Drowning in Sewage: The Sinking of Princess Alice


The sinking of SS Princes Alice, a British paddle steamer, on the River Thames on 3 September 1878, that resulted in the loss of greater than 600 lives, was Britain’s worst inland waterway tragedy. The incident came about in some of the foulest waters of the Thames, and lots of survivors who have been initially rescued later succumbed to sickness after ingesting the closely polluted waters. The tragedy led to main modifications in the observe for waste disposal on the Thames.

On the night of 3 September 1878, the Princess Alice was making her means up the Thames on her return journey from Sheerness to London, when she collided with the collier Bywell Fort. The bigger vessel struck Princess Alice on the starboard facet and broke the paddle steamer into two. Princess Alice capsized shortly and inside 4 minutes, she had sunk beneath the waves.

Many of the passengers on Princess Alice have been unable to swim and drowned promptly. The lengthy heavy clothes worn by ladies additionally hindered their efforts to remain afloat.

The crew of Bywell Fort tried to rescue as many as they might. They dropped ropes from their deck for the passengers of Princess Alice to climb. They additionally threw something that might float into the water for folks to carry—planks of wooden, lifebuoys and even rooster coops for folks to cling. The Bywell Fort managed to drag up some sixty folks. Residents from each banks of the Thames, notably the boatmen of native factories, additionally launched their very own rescue effort.

Altogether, some 130 folks have been rescued from the collision, however a number of died later from ingesting the water.

The accident came about on the level the place London’s sewage pumping stations have been located. Twice each day, round 75 million imperial gallons (340,000 cubic meters) of uncooked sewage is discharged into the water from the sewer outfalls Abbey Mills and the Crossness Pumping Station. That day, pumping had occurred only one hour previous to the collision. The water bubbled with uncooked detritus, giving out a stench robust sufficient to go away even the hardiest boatman gagging. The water was additionally polluted by the untreated output from Beckton Fuel Works, and a number of other native chemical factories.

Illustration of the collision between the Princess Alice and Bywell Fort, because it appeared in ‘Illustrated London News’ 14 September 1878

In a letter to The Occasions shortly after the collision, a chemist described the outflow as:

Two steady columns of decomposed fermenting sewage, hissing like soda-water with baneful gases, so black that the water is stained for miles and discharging a corrupt charnel-house odour, that will likely be remembered by all … as being notably miserable and sickening.

One survivor, Mr Huddart, recalled:

I observed one thing very peculiar in the water. Each the style and scent have been one thing dreadful, one thing that I couldn’t describe – having been right down to the underside and having rose once more with my mouth full of it I may give an excellent image of it – it was essentially the most horrid water I ever tasted and the scent was additionally equally dangerous.

The precise quantity of passengers on board the Princess Alice throughout that deadly voyage is unknown, because the ship didn’t hold a passenger record, however it’s thought that round 640 folks drowned, making this Britain’s worst inland waterway catastrophe.

When the our bodies from the Thames have been pulled out, many of them have been lined with slime which was troublesome to clean off. The corpses started to decompose at a sooner tempo than regular, and lots of of the corpses have been unusually bloated. Victims’ clothes additionally started to rot shortly and was discoloured after immersion in the polluted water. Sixteen of those that survived died inside two weeks, and a number of other others took ailing.

On the coroner’s inquest, the jury positioned the blame on each boats for the collision. The Bywell Fort, the decision mentioned, had contributed to the collision by not taking “the necessary precaution of easing, stopping and reversing her engines in time”, and “Princess Alice contributed to the collision by not stopping and going astern.”. The jury expressed the opinion that there ought to be correct and stringent guidelines and laws laid down for all steam navigation on the River Thames.

Recovering Bodies from the Wreck of the Princess Alice, The Illustrated London News

Recovering Our bodies from the Wreck of the Princess Alice, The Illustrated London Information

The Board of Commerce launched its personal inquiry and located that the Princess Alice had breached the Board of Commerce Laws and the Laws of the Thames Conservancy Board, 1872, that acknowledged that if two ships are heading in direction of one another, they need to go on the port facet of one another. As Princess Alice had not adopted this process, the Board discovered Princess Alice guilty and that Bywell Fort couldn’t keep away from the collision.

The house owners of Princess Alice and Bywell Fort tried to sue one another for the accident, however in useless. The Admiralty Division of the Excessive Court docket of Justice heard the case and determined that each events have been guilty.

Issues have been raised in Parliament relating to the dumping of untreated sewage in the Thames that additionally contributed to the tragedy.

A number of years later, London’s Metropolitan Board of Works started to purify the sewage at Crossness and Beckton, fairly than dumping the untreated waste into the river, and a collection of six sludge boats have been ordered to ship effluent into the North Sea for dumping. This observe of dumping at sea continued till December 1998.

In 1880, a memorial Celtic cross was erected in Woolwich Cemetery the place the useless have been buried.

Memorial in Woolwich Cemetery

Memorial in Woolwich Cemetery. Picture: Paul Wilkinson/Flickr

Princess Alice‘s house owners recovered the wreck of the vessel, salvaged the engine and despatched the remainder to a ship breaker. Inside six years, the corporate went bankrupt. Bywell Fort continued to sail for 5 extra years when she herself sank in the Bay of Biscay with the loss of all forty crew.

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