Thames Police: History - Princess Alice Disaster

'When two lights you see ahead, starboard wheel and show your red'. (2)

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When two lights you see ahead starboard wheel and show your red

Some twenty years earlier 'International Law' had decided that steamships should observe certain rules of navigation when at sea. One such rule required them, when passing another ship, each was required to do so on their 'starboard hand' that is pass port-side to port-side or as we would say on the road, drive on the right.

These codes of practical conduct however, were included in the Conservancy By-laws and known to some but not enforced on the River Thames. Economics alone ruled. Time and money without consideration for such a regulation, forced shallow craft 'punching the tide' to short-shore; that is to cut the corners using a straight line from point to point or ness, and so passing across both shipping lanes. Of course, if there was no traffic coming in the opposite direction when carrying out this economy, it was all right. This not only reduced the distance considerably, but also permitted easier progress in the lee of each ness where the tide was less strong. Vessels travelling 'with the tide' used the middle of the river where the tide was fiercest and beneficial, and as navigation with a following tide was less accurate, safer. What was about to happen, or, on the minds of those controlling the Princess Alice that fateful evening is unknown; for most who did know, did not live to tell the tale.

The paddle steamer Princess Alice
The paddle steamer Princess Alice

At dusk, the paddle-steamer was coming up Barking Reach and passing Tripcock Point into Galleons Reach on the Kent or south-shore although not obvious to those on-board she was standing into danger, for coming down the centre of Galleons Reach with ‘the tide up her skirt’ as the saying goes, was an empty collier ‘in ballast’, journeying back to Newcastle.

With a high freeboard the Bywell Castle, an iron built screw-ship of 890 tons, 256ft in length. Captained by Master Mariner and part owner Thomas Harrison and controlled by a qualified pilot, Christopher Dix, had sailed from the Millwall Dock at about 1830 at high water - on the turn of the tide - running seawards at half speed with it.

The crew on the collier's bridge saw the Princess Alice across the low headland as she rounded the point on their starboard hand, both vessels had there navigation lights on, so the paddler would at that moment be showing a red (port) light and they a green (starboard) navigation light to the other vessel. Although it was not obvious at that angle to guess which shore the paddler was navigating, the collier was mid river. Shipping was light and the river about half a mile wide just here; there appeared to be, and was, plenty of room for them to pass safely. The Bywell Castle's bridge party assumed at the time that the two vessels would pass according to the 'rule of the road' i.e.: on their starboard hand.

Continue to the next page 'Green to green or red to red, perfectly safe to go ahead'. (3) to learn more about the Princess Alice disaster...

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