In transcribing this newspaper account of terrible wreck and loss of life on the Thames I have begun with the Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the Princeton University Library, correcting the OCR errors and divided paragraphs for easier reading and, following our house style, italicized names of boats and ships. You may use the image above without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Hathi Trust/span> and Princeton. and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. — George P. Landow

The necessity of adopting effective safeguards to render the navigation of the Lower Thames free from danger was painfully exemplified last Thursday night, when the large saloon steam-boat Princess Alice was run into below Woolwich by the screw-steamer Bywell Castle, and sank in about five minutes after the collision, with several hundred souls on board.

It was a bright, mellow autumnal day, and the fineness of the weather tempted a great number of persons to spend a holiday in a trip down the river to Sheerness in the Princess Alice, the saloon-boat in which the Shah of Persia visited the docks five years ago. The Princess Alice (a light iron vessel, 219 ft. 4in. in length, 20ft. 2 in. in breadth, and with a net tonnage of 158 tons, built by Messrs. Caird, of Greenock, in 1865) left London Bridge in the morning about eleven o'clock, and carried her light-hearted freight of six or seven hundred pleasure-seekers in safety to Sheerness, and some distance past Gravesend on the return voyage. There were whole families enjoying a quiet holiday in this way, the number of children on board being remarkably large. As darkness began to gather over the river, the high spirits of the passengers did not diminish. A band played lively airs, and the popular tune of “Nancy Lee” was struck up as the saloon-boat drew near Woolwich, between seven and eight o’clock. Captain Grinstead, an officer with twenty years’ experience on the Thames, was keeping a good look-out ahead from the paddle-box. The lights of the Princess Alice shone over the darkening waters; but there came an ugly bend in the river; and a huge black screw-steamer was seen bearing down on the saloon-boat, which was thronged with humanity. “Hi! hi! hi! Where are you coming to?” shouted out Captain Grinstead at the top of his voice. But the warning cry was too late. Just off what is known as Tripcock’s Point, a bend in the river less than a mile below Woolwich, and almost on the identical spot where the Metis, belonging to the same company, was run down some ten years since, the Princess Alice was “rammed” by an iron screw-collier, named the Bywell Castle, bound in ballast from Millwall Docks to the Tyne, she being at the time in charge of a pilot named Christopher Dicks, of Stepney. The huge iron vessel appears to have come full tilt on to the Bywell Castle,, striking her on the starboard side, near the sponson, and almost literally cutting her in half, and causing her to sink in about 18 feet of water in something like five minutes. The scene that ensued is stated by those who witnessed it as being simply indescribable. The screw-steamer appears to have at once stopped and thrown over her life buoys and lines, afterwards lowering some beats, in which some of the survivors and a number of dead bodies were picked up. There happened, fortunately, to be a few shore boats in the vicinity, and they rendered all the assistance they could, which was, however, but little comparatively, so many of the unfortunate travellers being imprisoned in a similar manner to the illfated mariners of the Eurydice, where they were drowned as in atrap. The steamer Duke of Teck, belonging to the same company, which was running on a similar service to the Princess Alice, was about ten minutes behind her; but when she arrived it was too late to be of much assistance. She, however, took on board the survivors and dead bodies that were on board the Bywell Castle, and conveyed them to the Arsenal Pier, where the bodies were laid out in the board-room of the company’s oflices; and the wants of the sufferers were attended to at the Townhall and other places, prior to their being dispatched to their homes. Quite 500 are estimated to have been drowned, but the exact number of the dead may not be ascertained for some time — indeed may never be known. As soon as possible after the calamity the police formed patrols along the banks. Mr. Wrench Towse, superintendent of the London Steam-Boat Company, assumed the direction of affairs, although he himself had lost his wife and four of his children.

Some of the survivors saved their lives by swimming. Two brothers, named Wiele, narrate in vivid terms how they escaped by means of their familiarity with this readily-acquired art. Their accounts being virtually identical, it will suffice to quote the statement of one of the brothers. Mr. Herbert Augustus Wiele says:-—“I was on the saloon deck, aft, but looking ahead. I heard a shouting, when saw the huge hull of a steamer coming upon us, towering high above our saloon. She struck us amidships on the right-hand side, and then we seemed to lie still for a minute. I ran down the companion-ladder and got to the extreme after part of the boat, and I took off my boots ready to dive. The passengers were frantic, and I tried to pacify some of them, for did not think we should sink, and I think the people got a little quieter; but in three or four minutes our vessel parted in the middle, and she seemed to double up. The part where I was rose so high in the air that I was almost afraid to dive. I shut my eyes and plunged in, taking a long dive to get clear of the people in the water. I had seen them sliding down the decks before I leaped. Our vessel seemed near the north shore just before the accident, and we were not steaming at all, for the captain had stopped to avoid another vessel which had just shaved us, and before she could go ahead this other one came upon us. The captain and officers shouted, ‘Where are you coming to!’ and she drove into our side. When I came up after diving the Princess Alice was not to be seen, but I wiped the water out of my eyes and saw my brother. We swam together to the screw-ship, and got hold of a rope, which some one threw over to us. The screw had stopped, and did what it could to save hfe; but it did not lower any boats. I saw four or five men on board, and they said they had no boats. The money-taker of the Princess Alice climbed up the chain of the funnel when the accident took place, and got on board the screw as she came crashing in, and I also saw one of the stewards catch hold of the anchor-chain. I believe these two afterwards came ashore. My brother and I got faint clinging to the rope, and let go. We swam about till we got hold of a boat, and dragged on there for awhile, until at last the man in charge of the boat took us in. We were taken on shore at Barking Creek and lodged at the Crooked Billet. We were in the water about twenty minutes. Before there was any apparant danger I saw two clergymen on the saloon-deck singing hymns, and the fellows down aft were singing songs. The captain and crew were all steady.

The Bywell Castle (an iron screw-steamer of 8.92 tons net tonnage, 254 ft. 3in. in length, 32ft. 1 in. in breadth, and built by Palmer, of Newcastle, in 1870) belongs to Messrs. Hall, of Newcastle-on-Tyne. She returned up the river on Wednesday. The Bywell Castle looked a long, knife-bowed steamer such as could easily cut so frail a pleasure craft as the Princess Alice in twain with the slightest touch of her sharp prow. Her master, Captain Thomas Harrison, gives the following account of the deplorable collision:—“Immediately I saw the collision was inevitable I stopped the engines, and ran forward myself, and, finding the people on the forecastle were doing all they could, hauling people over the bows and saving life, I came aft again, and the steward, and sang out to get the boats out, and assisted to get the starboard after-boat out, which was soon done. By this time we were joined by some passengers who had been saved from for'ard, I calling loudly for help all the time, and superintending the getting out of the boats. After getting out the starboard after-boat we got out the port after-boat, and afterwards the port lifeboat. I had the ship's duties to attend to, and had to run on to the bridge, and look after other things myself. I kept giving just all the direction I could. Saving life was the main object. I did not care about running on shore, but we saw we did not run into other vessels to do damage. The people were like bees swarming round us. I think the boats took the people on shore. I do not know how many were saved. The three boats I have mentioned would hold seventy people, but they were not full. The life-boat was so long getting out — it was so heavy — that it was of very little use. I anchored just below Barking Reach. My vessel was drifting down with the ebb tide all the time. I anchored there, determined to abandon the voyage, and return to London and make all the report I possibly could. I weighed anchor again at eight o'clock this morning (Wednesday), it having been foggy, and made fast to Deptford buoys a little after nine, and then came on to London. Our ship is perfectly uninjured; a little paint is alone scratched off, that is all. The other vessel was just like an eggshell. She broke right up when touched. She was totally unfit for her business. I had none of her passengers on board the night. They had all gone, either in boats or in the Duke of Teck. Two or three were much One poor fellow had lost his wife and four children. About eleven o’clock Mr. Chapman, the North Sea pilot, suggested taking one of our boats on shore, and seeing if he could be of any further assistance. He went ashore at Beckton and found twenty-two bodies lying in a factory covered with bags. He could not do any good, so he returned. I say most emphatically that, so far from my abandoning the wreck, I gave all the assistance I could. I anchored, abandoned my voyage, and have now come up to London. My own opinion is that the cause of the collision was the Princess Alice improperly starboarding her helm when she ought to have continued her course on ‘the port helm. If she had continued her port-helm course she would have kept clear. The Bywell Castle had no weight in her, only water ballast. She was going to the north to load coal.” The Princess Alice (which was insured for £8000) was on Wednesday morning discovered lying on the north of midstream; her upper gear was visible, and she had eight feet of water over her deck at low tide. The Thames Conservancy flag floated above her, and she bade fair to be speedily lifted, for she lay right in the fairway. The divers said she was in three pieces. A sad and anxious crowd of relations and friends of the dead swayed to and fro in Woolwich on Wednesday from the Pier to the Townhall. It was wisely determined by the Coroners of the several districts to collect together the bodies from the outlying places and group them in a large open shed in Woolwich Dockyard. From Rainham, from Erith, from the Lawes chemical works, from the North Woolwich Gardens, and from Beckton gasworks, about sixty bodies were collected. There were on Wednesday twenty-eight at Woolwich Townhall, twenty-one at the Pier, and four in a neighbouring tavern, the Star and Half-Moon. Thus 113 bodies had been recovered, and every hour since has added to the number.

A black museum has been formed at the Townhall, Woolwich, consisting of various articles of male and female apparel. In an adjoining room were the twenty-eight corpses, twelve of which had been covered with white sheeting, to signify that they had been identified. The others lay in various attitudes, but all with the left leg bent at the knee, and nearly all with the left hand thrown forward. The faces were composed, but much discoloured. A fair-haired woman had a gold watch and chain and a locket laid on her breast.

The inquest was opened on Wednesday by Mr. C. J. Carttar, Coroner for “feet Kent, in the Alexandra Hall, Woolwich. The jury viewed the bodies and the spot where the PrincessAlice sank, and heard evidence as to the identification of the dead before adjourning till Thursday. Her Majesty the Queen no sooner heard of the disaster than she telegraphed for particulars to the Board of Trade, and all the information in the hands of the London Steam Boat Company was at once forwarded to Balmoral. The board of the London Steam-Boat Company, which ordinarily meets once a week, had at the time of the accident a fortnight's vacation. Mr. Edwin Hughes, an ex-director, being on the spot, has, however, been exerting himself to the utmost to circulate descriptions of the dead and missing. Mr. J. Orrell Lever, another director, has addressed a letter to the Lord Mayor, in which he states that the Princess Alice was in charge of a captain who had been twenty years in their service. During the last ten years, he adds, the company’s steamers had carried 200,000,000 passengers, exclusive of over 300 private excursion parties every year, and not a single life (previous to the catastrophe of Tuesday night) had been lost by neglect on the part of the captains or other servants of the company. In a calamity affecting so many bread-winners, he asks the Lord Mayor to convene a public meeting, and to receive subscriptions towards of the survivors and their bereaved. Captain Pelly, R.N., has subscribed £100 ; and Mr.Orrell Lever’s first subscription is £100; Mr. B. Barrow has subscribed £100; Mr. Murray Aston, £50; Mr. John Mann, 10 guineas Mr. C. E. M‘Kenna, 10 guincas; Mr. B. Nicholson, Mr. E. Walker, and “A. P.” have given like amounts.

Related material


“Terrible Collision on the Thames: Great Loss of Life” Illustrated London News 73 (7 December 1878): 227. Hathi Trust Digital Library version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 12 January 2016.

Last modified 10 August 2018