The entry below was originally a part of my final, 2000 word Creative non-fiction piece, but I quickly exhausted my word count so had to very reluctantly remove it.
Keeping within my word count has been my biggest challenge for the piece; I have too much material, all of which I am very attached to..
Even from a few feet away, the recognition was instant. My eyes were drawn to the inscription as if to a familiar face, skipping along the row of crumbling gravestones to fix greedily on the words ‘Arthur Wrench Towse’.
Nearby, a solitary magpie pecked idly at the ground, skirting between graves as if out of politeness. It eyed my approach beadily, fluttering into an old, overhanging oak when I raised my camera, its wings flashing cobalt in the April sunshine.
It had taken me over an hour to find Arthur, my only guide being an excruciatingly vague map purchased online, and the condition of the graves leading up to his had not filled me with hope. More than once I had stepped gingerly over tumbled squares of stone, snapped cleanly at the base and lying face down in the dirt. Other inscriptions were lost under dramatic carpets of ivy, or to the bleaching effect of the elements; I knelt often, using my fingers to decipher the faintest of indentations in aging rock.
Arthurs’ was not the oldest neighbourhood in the cemetery by far, but the dead there had lain long enough that they no longer bore any connection to the living. Unlike the etchings in shiny granite elsewhere, adorned with wilting week-old flowers or once rained-on teddy bears, no-one would notice when these names and dates crumbled to nothing, testament though they were to the entirety of so many peoples’ existences.
For most of us, when we are long dead and all those who cared to remember us are dead, we will be forgotten. Melancholy but not unjust, it’s an indiscriminate and inevitable truth; we must all one day move aside for the living.
But what of society’s memory, which, carried from generation to generation, once in text books but now increasingly in pop culture, has no expiration date? Why is it selective, seizing on events like the sinking of the Titanic, the crime spree of the Kray Twins or the White Chapel murders, but throwing aside others of equal horror and excitement, with arguably greater implications on society?
Arthur Wrench Towse, put in the ground in 1926, aged 53, is lucky to have his own solid slab of stone. He lived through an event in history that saw hundreds of others buried in a single mass grave, marked by a formidable Celtic cross, but no names. Among these were his mother, grandmother, aunt and five siblings, all of whom met a violent, terrifying end, perhaps in front of his eyes. The catastrophe that claimed their lives remains to this day the largest of its kind in UK history, stoking a number of small, societal fires across Victorian Britain, and yet, it has been largely forgotten: The Princess Alice Disaster.
In a previous entry I mentioned that I would be attending an open day at Crossness Pumping Station in Belvedere, a sewage processing plant which contributed to the filthy condition of the river at the time of the Princess Alice Disaster.
To reach the station, one must first follow a long meandering path which is bordered on all sides with lush greenery – tangles of wild flowers, lakes trickling through thick undergrowth, clutches of trees. At one point, I passed a large expanse of sloping hills crisscrossed by teenagers on Quads and mini-motors, the loud revving of the engines an affront to a subdued Sunday morning. The jarring sound could only detract a little from the day however, which was bright and warm and enjoyed by hovering bees and butterflies.
Nearing the station, a not entirely pleasant smell began to invade my nostrils. I struggled to identify it; it was industrial, sulphuric, with a touch of sewage – a palpable reminder of human activity in an area otherwise dominated by nature. Directly opposite the ornamental building I spied a small, man-made wildlife garden, created as if in apology for the reverence of this pollutive, albeit beautiful, structure.
I would later read that the green space encircling the station is a part of Erith Marshes, and a ‘Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation’, supporting a healthy population of water voles and amphibians. A strange juxtaposition of pollution and conservation.
As I’ve mentioned before, it tends to be the architecture of the natrual world which really enchants and interests me. Nevertheless, even I was struck by the beauty of the stations’ exterior, the rows of windows and round looping arches and intricately carved pillars. The garden which it overlooked was also sculpted and impeccably maintained. Subsequent reading would reveal that millions had been poured into the restoration of the building, and the creation of a museum within it based on the ‘Great Stink’- and it showed.
This museum, located at the forefront of the building and also featuring a small cafe staffed by ladies in Victorian-costume, was of particular interest to me. The Great Stink is the name given to the public health crisis of 1858, when pollution in the Thames – raw human waste and industrial effluent – reached a putrid peak in the summer heat.
Along with the construction of interconnecting sewers across London, and a newly implemented Northern and Southern drainage system, Crossness Pumping Station was created, with several others of its kind between 1859 – 1875, to help conquer this crisis.
Though these measures revolutionised London’s sewage system and helped curb the spread of infectious diseases like Cholera (despite yet another outbreak in 1866), in 1878 these revisions did little to ease the suffering of passengers of the Princess Alice, who were thrown overboard in the vicinity of the pumping stations’ sewage outfall.
“At 11 revolutions per minute, 6 tons (approximately 1,500 imp gal or 6,800 l) of sewage per stroke per engine were pumped up into a 27-million-imperial-gallon (120,000 m3) reservoir, and was released into the Thames during the ebbing tide.”
Workhouse Wood is so-called because it comprises of land that was once occupied by Woolwich Union Workhouse. This is relevant to my project because the Infirmary at the Workhouse, added in 1872, received and treated several survivors of the Princess Alice Disaster, who suffered from various injuries as a result of their struggle in the icy water, and from shock and ingestion of the noxious Thames.
“A few survivors remained in the Plumstead Infirmary where Dr. Rice, Mr Makie and the matron, Miss Wilkinson, had been up all night after the accident, preparing beds to receive as many as a hundred. ‘Unfortunately’, reported The Morning Post, ‘only very few of them found occupants’. Sixteen had arrived however. Among them were: Benjamin Smith, who had a bandaged face due to an injury to his nose, received when he surfaced through the wreckage; the very poorly Mrs Emma Standish and a Mrs Child, whom The Daily News had reported dead along with her 2 year old son and who were now miraculously alive.” Joan Lock (2013) The Princess Alice Disaster, Robert Hale Ltd.
Below is a short piece of creative non-fiction about Workhouse Wood, which I first began in class when prompted to write a description of a place, but then continued at home.
Workhouse Wood is the name of a 0.6 hectare of woodland on Plumstead Common, painstakingly hacked and shaped into a nature reserve by local volunteers, who are also its only defence against dog shit and fly-tippers and school kids with a penchant for starting fires on the common.
It is cut through with a simple path, bordered by loose bricks and a fence fashioned rather ingeniously out of dry twigs, which is surprisingly sturdy. The surrounding foliage is a controlled sort of wild, and in the centre is a clearing where logs have been arranged like stools. Overturning these will send many wriggly, writhing things scuttling in the sudden unwelcome light.
Bird feeders and log piles are also dotted around in attempt to attract wildlife, and a small dint in the earth ringed by wood and leaves appears to be an attempt to cajole the formation of a pond.
I like the nature reserve very much, and admire the altruism and dedication that has gone into it’s creation, which must have been laborious and lengthy. I acknowledge wholeheartedly that it is a project that benefits both local wildlife and the community, however, I can’t help but miss to some tiny extent the way it was before.
That is; completely forgotten, and utterly wild. This small patch of forest was once surrounded by a corrugated iron fence, rusty and splattered with lurid graffiti. And so, trapped within this ugly barrier, it simply grew and grew, until it was a concentrated explosion of green, bursting at its metal seams and almost impenetrable. It was frequented by drug addicts or drunks, people looking for a secluded spot to dump their old shit, and teenagers in need of a quiet place to pass around a £2.80 bottle of Lambrini or paw at one another. I was once one of the latter; it was the setting for many of my early ‘romances’.
Located at a dip in the common, getting into this angry tangle of vegetation meant sliding down a steep bank in a cloud of dust, tearing up grass with your shoes, to scuttle through one of the many holes in the fence. Once inside, the looming trees and metallic walls shielded much of the daylight, and for those who knew about the small clearing at its centre, getting smaller and smaller all the time as the green crept in, forcing your way through was possible but perilous.
It meant skipping over felled trees and ducking under branches, navigating stinging nettles and thorny plants that grasped clothes and skin and wouldn’t let go. There were old mattresses and sofas, edged with black mould and fingered by foliage, and startled toads hopping from your path were as common as the occasional syringe crunching under your boot. Once, there was a sagging, abandoned tent, slick and black from rain water, and another time, a shelter created entirely of sticks that stunned us with its artistry and skill. Someone would burn it down a few weeks later.
‘One of the latest of the bodies recovered was that of Mr. Frederick Whomes, the talented organist of the Dockyard Church, who, being a well-known Woolwich man, was followed to the grave by thousands of the townspeople.’
W.T. Vincent (1890) Records of the Woolwich District, Vols 1 – 3.
“Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.’
“To the Glory of God and in loving memory of Frederick Whomes, who with five hundred and ninety others perished near this place in that awful calamity the sinking of the “Princess Alice”, 3rd of September 1878.”
Inscription beneath the memorial window at Mary Magdalene Church, Woolwich.
Boarding a Thames Clipper from Greenwich to Woolwich was a spur-of-the-moment attempt to envision the journey made by passengers on the SS Princess Alice, much like my recent brief excursion on the Woolwich Ferry.
It was another gloomy, windy day, and hanging over the edge of the lurching boat I was misted with Thames water.
Accompanying me on board were a large party of scantily-clad women, dressed as 1920’s flappers in tasselled mini dresses and heels. Cans of Carlsberg and cider clutched in their hands diluted the prohibition-era feel a bit, and I wished their theme had been, by some bizarre coincidence, the Victorians, though I suppose petticoats and corsets would be out of place in a nightclub – or wherever they were going.
When North Woolwich Pier came into view, I assumed we were nearing the point in the river where the collision occurred, and tried to imagine suddenly being plunged into the coffee coloured water along with the flapper-women, their wigs bobbing on the frothy surface. I imagined their screaming and thrashing, and my own lungs ballooning with dirty water.
As I disembarked at Woolwich, I used my phone to Google ‘what does it feel like to drown?’
The first result was an excerpt from Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm; A True story of Men Against the Sea:
“The instinct not to breathe underwater is so strong that it overcomes the agony of running out of air. No matter how desperate the drowning person is, he doesn’t inhale until he’s on the verge of losing consciousness. At that point there’s so much carbon dioxide in the blood, and so little oxygen, that chemical sensors in the brain trigger an involuntary breath whether he’s underwater or not. That is called the ‘break point.’ Laboratory experiments have shown the break point to come after 87 seconds. It’s sort of a neurological optimism, as if the body were saying, Holding our breath is killing us, and breathing in might not kill us, so we might as well breathe in.
When the first involuntary breath occurs most people are still conscious, which is unfortunate, because the only thing more unpleasant than running out of air is breathing in water. At this point the person goes from voluntary to involuntary apnea, and the drowning begins in earnest. A spasmodic breath drags water into the mouth and windpipe, and then one of two things happens. In about ten percent of people, water—anything—touching the vocal cords triggers an immediate contraction in the muscles around the larynx. In effect, the central nervous system judges something in the voice box to be more of a threat than low oxygen levels in the blood, and acts accordingly. This is called laryngospasm. It’s so powerful that it overcomes the breathing reflex and eventually suffocates the person. A person with laryngospasm drowns without any water in his lungs.
In the other ninety percent of people, water floods the lungs and ends any waning transfer of oxygen to the blood. The clock is running down now; half-conscious and enfeebled by oxygen depletion, the person is in no position to fight his way back up to the surface. The very process of drowning makes it harder and harder not to drown, an exponential disaster curve similar to that of a sinking boat.”
On September 3rd, 1878, Emily Wrench Towse, wife of William Wrench Towse, Superintendent of the London Steamboat Company (owners of the SS Princess Alice) and a resident of Woolwich, boarded the pleasure steamer with her eight children, Gertrude, Arthur, Winifred, Frederick, Bernard, Florence, Edgar and Edward, her mother Eliza Hooper and at least two others; either a cousin, the children’s’ nurse, family friend, and/or Emily’s sister (there are conflicting reports). Of this large party only Gertrude, Arthur, Florence and Edward would survive the trip. In a previous entry I briefly mentioned that I had been researching the Towse family, and since then, using electoral registers, newspaper archives, burial registers and censuses I have gathered some basic information about their activities after the disaster, a summary of which can be found below.
Emily Towse was born in 1846, an only child to parents Eliza and Bartlett Hooper. Bartlett was a chemist, who advertised various tonics and medicines in London newspapers, asking that payment be sent to 43, King William Street, London Bridge, presumably the family’s address. He died aged 62, before the disaster occurred.
Emily and William’s marriage is featured in the Morning Post, January 19th, 1865. They married the day before it’s publication, on the 18th, at St Magnus-the-Martyr church, London, (still standing today) and had their first child, Gertrude, the same year. The publication also mentions that William Towse was a Lieutenant in the the LRVB – which I believe is the London Rifle Volunteer Brigade, a volunteer unit of the British army, and that he lived in South Norwood prior to their marriage.
Emily was 32 at the time of her death.
I originally thought that William Towse was on-board the Princess Alice that day, and there are several sources that suggest this, including Joan Lock’s 2013 The Princess Alice Disaster. However according to William himself, quoted in the Evening Standard just three days after the accident, this was not the case;
If this publication is to be believed, Frederick’s body was lost for several days after the collision. TheGlobe Newspaper states that it was finally identified on September 9th, by a relative named Charles Towse.
In the publication above, William Towse states that a ‘cousin and a nurse’ were among the party involved in the accident. However in Joan Lock’s book, the Princess Alice disaster, she states that a ‘nurse, cousin and friend’ accompanied the family.
I am inclined to believe that the Times From London, September 7th, is the most accurate in naming each member of the party; ‘Some confusion having arisen as to the exact nature and extent of the bereavement sustained by Mr. Towse, Superintendent of the London Steamboat Company, we are asked to state that there are dead Mrs. Emily Towse, 32 years, Winifred W. Towse, 3, Bernard Wrench Towse, 14 months, Eliza Hooper, mother of Mrs. Towse, and Sirs. Bing, a friend; and missing Frederick W. B. Towse, 12 ; Edgar S. Towse, 10 ; Mary Barker, nurse ; and Ellen Wearing, cousin of Mrs – Towse.’
Passenger lists mostly name a Helen Wearing, rather than Ellen Wearing, among the deceased, as do some publications from the time. This is a good example of just how many discrepancies there are among records.
Helen/Ellen Wearing’s body was never recovered.
In the The Great Thames Disaster, author Gavin Thurston writes that two of the Towse boys were on the bridge with the Captain of the Princess Alice, William Grinstead, shortly before the collision.
A statement in the Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle, 09 September 1878, either made by the Towse or Wearing family, states that Emily was picked up by the Steamer Duke of Teck, a London Steamboat Co. ship involved in the rescue effort, still alive and with Bernard clutched to her chest, but died shortly after, and that Eliza Hoopers’ body had washed up in Erith.
One of the Towse daughters was saved by Charles Handley, captain of the “Chance” barge belonging to Messrs Fuller. On September 14th, in the Illustrated Police News, he writes; ‘then a young lady, whom I at once recognised as Miss Towse, the daughter of the superintendent of the Steamboat Company, came close by, and she seemed to know me. I seized her, and drew her in too. Our boat was now pretty full, and we found we could not take in any more ; and as we turned we saw the bodies of two women, but of course we did not know they were quite dead.’
According to an account in The Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, Gertrude survived by imitating female swimmers that she’d seen at the beach. This was used as an example of the importance of being able to swim; ‘Gertrude Towse survived by imitating ‘One striking instance of the usefulness of even a superficial knowledge of swimming is instanced in the case of Miss Gertrude Towse, the little daughter of Mr W.W. Towse, the superintendent of the London Steam Boat Co. This child says she had seen lady bathers at the seaside spread their hands out to swim, and she had presence of mind sufficient in that terrible moment to do the same. She thus kept herself above water until a floating piece of wood came by, and to this she clung amidst that seething mass of struggling forms, until saved.’
William Towse states in the Evening Standard that his family resided in Roff’s Wharf; this was also the location for the offices of the London Steamboat Company and Roff’s Pier, from which steamers regularly departed. No place of this name exists in Woolwich today, though research suggests that it may have been near Woolwich Highstreet, where the Waterfront Leisure Centre sits today.
Marriage records indicate that William re-married one year after the accident, to Grace Dorling, aged 39. The pair had two children; Ivy Grace in 1880 and Gwynne in 1885.
According to an edition of the Essex Standard, at the time of Grace’s birth they lived in Blackheath, which is near Greenwich.
The London Steamboat Company struggled financially in the wake of the disaster and folded in 1888.
William worked as a plasterer in 1885, according to a London register of ‘Freeman Being Liverymen’ from that year.
According to Probate Calendars of England and Wales 1856 – 1959, William died in 1885, on the 7th of November, after ‘eight months’ severe illness’ (The Ipswich Journal, Sept, 1885). The record states that he was living in ‘Rock Villa in Boro’ Green’ (Borough Green? Borough of Greenwich?. It also mentions his brother, John Wrench Towse.
Electoral Registers indicate that John Wrench Towse lived in Lewisham (a neighbouring borough to Greenwich) in 1877. He was clerk for the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, where his father, William Beckwith Towse, was employed before him. Googling him reveals that he authored a book about the company called ‘Worshipful Company Of Fishmongers Of London: A Short Account Of Portraits, Pictures, Plates Etc.’, which I have ordered from Amazon. He died in 1929 in Bromley, and his son William took over his position at the company.
According to Electoral Registers for 1832-1932, William and Emily’s surviving son Arthur Wrench Towse lived in Catford (another nearby borough) from 1887 – 1889.
Electoral Registers for 1832 – 1932 state that by 1923, he was married to a woman called Marie Tipping and living in Cambridgeshire.
Probate Calendars of England and Wales 1856 – 1959 suggest that he died on 17 May 1926, in Wadhurst, Sussex, survived by Marie.
An online burial register for the Royal Borough of Greenwich identifies his place of burial as Greenwich Cemetery – unusual if he was living outside the borough. Perhaps there were family plots?
An Ada Marie Towse is also listed as buried in Greenwich Cemetery, with a death date of 1931 – I’m assuming this is his wife Marie.
In November, 1889, the London Gazette reported that Arthur Towse dissolved a business partnership with someone called Thomas Efford. Their business is described as ‘Manufacturers of and Wholesale Dealers in Photographic and Lantern Apparatus and Materials’.
Emily Towse’s surviving daughter, Gertrude Anne Elizabeth Towse, married Edward Alfred Whittle in 1889 in Lewisham, very close to Greenwich. They had four children; Kathleen, Gertrude, Ella and Arthur, and lived in Bromley.
EveryManRemembered.org lists Gertrude’s son Arthur Whittle as a WW1 casualty – he died in the Somme in 1916, aged 22, a member of Durham Light Infantry.
Gertrude died in 1948 in Bromley.
A 1911 England & Wales Census lists an Edward Duncan Towse, who was born in Woolwich, as living in Swanley and married to woman named Laura Frances Tilder as of 1899. The SevenOaks Chronicle described their wedding as ‘very pretty, and one which attracted a large number of people’.
The couple had three children, Gwendoline, Winifred (after his deceased sister?) and Phyllis, and Edward worked at the London Stock Exchange.
Coincidentally Arthur and Edward were christened at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Woolwich, which erected a memorial window after the disaster.
I previously thought that Florence did not survive the collision, as there are some sources that indicate this . However, I have found evidence suggesting this is not the case. An 1881 census lists her as living with William Towse, her father, his new wife Grace and their children, plus her surviving brothers.
A census for 1911 suggests that at the age of 37, Florence lived with her half-sister Ivy and her husband Ranald Mist in Bromley.
To summarise the Towse Children’s birth and death dates, where known; Gertrude Annie Elizabeth Towse born 1865, died 1948, Frederick William Bartlett Towse, born 1867 died 1878, Edgar Stuart Towse born 1868, died 1878, Edward Duncan Towse born 1870, Arthur Wrench Towse born 1872, died 1926, Florence Emily Towse, born 1873, Winifred Wearing Towse, born 1875, died 1878, Benard Wrench Towse, born 1877, died 1878.
When I was 16 and on holiday in Egypt with my family, we befriended a local cab driver who called himself Mr. Fish – presumably because he felt the name would be memorable to tourists.
Mr. Fish had visited London once in his youth, and now middle aged and balding, he still raved about it. He spent a week passionately describing his affection for the London Eye, the Tower of London, and weirdly, the people of Sutton, while we murmured encouragingly in the back of his spotless, air conditioned taxi.
It always struck me how amazed he seemed to be by the tube and the Thames, as the pyramids loomed in his wind screen, and the Sahara stretched endlessly alongside his car on one side, and the glassy belt of the Nile on the other. Who gives a fuck about Madame Tussauds, I remember thinking, watching a Snape pick through the lush papyrus grass that bordered the river.
And though this was probably in part, due to my own preference for natural landmarks as opposed to urban or man-made ones, it’s also because, the longer you are exposed to something, the less you can see it.
This is relevant because on Saturday, I visited the Greenwich Maritime Museum. I haven’t been there since I was a kid and I’ve passed it a million times since without even acknowledging its presence. If Greenwich is my home, then the museum has become part of the furniture.
This is applicable for the whole of Greenwich. The Cutty Sark is where I ask cabs to pick me up when I’m pissed in Greenwich, because I can’t remember the name of any of the roads; the O2 arena is the cinema I go to when the slightly closer Odeon doesn’t have the right film showing; and Greenwich Maritime Museum is just the name of the stop where I get off, whenever I get a bus to Greenwich.
And yet all these things are a huge draw for tourists, landmarks worth travelling for and spending hundreds of pounds to see. When I was about 14 my friend Marta and I actually witnessed a tour group applauding the Thames. We were baffled, and now that I think about it, that still is pretty weird.
Described on Wikipedia as the ‘leading maritime museum of the United Kingdom and maybe the largest museum of its kind in the world’, the museum is very relevant to my project, being an exploration of the nautical history of London, including the Thames and steam ships. It is by sheer stroke of luck that it is so local. And so I was surprised to have been truly absorbed during my visit and at times I admit, a tiny bit moved.
It struck me as foolish that, as an adult, I had never considered that I might enjoy the museum. The whole place throbs with a reverence for, and celebration of, the sea, and of adventure and exploration by extension. These are all things that have preoccupied me in recent years, as I have scraped together money for experiences with marine life all over Europe. I’ve boarded RIB’s and speedboats and cruises and have fallen in love with boats, and since I was a child swimming in the Med in my Grandad’s home country of Malta I have been obsessed with the ocean.
And so there was plenty on offer that appealed to me personally, and I started to forget what I was there for in the first place, mulling over quotes from ex-slaves and abolitionists in the Atlantic gallery and finding Malta on the huge map that dominates the entire upper floor of the museum.
When I finally remembered why I was there, I summarised that there was not a great deal on display that related specifically to the Princess Alice. This conclusion was supported by one of the museum attendants, who had no idea what I was talking about when I asked if there were any references to it in the exhibitions. Embarrassed, I shuffled away and pretended to be absorbed in looking at a pipe that belonged to Nelson.
There were, at least, some exhibitions centred around the Thames that were applicable to my project.
For example, I got a clearer idea how congested the river was at the time of the accident, and just how reliant London once was on the Thames for industry and trade. Such heavy traffic would have exacerbated pollution and made accidents all the more likely. This drawing is particularly revealing;
Once I had gleaned what I could from all the displays, I moved onto the reading room. The Maritime museum website suggested that their archive contained several relics from the Princess Alice, such as the steering wheel and an unused ticket, and so I was hopeful and excited to photograph these.
However upon arrival I was told in an apologetic tone by a bespectacled, kind-faced receptionist that I would need to request these items in advance, by email, in order to view them.
But, he offered placatingly, probably in response to my crestfallen face, that they did have a database of London newspapers from that era that I could browse. He also provided me with copies of Gavin Thurston’s The Great Thames Disaster and Joan Locks’ the Princess Alice Disaster, both of which I have already read, but still politely pretended to thumb through, and a one-day reader’s ticket, which, because my ID is out of date, was in my old name (annoying).
Anyway; scouring through these old newspapers was extremely interesting, and I filled page after page with frantic notes. Most useful were accounts from survivors, though in the aforementioned Princess Alice Disaster Joan Lock points out numerous discrepancies in the newspapers’ retelling of individuals’ stories – much like modern journalism, then – so these will need to be taken with a pinch of salt and, where possible, checked against other sources.
I won’t go into further detail right now, since I have already waffled for 800+ words, and because much of this research should feature in my final project. However, I can’t fail to mention that on my way out of the museum, I had a quick glance around the gift shop, and found this in the book section;
There has been a free ferry service operating from Woolwich since 1889, connecting the North and South sides of the town.
Since the Princess Alice sunk on the stretch of Thames between these two sides, I decided to take the ten-minute journey across and back again one late afternoon, and was one of the few passengers travelling by foot as, thanks to new foot tunnel beneath the river the ferry is largely used by cars.
It was absolutely freezing as we set off and, leaning over the side of the boat, I held onto my camera with white knuckles, terrified I would drop it as the wind battered me, my hair whipping wildly around my face. About four rows of cars and vans stretched down the centre of the huge boat and I had to edge between them to reach the water. “You look like a mermaid”, an Asian man said to me from the half wound-down window of his car, and I smiled stiffly and immediately made my way over to the opposite side of the ferry, to stare into the brown, frothing waves. A cloud of sea gulls tailed us, filling the dark, overcast sky. It seemed a lot later than it was.
The journey was brief and not very enlightening. At the very least I got a new appreciation for how icy the water must have been when passengers from the SS Princess Alice plunged into it; though it had been a fairly warm September day when the steamer set out, the collision occurred in the evening, though there’s some conflicting reports about whether the sun had set entirely by the time the boat sunk.
Once in North Woolwich, with no feeling left in my hands or face, I decided I might as well attempt the fifteen-minute walk to Gallions Reach Shopping Centre, since it’s named after the curve in the river where the accident occurred. It was a notoriously dangerous turning, claiming so many ships that it was once known as ‘Haunted Reach’.
I didn’t expect that the shopping centre would be any more inspiring than the ferry trip, but was curious about how different North Woolwich was to my Woolwich, and also eager to reach the blissful warmth of the Costa Coffee that Google Maps told me was there.
North Woolwich is different. It’s bigger and everything is very spaced out, with lots of long roads and parks. It’s therefore less congested with people, and the endless chicken shops, betting shops and African hair shops that dominate Woolwich are very much absent.
I also saw a wild rabbit, which you definitely would not find in South Woolwich, where the wildlife consists of feral cats, pigeons, rats, and the occasional squirrel. Not that I am complaining; I actually like all of these animals.
Upon my return from this reverse Woolwich during which I almost certainly developed pneumonia, I made a brief visit to Greenwich Heritage Centre, which consists of a small local archive and a museum based around the Royal Arsenal. As it was late and the centre was closing in about an hour, I didn’t have enough time to really take advantage of the archive, so will be returning later for a proper visit.
I did however, notice a reference to the Princess Alice Disaster on one of the Millennium embroideries which are displayed at the centre; these depict the history of Greenwich until 2000 AD, and were painstakingly crafted by a group of locals to commemorate the opening of the Millennium Dome. It captures well, I think, the amazing and horrific image of 700 people thrashing and struggling in the water. Abraham Dennis, captain of one of the many nearby boats involved in rescue efforts, described it as such;
“I can compare the people to nothing else than a flock of sheep in the water. The river seemed full of drowning people.’
With my research pulling me in so many different directions, many of the locations that I had intended to visit throughout the course of this project have been pushed to the back of my mind somewhat.
Feeling a bit overwhelmed with information and generally chaotic and unfocused, I switched on my laptop with the intention of creating a plan to visit each location on my list.
And then, thanks to coincidence, or targeted online advertising which generates suggestions based on your recent searches, both of which are equally creepy, this popped up on my Facebook newsfeed;
Crossness Pumping Station is at the top of the list of locations I had hoped to visit. A beautiful building, it was called the ‘palace’ of sewage in its day and is just twenty minutes from me, in nearby Belevedere. And yet, as has become a recurring theme throughout this project, I have never visited, have never even heard of it.
The station is relevant because it really amped up the overall horror of the Princess Alice Disaster.
In 1878, along with Beckton Gas works, the pumping station’s sewage outlet was the Thames, in the vicinity of Gallions Reach – the river’s treacherous turning where the pleasure steamer sank.
This was most unfortunate for the already extremely unfortunate victims of the Princess Alice, who plunged into icy water that was heavily polluted with raw sewage. Many survivors would later report that the water smelled and tasted foul, and no doubt many swallowed and inhaled great quantities of it in their dying moments.
“I was saved after being in the water for half an hour. I suffered very much from the state of the water and my chest is now very bad. The water was very dreadful and nasty; it was in a very foul state indeed.’
Quote from Emma Eatwell, survivor. Gavin Thurston (1965). The Great Thames Disaster. London: Ruskin House.
The state of the water also abetted decomposition and made the bodies that washed up or were fished out of the river all the more difficult to identify, a process that took days due to the sheer number of corpses, and was worsened still due to the lack of any means of keeping them cool. Many were simply laid out in Woolwich Town Hall.
(Above: Woolwich Old Town Hall in Calderwood St, 1878, in the aftermath of the disaster. Photo courtesy of the National Maritime Museum. Compared to Woolwich Old Town Hall in 2017.)
Survivors of the wreck also went on to develop chronic lung problems and pneumonia, with several dying days or weeks afterwards, so it is possible that the Pumping Station increased the overall death count of the catastrophe – though likely only fractionally.
Still, the prospect of literally drowning in sewage remains one of the most horrifying aspects of this story, and it also sparked a debate about the efficacy of disposing of sewage via the Thames and its potential impact on public health. Though the disaster seems largely absent from modern memory, this is one many long-term implications it had on the fabric of society, so it really can’t be ignored in my project.
The internet has been an invaluable tool throughout this project, and I’ve been utilising it mainly to search for relatives of those who involved in the Princess Alice catastrophe.
My goal is to uncover some original, previously unexplored and therefore unpublished information, and perhaps find a more specific focus for my project, as opposed to writing about the disaster in general terms. This will not only give me – and therefore the reader – a more personal connection to my subject, it will also prevent me from simply rehashing the known facts of the story.
Even a beautiful piece of writing depicting the events of September 3rd, 1878 would be a re-tread of other published works, though these are mostly segments in guides to the Thames or online articles – unusually there are only a small number of books based primarily on the disaster, which is one of the things that attracted me to it as a subject. So far I have found just two, both of which I have been studying; The Princess Alice Disaster by Joan Lock, 2013, andThe Great Thames Disaster by Gavin Thurston, 1965.
In regards to online research, Facebook has been the basis of my work so far. I am an admin for a group called Plumstead People on Facebook, set up to enable residents of Plumstead and surrounding areas to connect with one another and share local information. Since the Princess Alice disaster occurred in the neighbouring town of Woolwich, a proportion of its victims were from Plumstead and the wider borough of Greenwich. For that reason Plumstead People seemed like an ideal place to identify possible relatives – just scrolling through the members list I found a great many surnames that matched those on the list of passengers for the ill-fated pleasure steamer and I was initially very hopeful.
However though the response to my post was very positive, no one contacted me professing knowledge of a familial link to the disaster. Failing this I had hoped that by publishing the passenger list I might inspire those who spotted their surname on it to research their family tree, but sadly this was not so.
I did still receive some helpful correspondence about my project, even if it wasn’t exactly what I had hoped for. The first was an offer from another Plumstead People Administrator, Deborah, who is also a local historian. It had occurred to me when I published my request that she might volunteer some useful information.
Deborah very kindly offered use of her FindMyPast.co.uk account, providing me access to records that I would otherwise have to register and pay to see. Using this website, I did dabble with narrowing my focus to a single family – the Towses. These caught my attention because they were among several families that were absolutely decimated by the disaster. Ten of them boarded the SS Princess Alice – husband and wife Emily and William, aged 32 and 38, and their children Gertrude, aged 13, Frederick, aged 11, Edgar, aged 10, Edward, aged 8, Arthur, aged 6, Florence, aged 5, Winifred, aged 3, and Bernard aged 1, respectively. Of these, Emily, Frederick, Edgar, Winifred and Bernard did not make it back to dry land – exactly half the family were killed. It’s particularly upsetting but I suppose unsurprising that the two youngest children drowned.
Through FindMyPast.com, I discovered that one of Emily and William Towses’ surviving sons was buried in Greenwich Cemetery. I am now adding this to the list of places that I need to visit. I have begun looking up UK residents with the Towse surname on Facebook, though at the moment I am debating whether or not to begin messaging these people – it may be a long shot.
I think it’s important to focus on young and female passengers in particular when discussing this historical event, as of the things that has been said of the disaster repeatedly is that its victims were disproportionately women and children. Though most significantly this was due to the larger number of women on-board, it’s also because within the population of Victorian Britain only a small proportion of men were competent swimmers. It was considered unseemly to teach women to swim and unnecessary to teach children; and in fact the mass drowning inspired construction of a spate of public swimming baths across London and increased focus on the importance of swimming, even for women.
“Obviously, the finest memorials to the Princess Alice Disaster and those with the most impact were the swimming pools that sprung up around London. Places like Islington, which had lost so many of its residents in the disaster and whose vestry had been heavily criticised for dragging their heels, now got moving. Indeed, as early as 16 September 1978, a letter from a Mr E Plummer appeared in the Islington Gazette declaring that he had secured a most eligible site in the Blackstock Road for the erection of two very large swimming baths for the inhabitants of Finsbury Park, Highbury and Islington.” Joan Lock (2013). The Princess Alice Disaster. London: Robert Hale.
It has also been suggested that whilst mothers opted to stay with their children, men were more likely to leave them behind; I don’t know whether this is a fair evaluation, but it’s certainly an interesting one.
Another possible lead that resulted from the Facebook post was from a local man who claimed that his friend, a black cab driver named Bill, is writing a book about the disaster;
It would certainly be a wasted opportunity not to contact Bill, though I loathe talking on the phone and it won’t be an enjoyable experience for me. This is an aspect of research that I am unsuited for – one that would deter me somewhat from pursuing research-based writing outside of my studies.
If my phone call to Bill (or text, if I am feeling particularly skittish), results in a meeting, I have already decided to have someone accompany me. 15+ years of living in Greenwich have provided a harsh education on the importance of being cautious, and this is never more true than when in Woolwich. It’s hard to sum up the town’s reputation among locals in a few brief words; it’s a poor, diverse, characterful but fractured area, most famous for the Royal Arsenal, it’s self-destruction during the riots and the grisly, public murder of Lee Rigby in 2013. It’s also part of my home, my upbringing and my childhood.
My personal relationship with Woolwich is something that I want to explore through this project, and it is made more relevant by suggestions that Woolwich has always carried a level of notoriety, including at the time of the disaster. W.T. Vincent, a Woolwich-based reporter who was among the first on the scene when the Princess Alice sunk writes;
“Were we not sufficiently notorious enough for deeds of evil – murders, explosions, fires, floods, fogs, wrecks and riots, not to speak of a reputation founded and established on the fiendish trade of war?” Mr W. T. Vincent (1890). Records of the Woolwich District Vol. I. London: J.P. Jackson Woolwich.
In addition to Plumstead People, I have also unearthed another useful Facebook group; called simply ‘The SS Princess Alice’, the group description is as follows; ‘A group for those interested in the fate of the SS Princess Alice, steamship, and the hundreds who died in ‘The Great Thames Disaster’ of 3rd September 1878.’
Several members of this group have posted professing to be relatives of Princess Alice survivors and victims. This is of course precisely what I have been looking for, unfortunately however the group has not been updated since 2016 and my request to join has been pending for weeks.
I’m hoping to overcome this problem by private messaging the members individually, though I am well aware that not everyone will appreciate or respond to an unsolicited message from a stranger.