London’s Titanic: The tragic day 650 Londoners drowned in a river full of poo

We often talk about the fact that it probably wouldn’t be a great idea to go for a swim in the River Thames because there’s a lot of sewage in it.

But in fact the river is an awful lot cleaner than it used to be thanks to the efforts of Thames Water and numerous environment groups. You definitely wouldn’t have wanted to swim in it in Victorian times though as it would have been positively fetid in those days, constantly being filled with raw untreated sewage.

Even worse- you definitely wouldn’t have wanted to drown in it.

But that’s exactly what happened on September 3 1878.

As recounted in a blog put together by the Royal Museums Greenwich, on that fateful day, the Princess Alice paddle steamer was making her way up the Thames.

She was an elegant vessel, named aptly after Queen Victoria’s third child.

She had been sailing passengers on what was billed as a ‘moonlight trip’ from Swan Pier, near London Bridge , downstream to Sheerness in Kent – a popular daytripper resort – and back. Many of the Londoners on board were travelling to Rosherville to visit the pleasure gardens that had been built there 40 years before.

As recounted by the Great Disasters website, amongst the passengers, onboard there were many families and children, including, tragically, the family of the paddle steamer company’s superintendent, as well as courting couples, and singletons who were just enjoying a day out.

An illustration showing the aftermath of the disaster with boats trying to save passengers

The decks were crowded with passengers – perhaps too crowded – but some later described the atmosphere as jolly and jovial.

The steamer was coming back from Sheerness to London when the horrific disaster happened. Tragically, some of the children onboard were apparently asleep at the time, and the band was playing on the main deck.

Some time between 7.20 and 7.45 pm when the Princess Alice had entered Gallions Reach over in East London near Barking, passengers saw a large vessel, the Bywell Castle, come close by.

This was a large coal vessel which was travelling back to Newcastle to pick up coal for a trip to Alexandria in Egypt. It was large and heavy and would have been difficult to manoeuvre on the busy River Thames.

Captain Thomas Harrison was unfamiliar with navigating the Thames and had taken on a temporary crew who were unfamiliar with the ship.

With no cargo on board, the Bywell Castle was riding high on the water which meant its helmsman couldn’t actually see what was directly in front of or behind them

Unfortunately also , the master of Princess Alice, 47-year-old Captain William Grinstead, had allowed his helmsman to stay at Gravesend, and replaced him with a passenger, a seaman named John Ayers who had little experience of the Thames, or of helming a vessel like the Princess Alice.

Both captains tried to take evasive action, but it was not to be, and what happened next was Britain’s worst ever inland waterway disaster.

The ships collided and the Bywell Castle hit the Princess Alice right near her starboard paddle box.

There were screams on board the paddle steamer and passengers stampeded towards the gangways. Steam billowed from the gash in the Princess Alice’s side. The vessels drifted together for a short distance, then the Princess Alice broke in two and sank, breaking free of the Bywell Castle, which, according to one eyewitness, passed right over her.

Mr George Alexander Haynes, who was a passenger on the boat later wrote:

“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 an instant, the water was filled with people crying and shouting. Some of the passengers in the water sank beneath the surface and drowned. Some were picked up by rowing boats, and some held onto the ropes let down from the Bywell Castle.

Thomas Harrison, the Bywell Castle’s master, later testified that the cries and struggles from those in the water stopped after ten minutes which only meant one thing.

The water in this stretch of the Thames was particularly unpleasant. One survivor, Mr Huddart, said later: ‘I noticed something very peculiar in the water. Both the taste and smell were something dreadful, something that I could not describe – having been down to the bottom and having rose again with my mouth full of it I could give a very good picture of it – it was the most horrid water I ever tasted and the smell was also equally bad.’

The water was in fact full of sewage from the northern and southern sewers, which discharged waste into nearby Barking Reach. It’s estimated 75 million gallons of raw sewage, dispensed into the river from nearby Barking and Crossness just an hour before the disaster.

The water was also polluted by several local chemical factories and a recent a fire in Thames Street earlier that day had resulted in oil and petroleum entering the river.

As reporter by the Daily Telegraph shortly after the disaster:

“At high water, twice in 24 hours, the flood gates of the outfalls are opened when there is projected into the river two continuous columns of decomposed fermenting sewage, hissing like soda-water with baneful gases, so black that the water is stained for miles and discharging a corrupt charnel-house odour, that will be remembered by all who have passed through it on these summer excursions as being particularly depressing and sickening.”

A pamphlet printed shortly after the events

Some survivors were dragged ashore at Beckton gasworks, a few more in London and others at Erith, with some being taken to the Plumstead Workhouse Infirmary.

The wreck of the Princess Alice broke into three. A diver went into the muddy water, trying, by touch, to make out what was there. He reported that bodies appeared to be filling the vessel’s cabins.

It is thought that around 640 people tragically drowned.

An inquest later apportioned blamed to both ships. The Bywell Castle, it said, had contributed to the collision by not acting quickly enough to ease, stop and reverse her engines, and ‘the Princess Alice contributed to the collision by not stopping and going astern’.

It was a tragedy the like of which London has rarely seen.

Of course though, a similar disaster on a much more horrific scale would grip the nation within a half century with the sinking of the Titanic.

So next time you contemplate going for a swim in the Thames on a hot day, do spare a thought for those poor souls who were toppled into it.

If you have a story for us about London’s past, please email martin.elvery@reachplc.com

My London – Local News