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The Sinking of the Princes Alice


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No disaster within living memory awakened such pity and horror as the fate of the pleasure steamer Princess Alice within sight and call of the banks of London's own River Thames. It was a calamity of lightning speed and indescribable confusion, in which over 700 care-free trippers, most of them women and children, were plunged without warning to their doom in the fleeting span of fewer than five minutes.

The Princess Alice, one of the most popular of all the early excursion craft on the Thames, was shattered like an egg-shell and cut completely in half by the knife-edge bows of an outward bound collier. In a flash the nine hundred passengers were at the mercy of the river. Heart-rending scenes were witnessed in the gloaming of an autumn evening.

Tuesday, September 3, 1878, was a perfect day for a holiday adventure. In the sun's warm and friendly glow the Thames ran like a carnival ribbon through London and outwards towards the sea. Nearly a thousand strong, the trippers flocked to London Bridge, in glad escape from London's hot streets, its sounds and smells and clamour. They came from many parts of the metropolis. By coach, waking the sulky early-morning city with the lilt of many a merry fanfare; by horse-bus, wedged in so that they could could scarcely move, with barely lung room to barter wit with the crack of the cabby's whip, yet loving every jolt over the rough cobbles. Some walked, starting before dawn was in the sky, to reach the Princess Alice in good time.

At London Bridge, at the Old Shades Pier near the water's edge, the ripple of laughter joined with the lap of the water. In all the world there is no merrier crowd than the London trippers on holiday, the duties and anxieties of the everyday forgotten. This day's throng was no exception. Women and children predominated. There were old Coster women, taking their pinch of snuff; young mothers, with babies in their arms, or slapping and rebuking their elder children, calling admonishments in high voices, as the mothers among trippers always did and will. The children made a brave parade, gazing at the movement of the pier's incidents and events with wide, wondering eyes, clutching pennies and halfpennies in hot fingers, sucking oranges, some carrying home-made spades and tin cans fashioned into buckets.

Alongside lay the Princess Alice. For those days she was a proud and graceful pleasure craft, though she had none of the fine lines that distinguish the miniature liners that take to-day's Londoners down to the sea on holiday. No kid-gloved officers posed on the bridge near shining brass telegraphs, no dapper purser hovered on the sponson or near the gang-plank as a welcoming host, no chefs, immaculate in white, peeped from the ports of perfect galleys.

The Princess Alice was a vessel of only 158 tons. She was only 220 feet long, with a beam of 20 feet. A toy of a steamer, yet to those at London Bridge that day a dream ship. They looked with fascination upon the few flags that dressed her rigging, the tall, murky funnel, the sailors who crossed the decks.

Over ten years old, and in the service of the London Steamboat Company, the Princess Alice had originally been licensed to carry fewer than 500 passengers; but now, for smooth-water service on the Thames, she had a Board of Trade certificate enabling her to carry as many as 936. The ghastly events of this day were to prove that both in construction and capacity the ship was totally unsuited for so heavy and intensive a human freight.

A cheer rose as the rail-gates were opened. The multitude of trippers streamed aboard, jumping, swinging, clattering on the gang-plank. A hundred - five hundred - seven hundred - nine hundred. The Princess Alice sank lower in the water under the burden. The trippers were packed in like merchandise. Every inch of space was strained. Few could move about. Parents took their children on their knees. Men squatted on the bulwarks, squeezed themselves into strange corners, lounged on the companionways.

Now Captain Grinstead, a man with a score of years' experience of the Thames, was active on the bridge with the first mate, Mr. Long. With tight little blasts on her shrill whistle, a round of cheering from the pier, the thrash of the paddles, the Princess Alice got under way. It was 11 a.m.

None sensed disaster, not even danger. With the perfect sky above, the river as smooth as glass, land and its security available on either side, and with the knowledge that home and friends were only a few miles distant, who would have predicted that, before the day was done, this happy ship's company, on London's own Thames, was to encounter peril more sudden, more terrifying, more devastating than any deep-sea wreck might know?

Downstream she sailed, the trippers cheering each popular landmark. Bread was thrown to the gulls that darted, dipped and dived in the wake. Cockney repartee was exchanged with fluent and friendly bargees. Sailors on the towering decks of steamers waved and called their greetings. Cheeky, puffing tugs whistled a welcome. The Princess Alice had the Freedom of the river.

This happy day, its events and joys, its discoveries and adventures, speeded by. In the early evening, as the Princess Alice was homeward bound from Sheerness, the nine hundred trippers were tired but content. And the merriment lingered on. Even the sleepy children could still find in the operations of the officers and crew, in the funnel, ventilators, engines, ropes and windlasses, and in the passing pageant of the river, an endless source of fascination. There was no room to dance, save in an occasional huddled group, but voices rose in song to the accompaniment of concertina and flute, and the ship's band.

Sweethearts linked hands as they leaned over the rails, seeing beyond the river into strange realms of romance. It is on record that there were several newly-married couples on board, and for none can there have ever been any more tragic a honeymoon. Below decks, in the big forward and aft saloons, the crowds were dense, surging even along the alleyways.

At six o'clock the Princess Alice called at Gravesend, and then began the last, fatal, unforgettable twenty-mile run back towards the London Bridge that hundreds aboard were never to see again. Those on the shore at Gravesend who waved her farewell, saw her steer for London, her paddles thumping fitfully, very low in the water, did not dream that her parting whistle was indeed a tragic salute, that they were gazing on a ship of doom.

Between Gravesend and London Bridge, as every lover and student of the river knows, the Thames winds tortuously, and the biggest bend of all is Gallion's Reach. Gallion's Reach! The very name has a ring that is sinister. It was destined to be on the lips of millions - the sound of it to chill their hearts.

At Gallion's Reach the navigator knows the need for caution. At least one serious collision had occurred here before the disaster to the Princess Alice. On this occasion the tide was running at the ebb, and to defeat its force the Princess Alice, whenever possible, hugged the bank. She was in midstream, however, half-way down the Reach, off the City of London Gasworks at Beckton, and in. sight of North Woolwich Pier, when catastrophe dealt the death blow.

It was about eight o'clock. The night had closed in. The moon was up. There was a stillness and a magic in the air.

Straight for the Princess Alice came the Bywell Castle, a collier of some 890 tons bound for the Tyne, a "great black phantom," as she was afterwards described. Without cargo, she stood high in the water, and to those aboard the little excursion steamer she seemed indeed a mammoth of the deep. Nearer she came, nearer still, until her great iron walls appeared to loom like a cliff overhead.

At first the trippers were blind to danger. Strange to the ways of ships and the river, they saw no menace. With simple trust and faith, they knew no fear. Some even waved to shadowy forms high up on the Bywell Castle, for they could not see the faces of these men, nor the horror and apprehension writ upon them. The ship's band played on. The singing continued.

Then came the inevitable For a second, like a great angry avenger, the Bywell Castle hovered over the starboard bow of the Princess Alice. With a dull, ripping crash of awful havoc, relentless and certain, the sharp edge of the great steel bow cut right into the vitals of the doomed pleasure craft.

The Princess Alice, split and smashed, shook and quivered under the brutality of that fearful impact. But there was one tremor only. It was a death blow, ruthless, complete. The starboard paddle-box was splintered to fragments. The knife-edge of the Bywell Castle had driven right through to the engine-room. For all that mattered, the Princess Alice was sliced in two. Water gushed in, greedy and omnipotent. The forward part of the vessel sank like a bag of nails. Lifting slowly, almost to the perpendicular, the after part stood for a few moments in the fashion of a huge, fantastic gravestone, and then was gone.

The sea-gulls wheeled overhead.

How did this dreadful thing happen? Who was to blame? The general public was stunned by the immensity of the disaster, as well as baffled by the cause. The technical and navigational issues were examined at both the subsequent inquest and inquiry, and there is no shadow of doubt that the Princess Alice was chiefly to blame, though Captain Grinstead, her master, who had perished, was never able, therefore, to enter a personal defence or explanation.

A popular and generous belief at the time was that both vessels blundered in a moment of crisis, but Captain Harrison, of the Bywell Castle, declared that as the two vessels were upon each other the Princess Alice went first to port and then to starboard across the collier's bows. Knowing that a collision could not be avoided, he (Captain Harrison) gave the only possible orders - for the engines to be stopped and reversed at full speed, in what proved to be an unavailing effort to lessen the violence of the crash.

The Princess Alice was further to blame, inasmuch as there was carelessness in maintaining an adequate look-out, and for this the Court of Inquiry severely censured Mr. Long, the first mate. This lapse was also stressed at the inquest, and the coroner went so far as to assert that the Princess Alice was a totally unsuitable vessel to carry some 900 passengers, let alone provide for their safety in time of peril.

In the moments that elapsed before the Princess Alice took the final plunge the scenes on deck were as fearful as any in disaster's long and awful story. So sudden had been the calamity, so oblivious were the trippers to peril, that their very laughter was strangled in their throats by the surge of surprise, panic and terror. The first great mass scream that rose to the night sky was heard far inshore.

Many were killed outright where they sat or stood; for them a great mercy. Splinters of wreckage stabbed them, they were crushed and broken, but they lived scarcely long enough to know or feel the end.

Those in the two saloons below decks must have endured minutes of agony. When the vessel was raised evidence was found of a ghastly struggle for life in the after saloon. Most of the men, it was conjectured, had fought their way out. Women and children, handicapped in the stampede, lay huddled and crushed on the floor and in corners, jammed in the doorway in the last desperate bid to follow their menfolk. To add to their sufferings the surge of the river water brought with it a screen of foul, black, poisonous sewage. One uncanny discovery in the saloon was the ranks of drowned passengers, close together, in an upright position. They had died on their feet.

Above, left longer to endure the ordeal, a jumbled and hysterical mass of human beings struggled on the sloping deck of half a ship. So tightly were they jammed, as the deck inclined and shot them forward, that many who felt the urge found it impossible to jump overboard. Inhuman passions were unleashed.

How poignant, that a moment before these people were happy, friendly, with not a selfish thought. "Can you picture for yourself what that sudden change from merriment to death meant?" Mr. G. W. Linnecar, a survivor, answers his own question. "It was eventide, and the loud laughter was succeeded by the wildest and most pitiful shrieks that could rend the still air. All of us seemed to drop down like skittles. Then there was a frightful struggle on the deck.. Men, women and children rolled over and clutched and tore at each other; and all through were the ceaseless screaming and appeals for help. How, in such a sudden and unexpected catastrophe, could help be given?"

Mothers saw their babies wrenched from their arms, then fought, like wounded animals, even with their teeth, to regain them. In vain fathers endeavoured to fist and shove their way to the side of their loved ones; the wall of bodies was too strong, time too short, the curtain of eternity too quick to fall. Even the little children, with primitive impulse, fought to survive.

No words can be fitted into any sequence that will adequately mirror the anguish of those poor, demented souls. None shall blame them for their passions in these last moments in the Princess Alice. It was something more than panic. The conditions of that overcrowded deck were such that all reason was lost, no scruples existed. Trapped, baffled at every turn, crushed and in pain, the living piled on the dead, they could not even think. Instinct, blind and cruel, was all.

The screams lessened. They were gone.

But the tragedy of the Princess Alice had still another poignant act to play. In the water there were more terrible scenes. All around the spot where the vessel had sunk the river was black with heads. Their numbers were decimated as the non-swimmers sank; there was little wreckage to which they could cling.

The Princess Alice had carried a few small lifeboats and a number of lifebuoys, but even had the ship remained afloat sufficiently long for these to be lowered and distributed there would have been nowhere near enough to have ensured the safety of the nine hundred passengers. As it was, in view of the swift finality of the disaster, plus the overcrowding, they were useless.

Captain Harrison, of the Bywell Castle, mustered all hands to assist in the work of rescue. The crew of the collier was a small one, but from master to deck hand, from fireman to steward, they worked in a frenzy of speed to save as many lives as possible from the struggling multitude in the water. Boats were lowered and life-lines thrown. The ship's siren was sounded unceasingly in a call for assistance that was heard for miles around.

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