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Death on the Waterways
By Allan Scott-Davies
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Allan Scott-Davies
All rights reserved.
Disasters on the waterways often involve large numbers of victims, be they on board a ship or train or just watching an event, such as the accident on the River Lea. The famous shipbuilders Thames Ironworks was to lead the way ship launches would be organised following an accident during the launch of HMS Albion. On 21 June 1898 nearly 30,000 people had crammed into the shipyard to watch the launch presided over by the Duchess of York. It was such a community event that the schools and yard workers were given the day off. The excitement was great and some 200 spectators had made their way onto a temporary wooden bridge structure on the opposite side of the river at Bow Creek, which is a narrow yet very deep part of the river. The near-completed Shikishima for the Japanese navy, which rested between the bridge and the Albion, partly obscured the view from the riverbank, causing a rush of spectators to the wooden structure. The police and yard workers tried to clear the bridge several times but failed to keep people off when the Albion was launched after three failed attempts to smash the bottle of champagne against her hull. As she entered the river the Albion sent a huge wave of water into the bridge, smashing it to pieces and throwing people into the river and to their deaths. Their screams were not heard over the clapping and cheering following the launch of the ship. Unaware of any problems, the duke, duchess and the crowds started to move away from the podium with thoughts of the afternoon tea that had been laid on by the company. It was a good ten minutes before news of the accident came through to the site managers and the main bulk of the crowd, although spectators and workers nearby had begun immediate rescue efforts. Spectators jumped into the muddy waters to help survivors. The Thames police used a rowing boat to rescue people and the Ironworks Ambulance Corps were soon on the scene doing their best to save those in the water and remove the bodies of the thirty-eight people, including women and children, who died instantly.
The chairman of the works, Arnold Hills, was so devastated by the disaster that he promised to meet all funeral expenses and contributed to a fund set up by West Ham Council to help the survivors. Many of the dead were among the poorest in London, with a high number of those who died being the sole wage earners for the family. On the route to East London cemetery the week after the accident, huge crowds gathered to catch sight of the funeral procession and pay their respects. The oldest victim at sixty-four was Mrs Eliza Tarbot and she was the first to be buried, followed by Mrs Isobel White, thirty, and her two children Lottie, five, and Queenie, two. When Mrs White was pulled out of the water her daughters were still clinging to her frock and they were all drowned. There is a memorial to the victims of the Albion disaster in East London cemetery in the form of an anchor on a stone base. The Albion went on to serve in the Middle East during the First World War and was eventually sold off as scrap in December 1918 – a short life for a very proud ship.
The late nineteenth century saw the River Thames becoming increasingly busy. There were hundreds of vessels ranging from large liners to tugs, barges and lighters sailing up and down the river, yet there were no clear instructions about how the river should be navigated. In 1878 this all changed when the paddle steamer Princess Alice, captained by William Grinstead, sank after a collision in Gallions Reach, close to Woolwich town. With over 600 people on board, including the captain and his family, most of these passengers were to lose their lives in what is still the worst disaster to occur on British waterways. Princess Alice was launched at Rennick in 1865 and some say that when her name was changed from Bute things started to go wrong, as it is believed in seagoing traditions that to change a name of a ship is bad luck. She served a year sailing from Wemyss to the Isle of Arran for the Wemyss Railway Company and in 1866 she was bought by the Watermans Steam Packet Company, who renamed her Princess Alice, serving as a Thames excursion boat for twelve years.
On 3 September 1878 she made a routine trip from Swan pier, near London Bridge, to Gravesend and Sheerness carrying hundreds of Londoners who had visited Rosherville Gardens in Gravesend. She left Gravesend at 6p.m. and just before 8p.m. that evening she had completed most of her return journey, passing Tripcock Point, and entered the part of the river known as Gallions Reach. ThePrincess Alice was a matter of minutes from the North Woolwich pier, where many of the passengers were to leave the vessel. At the same time the Bywell Castle was steaming towards her. She was a larger vessel, being a steam collier at 890 tons. The Bywell Castle had just been repainted and was returning down the Thames from Millwall docks towards Newcastle to pick up cargo destined for Egypt.
As there were no rules about how vessels were to pass each other, as well as unreliable currents and strong tides, vessels navigated the river according to the experience of the captain. Captain Harris was on the bridge of the Bywell Castle when he noticed the Princess Alice as she cut across his bow line from the north side of the river. Altering his course, he intended to pass safely astern of her but at that point the captain of the Princess Alice suddenly changed direction, bringing the paddle steamer into the path of the oncoming collier. When the ships were about 400 yards apart Captain Harris ordered stokers in the engine room to reverse the engines of the Bywell Castle, but it was too late. The collier struck the Princess Alice near her stern paddle wheel and, unable to survive such a blow, the paddle steamer split into two and sank within four minutes.
The light at this point was fading fast. Very few of the passengers died from the collision; most either drowned inside the ship or trying to escape the clinging waters of the River Thames. At the time, this scenario was made drastically worse by the filthy Thames water which contained raw sewage and heavy pollutants that flowed straight into the river from industrial plants at North Greenwich and Silverton. Moreover there was little in the way of directional help other than gas lights from the shore. The survivors of the collision struggled to reach safety. Many of the women had little chance of survival as they rarely knew how to swim and their clothing, once wet, would become terribly heavy, dragging them down under the cold Thames water. The crew of the Bywell Castle threw down ropes, launched boats and picked up a handful of survivors. The loud explosion and noisy creaking and groaning of the ship before she went down attracted many people to look across at the accident from the banks. The manager of the Becton Gasworks sent out boats which returned with just twenty-five people; in all just 100 people survived.
As the news of the disaster spread crowds gathered on the North Woolwich pier and at the London Steamboat Company's offices in the city. A company spokesman read out the names of the survivors to those who waited anxiously for news of their families and friends. But it soon became obvious that very few passengers had survived the accident. News soon reached captains of other vessels on the river who began to see bodies floating down the river towards them. One man described it as seeing a sea of men, women and children floating towards him and he and his crew pulled the bodies out hoping that some of them would be survivors. Over ninety bodies were recovered from the river in the first week of the collision and others up to three months later as the river gave them up, bloated with gas and some partly eaten by rats. Bodies were also recovered from the two halves of the Princess Alice when she was raised from the bed of the Thames. After much lifting the two halves of the ship were eventually grounded. When the police went in they found many bodies, including those of children, crushed together against locked exit doors on the lower decks. Many of the bodies had been in the polluted water so long that it was impossible to make a formal identification; to this day they remain unknown, with 120 of them buried as unidentified. It is believed that around 640 people lost their lives in the tragedy. There were stories of survival aided by air pockets in some women's dresses that had ballooned when they were thrown into the river, helping them keep afloat until rescue, and one gentleman stood on the bow of the boat and simply stepped on to a rescue boat as the Princess Alice sank beneath him. One family lost three generations to the disaster. William Towse, the manager of the steamship company, had taken his four sons, wife and parents on a treat to see the Rosherville Gardens for afternoon tea; not one member of the family survived. The bodies were landed at Woolwich, where a church hall and sheds of local companies were taken over as temporary mortuaries. A diver who went to the ship before she was landed to be searched found she had broken into three pieces: bow, engine and stern sections. At low tide that morning police caught two local criminals searching the bodies for cash and charged the two offenders, placing a watch on the wreck. A memorial was erected following public subscription in Woolwich churchyard.
The inquest into the collision took place at Woolwich Town Hall where the coroner and expert witnesses tried to establish what happened on that fateful day. For the next ten weeks more than 100 witnesses were called, including survivors, who gave their account of the disaster. Eventually the jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure, making the collision an accident. There were criticisms of both captains, with some saying the captain of the collier should have stopped engines earlier and the paddle steamer captain should have stopped when he saw the collier bearing down on him. The shipping company who owned the fated Princess Alice was also criticised for having too many passengers on board a ship that was only meant to carry 400 and the fact that there were few lifeboats and the few there were had been padlocked to the ship. The board of trade conducted its own hearing and they concluded that both captains had shown poor judgement. They recommended that two vessels under steam should pass each other on the port side.
In 1880 new rules for navigating the Thames came into force that would tighten up procedures for steamships passing on the river to reduce the number of passengers they could carry and increase the number of easily accessible lifebelts that vessels had to provide. In the early 1880s the Thames division of the Metropolitan Police were provided with steam launches to replace row boats.
The captain of the Princess Alice, his wife and two sons were amongst those who perished on that September evening. The captain of Bywell Castle continued at the helm; however, in 1883 she was listed on the Lloyd's Register as missing in the Bay of Biscay with all hands lost. The wreck of the Princess Alice was quickly scrapped, yet a number of mementos from her were turned into souvenirs of the great disaster and were sold to tourists close to where she sank.
A journalist, W.T. Vincent, on the scene very early on wrote:
Soon policeman and watermen were seen by the feeble light bearing ghastly objects into the offices of the steamboat company, for a boat has just arrived with the first consignment of the dead, mostly little children whose light body and ample drapery had kept them afloat even while they were smothered in the festering Thames. I followed into the steamboat office, marvelling at the fate which had brought the earliest harvest of victims to the headquarters of the doomed ship, and, entering the boardroom, the first of the martyrs was pointed out to me as one of the companies own servants, a man employed on the Princess Alice, brought here thus soon to attest by his silent presence the ship's identity. The lifeless frames of men and women lay about, and out on the balcony, from which the directors had too often looked upon their fleet through the fragrant smell of evening cigar, there was a sight to ring out tears of blood from the eyes of any beholder. A row of little innocents, plump and pretty, well-dressed children, all dead and cold, some with life's ruddy tinge still in their cheeks and lips, the lips from which the merry prattle had gone for ever. Callous as one may grow from frequent contact with terrors and afflictions, one could never be inured to this. It was a spectacle to move the most hardened official and dwell forever in his dreams. Then to think what was beyond out there in the river. It was madness.
Another notable disaster happened on the first bridge over the River Tay, built to the designs of Sir Thomas Bouch, which took six years to build, used over 10 million bricks, 2 million rivets, 87,000 cubic feet of timber and 15,000 barrels of cement. All the materials were put together by 600 men, twenty of whom were either crushed to death or fell into the river below and drowned. They worked in shifts around the clock in all conditions with little or no protective equipment. The bridge was opened on 26 September 1877 with all the pomp that could be mustered by the railway company. An invited group of dignitaries and directors of the company, joined by Sir Thomas, travelled in both directions where they admired the bridge and the never before seen views of the river. During a violent storm on the night of 28 December 1879, the middle section of the bridge collapsed taking with it a passenger train and all seventy-five passengers. The son-in-law of the designer was one of the victims of the disaster, which was caused by high winds that the construction design of the bridge had not allowed for.
The Times, on 29 December 1879, reported from Dundee at midnight:
Loss of the passenger train.
Tonight a heavy gale swept over Dundee and a portion of the Tay Bridge was blown down while the train from Edinburgh due at 7.15 was passing. It is believed that the train is in the water, but the gale is still so strong the steamboat has not yet been able to reach the bridge. The train was duly signalled from Fife as having entered the bridge at 7.14. It was seen running along the rails, and then suddenly was observed a flash of fire. Opinion was that the train left the rails, and went over the bridge. Those who saw the incident repaired immediately to the Tay Bridge station at Dundee and informed the station master of what they had seen. He immediately put himself in communication with the men in charge of the signal box at the North end of the bridge. The telegraph wires were stretched across the bridge, when the instrument was tried it was soon seen the wires were broken.
Mr Smith, the station master and Mr Roberts, locomotive superintendent, determined, notwithstanding the fierce gale, to walk across the bridge as far as possible from the North side, to view of ascertaining the extent of the disaster. They were able to get out a considerable distance, and the first thing that caught their eye was the water spurting from a pipe which was laid across the bridge for the supply of Newport, a village on the south side, from Dundee reservoirs. Going a little further, they could distinctly see by the aid of a strong moonlight that there was a large gap in the bridge caused by the fall, so far as they could discern, of two or three of the largest spars. They thought, however, that they observed a red light on the south part of the bridge, and were of the opinion that the train had been brought to a standstill on the driver noticing the accident. This conjecture was, unfortunately, to be proved incorrect. At Broughtyferry, four miles from the bridge, several mailbags have come ashore, and there is no doubt that the train is in the river. No precise information as to the number of passengers can be obtained, but it is variously estimated at from 150 to 200.
The provost and a number of leading citizens of Dundee started at half past 10 o'clock in the steamboat for the bridge, the gale being moderated; but they have not yet returned.
Monday, 1.30a.m. – (The Times report) The scene at Tay Bridge Station tonight is simply appalling. Many thousand persons are congregated around the buildings, and strong men or women are wringing their hands in despair. On the 2nd of October 1877, while the bridge was in course of construction, one of the girders was blown down during a gale similar to that of today, but the only one of the workmen lost his life. The return of the steamboat is anxiously waited.
Excerpted from Death on the Waterways by Allan Scott-Davies. Copyright © 2011 Allan Scott-Davies. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
2 Canal Deaths,
3 Pools and Standing Water Deaths,
4 Child Murders,
5 Baby Farming,
6 River Deaths,
7 Unusual Murders and Events,
8 Tunnels and Engineered Structures,
10 Film and TV Locations,