Above: The mural on the wall at River Road, on the east side of Barking Creek.
You may have heard of the Princess Alice Disaster which was Britain’s worst transport accident. It is always described as taking place on the Thames off Tripcock Point, which is a headland between Woolwich and Thamesmead. Because of this description, we tend to think of the event being related to locations like Woolwich – where there happens to be a large memorial to those who died. If an accident happens on the Thames it will affect those who live on both banks and that is the whole point of this article.
Before going any further, we will briefly recount the details of the terrible accident which took place in the early evening of Tuesday 3 September 1878.
The ‘Princess Alice’ was a paddle steamer that had taken holiday-makers on a trip on the Thames, bound for a day out at Gravesend and Sheerness. Having enjoyed their day, the passengers embarked at 6.00 pm for the trip back to London, joined by others who had missed their own boat and were allowed to squeeze onto this one. The ‘Princess Alice’ was therefore at capacity as it began its two-hour journey back to London, making an intended stop at Woolwich Pier before its final destination at a landing-stage near London Bridge. The skipper was Captain William Grinstead who was at the helm of the long slim wooden paddle-steamer of 251 tons. It was 220 feet long and 35 feet across the paddle boxes, owned by the London Steamboat Company.
Their short day out almost over, the passengers viewed the riverside scenes contentedly on their slow progress against the tide, along the thirty odd miles of river, back to the ‘Smoke’. Ahead of the boat, the sun was sinking in the west, making it an idyllic evening.
Around 7.40 pm the ‘Princess Alice’ was within sight of the North Woolwich Pier – where many passengers were to disembark – when she sighted the Newcastle-bound vessel – the ‘Bywell Castle’ of 904 tons – over three times the tonnage of the Princess Alice. The ‘Bywell Castle’ had just been repainted at a dry dock and was on her way to pick up a load of coal. Her Master was Captain Harrison, who was accompanied by an experienced Thames river pilot. The collier was moving down-river, with the tide at half speed.
The ‘Princess Alice’, labouring up-river, against the tide, followed the normal watermen’s practice of seeking the slack water on the south side and altered course to port, bringing her into the path of the ‘Bywell Castle’. Captain Harrison ordered his ship’s engines reversed, but it was too late. Princess Alice was struck on the starboard side. She split in two and sank within four minutes.
Many passengers were trapped within the wreck and drowned. Piles of bodies were found around the exits of the saloon when the wreck was later raised. Additionally, the twice-daily release of 75 million gallons of raw sewage from sewer outfalls at Barking and Crossness had occurred one hour before the collision. The heavily polluted water was believed to have contributed to the deaths of those who went into the river. It was noted that the sunken corpses began rising to the surface after only six days, rather than the usual nine. Between 69 and 170 people were rescued but over 650 died. There is a mass grave at Woolwich Old Cemetery, Kings Highway, Plumstead, where 120 victims were buried.
Above: Map showing the location of the mural.
As has already been pointed out, a disaster on the Thames relates to those living on both banks. Woolwich is on the south side of the river. The north bank is occupied by the tiny community called Creekmouth which is just east of Barking Creek – where the River Roding meets the Thames. The original village has all but vanished – replaced by a large housing estate nearby with most of the land occupied today by large factories beside River Road. To mark the history of the old community a large mural has been designed by Tamara Froud, called ‘Soul Searching in Creekmouth’. It is on a large wall beside River Road – which runs quite close to the Thames.
The main part of the mural carries a depiction of the ‘Bywell Castle’ colliding with the ‘Princess Alice’. In addition, the mural shows the local pub – the Crooked Billet – and also the old factory of Handley Page whose aircraft manufacture began at Creekmouth. This mural, situated in an otherwise ugly and industrial part of London, is yet another reminder of the grim event that took place on the Thames over a century ago.
It will be observed on the map that this mural is in the Greater London Borough of Barking and Dagenham which is a long way from Inner London (on the north side of the Thames) which ends at the River Lea. However, Creekmouth lies almost opposite Tripcock Point which is land that is now part of Thamesmead, situated in the London Borough of Greenwich. That land was once part of Inner London on the south side of the Thames.