Guide to East London

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The Princess Alice

Romford Road, Forest Gate, E7
BritRail: Forest Gate

The sinking of a pleasure boat filled with passengers returning from a day out would have been a tragedy wherever it happened. For it to go down where it did turned an accident into a disaster. To understand why we have to go back in time.

The river Thames has always provided Londoners with drinking water and a vital means of transport. They repaid the debt by turning it into a giant sewer. Discharging all their foul water and rubbish into it they hoped that the river would carry the effluent down and out to the sea. This was all very well until the population grew and the volume of the sewage exceeded the flow of river water. When the smell became so overpower that Parliament and the Law Courts were forced to suspend sittings they decided to do something about it. The solution was to build sewers to take the water down river beyond central London. The untreated sewerage was discharged into the Thames at the turn of the river just off Barking in East London.

On September 3, 1878 a collier named the 'Bywell Castle' collided with a small, light pleasure boat crowded with holidaymakers and there could only be one result. The 'Princess Alice' sank plunging the crew and all the passengers into the water at the very spot where the sewer discharged its foul contents into the river. It was only 300 yards to the shore but not many people could swim. The survivors had to clutch on anything that floated as they struggled to the shore through the heavily contaminated water. As one of the rescuing boatmen remarked afterwards "they were not so much swimming as going through the motions".

The Princess Alice was licensed to hold 1,000 passengers but its is not known how many were on board that fatal day. Around 640 bodies including many women, children and babies were recovered in the following days but there is no information on the number of survivors that succumbed later due to the after effects. The inquiry was alarmed to find out the level of contamination and its consequences on health. The affluent areas of London had cured their problem by passing it on to the poorer areas of East London. Steps were taken to provide sewerage plants to treat the effluent before it was discharged into the river.

A pub was named the Princess Alice in memory of those that lost their lives in the tragedy. It stood on the junction of the Romford Road and Woodgrange Road until it was demolished by a bomb on what was the heaviest raid on London during the Blitz. After the war the pub was rebuilt and unlike many old pubs in London has managed to keep its name.

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