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  • Writer's pictureRM Anderson

Death on the Thames (The S.S. Princess Alice Disaster)

One of the most important foundational emotional building blocks between parent and child can be forged during getaways or family days out. A trip to Brighton to sift through hypodermic needles in the hope of finding shells or interesting shaped glass.

Good travel time and early excitement quickly gives way to frustration and traffic jams.

Hot tears, vomit on the headrest. Mother's helpful instructions. Father's bitter compliance mother's imperious orders. Father's barbed repost. Father being reminded about that slag from work, mother being reminded of her university nickname. You being reminded that you were a mistake. Always a mistake. A God-awful, unlovable, grotesque mistake.

Sometimes we also went to the park.

It was a lovely autumn evening in September 1878 when Mr James Reid-Bilton left his home in West Ham with his family for a moonlit cruise aboard a paddle steamer named the S.S. Princess Alice.

They boarded the vessel at the old Swan pier before setting off up the Thames for

Rosherville pleasure gardens in Gravesend.

Impossible though it is for me to accurately judge whether this amusement park was as depressing as its modern day equivalents, the fact that t was overseen by a man whose magnus opus was to dance the horn pipe blindfolded across a canopy of raw eggs leaves me feeling smugly confident. This sentiment however was obviously not shared by the Reid-Biltons.

No doubt Mum and Dad had a great time at Rosherville gardens, in between the spilt drinks, frequent trips to the loo and the mounting hatred that burns deep behind the eyes of all parents of small children. And it was with tired legs that they rejoined their fellow passengers and boarded the Princess Alice.

What happened next can never be truly understood, Whether the fault lay with the Bywell Castle who perhaps had forgotten recent changes to maritime law and preceded to pass the other vessel on the wrong side or, whether blame can be placed on the SS Princess Alice nobody knows. But what is certain is that at Tripcock Point unfolded the worst maritime disaster in London's history.

Struck by the Bywell Castle the Reid-Bilton's paddle steamer was cut in half and sank within four minutes. Those that managed to escape the boat were left fighting for their lives in a putrid river weighed down by the weight of their Sunday best clothing, whilst others were later discovered piled up inside the vessel by the saloon doors.

Bodies were washed away and recovered for days after. Rewards of five shillings were offered for the discovery of the deceased who usually robbed before being reported. The identification process was hampered and made all the more challenging thanks to a rank river Thames that led to an accelerated rotting of the flesh.

That day over 600 people lost their lives in the Thames. Men women and children, including the captain of the SS Princess Alice although, as there was no passenger list the exact number of people on board the ship and therefore precise death toll would never be known.

But that wasn't the worst of it; drowning in a wide-eyed clawing mass of bodies. No, that wasn't the worst of it at all because, at the exact point in the river just an hour earlier, 75 million gallons of raw sewage had been released onto the waves.

And so this is the only account I can find of a whole host of people literally drowning to death in shit.

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