10 Harrowing 19th-Century Maritime Disasters

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9. SS Princess Alice

In the 1870s, excursions down the River Thames were popular outings for a growing population of Londoners. Such attractions brought over 700 passengers onto the SS Princess Alice for a routine trip near London Bridge on September 3, 1878. That evening, the ship was within sight of the North Woolwich Pier when a substantially larger ship, the collier Bywell Castle, appeared downriver. The Bywell Castle struck the Princess Alice, splitting the ship in two. Within four minutes, the entire vessel sank with over 650 passengers, many of whom were trapped below the deck.

The point of collision occurred where the ship’s sewage was stored, discharging large volumes of fermenting feces downriver. It is believed that many succumbed due to asphyxiation from the horrendously overpowering gasses. The following week, the Princess Alice was lifted, and the bodies that remained unidentified were buried in a mass grave.

The disaster brought about an official legal process for dealing with mass deaths as well as a review of the rules and policing of the River Thames. To date, the Princess Alice catastrophe remains the highest loss of civilian life in British territorial waters.

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