What happened to the Princess Alice passenger liner in 1878 is a tragic event very few people know about these days in spite of it being the biggest ever maritime disaster in British waters.
Back in 1878 the River Thames is a foul smelling, disgustingly unsanitary river that is deeply unhygienic. During the 1850’s efforts are made under the directions of the brilliant engineer, Bazelgette to sort out the sewage problem that is making a large amount of sludge at the mouth of the Thames. Even this though is only because the MP’s in Parliament were suffering from the noxious smell known as the Great Stink so much they had to put lime on their curtains. Progress is being made but the river remains something you would not want to swim in at any cost.
Never the less this does not stop passenger liners from ferrying people across the river and merchant ships from carrying valuable cargo. It is this combination of a busy Thames with an unregulated set of rules regarding ships passing one another that conspire on one balmy evening in 3rd September 1878 to create a cataclysmic event.
The exact circumstances of the event are unclear but somehow a fully laden passenger liner manages to crash straight into a merchant collier called ‘Bywell Castle’. Within minutes both ships capsize and all the crew and passengers on both ships fall straight into the river.
Quite apart from the horrifyingly scary moments of seeing their ship go over most of the working class people on board can not swim. A moving account of this disaster has been written by a newspaper man called Mr Vincent below.
‘Tuesday, the 3rd day of September, 1878, had been sultry, and the evening was warm and "muggy." Weary with a troublesome days work I was preparing for an early rest when a message came that there had been a collision on the river, and that a big steamer had gone down with an untold freight of precious lives. Casting off fatigue with my slippers, I made all haste to reach Roff's Pier, enquiring of such acquaintances as I chanced to meet, a few of whom had heard "something" of a wreck on the river, others who had heard nothing, and laughed at the "old woman's tale." Too soon the matchless horror was revealed.
On the wharf and pier a small crowd had collected, not more than fifty as yet, and among them were several well—known townsmen who, from that moment to the end of the long and heavy strain, devoted themselves day and night without pause, without thanks, and without reward, to do all that was in the power of humanity, if not to lessen the evil, at least to fulfil its sacred obligations, to bear a share of it burdens, and to bring lasting honour and renown for its humanity and public spirit upon the town of Woolwich.
‘Soon policemen and watermen were seen by the feeble light bearing ghastly objects into the offices of the Steampacket Company, for a boat had just arrived with the first consignment of the dead, mostly little children whose light bodies and ample drapery had kept them afloat even while they were smothered in the festering Thames. I followed into the steamboat office, marvelling at the fate which had brought the earliest harvest of victims to the headquarters of the doomed ship, and, entering the board-room, the first of the martyrs was pointed out to me as one of the company's own servants, a man employed on the 'Princess Alice', and brought here thus soon to attest by his silent presence the ship's identity. The lifeless frames of men and women lay about, and out on the balcony, from which the directors had so often looked upon their fleet through the fragrant smoke of the evening cigar, there was a sight to wring out tears of blood from the eyes of any beholder. A row of little innocents, plump and pretty, well-dressed children, all dead and cold, some with life's ruddy tinge still in their cheeks and lips, the lips from which the merry prattle had gone for ever.
Callous as one may grow from frequent contact with terrors and afflictions, one could never be inured to this. It was a spectacle to move the most hardened official and dwell forever in his dreams. Then to think what was beyond out there in the river. It was madness!’
On horror's head horrors accumulate’.
Due to the appalling levels of sewage in this stretch of the river (by the Beckton North Outfall Sewer) many of the desperate survivors who gulp in water consequently end up poisoned and die. Dead floating bodies are everywhere and because of the chemicals in the water an odd slime oozes out from their pores long after their death.
This disaster is the Titanic of its day. Over 640 people die making it the largest maritime disaster in British history. By contrast the Titanic suffers around 1523 deaths but these are outside British waters.