Thames Police: History - Princess Alice Disaster

'The Recovery continues'. (9)

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Remains were found and landed on both sides of the river. Some, many miles from the scene of the incident. It was thought that some victims had been dragged along by the tide or other vessels. A few were suspected of being murder victims, criminals using the disaster as a means covering up their crimes. Thames Police recorded bodies recovered at this time as far up river as Fulham and as far down river as Greenhithe, all could have possibly been involved. The actual total recovered was never given except for that general figure at the time of the enquiry six hundred and forty. Unofficial figures estimate those killed may have been nearer seven hundred.

Such a large death toll was almost beyond comprehension, it remains the largest number of fatalities in any peacetime incident in the United Kingdom; may it never be surpassed. It was further claimed that many of those few who actually were immersed in the river and survived, were found to be suffering with respiratory illnesses and blood poisoning caused by the inhalation or swallowing of polluted water and some died subsequently. They were not included in the total.

September 7th. 1878. The bow section was the first part recovered at 0200 from deep water and with some difficulty. They had used divers to place strops around the hull; which, once secured to the wreck-lighter lifted the section with the tide and floated it into the shallows of Plumstead Marsh, managing to beach her at high water where it was secured and settled well clear of the river at low water.

Two Thames Police galleys escorted the wreck's slow progress. The bow section was beached as far inshore as it could be drawn and the police crews were assigned the responsibility for recovering the dead inside, an awful occupation, for when the boiler burst scalding steam escaped into the cabin and killed many of the victims outright.

What of the Bywell Castle? Captain Harrison had his master's licence suspended. Being required to attend the enquiries meant that his fellow owners handed over his ship to another captain. She sailed having been found scratched but otherwise undamaged. The vessel, not being impounded, passed the fore section of the paddler as it was moved, on her way out to sea.

Hearsay has it, that she stopped once out of the sight of land and changed her name, believing it to be bad luck to sail under such an unlucky burden. That she went to Newcastle, collected her cargo for Egypt and upon sailing into a great storm, floundered somewhere off Portugal while crossing the Biscay with a total loss of her crew. Of course, although there was such a storm, and there was such a ship so lost, it was not named the Bywell Castle!.....

Of those bodies on display at Woolwich, one hundred and twenty were never identified. Some felt that lone travellers or whole families died, so there was no-one to identify the remains or arrange for burial. Those unidentified persons were to be buried in a mass grave at Woolwich Cemetery, Plumstead, whilst many of the others who had perished were to be interred at the same time.

September 8th. 1878. The body of Captain Grinstead was recovered floating during the afternoon off Woolwich and it was discovered that Mr. & Mrs. Charles Grinstead, his elder brother and his wife, and his son, Charles Thomas Grinstead had also perished. A third brother of the Captain had survived and was at home suffering from the effects of 'burst blood vessels'. As noted, one of the Captain's sons, William Grinstead, searched the river in vain.

The after, heavier part of the steamer was raised with a lifting barge floated over her and two side barges chained to the hull. As the flood tide rose the wreck should have lifted easily with it but it took two attempts to raise her and it was 1900 before it had been moved to the shore and beached as high up as possible. Each time sections of the vessel were moved more of the dead came to the surface and were removed; at this point some 426 bodies had been accounted for.

Continue to the next page 'Mass burials'. (10) to learn more about the Princess Alice disaster...

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