Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1878, the steamer Princess Alice sank.

The Princess Alice wreck was the greatest civilian nautical disaster in British history.

The Princess Alice was a passenger steamer, first launched in 1865 as The Bute. In 1866, she was bought by the London Steamboat Company, and renamed The Princess Alice, in honour of Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria. On the evening of September 3rd, 1878, she was making what was billed as a ‘Moonlight Trip’ along the Thames, from London Bridge to Gravesend, carrying approximately 700 passengers, who had each paid a fare of two shillings (about £10 in today’s money). The trip out was uneventful, as was the return journey, until at 7:40 pm, when she came within sight of the Bywell Castle, a steam collier whose function was the transportation of coal to Africa. The Bywell Castle was returning from repainting in dry dock, and its skipper, Captain Harrison was unacquainted with the waters of the Thames.  

Harrison, on the bridge of the Bywell Castle, observed the Princess Alice coming across his bow, making for the north side of the river. He set a course to pass astern of her, but the captain of the Princess Alice, had already altered his course to avoid the Bywell Castle, a misjudgement which brought the Princess Alice into the path of the Bywell Castle. Harrison ordered the engines reversed, but alas, the Bywell Castle struck the Princess Alice on the starboard side, splitting her in two. She was swallowed up by the chilly waters of the Thames and sank within four minutes.  

The passengers were either trapped in the sinking vessel or jettisoned into the river. The Bywell Castle blew its whistle for assistance and many other craft rushed to the scene. About 100 people were rescued, but the Thames in the Nineteenth Century was one of the most polluted rivers in the world, carrying industrial effluent and raw sewage. Most of those rescued died from dysentery.  

When the two halves of the Princess Alice were raised, hundreds of the dead were found heaped near the exits. They had been poisoned by the effluent and not drowned. About 125 of them were never identified, and were buried in a mass grave at Woolwich Old Cemetery, Kings Highway, Plumstead, SE18 2BL. A memorial cross is laid over the grave, the cost of which was defrayed by public subscription. The tragedy led to the establishment of sewage treatment plants along the Thames.

By an extraordinary coincidence, the namesake of the Princess Alice, the eponymous Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria, died of diphtheria, three months later.

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