On 3rd September 1878 the pleasure steamer, The Princess Alice, left its berth in London and made its way, downriver, to Gravesend and the beautiful Rosherville Gardens. It stopped, on its way, at Blackwall and Woolwich before dropping the majority of its passengers at Rosherville and continuing on to Sheereness.
London Steamboat Company
There were many such pleasure steamboats on the Thames, owned by the London Steamboat Company. The passengers’ tickets could be used on any of the boats, enabling them to be able to get on and off, as they wished, along the river. This made it more difficult to gauge numbers on each of the boats as they journeyed to and from London.
The Princess Alice collected its passengers from Gravesend as it made its way back to London. It left the town around 6.30pm, full to overflowing with tired and happy families, groups, couples and lone travellers. The exact number of passengers, on that fateful voyage, will never be known. Estimates range from anywhere between 600 and 750. Children had not needed tickets for these cruises so trying to work out how many people were on board was made even more difficult.
The sun was beginning to sink as the pleasure steamer approached Tripcock Point, across the water from Creekmouth. Forty Seven year old William Grinstead was the captain of The Princess Alice. Incredulously, he had allowed his helmsman to remain behind at Gravesend and recruited one of the passengers, seaman John Ayers, to steer the boat back up the River Thames, to London.
As the pleasure steamer neared Tripcock Point, just across the river the Bywell Castle, an 890 ton collier, had left its dry-dock berth and was making its way, under pilot guidance, downriver and out into the estuary, on its way to collect coal from Newcastle.
The rules of the river were that boats must pass port-to-port. However, it was common practice for the smaller pleasure steamers to keep close to the south bank, therefore allowing the boats to pass starboard to starboard. It has been suggested that The Princess Alice was caught by the tide and pulled towards the middle of the river. Captain Harrison, of The Bywell Castle, assumed Captain Grinstead had decided to pass port-to-port after all so continued on his projected route, downriver.
Collision was inevitable as the huge Bywell Castle bore down on the much smaller Princess Alice. A cry of “Hoy! Where are you coming to” came from the steamer’s captain as the collier sliced through the middle of his boat. The Princess Alice reportedly sank in minutes with many of the passengers downstairs in the saloon, unaware of what was enfolding on deck. They had no chance of survival as the boat sank to the bottom of the river. Most of those on deck were flung into the cold, swirling water. The Northern Outfall had recently been ‘let out’ so the river was filthy and slimy with raw sewage and sludge, making rescue even more difficult. Even those who could swim were in great difficulty, choking on the sewage and being dragged down by their heavy, Victorian clothing.
The crew of the Bywell Castle let down their lifeboats and threw ropes down but its deck was too high for most to climb up to. Small boats were launched from both sides of the river, to help with the rescue attempts.
Creekmouth Treat Day
The screams and cries for help were heard from the little, riverside village of Creekmouth. The village children were having a ‘treat day’ on the village green but were quickly rounded up and sent home when the adults realised what was happening across the river. The menfolk launched the few small boats tied up at the jetty and headed across the river, to do whatever they could to help. Around 30 survivors and bodies were brought ashore at Creekmouth. A shed at Lawes Chemical Factory was used as a makeshift mortuary.
Apart from the few inquests that took place at Creekmouth, the majority were held at Woolwich. The coroner had severe problems as no-one knew just how many passengers were on board. Watermen were paid 2/- per day to search for bodies with a further 5/- for every body recovered.
Many of the victims were never identified as, in many cases, whole families had been wiped out. They were buried in a mass grave in Woolwich Cemetery. A huge,Celtic cross, paid for with national subscriptions, stands nearby, as does the family grave of Captain William Grinstead
The Board of Trade enquiry found that Captain Grinstead was mostly to blame as his vessel was not properly manned, he had also allowed far too many passengers on board and there was not enough lifesaving equipment on the boat.
The tragedy remains the biggest peacetime disaster ever to have taken place in British waters.
The pleasure steamer was named after Queen Victoria’s third daughter, Victoria. The princess died from diphtheria just three months after the disaster. Mr Carrter, the coroner in charge of the inquest into the disaster, died of a heart attack, in 1880, believed to be brought on by the stress of the inquest. The Bywell Castle sank, with all hands, in the Bay of Biscay in 1883.