Tripcock Ness

Tripcock Ness

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.

Barking Creek

Barking Creek

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.

Searching for bodies

Searching for bodies

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.

Princess Alice Memorial Cross

Princess Alice Memorial Cross

Memorial Cross Princess Alice Disaster

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.

Advertisements