Princess Alice

From Academic Kids

For people bearing the title Princess Alice, see Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester and Princess Alice of Albany.

The Princess Alice was a passenger steamer. On the evening of September 3, 1878, she collided with the steam collier Bywell Castle and sank into the Thames in under four minutes. Of the approximately 700 passengers, over 600 were lost (sources vary on the actual numbers).
Missing image
This contemporary drawing shows the Bywell Castle bearing down upon the Princess Alice.

The Princess Alice was first launched in 1865. Originally known as the Bute, she was bought by the London Steamboat Company in 1866. They renamed her the Princess Alice, and put her into service on the Thames excursion route.

On September 3, 1878, she was making what was billed as a "Moonlight Trip" to Gravesend and back. This was a routine trip from Swan Pier near London Bridge to Gravesend and Sheerness. Tickets were sold for 2s. Hundreds of Londoners paid the fare; many were visiting Rosherville Gardens in Gravesend.

The trip out was uneventful, and most of the return was also. By 7:40 pm, she was within sight of the North Woolwich Pier, where many passengers were to disembark. This is when she sighted the Bywell Castle.

The Bywell Castle displaced 890 tons, much more than the Princess Alice. She usually hauled coal to Africa. At the time, she held no cargo; she had just been repainted at a dry dock and was on her way to pick up a load of coal. She was skippered by Captain Harrison, who was accompanied by an experienced Thames river pilot.

Captain Harrison, on the bridge of the Bywell Castle, observed the Princess Alice coming across his bow, making for the north side of the river. The Bywell Castle set a course to pass astern of her. The captain of the Princess Alice, however, was confused by this and altered her own course. This brought the Princess Alice into the path of the Bywell Castle.

Upon realizing this, the Bywell Castle's captain ordered her engines reversed, but it was too late. The Bywell Castle struck the Princess Alice on the starboard side. The Princess Alice split in two and sank in four minutes. The passengers were either trapped in the sinking craft, or thrown into the river.

The Thames in Victorian times was not a clean river. The area where the collision occurred was heavily polluted from industrial plants. Raw sewage was also directly dumped into the river at nearby Beckton.

Somewhere between 69 to 170 people were rescued from the river. However the vast majority perished. When the two halves of the Princess Alice were raised, hundreds of passengers were found piled near the exits.

Many of the victims were never identified. They were buried in a mass grave at Woolwich Cemetery.

The log of the Bywell's Castle told it this way:

The master and pilot were on the upper bridge, and the lookout on the top-gallant forecastle; light airs prevailed; the weather was a little hazy; at 7:45 o'clock P. M. proceeded at half speed down Gallion's Reach; when about at the centre of the reach observed an excursion steamer coming up Barking Reach, showing her red and masthead lights, when we ported our helm to keep out toward Tripcock Point; as the vessels neared, observed that the other steamer had ported her helm. Immediately afterward saw that she had starboarded her helm and was trying to cross our bows, showing her green light close under our port bow. Seeing that a collision was inevitable, we stopped our engines and reversed them at full speed. The two vessels came in collision, the bow of the Bywell Castle cutting into the other steamer with a dreadful crash. We took immediate measures fo saving life by hauling up over our bows several passengers, throwing overboard ropes' ends, life-buoys, a hold-ladder, and several planks, and getting out three boats, at the same time keeping the whistle blowing loudly for assistance, which was rendered by several boats from shore, and a boat from another steamer. The excursion steamer, which turned out to be the Princess Alice, turned over and sank under our bows. We succeeded in rescuing a great many passengers, and anchored for the night.


  • Log of the Steamer Bywell Castle, New York Times, Sept 6, 1878.

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