunset many of the passengers sung and danced while the music played as she proceeded upriver.

In the other direction, a 1,326-ton Collier “Bywell Castle” was heading down river.

They both approached Tripcock Point, a point on the River Thames opposite the Beckton Gas Works which was notorious for being difficult to navigate owing to the nature of the Tides at approximately 20-00 hrs. Like roads, rivers have a passing side, (although these were not made law until after 1880), and in this case the Princes Alice begun to move to port, so the captain of the Bywell Castle assumed that the Paddle Steamer would pass him on his port side, the correct procedure. Captain Grinstead of the Alice had other ideas, and instead, because his next port of call was North Woolwich Pier, decided to cut between the Collier and the South Shore. This was a fatal error, because the steamer was soon in difficulties with the fast moving ebb tide, and while attempting to move back to port, the steamer swung broadside on to the collier, and was hit at full speed.  

The Bywell Castle sliced through the Princess Alice’s hull by the paddle wheels and the Alice sunk in four minutes with the loss of almost 700 Men, Women & Children. The accident was so quick, that people went down with the boat, or were thrown into the water. There were only two lifeboats and 12 lifebuoys on board. Most people could not swim, added to this most ladies were wearing big dresses, which quickly become soaked with water, pulling the down deeper in to the water. The Bywell Castle let down ropes and a number of small boats attempted to rescue the drowning passengers without much success.

The collision had occurred near the Northern & Southern outfall sewers, from which untreated sewage poured out in to the river, add to this the many factories in the area, which discharged their effluents into the already badly polluted river. News of the tragedy soon reached Woolwich and the other towns along the river, and by the light of the moon, further rescue efforts was made.

It is not know exactly how many people were on board, as there was no proper control over the amount of people who could board on one ticket. There is a memorial in Woolwich Cemetery to the 150 named bodies that were finally fished out of the Thames, although at least 640 bodies were pulled out. For many months afterwards bodies were being pulled out of the river at various points, because after the initial collision the bow of the steamer floated up river until it also finally sunk.


Member of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society.

The Drowned Princess

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