Thames Police: History - Princess Alice Disaster

'It begs the question'. (1)

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It Begs the Question

Why does it require a major catastrophe or some tragic accident to prompt a remedy and preventative measures to forestall a similar occurrence? No one can foresee the future and make allowances for every eventuality, but some possible mishaps have been feared, envisaged, warned of, complained about, lobbied against and Private Billed and still the necessary precautions are ignored and neglected.

Consider the likelihood of a giant airliner landing by mischance on any high street in or around London; perhaps intentional or a small navigational error or even mechanical defect (they happen on all other machines so why not aeroplanes?) A perfect 175 mph approach from the direction of one of the stacks; landing smack-bang onto a busy shopping mall, slashing into buildings, spewing combustible liquids and massive pieces of junk and some flotsam of life along the way - it doesn't require me to go on... you can pick your spot and allow your imagination to do the rest. The death toll would probably run into thousands.

It would only need one paper bag, suitably filled of course, from the doomed machine to spin on across the metropolis and splatter onto the terrace of you-know-where for immediate legislation to regulate the flight paths of these heavier-than-air coffins passing repeatedly overhead. But I digress, that wasn’t the disaster I am referring to. On the evening of the 3rd. September 1878, a preventable tragedy occurred on the River Thames that has affected safety measures thereon ever since. This incident was the source of disbelief, great sorrow, condemnation and vituperation.

The Princess Alice Disaster by Joz

Tuesday September 3rd. 1878. There could have been little thought of danger or death in the minds of the hundreds of day trippers who boarded the paddle steamers that day, one of them the Princess Alice on a fine autumn morning had a full capacity of passengers. A day’s river trip outing to the seaside was the only holiday many London kids got in those days. Everything seemed just right, even the weather.

The journey down stream was enjoyable and uneventful; there was an air of excited anticipation pervading the decks. There were many children onboard, including a group on a Sunday school treat - a reward for their good attendance during the year - and a party of invalids in wheel chairs who were looking forward to a breath of ozone at Sheerness.

The good spirits of the passengers was evident when they returned to the Princess Alice to re-embark at 6pm for the trip back. Many other day trippers waited on the landing stages at each stopping place pleading for places on-board the already crowded steamer; apparently having missed their own steamers, a few were allowed to squeeze on. With regret Captain William Grinstead turned several hundred more away before he finally cast off for a two hour or so journey back to Woolwich Pier and the Old Stairs landing-stage by London Bridge.

The long slim wooden paddle-steamer of 251tons the Princess Alice was 220ft. long and 35ft.across the paddle boxes, belonging to the London Steamboat Company. Built in Greenock in 1856, she was a firm favourite not only with the day trippers, but also, with the fraternity that followed the popular sailing barge races. These enthusiasts regularly hired her services to follow in the wake of their favourite Spritty or Stumpy. She was a familiar sight too at the University Boat-race; once carrying the Shah of Persia and in consequence was at times known as the "Shah's Boat"" and regarded as a something of a Cockney institution.

Their short day-out almost over, the passengers viewed the riverside scenes contentedly on their almost slow progress against the tide, up the thirty odd miles of river, back to the 'Smoke'. On the foredeck catching the breeze sat a large group of women quietly singing hymns. Ahead the sun was sinking in the west; an idyllic setting.

Continue to the next page 'When two lights you see ahead, starboard wheel and show your red'. (2) to learn more about the Princess Alice disaster...

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