September 3rd, 1878 – Disaster on the Thames!


On September 3rd, 1878, the SS Princess Alice was making what was billed as a “Moonlight Trip” to Gravesend and back. This was a routine trip from Swan Pier near London Bridge to Gravesend and Sheerness, but that night the late night cruise proved to be fatal for over 650 passengers and crew.

Princess Alice 680

By 7:40 PM, the Princess Alice was on her return journey and within sight of the North Woolwich Pier – where many passengers were to disembark – when she sighted the Newcastle bound vessel SS Bywell Castle. Her Master was Captain Harrison, who was accompanied by an experienced Thames river pilot. The collier was coming down the river with the tide at half speed.

Harrison observed the port light of the Princess Alice; he set a course to pass to starboard of her. However, the Master of Princess Alice, 47-year-old Captain William R.H. Grinsted, going up the river against the tide, followed the normal watermen’s practice of seeking the slack water on the south side and altered Princess Alice’s course to port, bringing her into the path of Bywell Castle. Captain Harrison ordered his ship’s engines reversed, but it was too late. Princess Alice was struck on the starboard side; she split in two and sank within four minutes.

Many passengers were trapped within the wreck and drowned: piles of bodies were found around the exits of the saloon when the wreck was raised. Additionally, the twice-daily release of 75 million imperial gallons of raw sewage from sewer outfalls at Barking and Crossness had occurred one hour before the collision: the heavily polluted water was believed to contribute to the deaths of those who went into the river. 

Part of Princess Alice beached after the disaster

Part of Princess Alice beached after the disaster

The subsequent Board of Trade enquiry blamed Captain Grinsted (who died in the disaster), finding that “the Princess Alice was not properly and efficiently manned; also, that the numbers of persons aboard were more than was prudent and that the means of saving life on board the paddle steamer was inadequate for a vessel of her class”. The local public and the press however railed against the captain of the collier, with endless speculation and the Illustrated London News publishing a full-spread picture showing the Princess Alice facing in the opposite direction, being ‘run down’. Despite the verdict exonerating him, Captain Harrison’s health broke down and he was never able to go to sea afterwards.


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