Thursday, 17 June 2010

Princess Alice

Even at a glance, the decoration high on the facade of the Princess Alice in Commercial Street catches the eye. A closer look (or zoom lens) shows that it's mosaic, hence the unfaded colours and sense of texture.

Although the pub dates from 1850, it was rebuilt in 1883. Its name evokes the Victorian era as thoroughly as the facade does: the princess was Queen Victoria's second daughter, born in 1843.

Unfortunately, many of the associations are unhappy. Princess Alice herself married shortly after her father Prince Albert's death from typhoid, in a ceremony described by her mother as 'more of a funeral than a wedding'. Life with her new husband Prince Louis of Hesse was not easy: homesickness was followed by the Austro-Prussian War. Hesse was on the Austrian side, but Alice's sister Princess Victoria was married to Prince Frederick of Prussia which hardly made for easy relations. As a friend of Florence Nightingale and social reformer, Alice took an active part in organising hospitals for the wounded; Queen Victoria saw her daughter's interest in the human body as coarse, which did nothing to improve their tense relationship.

In 1873, Alice's youngest son died in a fall. Her relationship with her husband also worsened, and she was unhappy both in Hesse and in England. Worsening health meant that when in 1877 she became Grand Duchess, her increased duties exhausted her. The following year, she died of diphtheria caught from her son; it had already killed one of her daughters. She was 35.

There is a more famous and even unhappier Princess Alice, though: the passenger steamship which sank on the Thames in 1878, just a few months before the Grand Duchess's death. On a warm September evening, the boat was full of pleasure-trippers returning from Gravesend. As it approached North Woolwich Pier where many passengers were to disembark, the much larger collier Bywell Castle came towards it. Despite the amount of traffic on the river in this period, there were no clear rules on how vessels should pass each other. The Bywell Castle changed course, which confused the Princess Alice's captain. He swerved, the two ships collided, and the Princess Alice was almost cut in half. It sank within a few minutes and even those not trapped inside found themselves in a heavily polluted, raw-sewage-filled stretch of river, in the dark, wearing heavy clothes. Most of them could not swim. Although a minority of passengers were saved by rescuers, over 600 people died.

This story of two survivors gives some idea of the confusion and misery of that night:
A Thames Division constable, PC56 John Lewis, an ex Royal Naval diver stationed aboard the station-ship Royalist at Blackwall; who had taken the outing aboard the Princess Alice with his wife and two sons, all happened to be on the after deck at the time of the collision and jumped together into the mass of bodies struggling in the river. The Constable caught hold of his wife's hand and swam with a few others ashore onto the Erith marsh, only then to discover the woman he had rescued to be a total stranger. Both the woman and Constable Lewis lost their entire families that evening.
Happily, the pub has a more fortunate history. It even stayed open throughout the Second World War, despite heavy bombing in the area. Although it was for a time renamed the City Darts, it has reverted to its original identity and remains in business today.

Photograph of Princess Alice from Wikipedia.


Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Another interesting post.

I used to frequent the Princess Alice in it's guise as the City Darts when I worked in Aldgate in the early 80's

Sad to say, from my own research collisions on the Thames were extremely common at the time although not on the same scale as the Princess Alice disaster.


CarolineLD said...

Was the pub particularly focussed on darts in those days? The name intrigues me!

I'm not surprised there were plenty of collisions: the river seems to have been something of a free-for-all at the time. I wonder how much matters improved when new regulations were introduced after the Princess Alice inquiry.

Hels said...

Good stuff!

We know of many Victorian and Edwardian ships that were sunk, often with all passengers and crew, as a result of war or natural catastrophes eg Titanic, Lusitania, Empress of Ireland. Or even later eg Arandora Star.

But the Princess Alice was a passenger steamship which sank IN THE THAMES when the boat was full of Victorian pleasure-trippers. There was no enemy fire power, no enormous icebergs and no open ocean. The Princess Alice sunk in the Thames, for goodness sake, just as many passengers were about to disembark. What a terrible waste of human life.

CarolineLD said...

Yes, and it seems all the more incredible because they were so near shore. However, most Victorians didn't learn to swim (even if their clothes had let them) - and they were very near various industrial works and a main sewage outfall, so the stuff they'd fallen into doesn't bear thinking about.

Hels said...

I came back to your story of the ship in my latest post, and created a link back to good old Princess Alice.