Wednesday, August 31, 2011

September 3, 1878 --- The Princess Alice

September 3 --- (1878) --- A tragedy of horrific proportions occurs on the darkened Thames. The saloon steamer Princess Alice, loaded with holiday-makers, is rammed and sunk near Woolwich.

The Alice is returning from a one day two shilling pleasure cruise from London Bridge to Sheerness and back. At 8:20 p-m, as the band plays "Nancy Lee", the ship is cut in half by the steamship Bywell Castle's metal prow.  The terrified passengers spill in to the water. The death toll is staggering. 632 bodies are recovered, but many more dead may have been washed out to sea. There is no official passenger list.

Pathetic stories are commonplace; a man lost his wife and his eight children, a governess lived but lost all six of her charges, and a man who swam to safety thinking he had rescued his wife found he had saved a perfect stranger, his wife was lost. Elizabeth Stride, who would be the Ripper's third victim, insisted she turned to drink and prostitution after she lost her family aboard the Alice. A pathetic tale, if true, however no one named Stride was listed among the victims.

The inquest relied on the testimony of the Bywell Castle's crew as the officers of the Alice were all lost. Not surprisingly, the onus for the tragedy was placed on those not around to testify. The two ships met at a bend in the Thames at Tripcock Point.  The Alice was actually steaming north, crossing the Castle's path.  The helmsman of the Castle claimed he saw the Alice's lights and steered to starboard, to the right, as trained to do; but the Alice continued to the north bank of the river and the clumsy, over-loaded steamer moved directly across the bow of the fast-closing Castle.

Perhaps the busiest river in the world, the Thames is governed by a variety of guilds and local traditions, with little or no enforcement of "the rules of the road." The Saturday Review called it a recipe for disaster: "So vessels, big or little, are left to make their way up and down the river in the manner that seems best to those in charge of them, who treat other vessels which they happen to encounter according to the inspiration of the moment."  The Spectator took a more matter-of-fact approach: "A percentage of those who go afloat will be drowned, and modern civilization, by encouraging men to travel in huge groups, by trainful instead of coachful, and steamerful instead of boatful, ensures that the percentage shall be made up in huge calamities appalling to the imagination."

Sketch of the Princess Alice at

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