Thames Police: History - Princess Alice Disaster

'The vessels collide'. (4)

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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.

The collier Bywell Castle
The collier Bywell Castle

It was estimated that within the space of four minutes the two ends of the Princess Alice had reared up and sunk without trace, leaving nothing to be seen but bits of flotsam and a mass of struggling, desperate people in the dirty water. Those in the cabins between decks had little hope or chance to escape; even so, for the remainder, with help present and a smooth river; those capable of making the water, their chances of survival ought to have been at least even.

Nearly everything went wrong, costing the lives of almost everyone aboard, passengers and crew alike. There were only two lifeboats on davits carried, no rafts or lifebelts and just a few life rings, insufficient even if there had been time to launch them correctly. There were only two lifeboats on davits carried, insufficient even if there had been time to launch them correctly. Neither were there any rafts or lifebelts and just a few life rings. The tide began bearing some would be survivors away from the collier and possible rescue, while Captain Harrison, seeing all the people in the river around his vessel had stopped his engines and had drawn the fires. He could not push ahead for fear of injuring those nearby and was unable to turn the propeller through lack of steam and anyway, his engineers and stokers were in his lifeboats trying to rescue the drowning.

The collier's crew did all they could to save as many people as possible, they launched their own lifeboats; other hands on the forecastle threw lifebuoys, ladders and lines to those struggling in the river below. Swimming had never been a popular pastime in Victorian London and the long many petticoated dresses of women were an impossible impediment. Many apparently, just clung to their children and sank from sight.

Continue to the next page 'Thames Division officer on board'. (5) to learn more about the Princess Alice disaster...

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