The Great Disaster on the Thames: Collision between the “Princess Alice” and the “Bywell Castle,” near Woolwich. Click on image to enlarge it.

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. I have also added at appropriate places in the text the five illustrations that appeared in Fun three days earlier.

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Another week has been spent in public lamentations for the greatest loss of life ever caused by a single momentary accident in the neighbourhood of London. Thousands of mourners have been condoled with, each family in the circle of its private acquaintance, and in the neighbourhood of its residence, while every voice has daily repeated the expression of sympathy, and almost every pulpit of church or chapel, as well as every newspaper, has joined in uttering the general sorrow, and in commenting upon this terrible event. Although our last week's publication gave, for the time, a sufficient account of the disaster on Tuesday week, and of the discovery and reception of dead bodies till the Thursday afternoon, we have now to relate many important particulars. Every morning and evening since then has brought to our knowledge additional facts and circumstantial details of the manifold calamity; the identification of drowned persons, the bereavement of many households in all parts of London, the painful anxiety of those whose friends were still missing, and the progress of inquiries and discussions upon this dismal subject. It has been the main topic of conversation in town, and probably in most places throughout the country; and it necessarily occupies the greater portion of our space filled with Engravings from more than a dozen sketches made during the past week. These are now in the hands of our readers, and will require some notice of the several incidents delineated; besides which a few of the most remarkable passages in the narratives of survivors may be found worthy of perusal.

The Saloon Steam-Boat Princess Alice.

The Princess Alice was a paddle-steamer belonging to the London Steam-Boat Company (Limited), of Bennet's-hill, Doctors’-commons, London. Her official number was 52,614. She was built of iron, and was of 158 tons net tonnage, and 251 gross tonnage. Her length was 219 ft. 4 in.; her breadth, 20 ft. 2 in.; her depth, 8ft. 4in. Her engines were by Czurd and Co., of Greenock. They were of 140-horse power. The vessel was built by Messrs. Caird, of Grecnock, in 1865, and belonged to the port of London. She passed, with the rest of the fleet, into the possession of the London Steam-Boat Company when this undertaking, of which the chairman is Captain Pelly, R.N., and the principal promoter was Mr. John Orrell Lever, absorbed the minor associations for the river passenger traffic.

The Bywell Castle, Screw-Steam Collier, as she lay at Deptford after the Collision.

The Bywell Castle is an iron screw-steamer, having the official number 63,546. She is known by the signal letters J. K. P. W. Her registered tonnage is 892 tons net, 1376 tons gross, and 1168 tons under the deck. Her length is 254 ft. 3in.; her breadth, 32 ft. 1 in.; her depth, 19 ft. 6in. She has compound inverted engines with two cylinders, diameter 27 in., and length of stroke 54-33 in. They are of 120-horse power, and by Palmer's Company, Newcastle. She was built by Palmer, Newcastle, in the year 1870. Her owners are Hall Brothers, of London.

After a day’s excursion trip for pleasure, the Princess Alice was on her return up the river from Sheerness and Gravesend. It was at twenty minutes to eight in the evening, with full moonlight, that she was met and run down by the Bywell Castle off Tripcock Point, or Margaret Ness, a mile below Woolwich Arsenal, and opposite to the Beckton Gasworks on the north shore. The fragile saloon steam-boat was actually cut in two, and she sank within five minutes. Of the multitude of men, women, and children left struggling for life in the water, about one hundred escaped by swimming or clinging to the ropes and floating articles thrown out from the Bywell Castle, or were immediately picked up by the boats of that vessel and others. There was a strong ebb tide, which carried many away down the river. Six hundred livcs and more have been lost; there were 558 dead bodies found up to last Wednesday evening.

The place where the two vessels came into collision with each other is shown in a small plan of that part of the river below Woolwich presented, with other Engravings, on page 252 of this week’s Number of our Journal. It is in Gullion’s Reach, about one mile below Woolwich Arsenal, and the same distance above the mouth of Barking Creek, on the Essex shore. The Princess Alice, after coming up Barking Reach, had rounded the point of Margaret Ness, on the southern shore above Tripcock, and just opposite the Beckton Gasworks. The Bywell Castle was coming down Gallion’s Reach with the ebb tide, and with her screw working at a rate equivalent to four knots an hour, so that her speed, with the tide, may be estimated at seven or eight knots. It is probable that the inteution of the commanders of both vessels, when they caught sight of each other approaching in opposite directions, was to pass on the south side of the channel, as near as they could to the Woolwich Marsh shore; each supposing that the other was about to pass along the north side. With this view, the helm on board the Bywell Castle was put on the port side, or to the left hand, causing the vessel's head to turn to the starboard—that is to say, to her right-hand side. At the same time, the Princess Alice put her helm to the starboard, and thereby turned her head to her port or left-hand side, instead of crossing over, as the Bywell Castle had expected she would do, to the north side of the river. The Princess Alice, in fact, continued to follow the bend of the south bank, while the Bywell Castle made for the point just below. The conscquciicc was that the Bywell Castle ran min the starboard side of the Princess Alice, striking her just forward of the paddle-box, and crushing her frail side like an egg-shell.

Captain Grinstead, the commander of the “Princess Alice”.

The most valuable testimony which can be obtained to explain this lamentable occurrence should be that of surviving otlicers and seamen. The commander of the Princess Alice, Captain Grinstead, is among the drowned, and cannot speak for himself. Captain Thomas Harrison, commander of the Bywell Castle, in his log published last week states that as the two vessels neared each other he observed that the Princess Alice had “ported,” as if to cross over to the north side of the river, while his own ship had already ported her helm to go over to the south side. This would have been all right and safe; but he adds that he saw immediately afterwards that the Princess Alice “had starboarded, and was trying to cross our bows." In other words, he alleges that the Princess Alice, having first shown an intention to take the right-hand side of the channel—that is to say, the north side—capriciously and most rashly changed her course to the left-hand side, endeavouring to regain the inside position at the southerly bend of the river. This is the most serious question that has been raised, affecting the conduct and seamanship of the deceased Captain Grinstead, and the veracity of Captain Harrison is equally at stake upon it. The men belonging to the two vessels, whose evidence has been taken by the Receiver of Wrecks for the Port of London, are Mr. Christopher Dix, of Stepney, pilot of the Bywell Castle on this occasion; William Charles Haynes, helmsman of the Bywell Castle; John Hardy, lookout man on the forecastle of that ship; and, on the other hand, Mr. George Thomas Long of Woolwich, the first mate, and Mr. Ralph Wilkinson of Gravesend, second mate of the Princess Alice, John Eyers, the helmsman, John Rand and Henry Young, two seamen keeping the look out. The pilot of the Bywell Castle was on her bridge with Captain Harrison; and he states that their vessel was going down Gallion’s Reach in mid-channel, when they saw, head lights of the Princess Alice, three quarters of a mile distant. The Princess Alice rounded the Point, being then nearly half a mile from the Bywell Castle. It should be understood that the Princess Alice carried a red light on her port or left-hand side, and a green light on her starboard or right hand-side. Dix, the pilot of the Bywell Castle, says that he saw, half a mile off, the red light, with the white masthead light, of the Princess Alice come round the Point, bearing two points on the port bow of his own ship. This may be understood to have caused him and Captain Harrison believe that the Princess Alice was making for the north side of the channel, and would pass the Bywell Castle on their port side. Hence it was that the Bywell Castle pilot ordered his “helm, which up to this moment had been steady, to be slightly ported, which caused the vessel to veer slightly towards the south shore. When the vessel; approached within about a quarter of a mile of each other he ordered the engines to be stopped, and sounded his whistle. The Princess Alice was still showing her red and white lights, inclining, he says, slightly towards the north shore, the Bywell Castle slightly inclining towards the south shore. The Bywell Castle had still way on her. When the Princess Alice came to about 300 or 400 yards’ distance she showed her red and green lights bearing two points on the port bow of the Bywell Castle. The Bywell Castle pilot ordered his helm hard apart, and put the engines full speed astern. Loud shouts were heard from the Princess Alice, and she was hailed to port her helm. Suddenly the Princess Alice's red light disappeared and the green only was visible. A collision became inevitable, the Bywell Castle’s stern striking the Princess Alice on the starboard side. This is the account given by Mr. Christopher Dix, and confirmed, to some extent, by Haynes, the helmsman of the Bywell Castle, who states that he saw the red and masthead lights of the Princess Alice, apparently about a third of a mile distant. He had been ordered, three minutes before, to port his helm a little, which had been done, and this order was given by the pilot upon a report from the look-out man that he saw a red light ahead. Haynes further declares, that “when the Princess Alice approached within a quarter of a mile, she suddenly shut in her light,” meaning that she turned so as to hide from view the red light on her port side, “and the green light,” on her starboard side, “became visible;” upon which the master or pilot of the Bywell Castle ordered his own helm to be put hard aport, and the collision took place. It does not seem clear how the Bywell Castle could hope to escape the collision by putting its helm hard apart, when the immediate danger, as we are told, arose from the Princess Alice improperly starboarding her helm. Two vessels approaching one another, the first with her helm put to starboard, and the second with her helm aport, would seem all the more likely to encounter each other. If the Bywell Castle, on perceiving that the Princess Alice had changed her course to the south side of the channel, as is alleged, had then taken the north side, by putting her own helm starboard, the collision would have been avoided, supposing there was time for the Princess Alice to get across clear of her bows. The other witness from the Bywell Castle is John Hardy, the forecastle look-out man, who agrees with Dix and Haynes in their statement that the red or port side light of the Princess Alice was first seen, but that “in a few minutes the red light was shut out, and the green light came in view,” about a point and a half on the port bow of the Bywell Castle. The two vessels, he says, were in this position within two hundred yards of one another; the Bywell Castle was then in midstream, but slightly inclining to the south shore.

Operations at the Scene of the Disaster

Is it so plainly apparent that she could not, by altering her course within that distance of two hundred yards, have passed astern of the Princess Alice? The answer to this question is fully as important as that which may be given to the former question — namely, whether the Princess Alice did or did not improperly change her course from the starboard to the port side. We have now to consider the evidence of the first mate of the Princess Alice, Mr. George Thomas Long, who was on the top of the fore saloon. He tells us that, “on rounding Tripcock Point, the vessel’s helm had been starboarded to pass a screw-steamer, name unknown, which was going down the river. The engines were going easy, and he next observed the green and masthead lights of the screw-steamer, which proved to be the Bywell Castle, coming down the river. ThePrincess Alice helm at that moment was starboarded; the engines were stopped. The Bywell Castle appeared to have ported her helm, and was coming stem on against the Princess Alice, being about 150 yards distant. The Princess Alice sounded her whistle, and loud shouts were made to the Bywell Castle, but the collision then inevitably took place. The same account is given by the second mate of the Princess Alice, Mr. Ralph Willdnson, and by Henry Young, her look-out man, and is supported by that of Mr. Abraham Dennis, master of the barge Bonetta, of Rochester, and Joseph Smith Burnitt, of Goole, master of the Ann Elizabeth, schooner, who were near enough to see all that happened. Mr. Wilkinson says that, when the Princess Alice arrived in Gallion’s Reach abreast of the Beckton Gasworks, she was “on the starboard helm and steering about mid-stream.” She would need, we may observe, to have her helm put starboard, in order to keep in mid-stream at that part of the river, which there takes a bend to the port side, or left-hand side, of a vessel ascendin the stream. He states that he was standing on the starboard side of the after sponson, from which part of the vessel, crowded as the deck was, he could scarcely have seen the Bywell Castle approaching till the moment before the collision. He was occupied in coiling the rope to be thrown ashore for landing at the North Woolwich pier, when, glancing over the bulwark he saw the Bywell Castle, stern on, coming down upon his vessel. The testimony of the look-out man, Henry Young is more circumstantial with regaid to the Bywell Castle as he was in a position to see much more of her. He says that he, after rounding the Point, observed the green light (starboard side) of the Bywell Castle a mile distant. The Princess Alice was then about mid-channel, inclining slightly towards the south side of the river, and on the starboard helm as she must be in order to follow the bend of the river. If this be true, it is not true, as Captain Harrison and others say, that the Princess Alice first had her helm aport and then suddenly put it starboard. Again Henry Young declares that the Bywell Castle, as she came on, still showed her green light, and he never saw her red light, at all until after the collision, when he climbed on board of her. He then noticed that she was standing in to the south shore. having suddenly ported her helm; and he is of opinion that it was this which caused the collision which might have been avoided “if the Bywell Castle had kept her stariboard helm.” It is certainly obvious that this would have avoided it, supposing the fact to be, as he says, that the Princess Alice had kept her own starboard helm without alteration. Two Persons walking towards each other in one path will jostle one another if both keep to the left hand respectively, and the channel of the Thames is wide enough. But the expression, “if the Bywell Castle had kept her helm,” does not seem accurately to fit the state of the case. The Bywell Castle appears not to have been actually put on the starboard helm, but to have held straight on in mid-stream till she approached Tripcock Point, and then to have ported her helm, in order to pass near the south shore at that point; unless we are to understand Henry Young's statement about her green light as implying that her course was directed so as in present her starboard side to the Princess Alice meeting her; and in estimating this, we should require to notice the precise curve of the river bend. The master of the Bonetta, Mr. Abraham Dennis, states that he saw the Princess Alice “rounding Tripcock Point and hugging the south shore," right abreast of his own vessel. He could not well be mistaken about this fact, and he says that “she appeared to shape her course straight up Gallion’s Reach along the south shore.” It is not true, therefore, according to this witness, that she put her helm about. He heard her steamwhistle, and her master shout, “Where are you coming to?" as the Bywell Castle met her, coming down the river on the south side of mid-stream. This witness was half a mile behind the Princess Alice. In half a minute he heard the order given on board the Bywell Castle to “port.” He states again, quite positively, that the Princess Alice was still pursuing her course up the south shore. The Bywell Castle kept port helm, and he again heard the order given on board of her, “Port!, port!” Then, almost immediately, she struck the Princess Alice on the starboard side. This statement would fully justify the opinion of Mr. Dennis, that “the cause of the casualty was the Bywell Castle porting helm as she approached the Princess Alice, and that it might have been avoided if the Bywell Castle had kept her course straight down stream a little south of midstream.”

The statement of Mr. Joseph Burnitt, master of the Goole schooner, is that the Bywell Castle appeared to be on her port helm at the moment when the captain of the Princess Alice called out, “Where are you coming to?” when the two vessels were a hundred and fifty yards from each other. The Princess Alice, which was coming up along the south shore, had eased her engines, in passing the Powder Magazine, and then stopped and whistled, after which she hailed the Bywell Castle. This witness, therefore, is likewise of opinion that the disaster was occasioned by the Bywell Castle keeping on with helm apart when a collision became imminent, instead of keeping a straight course down the river and passing the Princess Alice on the starboard side.

We have further to record the evidence of John Eyers, the surviving helmsman of the Princess Alice, one of two men at the wheel, the other being William Creed, his brother-in-law, who refused to jump overboard with Eyers after the collision, and who was drowned. John Eyers states that on arriving at the top of Halfway Reach, as he calls the Barking Reach marked on our Plan, helm was ordered by the master to be star-boarded, and it was done. He presently observed the Bywell Castle coming down on starboar helm, and then bearing about two points and a quarter on the starboard bow of the Princess Alice; but “suddenly the Bywell Castle appeared to port helm, and a collision seemed imminent. The Princess Alice, which had her helm kept starboardcd, stopped and reversed her engines, but the Bywell Castle, coming on apparently at half speed, struck her on the fore sponson of the starboard side, and cut with her stem into the Princess Alice.

The statement of John Rand, who kept the look-out forward on the lower deck, is that, before arriving at the top of the lower reach, he saw, over the point, the lights of the Bywell Castle, and reported to the chief mate, “Steamer right ahead!” The engines of the Princess Alice were stopped for a minute or two, but then were set ahead, helm was hard starboarded, and a caution was given by the master “Mind the helm on account of set of ebb tide.” The Princess Alice answered her helm quickly and rounded the point close to the Powder Magazine on the south shore. The Bywell Castle was then a little to the north of his vessel, coming on with port helm. The master hailed the coming steamer to starboard helm, stopped and reversed engines, but the Bywell Castle coming on with stem struck the Princess Alice, cutting her through nearly to the boiler. The Princess Alice commenced to fill [with water]; there was great confusion.

It will be perceived by the reader of these depositions that there is an essential coflict of evidence upon the matter of fact involved in Captain Harrison's assertion, first made in his log, and repeated by him on oath before the Receiver of Wrecks. He declares that, when the Princess Alice had rounded Tripcock Point, he “observed that she was paying off to the port helm,” her red light being visible to him. His own helm was already ported, and his vessel was “paying off quickly towards the Tripcock shore.” He kept his own helm hard aport, but “when the vessels approached within about one hundred yards of each other, the Princess Alice was suddenly observed to starboard her helm, showing her green light close under the Bywell Castle. To this act Captain Harrison attributes the collision that instantly followed. The question is, whether or not she was, as he states, previously keeping a course under port helm. His statement is flatly denied by every one of the surviving officers and seamen of the Princess Alice, and by several witnesses who are nautical men. We must await the decision of the Board of Trade official inquiry, and that of the Admiralty Court, which will have to deal with the case as between the two vessels. As for Captain Grinstead, who always bore the highest character, he refused to quit his post on the bridge of the Princess Alice, though entreated by the helmsman Eyers to do so, and he perished in this great disaster. Public feeling is not disposed just now to find fault with him upon slight evidence of any mistake on his part.

We pass on to the interesting personal experiences of some of the survivors, whose statements have been reported in the daily newspapers.

One of the passengers’ narratives is this, given by Mr. Henry Reed, stationer, of 57, Oxford-street, who says:—— “My wife and I had been down at Gravesend spending the day. We did not go down by the Princess Alice, and our returning by her was quite accidental. We were during the voyage on the upper fore-deck, where there were other first-class passengers — men, women, and children; but the deck was not crowded.The other portion of the ship seemed to me to be very much crowded, chiefly by pleasure-seekers. I never before saw so many children on board a Thames steamer, and the proportion of women on board seemed to me very large; but throughout the passage from Gravescnd there was perfect order. I did not see one person under the influence of liquor on board. Up to within a few moments of the collision a band was playing, and its last tune was ‘Nancy Lee.’ All went well and quietly until about twenty-five minutes to eight o’clock, when it was anything but dark. You might not have been able to read small print, but you could distinctly see the picture on a photograph. We were near North Woolwich, and had seen the powder-magazine. The captain was standing on the paddle-box, looking ahead, and giving directions to the hands. I am perfectly certain we were slackening speed, and going very slowly. Some of the people around us were straining their eyes, and looking ahead in the same direction as the captain. My wife and I turned to look as the others did; we were then standing at the extreme point of the deck, looking up the Thames. I saw a large vessel, a screwsteamer, several lengths ahead, and coming directly towards [258/259] us. It appeared to me that our vessel had then altogether stopped, and was standing still in the water. Everyone aroimd us was anxious, . ad inquired one from the other what was the matter, but two or three of the men belonging to the Princess Alice who were on the deck looking out told 118 not to fear, for we would go by all right, and that there was no danger. My wife expressed a fear that the great vessel towering so much above us would come into collision. She was some len hs off, but coming nearer in a direct line. I am quite sure he was coming straight on. I looked, but could see no lights on the large vessel, nor could I see any man in the fore part of her facing towards us. I jumped up on the seat, still looking towards the vessel approaching us, but one of the hands called upon me to come down, by the captain’s orders. I observed that the captain of the Princess Alice was still on the paddle-box and that our lights were hung out. As the large vessel came nearer to us, while I believe we were standing still, I distinctly heard the captain shouting to her in a loud voice, ‘Where are you comin to?’ I came down from the seat, as ordered, when I foun my wife and I were the only passengers on the upper fore-deck. The large vessel was then close upon us. My wife, who had not lost her selfpossession, said, ‘Do not leave me;’ and I took her hands to keep her by me. I looked up at the vessel close upon us, but could see no persons in her fore part, nor could I hear any cries from her; but her great height above us would probably prevent our doing so. The collision must have occurred at that moment; for, although there was no crash, we felt the Princess Alice tremble under us——a kind of strong shivering motion. We turned, looking aft, seeking for means of safety, and I observed the captain was no longer on the paddle-box. I never saw him again. Screaming had then begun; and I saw a lot of people, quite a thick and excited crowd, rush, as I believe, across the gangway. I fancied there might have been a ladder there, for I saw several people, women with children, and men with women, drop over the side, but whether on to a ladder or not I do not know; but, perceiving that there was a fierce rushing of steam up the side at that point, I feared approaching it, lest we might be scalded to death. Without any apparent shock, we found ourselves, my wife and I still holding together, in the water, and rose again; we sank again, I believe drawn down by the suction of the Princess Alice. When we rose my wife was black in the face and nearly insensible; I could not swim, and could scarcely hold my wife up. She told me to keep quiet, and to hold up. A plank was close by us, and going past seized it, and, holding on to it, it carried us right behind the vessel which had come into collision with us ; the Princess Alice must then have been behind us. All around were people struggling in the water, screaming and calling to the men whom we could then see looking over the bulwarks of the other vessel. My wife and I also shouted, and ropes, I believe several, were thrown over us by the men. I distinctly saw three ropes thrown, and I believe there were more. I grasped one of the ropes, my wife still holding on to me. Some four or five others took hold of the same rope, but I could not see how many took hold of the other ropes, as they were thrown behind us. The vessel moved on, and, holding by the ropes, we floated down the river along with her; one of those clinging, a woman, screaming all the while. I believe she had lost a child. We must have floated in this way for more than half an hour, going down the river with the ebb. We were shouting to the men above, and could hear them shouting, but could not hear what they said. Many vessels passed us at a distance, and we could see a good many boats moving about us. A small boat hailed us, and took us on board. It was a two-oared boat, with three men in it. We were taken on board, with all those hanging on to our rope. Some of those clinging to the other rope must also have been taken on board, as there were twelve or thirteen of us altogether. I do not know the names of our rescuers, but, from the fact that they were hailed by a passing vessel, I believe they belonged to her. They rowed us to Greenwich, where we landed. My wife and I, after procuring refreshment, took train to London, arriving home a few minutes before eleven. The men in the boat told us we were picked up two miles from the scene of the collision. We neither of us lost consciousness during the whole time. My watch stopped at twenty minutes to eight o’clock.”

Another of the surviving passengers, Mr. George Alexander Haynes, of 113, Bow-road, gives the following account:——“On the return journey there were about 800 souls on board, counting the great number of children with the adults. The fore part of the vessel was filled; so also was the saloon deck, but not so much the aft part, where I happened to be. After quitting Gravesend, and when nearly abreast of the beacon light at Grays, our vessel nearly collided with a large brig, and a serious accident was only averted by our captain reversing the wheels full on. This incident caused no small amount of consternation among the passcngers. After righting ourselves, all went well till we arrived opposite North Woolwich. We had just passed the powder magazine on our left, and the Beckton Gasworks on our right; we were pretty nearly in mid-stream; it was rather dark and hazy at the time. Suddenly there was a bustle aboard, and low murmurs were audible amongst the passengers, which gradually rose into loud exclamations. At this time our signal-whistle blew tremendously loud and shrill; the wheels of the boat were momentarily reversed and speed slackened I heard the captain of our vessel and other people shout out as if warning some approaching ship. Being at the after part of the boat, I went to look on the starboard side, when the air was suddenly filled with the terrible tumult of human voices, and within a second afterwards the big ship crashed into the Princess Alice on the starboard side and split our vessel right in half. I cannot describe the scene of confusion and maddening perplexity which seized upon everybody. In a minute or so I could see distinctly the fore part of our vessel sink, the middle going down like a plummet, raising the head of the vessel into the air, and as it sank the poor people seemed to be shot out as if down a shaft into the gulf below. Then our part of the vessel speedily went down from the paddle-box aft, the people from the saloon and after deck being also shot into the water like those at the fore. I held on to the stern above the rudder, as did a few others, and we were the last to leave the vessel. Before this the cries of the women and children were piteous beyond description. One of the crew rushed up to the stern and tried to loosen the ropes connecting one of the davits on the port bow, in order to utilise the boat, but he could not get the ropes unfastened, and said, ‘Who’s got a knife? Have you one, Sir?’ I replied that I had, and handed it to him, when he cut the rope, and, after shout ‘Below!’ let the boat down into the water without a single person in it, although by proper management people could liave been got in. I might have seated myself in it easily enough, but I thought it was intended for the ladies and children. After being let down it must have drifted away with the tide. I relied upon my good nerves and swimming powers to save myself. I don’t think three minutes elapsed between the collision and the sinking of the Princess Alice. Events went speedily on, and at last the portion of the vessel on which I stood slipped away from my feed, and I found myself struggling in the water. I seized hold of a lady next to me who was drowning, and supported her in the tide. As well as I was able I trod the water, and was thus better able to keep both of us afloat. Nevertheless, I went under several times, for there was a great surge on then, caused in great part by the screw of the big ship near us. After buffetmg the waves for some minutes, I was gradually gettmg exhausted, but I held on as best I could, still buoying up the lady. I could not see a body near us, nor was there any appearance of drowning persons. After a while a little boat hove in sight, commanded by Mr. Trewby, the manager of the Beckton Gas Works, whom I have to thank sincerely for the great kindness shown to me at his house after landing. Just as this little craft came up I called out ‘Help, help!’ and Mr. Trewby put out an oar, which I seized. Mr. Trewby took the lady first and I followed. At this critical and desperate moment mournful cries of distress were heard a little way off from us, where a lady and gentleman were seen to be violently struggling. Without a moment's delay the boat put off to their rescue,and saved them. After this Mr. Trewby rowed up and down, but only picked up a lifebelt and a woman's shawl. The big ship which cut into us did not go on, but remained stationary, for ‘Mr. Trewby and we rowed right round her to try and ascertain her name; but, owing to the darkness of the mght, we were unable to find it out. Having been landed at the Gasworks, every kindness was shown to us by Mr. Trewby, his wife, and servants. Fires were instantly lighted. We were then more dead than alive. The ladies were invited to change their attire, and did so, Mrs. Trewby supplying them with an entire change. The men were generously offered suits of clothes, but respectfully declined, as we were all very anxious to reach home. Brandy-and-water and every procurable nourishment were provided, and even a cab was sent for to take me to my home.

When on the boat I saw a young fellow pull off his boats [boots] and coat and waistcoat, and make a plunge in. One difficulty I suffered from in the water was my gloves, which I had not had time to take off ere the vessel disappeared. I believe that the people were so thickly mixed up in the water that they must have pulled one another under. The upper saloon of the vessel was crowded with people, and the only persons with the captain, who was in his usual place over the saloon, were three little boys, who must have been privileged to be where they were, and I presume they were the children of Mr. Towse, the superintendent of the company. It was high tide at the time, and our ship was going against the stream. I do not think our ship, considering her size and the number of passengers she was licensed to carry, could be said to be overcrowded. There were vast numbers aboard, but there seemed sufficient moving room.’

Many other personal narratives have appeared in print, which have a general resemblance, but often with some particular circumstance, not mentioned by others, of the individual experience while struggling with a crowd of fellow sufferers in the water, and of the accidental means of escape. The Bywell Castle, after backing a minute or two from the Princess Alice upon the collision, stopped and rendered all the help she could, lowering one boat on the starboard and two on the port side, to pick up the drowning people, and casting out ropes, life-buoys, ladders, planks, and a carpenter's bench, to which many of them clung and were saved. The masters of the Bonetta and Ann Elizabeth instantly lowered their boats, and one picked up ten persons, the other eleven, landing them safely at Beckton and Barking. One or two shore-boats, as we have seen, put forth and helped to rescue some of those in the water. Two of the London Steam-Boat Company’s vessels, coming up soon after the Princess Alice, gave some assistance. It does not appear that anyone who had an opportunity of helping neglected that duty, and there was no want of kind attention to the survivors landing wet and chilled at Barking or at Woolwich; indeed, some were put ashore at Eritli and elsewhere down the river.

Left: Offices of the London Steam-Boat Company, Bennet’s-Hill, City: Inquiring for Lost Relatives on the Night of the Disaster. Right: Crowd Outside the London Steam-Boat Company’s Office at Woolwich. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

The news of this terrible calamity reached London at a late hour in the evening, and spread quickly all over town. The families and friends of persons known to have gone with the Princess Alice to Gravesend and Rosherville, or to Sheerness for an intended day of pleasure, soon learnt the terrible tidings. A crowd of agouised inquirers beset the doorway of the London Steam-Boat Company's offices on Bennet’s-hill, City, vainly asking if the names of those drowned, or of those saved, had been reported from Woolwich. At the oflice of the steam-boat pier, adjacent to Woolwich Dockyard, a multitude of similar grieving victims of passionate anxiety, who came down from London by every train and boat, might be observed day after day. The steam-boat pier at North Woolwich, on the opposite bank of the river, which is accessible by a branch of the North London Railway from the distant northern suburbs of London, was also thronged with people intent on the same melancholy errand; and here, upon the arrival of a frequent messenger from Woolwich by the subway or ferry across the Thames, the names of persons saved from thePrincess Alice were read aloud to an eager audience. The doleful and shocking task of groping in the bed of the river by means of poles and grapnels, and of divers searching the wreck for dead bodies, has been continued from morning until eve, bringing up an average of one hundred each day, including those washed ashore by the tide. Our large Engraving, which occupies the two middle pages of tis week’s number, represents this scene during this melancholy operation. Another view, from a sketch taken on the next day, shows the exact place where the Princess Alice sank, with one of the Thames Conservancy tugs moored directly over the wreck, and two barges of the Thames Conservancy keeping guard at a short distance above and below, all three displaying the blue flag inscribed with the word “wreck” in white letters. Another barge, nearer the north shore, appears in this sketch laden with the funnel of the Princess Alice, which was broken off in the collision, and was soon picked up; many boats hover about the wreck, casting out their drags and grapiiels, and divers have gone under water, continuing their laborious and dangerous task. This was on Wednesday week, by which time already, at the Woolwich Arsenal pier, at the Dockyard, at the chemical manure works of Messrs. Lawes, on Barking Creek, also at the Creek Mouth school-house, at the Yacht Hotel, Erith, and at the Ferry-Boat public-house, at Rainham, on the Essex shore, a large number of the dead had been laid out for inspection by visitors seeking to identify those whom they know. The Townhall at Woolwich, the buildings in Woolwich Dockyard, and a temporary mortuary at Roff’s Steam-boat Wharf in that town, were principally made the appointed depositary of this sad public charge. A great variety of articles of clothing, washed off from the corpses, was collected for exhibition at the Dockyard, with trinkets and other small things placed in boxes glazed at the top, to be examined by those whose lost friends had not yet been discovered. It may well be imagined that this proved a very distressing business; yet incomparably more dreadful was the inspection of the dead bodies, commonly much disfigured by the watcr and slime in which they had lain for many hours, or even during several days and nights. We will spare our readers the description of these. revolting incidents.

The Coroner for West Kent, Mr. C. J . Carttar, has been holding, from day to day, an adjourned inquest at the Woolwich Townhall, merely for the purpose of receiving evidence to identify the bodies, in order that he might issue his warrants for their burial. The reports of these proceedings have been published in minute detail by the daily journals, so that the names, ages, residences, and occupations of most of those who have perished are known to the public. The majority seem to be middle-class and working-class people of the London suburbs, Camden Town, Brixton, and other districts remote from the Thames contributing a good number. There are several instances in which parties of school children, with their teachers, or members of a Bible Class, had been taken out for a holiday trip on the river. Two thirds at least of the whole number are women and children.

Subscriptions for the relief of bereaved and destitute families have been opened in many quarters, beginning with a proposal to the Lord Mayor from Mr. J. Orrell Lever, a director of the London Steam-Boat Company, himself giving a hundred guineas. Her Majesty the Queen has made a gift of that amount, having first, through Lord Sydney, expressed to the Coroner her sincere grief for this calamity. The Prince and Princess of Wales have sent to the Lord Mayor a message of condolence and a gift of fifty guineas. The managers and lessees of several London theatres, and the company of the Comédie Française, which played in London some time ago, have charitably offered their aid—the latter in the shape of a £50 subscription, the former by means of benefit performances. The Charity Organisation Society has volunteered its services in ascertaining where relief is needed.

The funerals of many of the dead, buried together, have been conducted, in the Woolwich Cemetery, with great solemnity, by the Hon. and Rev. Mr. Anson, the Rector of Woo1wich, and in other places by several clergymen and Dissenting ministers. The Bywell Castle has been allowed, after a short detention, to proceed to Shields, where she arrived on Saturday night. The London Steam-Boat Com any have made a claim against her owners for £14,000, the value of the Princess Alice. This will be tried by the Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice. The official inquiry instituted by the Board of Trade will be opened at Poplar on Tuesday week, the 24th inst., before Mr. Balguy, the Greenwich stipcndiary magistrate, and two nautical assessors.

Lord Sandon, President of the Board of Trade, has announced, in a letter to the Lord Mayor, that, after the Board of Inquiry into the circumstances attending the loss of the Princess Alice, a committee will be appointed to consider the rules now in force with respect to the navigation of the Thames, and to report to Government whether any flesh rules are necessary with a view to prevent collisions and to regulate the traffic. The committee is to be thus constituted:—One member from the Thames Conservancy Board, one from the Trinity House, one from the Admiralty, one from the Steam-Ship Owners’ Association of London, and three members from the Board of Trade.

Related material

Bibliography of articles in Illustrated London News

All these articles, where are here arranged in chronological order, were read in the Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the Princeton University of Library.

“Terrible Collision on the Thames: Great Loss of Life.” 73 (7 September 1878): 227.

“The Great Disaster on the Thames.” 73 (11 September 1878): 244-45. (6 illustrations).

“The Great Disaster on the Thames: Collision between the Princess Alice and the Bywell Castle, near Woolwich.” 73 (14 September 1878): 256-59.

“The Great Disaster on the River.” 73 (11?? September 1878): 282-83.

“The Loss of the Princess Alice.” 73 (28 September 1878): 299.

“The Loss of the Princess Alice.” 73 (16 November 1878): 462. [Results of Coroner's and Board of Trade's investigations.]

Last modified 12 August 2018