Princess Alice (ship, 1865)

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Princess Alice
Contemporary depiction of the accident
Contemporary depiction of the accident
Ship data
flag United KingdomUnited Kingdom (trade flag) United Kingdom
Ship type Passenger ship
home port London
Shipping company London Steamboat Company
Shipyard Caird & Company , Greenock
Build number 123
Launch 1865
Whereabouts Sunk 3rd September 1878
Ship dimensions and crew
66.8 m ( Lüa )
width 6.2 m
Draft Max. 2.6 m
measurement 251 GRT / 158 NRT
Machine system
machine Double expansion steam engines on two paddle wheels
140 hp (103 kW)
propeller 1
Transport capacities
Permitted number of passengers 500

The Princess Alice was a paddle steamer put into service in 1865 for the British shipping company London Steamboat Company, which was built by the Caird & Company shipyard in Greenock, Scotland . It was used for excursions on the Thames . On September 3, 1878, there was a collision between the Princess Alice and the cargo ship Bywell Castle on the Thames . The Princess Alice broke in two and sank within minutes. 640 of the approximately 800 day trippers on board were killed. The sinking of the Princess Alice represents the worst shipping accident on British inland waters to date .

The ship

The paddle steamer was launched in 1865 at Caird & Company under the name Bute for the Glasgow- based company Wemyss Bay Railway Company. It originally had a tonnage of 171 GRT. It was named after the Isle of Bute in the Firth of Clyde inlet and shuttled between Wemyss Bay , the Isle of Arran and Rothesay . The Bute had a sister ship, the Kyle .

In 1867 the Bute was sold to the Waterman's Steam Packet Company in London, which in 1870 merged with the Woolwich Steam Packet Company, also based in London. The company had the steamer rebuilt so that its volume increased to 251 GRT. The ship was renamed Princess Alice , named after Princess Alice of Great Britain and Ireland , a daughter of Queen Victoria . The Woolwich Steam Packet Company became the London Steamboat Company in 1875 .

The misfortune

The wreck

On Tuesday, September 3, 1878 at 10 o'clock in the morning, the Princess Alice set off from Swan Pier on London Bridge for a day trip that the shipping company had touted as a "moonlight trip ". The destination was the cities of Gravesend in Kent and Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey . Tickets were available for two shillings , and hundreds of Londoners took advantage of this offer. Many wanted to visit the Rosherville Gardens pleasure garden in Gravesend. More than 800 people were on board the excursion steamer on this trip, even though it was only designed for 500 passengers . The 47-year-old captain William Robert Hattridge Grinstead was in command. The outward journey was uneventful, as was the return journey, for which the ship set off around 6 p.m. on the evening of September 3. At 7:40 p.m. the Princess Alice was behind Tripcock Point in an area called Gallions Reach. She was already within sight of the North Woolwich Pier in the London borough of Newham , where most of the passengers should disembark.

The coal freighter Bywell Castle , under the command of Captain Harrison on its way to Newcastle and cruising at medium speed in the middle of the river, came into view. The Bywell Castle was 890 BRT much larger than the Princess Alice and had an experienced pilot on board. Captain Harrison adhered to the traditional Thames routes instead of the rule introduced in 1873 that oncoming ships were to be passed port. He saw the Princess Alice , headed for the north side of the Thames, headed for his bow and changed the course of his ship so that he could pass the excursion steamer astern.

Captain Grinstead on the bridge of the Princess Alice was confused by the maneuver of the Bywell Castle and changed the course of his ship as well. This put the paddle steamer on a direct collision course with the coal freighter. When Captain Harrison noticed this, he immediately stopped the engines of his ship and set them back to "full power". At about the level of the Beckton gasworks , the bow of Bywell Castle dug into the starboard side of the Princess Alice , which broke in two. The tail section sagged immediately.

Dozens of people have been thrown into the River Thames, which was very polluted with sewage and industrial waste in the Victorian era . Located just off the pumping sewage treatment plant Beckton North Outfall Sewer tons of waste water directly into the river. In addition, the factories in North Greenwich and Silvertown dumped their industrial waste in that area into the Thames. This resulted in this part of the river being one of the most polluted bodies of water in Britain at the time.

Most of the passengers were below deck at this time and were thus trapped in the ship. Only four minutes after the collision, the Princess Alice went down . The Bywell Castle launched three lifeboats and its crew members also threw improvised life-saving equipment such as ropes, buoys and boards overboard so that the passengers of the sinking steamer could hold onto them. The steamer Duke of Teck , which belonged to the same shipping company, took the castaways on.


Around 640 people were killed in the accident, including Captain Grinstead, three of his relatives, almost all of the officers and Emily Towse, wife of the director of the London Steamboat Company, William Wrench Towse, and four children. William Towse himself survived. The numbers of victims and those rescued differ in the various sources. The number of deaths is given between 550 and "almost 700", the most frequently recorded and, according to various estimates, the most likely is 640. Between 100 and 170 people survived. Many bodies were never found and most of those found were never identified. The recovered bodies were kept in the London Steamboat Company's office in Roff's Wharf. The sinking of the Princess Alice is the worst shipping accident on British inland waters to date.

120 dead were buried in a mass grave at Woolwich Old Cemetery in Plumstead . A stone memorial cross was placed above the grave to commemorate the tragedy and its victims. More than 23,000 British donated for the construction of the monument . The wreck of the Princess Alice , broken in half , was recovered from the bottom of the Thames shortly afterwards. The corpses of hundreds of passengers were found at the exits of the salon as if "piled up".

This was followed by an investigation under the direction of the 69-year-old Judge Charles Joseph Carttar, the coroner of West Kent, which was held from September 6, 1878 at Woolwich Town Hall. Around 100 witnesses were heard on 30 days of the trial. The committee of inquiry found that the Princess Alice's change of course had caused the accident. At that time there was no authority or institution responsible for the safety of navigation on the Thames. The Marine Police Force , based in Wapping , was equipped with steam-powered rescue ships in order to be able to intervene more effectively in future accidents.

The sinking of the Princess Alice also resulted in various new regulations and improvements in relation to the safety of passenger ships. The British Board of Trade investigated the incident and recommended that oncoming ships should always pass each other on the port side. This requirement had existed since 1873, but was not applied to inland waterways until then . In addition, passenger capacities on passenger ships were limited, and in 1880 a regulation came into force that provided that passengers were adequately supplied with life jackets . The presence of watertight bulkheads was also required. The City of London has been tasked with taking measures to limit water pollution.


The ship's namesake, Princess Alice of Great Britain and Ireland, died on December 14, 1878, the day the official investigation report into the accident was published.

Six years after the sinking, the London Steamboat Company went bankrupt .

In the years following the disaster, one of Jack the Ripper's later victims , Elizabeth Stride , claimed to have lost her husband and two children in the sinking of Princess Alice . However, her husband did not die until 1884 and the name Stride did not appear on the passenger list of the last voyage.

British judge, author and poet William Digby Seymour wrote the poem The Foundering of the Princess Alice about calamity. In 1978 the folk song The Princess Alice was released on the album Lonesome Boatman to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the catastrophe.


  • Edwin Guest. The Wreck of the Princess Alice . London, 1878
  • Gavin Thurston. The Great Thames Disaster . G. Allen & Unwin, London, 1965
  • Wendy Neal. With Disastrous Consequences: London Disasters, 1830-1917 . Hisarlick Press, Enfield Lock, 1992
  • Peter Box. Paddle Steamers of the Thames . Tempus Publishing, Stroud, 2000
  • Padfield, Peter: An Agony of Collisions . Hodder and Stoughton, London 1966.

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