History: 650 dead after day out ended in tragedy

Princess Alice before the disaster. Picture courtesy of the Greenwich Heritage Centre

Princess Alice before the disaster. Picture courtesy of the Greenwich Heritage Centre - Credit: Archant

There wasn’t much for the day trippers to see on the Essex bank of the Thames on that September evening in 1878, 50 years before Ford built on the empty marshes.

Prof Ged Martin

Prof Ged Martin - Credit: Archant

The ebbing tide poured from Rainham Creek, leaving a few barges stranded on the Ingrebourne mud.

In the twilight, it was difficult to spot the spire of St Andrew’s Church, a celebrated navigation mark, four miles north at Hornchurch.

Many passengers headed below decks to join the singsong in the saloon where a band was playing.

Just 252 tonnes, the Princess Alice had been built of timber on the Clyde in 1865 and called the Bute.

Coming south two years later, she was renamed in honour of Queen Victoria’s daughter – but sailors believed it was unlucky to rename a ship.

Amazingly, this tiny craft was licensed to transport 500 passengers, though nobody knew how many she carried that fateful day.

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Small children did not require tickets. Victorians produced hordes of toddlers.

She was on a regular holiday run, from London Bridge to Sheerness, stopping at Gravesend, where the Rosherville Gardens were a proto-Disneyland, popular with Cockneys.

Leaving Gravesend on her return trip at 6pm, the Princess Alice probably carried 900 people.

In holiday humour, day trippers still on deck actually cheered when they spotted a sturdy collier sailing downstream towards them.

The Bywell Castle was four times the size of the Princess Alice and had an iron hull.

They collided at Tripcock Ness, roughly between today’s Thamesmead estate and London City Airport.

The Princess Alice was close to the north bank. Guided by an experienced Thames pilot, the captain of the Bywell Castle decided to pass on his port side.

But the powerful ebbing tide swirled around the bend on the Essex side, too fast for the tiny paddle steamer.

Suddenly, the Princess Alice turned towards the slack water right ahead of the Bywell Castle.

The collier sliced into her like matchwood, skewering her timber hull.

The Bywell Castle rammed her engines full astern.

The Princess Alice broke into two. Both halves sank within four minutes.

There was no time to launch lifeboats – and there were just two of them anyway.

Hundreds of people were drowned below decks. Some passengers jumped on to the Bywell Castle’s anchor chain – but the collier dropped anchor and drowned them.

Ropes were lowered to save floundering passengers, but as soon as people grabbed hold, they were dragged down by others desperate to save themselves.

The exact death toll is unknown. Probably 650 people perished in the tragedy.

Nine bodies were recovered at Rainham.

Gruesomely, a 10th corpse became wedged underneath the keel of a barge, needing a spring tide to float it free.

A government enquiry blamed the Princess Alice, but a coroner’s jury – men who knew the river – also criticised the collier.

Its pilot should have known that small vessels tried to avoid the tide race.

Many of the safety recommendations were repeated after the Marchioness disaster, when 51 people were drowned in a similar accident in 1989.