Once a year usually late Feb/early March I visit the East London Cemetery in Plaistow to tidy the grave where my grandmother is buried and where my mother’s ashes lie (see featured picture). The cemetery is huge (Mahoosive, as my son would say), and I know it’s strange, but when the grave is spick and span again I like to wander around and read inscriptions on some of the tombstones before making the 100 mile journey home.
Thus I was surprised to discover a monument to a Mr George Davies, his wife and 4 children who all died with around 640 others on the River Thames in the accidental sinking of the Princess Alice paddle steamer on 3rd September 1878. Back at home I looked the accident up on Google. Wikipedia states how the collision with the collier ship Bywell Castle caused the greatest loss of life of any British inland waterway accident.
The Princess Alice was full of day trippers on the homeward journey from a day out at Sheerness. The point of collision with the Bywell Castle was where 75 million gallons of London’s raw sewage had just been tipped into the Thames, along with the output from the Beckton Gasworks and oil and petroleum from a Thames fire. The smaller paddle steamer was split into three sections by the force of the collision, and sank within minutes. Passengers were thrown into the fetid water, and were quickly covered in slime and drowned. Many had been unable to swim, and women had been further hampered by the long dresses they had worn. About 150 people were rescued, but many of these died through ingesting the foul waters. After the sinking, changes to the release and treatment of raw sewage were made.
The verdict of an inquest after the event was that the Bywell Castle did not stop and reverse her engines in time, and that the Princess Alice contributed to the collision by not stopping and going astern. There were addenda that the Princess Alice was not properly manned, there were too many people on board, and means of saving lives were insufficient for a vessel of her class.
It seems to have been one of London’s forgotten disasters; I for one had never heard of it and I lived in London for 33 years. I got to thinking of all those happy Londoners on board who had just had a lovely day out and had no idea what terrible fate was to befall them.
Walking around the cemetery certainly makes me grateful for having made it to the age of 62. Near to where Nan is buried is what can only be described as a shrine to a 13 year old girl who died in the 1960s when she fell off her horse. There are also babies’ graves who lived for only one day. I came away with a renewed conviction to make the most of every single day I have left upon this earth.