Sinking of the SS Princess Alice

The lifeless frames of men and women lay about, and out on the balcony, from which the directors had so often looked upon their fleet through the fragrant smoke of the evening cigar, there was a sight to wring out tears of blood from the eyes of any beholder. A row of little innocents, plump and pretty, well-dressed children, all dead and cold, some with life's ruddy tinge still in their cheeks and lips, the lips from which the merry prattle had gone for ever.”

— W. T. Vincent

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 two shillings. 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 Newcastle bound Bywell Castle.

The Bywell Castle displaced 890 long tons (904 t), 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. Harrison was following the traditional routes used on the Thames instead of the 1872 rule about passing oncoming vessels on the port side.

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, 47-year-old William R. H. Grinstead, 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.

This unexpected movement, led inevitably to an attempt to slow the collier, with both vessels sounding off their sirens and with the full force of the tide pushing her on like a gigantic battering ram seemingly in slow motion, the Bywell Castle was to slice slant wise, at about fifteen degrees into the starboard side of the Princess Alice striking just forward of her paddle-box (claimed an alleged weak spot on such a vessel) almost cutting her in two. Still being pressed forward, slowly now by the weight of the tide the heavier Bywell Castle then wrapped the Princess Alice around its bows.

A brief pause of silence followed by consternation, then the colliers screw going full astern taking-up movement, wrenching the vessels apart, in rushed the water, the boiler of the paddler burst and what was left of the steamers weakened hull broke in two. This was, without a doubt, the very worst spot and time to have a collision on the Thames, being immediately down-river of the Barking sewer outfall, which was in the process of releasing raw sewage into the river allowing it to be, hopefully, washed away by the tide.

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 for 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.

SS Princess Alice was a Thames river paddle steamer which sank after a collision with the Bywell Castle off Tripcock Point in 1878 with the loss of over 650 lives, in the worst single disaster in Thames history