Thames Police: History - Princess Alice Disaster

'Amazing escapes'. (6)

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The stories told were of amazing escapes, rescues, and horrendous deaths...One woman survivor on being thrown into the water had the great presence of mind to open her umbrella using it as a float. Others had also shown ingenuity by trapping air in their clothing to float until rescued - a method of survival taught today. One lucky man being in the right place at the right moment, as the bow rose into the air, he stepped dry shod from the bow of one ship to the bow of the other. Of the fatalities the most tragic known was that of the Towse family, William Towse was the manager of the steamship company; it being the deaths of his parents, his wife and four sons, thus wiping out three generations - a whole family.

September 4th.1878. Within hours reporters had flocked into Erith and Woolwich writing patchy stories and with so little real evidence came generally to the conclusion (wrongly) that those in command of the screw-ship the Bywell Castle were entirely at fault and worse, without a shred of real evidence they publicly said so, colouring the issue from the start.

At 0115 those rescued who had been landed in Essex where picked up by police galley and taken across the river and added to the pitifully few survivors at Woolwich. The news must have reached Thames Police Headquarters at around midnight and Superintendent Alstin had returned to the station and began arranging for daylight.

The local authorities having decided that the multiple tragedies had occurred within the jurisdiction of the Woolwich Coroner; arrangements were hastily made to land as many of the bodies as possible at Woolwich and use a church hall and some empty sheds within the Arsenal itself as temporary mortuaries. As each body was landed it was numbered and where possible identified. If not, a brief description was recorded by police.

Each unidentified body found was laid out on display for possible identification and disposal. Besides the bodies, all the clothing and possessions recovered were taken to the same place in the vain general hope that would be family searchers might recognise certain items. The logistics of coping with such a mass tragedy was chaotic.

Hiring a steam pinnace Superintendent William Alstin in-charge of the Division, came down to the scene at first light, all leave had been cancelled for the River police and many surveyors and constables serving in the upper reaches volunteered to remain on duty and attend the scene, for as much protection of evidence as could be garnered.

They were also ordered by the Superintendent to place guards aboard the wreckage, to prevent souvenir hunters collecting mementoes once it had been beached, after an incident of finding two young thugs stripping and damaging the vessel, he also had a police galley and crew permanently in attendance at the scene as well.

At daylight the following morning crowds gathered at the steamship offices at Cheapside and Woolwich demanding details of the collision and lists of names of the survivors and the dead, more information than the harassed staff could provide. The whole of London seemed in uproar. Passengers once purchasing a ticket could and did change vessels and no specific list of passengers was made. It appeared further confusing when it was discovered the manager's family had gone down with the vessel.

As for the disaster area itself, The Thames Conservancy had discovered the two halves of the Princess Alice at low water during the night. On inspection by a diver, all done by touch in the filthy water, it was found that the vessel had actually broken into three with the two cabin sections well apart and the boiler and engine laying separately.

Once it was known where the bodies were being landed another anxious crowd gathered on the Woolwich Arsenal Stairs to see whether recognition of some recovered remains could be made, land and river police inspectors were assigned to ensure some decorum.

Continue to the next page 'Crowds gather at scene'. (7) to learn more about the Princess Alice disaster...

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