Thames Police: History - Princess Alice Disaster

'Thames Division officer on board'. (5)

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The crew's valiant efforts, assisted in one of the lifeboats by two members of the paddler's crew, managed to save just thirty two survivors, although with the swimmers and some who got ashore and did nothing more than go home, it could have been more, but not many.

Later at the inquest it was estimated that six out of every seven aboard had drowned within eight minutes of the collision taking place. A colossal loss of life estimated at an incredible six hundred and forty lives. (With additional passengers aboard the actual figure could only be an estimate) Tragically, the majority of the dead were women and children.

After vainly searching the now empty and eerily silent river, the collier's crew, with the aid of some watermen who came late onto the scene and rescued a few, gave up the fruitless task. The Bywell Castle, having drifted down the reach anchored off Barking Creek while she refired her boiler. Eventually, during the early hours she sailed up river and moored at Deptford with the screams and pleadings for help still echoing in the ears of the horrified pilot, officers and crew.

The sudden and unexpected appearance of just a handful of survivors and dead victims at Erith, landed by one of the Bywell Castle's lifeboats was sensational; the horrific news spreading like wildfire. The few, wet, shocked bereaved and exhausted passengers and members of the paddler's crew who had been saved began to recount what had befallen them.

One said that a stoker who had manned the lifeboat had said and kept on saying: '... all the Officers on the Bridge (of the collier) were drunk...' this untrue remark was made by a man who was drunk. Later, this statement became blown out of all proportions. A few more survivors were rescued by the collier's other lifeboat, saving fourteen persons. Still more were rescued by the watermen's boats and landed at Woolwich (to a similar anxious reception, the Princess Alice had been expected over an hour earlier). Eighteen others were landed on the Essex shore side at Beckton.

A Thames Division constable, PC56 John Lewis, an ex Royal Naval diver stationed aboard the station-ship Royalist at Blackwall; who had taken the outing aboard the Princess Alice with his wife and two sons, all happened to be on the after deck at the time of the collision and jumped together into the mass of bodies struggling in the river. The Constable caught hold of his wife's hand and swam with a few others ashore onto the Erith marsh, only then to discover the woman he had rescued to be a total stranger. Both the woman and Constable Lewis lost their entire families that evening. Rumour had it that the Devil himself, dressed in a cloak and top-hat, had been saved in the life boat and landed with the survivors at Erith.

But, what of PC Lewis? He had run down to the Erith causeway, reported for duty, begging a thwart in a police galley and commenced the long fruitless search for his family, remaining afloat for the next four days and nights and only giving up the search when it seemed impossible to find or recognise their bodies.

He was but one of many searchers. William Grinstead, son of Captain Grinstead, was an apprentice waterman employed on the River. Upon learning the name of the vessel sunk he realised that his father and brother, who was the Engineer aboard the paddle steamer, were likely victims of the accident. He made his way to the scene and spent the next three days searching the vicinity only coming ashore when he learnt that his father's body, easily recognisable by his uniform, had been recovered. When the fore part of the vessel was raised, William saw that the company's flag still hung on the mast. William reclaimed it for the family. Four years later when out of indentures, William joined Thames Division to serve with the river police. The company ensign was passed on from one generation to another within his family. Eventually, the ensign was presented to the Thames Police Museum where it is kept at Wapping.

Continue to the next page 'Amazing escapes'. (6) to learn more about the Princess Alice disaster...

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