The Horrific Thames Boating Accident That Killed over Seven Hundred People
The Princess Alice Steamboat disaster
The Princess Alice steamboat is a shipping disaster that few have heard of. Yet, it is the most severe boating crash recorded in the Thames. On 4th September 1878, it was sliced in half by a ship three times her size, causing massive loss of life.
Despite this being the largest loss of life on a British waterway, it has largely faded from national memory. This is because it did not have the austerity of the Titanic and the passengers were not among the rich and famous.
The Princess Alice
Built in Greenock, on the west coast of Scotland by the London Steamboat Company, the boat was initially called The Bute. It was launched in 1865 and sailed to London in 1867.
Once in London, her name was changed to Princess Alice. She was put to work as a ferry transporting passengers from London to the seaside areas of Gravesend and Sheerness.
The pleasure steamer travelled along the Thames regularly. Many passengers embarked to enjoy some sun by the seaside. These families were not wealthy; a ticket on the steamer was easily affordable.
Those who travelled on the boat were upper working class or lower middle class.
The Evening of the Accident
On the evening of 4th September, the Princess Alice was packed beyond capacity with people coming back from one of the last days of summer. There were approximately seven hundred people onboard a ship designed for six hundred.
People were cramped in every space, the band was playing and small children skidded along the slippery deck.
At 21:40, the steamboat was approaching Tripcock point, near the Woolwich pier where many passengers would have disembarked.
Whilst sailing on the Thames, it was common for the smaller boats to hug the southern shoreline. On this fateful night, the Princess Alice was dragged away from the south side and into the middle of the river.
Alfred Thomas Merryman
Many families decided to go inside the saloon or the cabins below as the light faded. It was a move that would seal their fate.
One of those chosen to work on the ship was Alfred Thomas Merryman, a chef. It was a last-minute decision; the father of four was grateful for the extra cash. It was also a rare opportunity to leave the dirty streets of London behind and see the sea.
As the boat neared the pier, Merryman stood on the deck by the saloon door, talking to the passengers. That was when he turned and saw a huge collier (a coal-carrying ship) bearing down on the smaller vessel.
The Bywell Castle ploughed straight into the starboard side of the Princess Alice, which weighed less than a third of the 890-ton collier. Then, with a sickening crash, it sliced the small vessel into two, causing panic onboard.
I at once rushed to the captain and asked what was to be done and he exclaimed: 'We are sinking fast, do your best.' Those were the last words he said. At that moment, down she went. - Merryman
The Sinking of the Princess Alice
The two ends of the ship rose into the air as the middle sank. The whole boat disappeared within four minutes of it being struck.
Merryman and fellow passengers on deck were launched into the churning Thames. The passengers below deck were trapped in a watery grave.
Those who made it to the river were met with a ton of untreated sewage, the outlets being near where the boats collided. The men, women and children thrashing about in the water breathed in lungfuls of toxic waste.
Despite the crew of the Bywell Castle throwing down ropes and lifebuoys, death was inevitable for many as their heavy Victorian clothing dragged them down.
Merryman was lucky he was one of approximately 130 people saved. Everyone else perished. Of these survivors, several would die in the next few days from the putrid water they had inhaled.
The Con Artist
The bodies were recovered from the Thames for many days after the accident. Whole families had been ripped apart.
Much of the East End was traumatised; many knew people who had perished. Others had seen the bodies and wreckage wash up on the river bank for a week.
They started to come together and collect money for the victims' families. One of the people who applied for this funding was Elizabeth Stride. She had been following the reports in the paper and remembering the personal accounts.
Her husband's business was bankrupt; her marriage was in tatters. The drink had taken hold of her. She saw an opportunity to make some quick money and applied for the fund.
She told people that her husband and seven children had been killed on the Princess Alice. Sadly it is thought that the number seven was the number of miscarriages she had suffered.
She was found out for her fraud; on the 29th September, she was taken to prison for a month for defrauding a Woolwich code owner on the pretext that she was a survivor of the tragedy.
Ten years later, Elizabeth Stride would become Jack the Ripper's third victim.
As the terrible shock of the tragedy turned to anger, bereaved family members and local politicians demanded answers.
An inquest was held to establish which vessel was responsible for the accident. Charles Carttar opened the inquest, whilst the Board of Trade launched their own separate inquiry.
The coroner started by stating that without a passenger list, it would be impossible to find the exact number of people who had died; the death toll would only ever be an estimate.
Carttar summarised that both boats were at fault, citing the following reasons:
The Bywell Castle should have stopped and reversed its engines earlier
The Princess Alice should have stopped and should not have turned astern
All ships on the Thames would avoid collisions if more stringent navigation rules were enforced
The Princess Alice was seaworthy at the time of the crash, but was not sufficiently manned, had more passengers on board than was prudent, and had insufficient life-saving equipment
The Board of Trade disagreed with this finding and stated that the Princess Alice was to blame for not following waterway regulations and coming into the middle of the Thames.
The Conclusion of the Inquest
After the inquest, concerns were made in parliament demanding the tragedy brought about some positive change.
The first was that the Royal Albert Dock was built to segregate heavy goods traffic from smaller vessels.
Improvements were made to the sewage system and emergency signalling on boats became compulsory worldwide. However, it did not cause enough publicity for all the recommendations to be implemented.
The subject of lifeboats and the insufficient number of them were raised at the inquest. Had this led to stricter rules being implemented, it would have undoubtedly saved many passengers aboard the Titanic thirty-four years later.
The fact that the Princess Alice sank in the polluted waters of the River Thames rather than sailing across the North Atlantic meant it was a story without glamour. As a result, there were never any films about the tragedy, which has largely disappeared from public knowledge.