FROG members are good at many things, but even they don’t have the power to travel back in time. If, however, on the evening of Tuesday 3rd September 1878, Victorian FROG members had been on the foreshore just downstream from Woolwich, they would have looked on in horror as the UK’s worst-ever peacetime disaster unfolded before their eyes.

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Courtesy of Greenwich Heritage Centre

The SS Princess Alice was a long, slim, lightly built wooden paddle steamer of 251 tons. She sat low in the water, and had only two lifeboats and twelve lifebuoys. She was one of the most popular paddle steamers on the Thames, and on that Tuesday morning had left London Bridge at 10am on a day return cruise to Rosherville Gardens at Gravesend. This was one of the largest and most popular pleasure gardens in the nineteenth century, laid out in a disused chalk pit and named after the owner of the land, Jeremiah Rosher. The Garden’s entertainments included an open-air stage, fireworks, tightrope walkers, fortune-tellers and balloon ascents.

At about 6pm that evening, the SS Princess Alice left Gravesend with between 750 and 800 passengers on board, mainly families. There was no requirement at that time for children to have tickets, and so the exact numbers of passengers will never be known. It was a perfect late summer’s evening; many of the women were wearing long dresses, and the band was playing. The sound of music and happy children would have carried across the river as the SS Princess Alice headed back upstream.

Meanwhile, an empty coal carrier named the Bywell Castle was heading downstream from Millwall dry dock on her way back to Newcastle. She was built of iron and powered by a single four-bladed screw. At 890 tons, she was nearly four times as heavy as the steamship, and she sat much higher in the water. At about 7.30pm the SS Princess Alice came round Tripcock Point and into Galleons Reach, heading into the sinking sun, on her way to Woolwich. The force of the ebb tide had pushed her to the north side of the river, and to regain her bearing she was in the process of turning and moving southwards to the centre of the stream. Her new course however took her across the bows of the Bywell Castle, which bore down upon her and cut her almost completely in half.

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Courtesy of Greenwich Heritage Centre

The Bywell Castle went full astern, but this wrenched the two vessels apart, and allowed the Princess Alice to split in two, sinking within four minutes. There was not even enough time to launch the two lifeboats, and the passengers were either trapped below decks or thrown into the river. The Galleons Reach section of the Thames was one of the most heavily polluted in the country, as a contemporary account describes: “At high water, twice in 24 hours, the flood gates of the outfalls are opened when there is projected into the river two continuous columns of decomposed fermenting sewage, hissing like soda water with baneful gases, so black that the water is stained for miles and discharging a corrupt charnel house odour”.

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Courtesy of Greenwich Heritage Centre

The passengers never stood a chance. Within twenty minutes nothing was visible on the surface except for hats, caps, cloaks and other personal belongings. Rescue attempts began immediately, and lifeboats from the Bywell Castle, which was largely undamaged, picked up a handful of survivors. Some watermen came out from Woolwich to help, and a few passengers managed to swim to the foreshore. Searching continued into the night, but proved fruitless. The next few days were taken up by the gruesome task of recovering the bodies.

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Courtesy of Greenwich Heritage Centre

In total 69 people were saved, while the number of those lost is uncertain. It has been estimated by the Thames River Police Museum at around 640, but a contemporary account by a local journalist, W. T. Vincent, puts the figure at 590. Some bodies may never have been found, having been swept downstream by the tide, or buried in the Thames mud. A central mortuary was established at the Woolwich Royal Dockyard, and the grim process of identification got under way, but one hundred and twenty bodies were never identified.

Recovery

The bow section was recovered with some difficulty in the early hours of Saturday 7th September and beached at Plumstead Marsh. Images of the forward and aft section can be seen above. On Sunday 8th September, the aft part was raised by barges and beached at Woolwich as high up as possible. Monday 9th September saw funeral services in Woolwich and the burial of the unidentified bodies in a mass grave in Woolwich Old Cemetery a large granite Celtic cross (below) commemorates them there. There were also crowds of sightseers however, who had heard of the disaster and who came out on trains from London. They clambered over the wreckage, and anything that “could be chipped or wrenched off was carried off as curiosities by visitors”. To prevent further vandalism, two policemen remained aboard day and night until the remains of the SS Princess Alice had been moved to the Dockyard for examination and analysis. The London Steamboat Company bought the remains of the SS Princess Alice and salvaged the engines; the rest of the wreck was then broken up.

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The Coroner opened his inquest on Monday 16th September, and following submissions of evidence he summed up on 13th November. The jury announced its findings next day, and concluded that while the collision had not been “wilful”, the masters of both the Bywell Castle and the SS Princess Alice shared responsibility for it. The jury added that the steamship was not properly nor sufficiently manned, that she was overloaded, and that ”the means of saving life on the Princess Alice were insufficient for a vessel of her class”. It recommended that “all collisions might in future be avoided if proper and stringent rules and regulations were laid down for all steam navigation on the River Thames”.

The Coroner died at his home in Greenwich eighteen months after the inquest, and the Bywell Castle sank with all hands in the Bay of Biscay in 1883. Although there may be no physical evidence left by the Thames at Woolwich, perhaps FROG members working on the foreshore should be aware of what occurred on that dreadful evening in 1878 – and of what happened nearly one hundred and eleven years later…

On 20th August 1989 in central London, a lightly built pleasure boat – the Marchioness – sank when she was cut through by another, much larger iron-built ship, the dredger Bowbelle. Of 131 people on board the Marchioness, 51 were drowned.

Despite the recommendations of the Princess Alice inquest jury in 1878, history had repeated itself.