Ships 2

Princess Alice

Ships 3

Princess Alice

Captain Grinstead

The Great Princess Alice Disaster

By James Donahue

They never knew why Captain William Grinsted gave the order to his helmsman to turn the coastal steamship Princess Alice into the path of the oncoming collier Bywell Castle on the fateful evening of September 3, 1878. The large collier rammed and sank Grinsted’s command and killed nearly 600 passengers.

Grinsted died in the crash. The accident has remained among the worst marine disasters recorded in England’s history.

The Princess Alice was a 219-foot paddle-wheel driven steamship owned by the London Steamship Company and mostly used for passenger excursions on the Thames River.  While no one has ever posted the exact number of people on the steamer, the estimates were somewhere around 700, most of them Londoners returning home from Rosherville Gardens.

The Collision Scene

Near the end of the trip, the Princess Alice encountered the larger collier, Bywell Castle, Captain T. Harrison at the helm, steaming upstream and without cargo for Newcastle to load coal.

In his log, Captain Harrison wrote that as the two vessels approached at about 7:30 p.m., they saw that the Princess Alice turned to port. Harrison said he gave his helmsman the order to steer to port as well so the collier would be assured of passing clear of the passenger vessel. But at the last moment, the Princess Alice turned to starboard and moved directly across the bow of the Bywell Castle.

When “we saw that she had starboarded her helm and was trying to cross our bows” Harrison said he ordered the engines of his steamship stopped and then run full in reverse. But the collision could not be avoided.

They said the bow of the Bywell Castle struck just behind the paddle wheel and sliced through the hull of the smaller wooden hulled steamboat. The Princess Alice was not only cut in two, but it rolled on its side under the force of the larger ship and immediately sank, carrying everybody trapped inside the vessel to the bottom of the river. Divers later told of finding bodies packed into portions of the wreck like cordwood.

Harrison brought his ship to anchor, lowered boats, life buoys, ropes and ladders, doing all that could be done to launch an immediate rescue of the many struggling bodies in the water. He said the Bywell Castle also sounded the ship’s steam whistle, alerting everyone on shore of the disaster and summoning help from anybody with a small boat in the region to come and help.

At least 100 survivors, and possibly more were rescued that evening. One count of the dead numbered 550, but some believe the real number may have been closer to 590. The little steamer was crowded almost to capacity for that final trip.

An investigation by the Board of Trade concluded that Captain Grinstead, who perished in the accident, was solely to blame. The disaster was so financially damaging to the owners, the London Steamship Company went out of business.

The Princess Alice was originally named the Brute when it was launched in Greenock in 1865 tor the Wemyss Bay Railway Company. The name was changed when the vessel was sold in 1867.

Bywell Castle