The Thames even in modern times has known disaster, most notably with the terrible events of August 20 1989 when the pleasure cruiser Marchioness sank; but on September 3 1878 an even more catastrophic collision on the river occasioned the deaths of an estimated 700 people.
Returning from a cruise to Sheerness and Gravesend in the evening of September 3 the paddle-steamer Princess Alice was on the approach to North Woolwich Pier to disembark some passengers. Heading in the opposite direction was an unladen collier Bywell Castle, her eventual destination Newcastle. The Thames pilot on the collier, as per maritime regulations, had the Bywell Castle steered to pass the other vessel port-side to port-side. For unaccountable reasons the Captain of the Princess Alice, William Grinstead, ordered his helmsman to steer hard over moments before the two ships would have crossed. Captain Henderson on the collier ordered his engines into full reverse, but to little effect.
Within four minutes the smaller pleasure-steamer sank, apparently split in three. Many passengers and crew perished inside her, trapped in the crush to escape. Others made it to the water but drowned in unwieldy crinolines, or unable to swim.
Princess Alice had only two lifeboats and a few life-saving devices on board, a completely inadequate provision. Captain Henderson on Bywell Castle acted intelligently, stopping his engines to avoid catching swimmers in their tow, dropping his lifeboats and anything on deck that could float, and signalling for help, but was pilloried unjustly by the press anyway.
As ever the disaster led to reviews of and amendments to safety procedures, and better communication of existing ones. Too late though for 700 Londoners.
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