The SS Princess Alice was a passenger paddle steamer formerly known as the PS Bute. It sank in 1878 after it collided with the big heavy iron collier Bywell Castle on the River Thames. The accident was a devastating tragedy and the greatest loss of life of any British inland waterway accident.
The ship had been built in 1865 in Greenock, Scotland. It was used there for two years before Waterman’s Steam Packet Company purchased it to carry passengers on the Thames River. By 1878, she had been purchased by the London Steamboat Company and was being captained by 47-year-old William R. H. Grinstead. Passengers were carried from Swan Pier, near London Bridge, to Sheerness, Kent, and back. However, the London Steamboat Company also owned several steamships at the time and tickets were interchangeable among these ships, which meant passengers could get on and off at the company’s various destinations and take passage on different ships.
A month or so after the American writer and humorist Mark Twain visited Zermatt, Switzerland and climbed the Riffleberg Monutain, the slight-framed SS Princess Alice was making her homeward journey to Swan Pier. The SS Princesss Alice was near capacity when it departed on 3 September 1878 about an hour after sunset on what was billed as a “Moonlight Trip.” In addition, Grinstead allowed his helmsman to stay at Gravesend and installed a seaman named John Ayers as the ship’s helmsman. Unfortunately, Ayers had little experience helming a craft like the SS Princess Alice and even less experience on the Thames.
Between 7:20 pm and 7:40 pm, the SS Princess Alice passed Tripcock Point and entered Gallions Reach coming within sight of the North Woolwich Pier. This was the spot where many passengers were preparing to disembark. In addition, it was at that point that the Bywell Castle was sighted.
The Bywell Castle, which usually carried coal to Africa, had been built in 1870 and was being captained by Thomas Harrison. She had also just been repainted and was due to sail up to Newcastle to pick up coal bound for Alexandria, Egypt. Harrison was unfamiliar with the conditions on the Thames and had therefore employed an experienced river pilot named Christopher Dix.
When the 254 ft. 3 in. Bywell Castle left Millwall it proceeded down the middle of the river at about five knots, only moving out of the middle of the river if another craft got in her way. Upon approaching Gallions Reach, Dix saw the red port light of the SS Princess Alice and noted that her course would cause her to pass starboard of them. Grinstead was traveling against the tide and was following the normal watermen’s practice of seeking the slack water on the south side of the river, but he altered his ship’s course bringing her into the path of the Bywell Castle.
Seeing that a collision was imminent, Grinstead called out to the Bywell Castle, “Hi! hi; hi! where are you coming to?” Dix immediately tried to maneuver his larger vessel out of the way and ordered the engines to be put into “reverse full speed.” His orders came too late, and the Bywell Castle struck the SS Princess Alice on the starboard side just in front of her paddle box. The hit split the ship in two and she quickly sank. During the court hearing to determine fault Dix testified to the following:
“On quitting the docks I was on the upper bridge along with Captain Harrison. The order was given … to go at half speed. I saw over Tripcock point the red and masthead light of the Princess Alice. At that time I did not alter my helm. I did not do so until the Princess Alice came straight ahead, with her lights in the centre of the reach. When the two ships were end on I ported a little; and at that time the red light of the Princess Alice was on our port bow. Of that I am quite clear. As we got towards each other I stopped our engines. That brought the red light of the Princess Alice a little broader on our port bow. She did not alter her lights, but she came a little nearer to us, and put her helm a-starboard. I stopped the Bywell Castle and put the held hard a-port. The Princess Alice then appeared to be straightening up the reach. We were about the upper end of the Castalia when I ordered the engines to be stopped. That order was given to the captain and I saw him carry it out. The orders ‘Ease her, stop her, hard a-port,’ were given at the same time. The helm was put hard a-port, but the Bywell Castle paid off very little under it. At that time the order ‘Ease her, stop her’ was given, the speed of the Bywell Castle was four or five knots; and at that time the two vessel were from 100 to 200 yards from each other … After the collision the Princess Alice rolled over to the port side and went down under our bow. The Bywell Castle floated with the tide … She drove down the reach and brought up about half a mile below Barking creek, after we could save no more lives.”
Another version of the accident was given by Ralph Wilkinson, a licensed waterman from Gravesend, who was aboard the SS Princess Alice. He testified about what he experienced after the ship was hit:
“I was in the after starboard spouson, getting a spring ready. I could not get a lifebuoy, so I ran to the boat and half got it into the water. The Princess Alice went down head first in about a minute and half. I climbed up the davits of the boat and jumped into the water and swam to the paddle-box, which was floating, and was picked up by a barge. I could not hear anything at the time of the accident because the steam was roaring off. I did not hear the whistle blown before the collision. It may have been blown, although I did not hear it.”
The Globe gave this description of the crash:
“The Bywell Castle struck the Princess Alice slantwise, and crashing into the engine-room smashed and exploded the broiler. After the vessel withdrew from the cleft the water rushed tumultuously in.”
Prior to the accident, those on board the SS Princess Alice did not suspect any danger was imminent. The passengers were in fact happy and busily engrossed with friends and family in pleasurable talks and animated conversations. When the crash happened, these delightful images quickly changed into scenes of abject horror.
“Women and children rent the air with their screams and agonised shrieks. The big iron steamer, that towered aloft like some huge monster, drew back from the blow she had struck, and as she did so the water rushed in, and the Princess Alice began not only perceptibly but rapidly to settle into the deep channel of the river. The tide was ebbing fast in about 24 ft. of water. Imagination can more readily picture than pen describe the awful consternation on board the doomed … boat. Little or nothing was available in the way of help. Some hundreds of people, rendered frantic by terror, were struggling towards a single rope. No earthly power could help them. Within five minutes after the first shock and thrill of the collision the Princess Alice sank into deep water, leaving her freight and seven hundred souls screaming, shrieking, and struggling in the dark cold waters of the Thames driving rapidly down towards the sea.”
One of the survivors, a Mr. Henry Totman, a passenger of the SS Princess Alice, provided a chilling account of the catastrophe and how he survived:
“[T]he Princess Alice … left Sheerness at a quarter past four. …there were … a great many women and children. I never saw such a lot of children suckling. I have no idea of the time the collision occurred, but it was dark. I had my brother-in-law with me. I was on the aft part of the paddle-box. Up to this time we were all merry and lively, and everything was nice. My first idea of danger was in hearing the captain shout out, “Hi, hi, where are you coming to?’ The next thing she (the steamer) seemed to squeeze into us right amidship. There was no great shock. It was a thrusting in, and it seemed to crush her … up. Then it was a scene … as she backed out and let water in, and we were all gone in less than five minutes. … She went down in mass. Children were crying, women screaming for ropes or anything to get hold of. In fact, I stood back resigned. I felt there was no earthly chance of getting before other people. She went down in many feet of water. I was saved by a buoy from a boat that went over my head. I caught hold of it … For my own part, I do not believe there is one quarter of the passengers saved. … The shrieks were something indescribable. It was something terrible to see 400 or 500 trying to get one rope. … Everybody on board knew she was going. I heard of one the crew say directly the other ship came on, ‘She is sinking.’ … There were bodies enough to be picked up; but the boatmen and everybody wanted to save those that were alive. The water was thick with them. I was a little boat that picked me up. They threw ropes over from the steamer, and they did throw buoys over and save me and two others – three of us altogether.”
Another witness, 20-year-old James Lynn, reported:
“There was a general cry to get out of the way of the barque, and the captain and the crew called out to those on board the other vessel to stop. In another moment the crash came. They came right into us, striking us just beside the paddle-box, and nearly cut the vessel in halves. I then attempted to find my mother and aunt, not thinking the damage was so much as it really was, but I soon found all was over with us. Attempting to save myself, therefore, I caught hold of the chains of the other vessel, but was knocked off in the great crush. I however, again attempted, and this time managed to climb up the side of the paddle-box of our boat, and caught hold of the rail. No sooner had I done this, however, than she went down. I cannot swim very much, but I had the presence of mind to strike out a little and thereby kept myself up, until I got hold of a piece of wood. After that I got hold of a form, and floated down the stream towards the screw. I then call out for a rope, which was held out to me after I had been in the water some three or four minutes.”
The second steward on board the SS Princess Alice, 37-year-old William Alexander Law noted that he was in the saloon at the time of the accident. He reported that he would never forget what happened:
“I ran to a young lady with whom I was keeping company and took her on my shoulder, being a good swimmer, and jumped overboard and swam to the shore, but as I was going my poor girl slipped off my shoulders, or was dragged off, and I lost her, although I dived for her. I saw a gentleman (Mr. Talbot, of Forest-hill), who was sinking, and caught hold of him and held him up till we were picked up.”
Various boats in the area rushed to provide assistance. Unfortunately, despite great efforts to help the SS Princess Alice victims, death was everywhere. Husbands, wives, grandparents, sisters, brothers, cousins, neighbors, children, and infants were drowned. There were not enough boats to pick up those who tried to survive in the waters and moreover, some who survived did everything possible to save their loved ones, such as one father who reported he held up the heads of his children till he had not the strength to continue. The Globe also reported:
“Narratives of survivors, given in simple, unvarnished language, tell more forcibly the tale of disaster than any description gained from a collation of facts … The captain of the Bonita … had the honour and gratification of drawing several poor, half-drowned, and despairing mortals into his craft and saving their lives. The crew of the iron steamer threw over lines and buoys among the struggling mass below. Men clinging to buoys or floating timbers that drifted near the steamer clutched her chains and dragged themselves on board. A few women and children were saved; no one at present quite knows who. But of all the six hundred less rather than more than a hundred escaped with their lives. All the rest ― between four and five hundred ― were overwhelmed by the waters and drowned.”
News of the accident spread rapidly, and people were shocked when they learned about the number of people missing and presumed dead. It was hoped that all the missing could be accounted for and so the river was dragged. The bodies found were then brought ashore and taken to the Woolrich company offices. There the bodies were momentarily laid down before being lifted from the stretchers to be viewed by the anxious crowds. If someone recognized the body, “the name [was] passed round from mouth to mouth.”
The loss of the passengers aboard the SS Princess Alice affected many people. Hoping to assist the victims and the families of victims, a subscription list was established by the proprietors of the Reynold’s Newspaper. Donations were made payable to John Dicks who then forwarded the money to the victims and their families. In addition, the Mansion House Fund was also established. It was reported that by Friday, 20 September 1878, a collection amounting to £23,000 had been collected.* Nonetheless, no type of compensation could console the living victims or those who lost loved ones.
On 4 September Charles Carttar, coroner for West Kent, opened an inquest in his jurisdiction. Bodies by this time had been transferred to the Woolwich Town Hall and jurors went there to view the corpses. In South Essex, Charles Lewis, the coroner for that area, tried to have the remains in his jurisdiction moved to Woolwich to allow one inquest. Unfortunately, the law would not allow the deceased to be moved until the inquest had been opened and adjourned. He therefore opened his inquest to formally identify the bodies, adjourned the proceedings until Carttar’s case reached its conclusion, and then issued burial orders and transferred the remains in his jurisdiction to Woolwich.
Besides over 150 private funerals a mass burial took place on 9 September at the Woolwich cemetery with thousands of people attending. Crowds watched as the coffins passed by with a police identification number affixed to them. Clothing and personal items of the dead were also affixed with an identification number because many of them suffered an accelerated rate of decomposition and were unidentifiable when buried. It would be their clothing and personal items that would later help to identify them. Of the mournful day it was reported:
“The shops along the line of route were closed, the crowd which assembled along the pavements and in the cemetery were quiet and reverent in their bearing. … The route was kept clear by the police, horse and foot; but there was really no occasion for their services, for the crowd was in no humour for pushing or thronging the road. … [T]wo or three thousand spectators were gathered. Many were in black, and by their appearance were among those who have lost relatives in the disaster. … A stranger entering Woolwich might have imagined that a terrible pestilence was ravaging the town, so large was the number of hearses which came in from the London-road, so subdued the demeanour of the inhabitants.”
The exact number of victims was unclear at the time. Part of the problem was that casualty estimates ranged from 500 to 600 or even 700.** Still the Tyrone Constitution attempted to provide some useful information as to the number of victims. The paper also stated that the deaths were not achieved “by the hands” anyone or “by violence”:
“The jury who inquired into the Princess Alice disaster have met at Woolwich to sign the verdicts. It was decided that the special verdict should apply only to ten cases on which the inquiry was formally based, and that the remaining 518 cases before the jury a simple verdict of drowned … should be returned. … The coroner said there were still sixty or eighty bodies unrecovered; four, recognised but not legally identified, would be registered as unknown. – The jury then signed separate verdicts in the case of twelve persons for whom counsel had appeared.”
The jury also remained locked up all night before returning a verdict that the accident was “not wilful.” In fact, they determined that the incident was caused by both vessels not stopping and reversing their engines in time. The Tyrone Constitution also noted:
“The Jury consider such collisions might be avoided in the future if stringent rules were laid down for the Thames navigation. The jury added that the Princess Alice was sea-worthy, but inefficiently managed, carried too many passengers, and was deficient in life-saving appliances.”
At the same time as the coroner’s inquest was conducted a Board of Trade inquiry happened. Charges were brought against Captain Harrison, two of the crew members of Bywell Castle, and the first mate of SS Princess Alice, all of whom also had their licenses suspended during the inquest. Ultimately, the board found that SS Princess Alice breached Rule 29, Section (d) of the Board of Trade Regulations and the Regulations of the Thames Conservancy Board, 1872, which stated that if two ships are heading towards each other, they should pass on the port side of each other. Therefore, because the SS Princess Alice failed to observe this rule, she and her captain were blamed, and the Bywell Castle was considered to have been unable to avoid the collision.
*By the time the fund closed it had raised £35,000 for the victims’ families.
**It is impossible to know the precise number who perished because no passenger list or headcount was conducted. However, around 640 bodies were eventually recovered.
-  Globe, “Catastrophe on the Thames,” September 4, 1878, p. 5.
-  Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, “The Loss of the Princess Alice,” October 20, 1878, p. 3.
-  London Daily News, “The Wreck of the Princess Alice,” September 18, 1878, p. 2.
-  Globe, p. 5.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Stroud News and Gloucestershire Advertiser, “The Loss of the Princess Alice,” September 13, 1878, p. 2.
-  Tyrone Constitution, “Princess Alice Collision,” November 15, 1878, p. 2.
-  Tyrone Constitution, “Latest Telegrams,” November 15, 1878, p. 2.