logo Enthusiasms No 49
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

The wrecking of Princess Alice1. I would like to thank the Bodleian library for permission to quote from its Allegro archive; Roy Palmer for putting me in the way of archives at Gressenhall and Frances Collinson and the Norfolk Rural Life Museum, Gressenhall for permission to quote from their stock of ballads; and Beverley Burford and The Greenwich Heritage Centre for kindly forwarding material to me.1

In the piece headed 'Bawlers' and the Bawled put out on this site in summer 2004 the wrecking of the ship Princess Alice and a newspaper report were mentioned but, at that time, no ballad had been discovered.  At Wallingford, according to a newspaper report, one recalls, in 1878:
Our long established Michaelmas hiring and pleasure fair was held on Monday and Tuesday last … two or three Cheap Johns perseveringly plied their calling, as also did a vendor of the “Fearful wreck of the Princess Alice,” and other ballad singers …2. 'Bawlers' and the Bawled, MT article 142. The newspaper quotation was from the Abingdon and Reading Herald, 5th October 1878, p.5, and I am indebted to Keith Chandler (South Leigh, Oxon) for sending me the reference.2
Now, ballads have come to light.  One was put out by Such, paralleled in copy without imprint; and another by Fortey.

First, though, it is useful to recount the actuality.  On 3rd September, 1878 the steam pleasure boat Princess Alice was engaged on an excursion from North Woolwich to Sheerness and during the return voyage, whilst negotiating Gallions Reach on the Thames, she was struck by the coal-ship, Bywell Castle (1376 tons), at 7.40 pm, sinking within a few minutes.  There had been upwards of eight hundred people on board Princess Alice - some reports suggest nine hundred - and five hundred and twenty-nine people drowned.

The Kentish Independent of 7th September gave an account of the following days when the task of identification was in progress, listing bodies and giving a few details of each case:

Mary Ann Lea, of 19, Osprey Street, Rotherhithe, identified her sister, Sarah Ann Grimwood, aged 34, wife of a tailor.  Another sister was missing, named Hannah Smith.
John Bishop, of Old Ford, identified his father, Wm.  Horn Bishop, plumber, who went with two friends, one of whom was missing.
Walter Wanstell, of East Street, Walworth, identified John Charles Standish, aged 4, who was with his aunt and grandmother, the former being lost and the latter saved.
The melancholy procession of relatives at the temporary mortuary was described; letters from sympathisers published; legal processes noted; and remarks made by the newspaper itself.

One survivor described how the collier struck the Princess Alice 'on the paddle box of the port side' and how, a few moments later, Bywell Castle 'bumped us again, and partially forced us under'.

The editorial comments included the following - somewhat like ballad expression:

No pen can describe, no tongue can utter the details of the appalling story with which we have to meet our readers this week …
There followed the more particular observation that:
A special train, containing anxious friend, came down about three o'clock in the morning, and brought some of the reporters from the offices of the daily papers, and the town has since been in the occupation of an army of special correspondents, whose narratives have filled page after page of the London and provincial and foreign journals - for the interest in the calamity is almost as intense universally as it is at our own doors.3. The Kentish Independent, 7th September 1878, pp.4-5.3
Two weeks later The Illustrated London News also carried reports and printed sketches of the scene and its aftermath.  The funeral processions, for instance, were described, when 'No less than 6000 or 7000 persons witnessed the distressing scenes'.4. The Illustrated London News, 21st September 1878, unpag.4

Papers retained by the then LCC Record Office reveal that the jury returned a verdict to the effect that deaths were:

occasioned by drowning in the waters of the river Thames from a collision that occurred after sunset between a steam vessel called the “Bywell Castle” and a steam vessel called the “Princess Alice” whereby the Princess Alice was cut in two and sunk, such collision not being wilful; that the Bywell Castle did not take the necessary precautions of easing, stopping and reversing her engines in time, and that the Princess Alice contributed to the collision by not stopping and going astern, that all collisions in the opinion of the Jury, might in future be avoided if proper and stringent rules and regulations were laid down for all steam navigation on the river Thames.5. In MT article 156, Tawell the Quaker, a ballad on the murder of Ciara Bruton (1872) was considered ...
For the rest, see Notes at end of article5
We know, of course, that accidents on the Thames continue to happen.

The Fortey ballad, A Copy Of Verses On The Loss Of The Princess Alice, begins as follows:

So sad a disaster ne'er has been told,
As that which I have just to unfold …
- a conventional kind of ballad disclaimer, paralleled by expressions of incredulity in gallows literature.  One notes, too (once again, gallows literature, includes similar gestures) that the piece is careful to reiterate that 'So appalling a tale the papers they tell' (my italics) thus suggesting a rehash.6. Summaries of these LCC reports were part of a parcel of material forwarded to me by the Greenwich Heritage Centre.6  A chorus contains reference to the numbers of victims:
Six hundred poor souls whom no one could save,
Died in the depths of the Thames, a watery grave,
While those who were saved had all cause to mourn,
The loss of the dear ones who are dead and gone…
The events are recounted, with the detail here that the return journey was from 'Southend and Sheerness' and that the sinking took but five minutes, the result of being 'run late' by a 'large iron screw collier, Bywell Castle' (they say).  A time of eight o'clock, not quite accurate, is given - on a Tuesday evening.
The captain was seen at his post on the deck,
Directly before this calamitous wreck,
Shouting directions his vessel to save,
But alas! All is ended in a watery grave…
In Woolwich, there was 'Excitement' (they say) where the bodies were arrayed … 'May God help all those who suffered such pain'.

The piece describes how a holiday trip ended when:

Homeward on board this vessel they came,
Only to suffer, poor souls, both grief and pain.7. See Bodleian Allegro archive as Harding B 13(245).7
One can probably say in view of the kind of expression used and the references made, implicitly, to other reports, that it is likely that at least the Fortey piece was printed immediately consequent upon the disaster.

The Such ballad, entitled Fearful Loss Of Life On The Thames, and that ballad without imprint with a title of The Loss Of The Princess Alice8. The Such ballad was forwarded to me by the Norfolk Rural life Museum. The copy without imprint can be found in the Bodleian Allegro archive as Firth c 13(73). It sits on the same sheet alongside Loss of the Earl Moira, a reprint of a ballad issued consequent upon the event in 1821 by Pitts, in the Bodleian Allegro archive as Firth c 13(72), suggesting either an exploitation of theme and occasion, whatever the news content, or the whim of a collector or editor.8, begin in a slightly different fashion to the Fortey piece:

How many thousands have found a grave
Beneath the ever rolling wave,
And day by day the list we swell,
Another loss we have to tell …
A chorus is given in which it is stated that 'hundreds found a watery grave'.

The piece recounts the events of the day (although neither the date nor the year are given) when, after the excursion to Sheerness and the return in the dark, the vessel was run down opposite Woolwich town:

Eight hundred souls were in the waves,
Struggling against a watery grave,
The old and young both were there,
Feeble age and youth so fair.
Women with children on their breast,
In death's embrace they sank to rest,
Many a man how sad to say,
Lost all he loved that fatal day.
These details are repeated in slightly different form in successive stanzas; and then, of the victims, 'They had no time for the humble prayer …'.  Further, 'What must the feeling of relations be…'.
We all shall think of them I'm sure,
And pray for them be they rich or poor,
History will record the names,
Of those who were drowned in the river Thames.
Clearly, the overall emphasis is on news and reactive sympathy in the ballads although one might hazard a slightly different and perhaps more lasting impact through the form itself which, as the one newspaper report quoted in 'Bawlers' and the Bawled reveals, found utterance as song.9. The inference in the newspaper is clear enough but one cannot be quite sure that a song was being sung; perhaps a text was being bawled.9  As for ballad expression, comment here may sound callous but matching 'wave' with 'grave' and then any word with 'Thames' is a limited preoccupation.  Newspaper accounts themselves furnished enough upsetting details and in the ballads noted above, because of the mode of expression, that of generic description embracing conventional regret and references to God's providence, there is what now might appear to be a certain distancing of the event.

Finally, none of the titles of the ballads given above exactly match the claim in the newspaper report quoted above.  The use of the word 'Fearful' might just sway the issue in favour of the Such copy but 'wreck' does not appear in that ballad at all (or, for that matter, in the other one) - too much to ask, perhaps, for a specific identification to emerge.

Roly Brown - 19.11.05
Oradour sur Vayres, France,



Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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