Drowning in Sewage: The Sinking of Princess Alice

Aug 10, 2022 1 comments

The sinking of SS Princes Alice, a British paddle steamer, on the River Thames on 3 September 1878, that resulted in the loss of more than 600 lives, was Britain’s worst inland waterway tragedy. The incident took place in some of the foulest waters of the Thames, and many survivors who were initially rescued later succumbed to illness after ingesting the heavily polluted waters. The tragedy led to major changes in the practice for waste disposal on the Thames.

On the evening of 3 September 1878, the Princess Alice was making her way up the Thames on her return journey from Sheerness to London, when she collided with the collier Bywell Castle. The larger vessel struck Princess Alice on the starboard side and broke the paddle steamer into two. Princess Alice capsized quickly and within four minutes, she had sunk beneath the waves.

Many of the passengers on Princess Alice were unable to swim and drowned promptly. The long heavy dresses worn by women also hindered their efforts to stay afloat.

The crew of Bywell Castle tried to rescue as many as they could. They dropped ropes from their deck for the passengers of Princess Alice to climb. They also threw anything that would float into the water for people to hold—planks of wood, lifebuoys and even chicken coops for people to cling. The Bywell Castle managed to pull up some sixty people. Residents from both banks of the Thames, particularly the boatmen of local factories, also launched their own rescue effort.

Altogether, some 130 people were rescued from the collision, but several died later from ingesting the water.

The accident took place at the point where London's sewage pumping stations were situated. Twice daily, around 75 million imperial gallons (340,000 cubic meters) of raw sewage is discharged into the water from the sewer outfalls Abbey Mills and the Crossness Pumping Station. That day, pumping had occurred just one hour prior to the collision. The water bubbled with raw detritus, giving out a stench strong enough to leave even the hardiest boatman gagging. The water was also polluted by the untreated output from Beckton Gas Works, and several local chemical factories.

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

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

Two continuous 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 be remembered by all ... as being particularly depressing and sickening.

One survivor, Mr Huddart, recalled:

I noticed something very peculiar in the water. Both the taste and smell were something dreadful, something that I could not describe – having been down to the bottom and having rose again with my mouth full of it I could give a very good picture of it – it was the most horrid water I ever tasted and the smell was also equally bad.

The exact number of passengers on board the Princess Alice during that fatal voyage is unknown, as the ship did not keep a passenger list, but it is thought that around 640 people drowned, making this Britain’s worst inland waterway disaster.

When the bodies from the Thames were pulled out, many of them were covered with slime which was difficult to wash off. The corpses began to decompose at a faster pace than normal, and many of the corpses were unusually bloated. Victims' clothing also began to rot quickly and was discoloured after immersion in the polluted water. Sixteen of those who survived died within two weeks, and several others took ill.

At the coroner's inquest, the jury placed the blame on both boats for the collision. The Bywell Castle, the verdict said, 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 should be proper and stringent rules and regulations laid down for all steam navigation on the River Thames.

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

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

The Board of Trade launched its own inquiry and found that the Princess Alice had breached the Board of Trade Regulations and the Regulations of the Thames Conservancy Board, 1872, that stated that if two ships are heading towards each other, they should pass on the port side of each other. As Princess Alice had not followed this procedure, the Board found Princess Alice to blame and that Bywell Castle could not avoid the collision.

The owners of Princess Alice and Bywell Castle tried to sue each other for the accident, but in vain. The Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice heard the case and decided that both parties were to blame.

Concerns were raised in Parliament regarding the dumping of untreated sewage in the Thames that also contributed to the tragedy.

A few years later, London's Metropolitan Board of Works began to purify the sewage at Crossness and Beckton, rather than dumping the untreated waste into the river, and a series of six sludge boats were ordered to ship effluent into the North Sea for dumping. This practice of dumping at sea continued until December 1998.

In 1880, a memorial Celtic cross was erected in Woolwich Cemetery where the dead were buried.

Memorial in Woolwich Cemetery

Memorial in Woolwich Cemetery. Photo: Paul Wilkinson/Flickr

Princess Alice's owners recovered the wreck of the vessel, salvaged the engine and sent the rest to a ship breaker. Within six years, the company went bankrupt. Bywell Castle continued to sail for five more years when she herself sank in the Bay of Biscay with the loss of all forty crew.


  1. I have recently found that a few of my ancestors were on this when it sank and died. They had young children with them.


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