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Looking across the Thames from Tripcock Ness it’s difficult to imagine the carnage of 3rd September 1878. The Princess Alice was a pleasure cruiser that sank when it collided with the Bywell Castle a collier ship. Mr Abraham Dennis master of one of the boats that went out to attempt a rescue said:
“I can compare the people to nothing else than a flock of sheep in the water. The river seemed full of drowning people.”
Many could not swim, the heavy garments worn by women were dragging them down and there was woefully inadequate life buoys. The Coroner’s Report later revealed that there was in fact 12 and two life boats.
If you look to the north bank of the river from Tripcock Ness you will see the Barking Creek flood gates. To the west of this there is usually a considerable number of sea birds on the river. This is the point that the Bazlagette outfall sewer spewed out into the river. Mr Carttar, The Coroner stated:
“the effect of the sewer and shameful state of the River into which the persons were plunged and which in all probability aided and hastened their death……bodies taken out were covered in a nasty slime”.
The new sewerage system had merely shifted the problem from central London downstream to this point.
The scale of the accident involving up to 900 people is still difficult to comprehend and the loss of life remains the largest in a UK peacetime incident. The fact that there is no accurate number of fatalities still preys heavily on the mind. Looking at the records available at the Heritage Centre I came across a black edged memorial card for a service held in Woolwich for the 700 people who died in the accident. Other accounts cite 650 some 640 but I think this is the figure for the recovered bodies.
The Princess Alice was on its way upstream returning day trippers from an outing in Sheerness. They stopped at Gravesend and took on more passengers. The Coroner Mr Carttar, later reported that there were too many people on board and there was no passenger list so the exact numbers will never be known.
Captain Fitzgerald, the Woolwich Harbour Master paid watermen £2 per day to search for bodies and 5 shillings for each corpse recovered. Woolwich town became crowded with relatives seeking to identify loved ones, watermen seeking to recover bodies and people coming to view the scene of the tragedy.
The steam boats offered first, second and third class tickets and the majority of passengers were from the lower middle and working classes. There were many children on board. The Mansion House Fund records September 1878 identified 70 children who had lost both parents and 19 who had lost one. The future for these children would be very bleak indeed in Victorian Britain.
Mr Fredrick Whomes the organist from the Royal Woolwich Dockyard church was one of the victims. Local newspaper accounts report that thousands attended his funeral. However, not everyone had the dignity of an individual service. The Coroner ordered a mass burial on 9th September of unidentified corpses, clothing and any personal property were removed and retained for future identification. This approach is more humane that adopted by the Coroner in the 1989 Marchioness disaster when, unbeknown to family, hands were cut from corpses for identification purposes.
One hundred and twenty unidentified bodies are buried in Woolwich Cemetery and a memorial cross was erected some time later. The scale of the tragedy shocked the nation and a national 6d (six old pennies) subscription scheme to pay for the memorial received support from 23,000 people. Close to the memorial cross is the grave of William Grinstead Captain of the Princess Alice and other members of his family who lost their lives in the tragedy.
As time goes on fewer people are aware of this tragedy. Yet an accident of this scale
demands to be remembered. There is a stained glass window in the church of St Mary Magdalene that commemorates those who lost their lives and the Celtic Memorial Cross at Woolwich Cemetery.
This walk is along the Thames path in an easterly direction from Woolwich Ferry. It will take about 2 hours. Pick up the path at the Woolwich Ferry docks. Up until 1885 people living east of the City of London did not have free access across the river. When the Metropolitan Board of Works agreed to a new crossing in east London by Act of Parliament they made it free. The Woolwich Free Ferry opened 23rd March 1889 to great celebration and a procession through the town centre.
Soon you will pass the Woolwich Foot tunnel which is currently being repaired. It was opened on 26th October 1912. This old photograph shows both the Foot tunnel and Bell Water Gate leading down to the Thames. Bell Water Gate dates back to Tudor times and ships would unload hemp bales and tar which were used in the production of rope. The ropeyard was located in what is now Beresford Street.
The path will take you into the Royal Arsenal which has more than 20 Grade 1 & 11 listed buildings and is a landmark heritage site. The Greenwich Heritage Centre, which is located here, has a permanent exhibition about the history of the Royal Arsenal. Firepower Museum is also on this site. As you near the pier there is a group of life size figures by Peter Burke.
Continue in an easterly direction and you will signs for Broadwater Dock. Just past the Royal Arsenal the paths split into a lower and upper path. Stay on the upper path and you soon cross a canal which is fenced. The canal was built 1812-14. If you look closely you will see the remains of a swing bridge that was built in 1876 to carry railway tracks across the canal. This is Grade 11 listed and is on English Heritage’s “at risk” list. It is in a poor state and covered with graffiti.
In the river are the remains of the piers that serviced the heavy industry of the Royal Arsenal. This photograph shows what they looked like. Now they are resting places for the gulls and cormorants. The path changes from paved to hard core. At this point there is more vegetation, a softer landscape and even the tell tale signs of rabbits on the path. Remember this was rural Kent. Continue along the path until you come across a small lighthouse on the river’s edge. This is clearly marked and there is an information board. Tripcock Ness is the point at which vessels must contact the Thames Barrier control. It is also the site of the greatest loss of life in a Thames accident. The Princess Alice was a pleasure cruiser that sank when it collided with the Bywell Castle 3rd September 1878. The exact number that were killed is not clear but estimates are 650-700 people. A more detailed account will feature in a future post.
The path again splits into an upper and lower path. On the lower path is a pill box left over from the 2nd World War and evidence of the continued threat of invasion. A short distance from this is a viewing platform from which, looking inland you will see a clock tower above the tree canopy. Though still within spitting distance from the river this has moved a few miles downstream. Originally the clock and cupola 1782 came from the Great Storehouse in the Royal Deptford Dockyard. When the storehouse was demolished in 1981 the manager of Convoy’s Wharves donated the clock and cupola to Thamesmead Town.
The path will take you to Crossness Pumping Station. Crossness was part of Joseph Bazalgette’s radical sewerage system for London, which improved the city’s health. It had the beneficial effect of improving the smell. The Big Stink of 1858 brought London to a standstill because of the stench coming from the human excrement in the Thames. Known as the Cathedral on the marshes it is a magnificent example of Victorian engineering and architecture. I would suggest that you do this walk when they have one of their open days. There is one on Sunday 28th July and the next are September 1st and October 13th.
Following the Love your Local Market campaign in May I have been visiting markets along the Thames and its estuary. Faversham is one of the oldest markets in Kent dating back at least 900 years. As I approached the town centre there were bright orange banners celebrating that this was a market day. It is open Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.
For hundreds of years the market has been the hub of their community. Faverham’s market is quintessentially English centered around the Guildhall which dates back to 1574. Nevertheless there are signs of diversification as I spotted, for the first time ever, a mobility stall on the market. I have, however, since seen a similar stall on the Thursday market at Dartford. Does this trend reflect the baby bloomers decline? There are stalls selling clothes, hardware, fruit and veg, artisan bread and preserves and some bric-a-brac. The local cherries, strawberries and Kent new potatoes were particularly good.
The mix of shops and market stalls leads to a lively and vibrant atmosphere. There are several pubs and cafes with many people making the most of the sunshine and dining alfresco. At the other end of the market is the Shepherds Neame brewery. Opposite this I saw a local blue plaque on a house. It was the former home of Michael Greenwood 1731-1812 who was press ganged into the navy 1748. He was wrecked off the coast off Morocco 1758 and enslaved by Moors for 17 months. He was later ransomed and returned to Faversham. Quite a life story and a reminder of the town’s maritime past. Henry Vlll’s fleet, which was made at the Royal Woolwich and Deptford Dockyards, lay anchor in Faversham Creek. So as well as the market, diverse range of shops there is an interesting heritage here.
A recent visit to Riverside Park convinced me that an airport in the Estuary is a really bad prospect. The Thames Estuary has a blighted public image which makes it vulnerable to potential demand for expansion from London. Riverside Park counters this view effectively as it contains elements of a long historic and industrial past as well as stunning natural environment. All of which make up this arresting landscape.
A causeway will take you out to Horrid Hill and from this vantage point you have a 180 degree view of the estuary. Over to the north is Kingsnorth Power station. A small island in between is Nor Marsh that was used for grazing sheep up to the floods of 1953. With the aid of binoculars you can see Darnett Fort on another island. Built in mid 19th Century this was used up until the 2nd World War. When I visited it was low tide and the number long forgotten vessels is striking. Along the foreshore of the causeway you can see the remains of The Waterloo 1891 rusting in the mud flat gives a Dickensian feel.
The coastal wetland is designated as an Area of Special Scientific Interest. There is not much to hear except for the birds and a discerning ear is needed to identify species. The mud flats were full of birds feeding on this rich ground. It is no wonder that the environmentalists want to preserve this landscape.
There are a variety of natural habitats within the park, including mudflats and salt marsh, ponds and reed-beds, grassland and scrub. The Saxon shore way stretches to the west of the park. A little inland from this is Eastcourt Meadows which has been reclaimed it was a landfill site. To the west of the visitor centre is Blooms Wharf which became part of the park in 1997. It is a reminder of the river’s previous industry it has previously been a ship beakers and scrap yard. Motney Hill island was home to a cement works and Rainham docks close by was used by the industry.
It is not a picturesque landscape but it does have a balance of nature, industry and heritage that makes it quite unique. Just 30 miles from London it is a place worth discovering. A Thames Estuary airport would result in an unprecedented level of damage to this unrivaled coastal wetlands.
I had expected that with Greenwich’s maritime heritage that the Royal Woolwich Dockyards would be celebrated. I was disappointed when I visited back in March that there were no information boards. The dockyards closed in 1869 but a remarkable number of remnants remain. Just west of the Woolwich Ferry and you can still see two slips and two docks which were used to make and repair the ships. Woolwich dockyard was opened in 1512 when work started on Henry Grace a Dieu for Henry VIII. There are several original buildings including The Clock House 1783-4, the Master Warder’s Lodging and guard house, school and police station.
I wrote to the Royal Borough of Greenwich suggesting that they should put up information boards. It wasn’t until Councillor John Fahy, who represents Woolwich Riverside ward, got involved that I have seen progress. I met with him and Leigh Pattison an officer with the council to walk the site of the dockyards. We had also picked up from Greenwich heritage Centre contemporary images of the prison hulks or floating prisons that were docked at Woolwich. Throughout the history of the dockyard convict labour was used initially for dredging the mud. In 1778 there were two ships off Woolwich with 632 convicts. The prison ships remained a presence here until the 1850s.
Two information boards will be placed along the river front to celebrate the rich heritage of the dockyard and also the Woolwich Free Ferry. Councillor Fahy said:
“It’s important that the river front is opened up and the River Thames walk is a real opportunity for people to appreciate the history. Obviously, with the tall ships coming back to the Royal Borough on a regular basis appreciation of the river and its history is important.”
At last Royal Woolwich Dockyard is getting the recognition it deserves.
My exploration of ancient markets along the Thames took me to Dartford and what a pleasant surprise that was. The walk from the station is a bit daunting as the road lay-out is designed for cars rather than pedestrians. I visited on a bright sunny Saturday and the market was vibrant and busy. Situated on the High Street it offers both shops and market stalls.
Dartford is an old market town and its charter dates back to James ll. The Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel dates back to 1703 and it is still a pub with accommodation. There is a space further down the High Street where the Le Bell public house stood which dated back to 1507 but was sadly demolished in 1962. An information board here titled One Town that Changed the World cites interesting facts such as Dartford was the first town to use gas lights.
The market stalls extend the full length of the High Street and sell clothes, plants, bags, housewares, fruit and veg. The range of local produce was impressive and the Kent new potatoes I bought was the best I’ve tasted in a long time. Richardson and Son butchers provides an impressive range of locally sourced meat. A French couple was in the queue before me and pleased with the excellent local produce I’d bought; momentarily I thought I was in France.
The town received a lot of publicity when it came to light that they had spent some of their £79,000 of Government cash to revive the High Street on a Peppa Pig character. Now, and then you will see a stall in a blue tent. One of the stallholders explained that these are the Portas’ bursary stalls. He had been a stallholder for over 40 years and was less than complementary about the Portas’ scheme claiming it was gimmicky and not sustainable. His view was that it should have addressed the fundamental problems of parking and business rates. Some of the new stalls were offering different things such as Mexican food and it will be interesting to see if they survive once the bursary runs out. The town that claims to have changed the world still appears to be divided.
I had been invited to visit Saint Thomas the Apostle in Harty by one of the volunteers that maintain and keep the church open. My visit coincided with preparations for the Flower Festival and work was being done both inside and outside of the church. Some of the volunteers are not even church goers but keeping the church open is of great importance to them. There had been plans to close the church back in the 1970s, which were met with severe opposition.
What makes the church so important to the community? It is located in one of the remotest areas of Kent on the Isle of Harty which is now part of Sheppey. There is no mains gas or electricity and in winter the services are carried out by candlelight. Set in tranquil grounds on the banks of the River Swale mainland Faversham and Oare are quite visible. The oldest part of the church is a central wooden structure which could have been a look out platform around which the church developed. The original door, you can still see where it was, faces south to Faversham. The church dates back to 1089. Early settlers will have taken sanctuary in the church as the invading Danes coming along the East Swale.
The ferry over to mainland Kent was Harty’s most important link and there is still the Ferry House public house close by. The ferry ceased operating at the beginning of the First World War. On the east side of the church is the site of Harty School but this is long gone. Inside the church is its most treasured possession a carved oak muniment chest originally used for storing documents. The chest dates back to the 14th Century. One Friday night in August 1987 it was stolen and by Monday had found its way to an auction house. Fortunately it was recognised and returned to the church. It can be found in the Lady Chapel behind locked metal gates.
With this much history and its unique location it’s no wonder the local community want to keep this remarkable church open.