This week, I start on the final leg of this 10-month project to chronicle the history of the Olympic boroughs in song. In the first tale from Newham, the worst London disaster of the industrial age: the sinking of the SS Princess Alice.
“It was a beautiful autumn evening in September 1878 when James Read Bilton left his house in West Ham, Newham with his family, for a relaxing moonlit cruise aboard the SS Princess Alice…”
Watch the video and enjoy the London song inspired by this tale, ‘Three Words.’
SS Princess Alice Disaster
I was never a big enough Tom Jones fan to warrant wasting an hour of my life watching a part-time entertainer from Cheltenham, attempt to recreate the great man whilst i’m being served food that make Kerry Katona’s Iceland buffets look like something I would feed to my dog.
I’m talking of course about pleasure cruises. Now some people rather like the idea of being sandwiched between Dutch retirees and Scouse hen parties for six weeks at a time, but the very idea of it makes my stomach turn.
It was a lovely autumn evening in September 1878 when Mr James Reed left his home in West Ham with his family, for a moonlit cruise up the Thames, aboard a paddle steamer named the S.S. Princess Alice.
They boarded the vessel and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the band before disembarking for a jaunt around Rosherville Gardens in Gravesend.A landmarked which has sadly failed in recent years to live up to its then advertising slogan of ‘a great place to spend the day’.
During the journey back towards the city, the S.S. Princess Alice approached another vessel travelling in the opposite direction.
This boat was named the Bywell Castle and was commanded by a Captain Harrison. Now unfortunately Harrison had forgotten the recent changes to maritime law and proceeded to pass the paddle steamer on the wrong side.
The crew of the SS Princess Alice tried frantically to readjust their course but it was too late. They were cut in half an sank within four minutes. On that day over 600 people died. Bodies were piled up by the saloon doors, many others managed to escape only to drown weighed down by the weight of their Sunday best clothing.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. At that exact point of the river Thames, 75 million tons of raw sewage had been dumped just one hour earlier. Not only was this the worst Maritime disaster in the history of the Thames river, it is also the only recorded account I can find, of a great body of people literally drowning to death in shit.