London's Forgotten Disasters: The Woolwich Pleasure Boat Disaster

London's Forgotten Disasters: The Woolwich Pleasure Boat Disaster
The saloon steam boat Princess Alice. © National Maritime Museum, London

Most people are aware of the horrific Marchioness disaster of 20 August 1989, when 51 young revellers lost their lives after the pleasure boat was struck by the dredger Bowbelle and sank instantly. But apart from those directly involved, the memories of the incident are fading. We’re somewhere in the timeline of the Marchioness story between traumatic news headlines and historical footnote.

Small wonder then that few will have heard of the Princess Alice disaster of 3 September 1878, similar in many ways to the Marchioness affair, but with over 12 times the number of casualties. It remains Britain’s worst public transport disaster in either peacetime or war. As many as 650 people lost their lives when the vessel was smashed in two in broad daylight by the Bywell Castle, an 890 ton steam collier departing London after a lick of paint at Millwall Dry Dock.

The paddle steamer sank in under four minutes.

The known facts are these. Princess Alice was carrying day trippers on a journey from London Bridge to Gravesend and Sheerness via Woolwich and back again. The fare was a not inexpensive two shillings. On the return leg, at about 7.45 pm, she was about to drop passengers off in Woolwich while the Bywell Castle was heading downriver to pick up her next consignment of coal from Newcastle. The coal ship’s skipper, Captain Harrison, accompanied by an experienced river pilot, was following traditional Thames routes rather than obeying the new portside-to-portside regulations of 1872. When the boats became dangerously close to each other, what followed was a classic chain of misinterpreting what the other party was attempting to do, until a collision became inevitable. Despite her engines running in full reverse, Bywell Castle struck Princess Alice on the starboard side with such force that the pleasure steamer split in two and began to sink rapidly.

Bywell Castle did its best to rescue survivors, assisted by vessels scrambled from the shore. But many were trapped inside Princess Alice and of course, few people could swim back then. To make matters worse, the water was highly contaminated by 30 tons of raw sewage, the local sluices having been opened just an hour beforehand. Yuck.

People complain nowadays about ghoulish and sensationalist reporting of disasters, but as now, so it was then. Reporters flooded into Woolwich and remained for weeks afterwards as bodies continued to be recovered. “Our man at the scene”, reporter W. T. Vincent of the Kentish Independent, was inundated with requests for frequent news wires from newspapers further afield.

Telling the Dread News.—It was near midnight when I reached the post office with my budget of adversity. I had previously warned the telegraph clerks, as agents of the press are privileged to do, and they were ready.

His slightly self-important, first-hand summary — in wonderfully mawkish Victorian style — can be found here.

The Princess Alice’s flag, held at the Thames River Police museum in Wapping.

Aftermath

Most bodies were recovered and identified within seven days. According to W. T. Vincent “a dozen or so” bodies could not be identified, although other reports put the number as much, much higher. 120 of the victims were buried in rows at Woolwich Cemetery behind a memorial cross in the Irish style, which was paid for by sixpenny subscription from over 23,000 donors.

The official inquest of the disaster lasted over 30 days; the jurors took more than 10 hours through the night to reach a majority verdict which found against the Princess Alice. Another jury in Millwall found against the Bywell and the Admiralty Court opined that both vessels were blameworthy – “the net result was of questionable value.”

The memorial cross at Woolwich Cemetery

Many safety measures were put into place soon after the disaster. The port-to-port rule was enforced on the river; sewage outlets were moved much further downstream; limits were placed on passenger numbers; legislation was passed in 1880 for adequate lifebelts on ships; watertight bulkheads were introduced in ship design.

Numbers

How many survived and how many died? Estimates remain horribly vague. Survivors have been numbered between 69 and 150, although it seems 120-150 to be closer to the mark. Contemporary estimates put 700 passengers on board and 150 survivors, leaving 550 dead. But W. T. Vincent pointed out at the time that the totals from two separate inquests alone numbered around 590 deaths. Subsequent estimates of the total on board have gone up to 750. Taking this into account and the fact that Vincent’s estimate only included known dead, i.e. excluding those never recovered, it is probably safe to say that the total fatalities were over 600, which seems now to be the accepted tally.

© National Maritime Museum, London

There is a dramatic model of the disaster at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and many pictures at portcities.org.

This article originally appeared on London Historians. You can become a London Historians member here.

Last Updated 30 August 2017