Steamboat, off Rainham Marshes, Essex. © Bill Pearson.
Bill Pearson writes:
There used to be a pub called The Princess Alice on Commercial Street in Whitechapel. I passed it every morning on my way to work; it intrigued me because it had a weird pub sign depicting a woman in a Victorian outfit – which, on closer examination, you saw was actually a corpse wearing a crinoline dress. I didn’t make any connection between the name of the pub and the significance of the sign until I spent a day walking along the Thames with a friend who is intimately acquainted with the history of London and the Thames Estuary in particular. He told me the story of the Princess Alice, a Victorian paddle steamer at the centre of London’s greatest peacetime disaster, a disaster especially significant for London’s East End.
Seawall, Canvey Island. © Bill Pearson.
The Princess Alice was a passenger vessel used for pleasure cruises and day trips, opportunities for working class Londoners to visit places like Southend on Sea, Sheerness and Gravesend. On Sunday 3rd of September 1878 she was returning from one such trip, packed with east enders who had paid two shillings each for the privilege of visiting Rosherville Gardens in Gravesend. At about 7.40pm she was almost in sight of North Woolwich Pier, where many passengers were to disembark, when the Newcastle-bound collier Bywell Castle – a 900 ton coal barge steaming with the outgoing tide – came into view. Apparently the skipper of the Bywell Castle, Captain Harrison, had spotted the lights of the Princess Alice and had correctly set a course to pass to the starboard of her. However, the skipper of the Princess Alice, Captain William Grinstead, followed an old seaman’s practice of finding the slack water of an out going tide and this put the two vessels on a direct collision course. Harrison attempted to reverse engines, but to no avail; his heavy iron ship rammed the dainty pleasure cruiser and split her in two.
West of Grays, opposite Erith. © Bill Pearson.
To compound matters, raw sewage from the pumping stations at Barking and Crossness had been discharged into the Thames just an hour earlier. The Princess Alice sank in less than four minutes, and the hundreds of passengers on board were engulfed in a river of filth. Over 650 died, although the exact figure is unknown. After the disaster a Board of Trade inquiry found that Captain Grinstead, who had drowned in the tragedy, was responsible, although this verdict was widely disputed. The inquiry also found that the Princess Alice was substantially overloaded and offered inadequate means of escape for her passengers. As a result of the disaster a Port to Port regime “with no exceptions” was instigated for shipping on the River Thames, and this stands to this day.
Wood ship, near Coalhouse Fort, East Tilbury. © Bill Pearson.
A memorial cross paid for by public subscription was raised at Woolwich Cemetery , and there is a stained glass window commemorating the disaster in St Mary Magdalene’s Church in the same borough. An information plaque about the disaster is at Tripcock Point (marked on ordnance Survey map as Tripcock Ness, roughly opposite Creekmouth/Barking Barrier, where the Outfall Sewer walk finishes). And, it would seem, a public house was re-named to commemorate the tragedy. In fact, it seems likely that the name ‘Princess Alice’ may have been chosen due to the supposed Jack the Ripper connection to the disaster. Jack’s third victim Elizabeth Stride had claimed that she was a survivor of the shipwreck, and that her husband and children had been lost in the disaster. The unfortunate Elizabeth was murdered ten years after the Princess Alice tragedy, and was killed just a few yards away from the location of the pub. However, her story was a pathetic fabrication, as her husband had succumbed to TB and the couple had never had children. In any case, the tenuous link to Whitechapel’s most infamous tourist attraction obviously proved irresistible to one publican, and it is not the first time that a Whitechapel hostelry has attempted to cash-in on the area’s grisly heritage. In the 1970s The Ten Bells was re-named The Jack the Ripper which, given the fact that some of Jack’s victims had been patrons of said pub, was in staggeringly bad taste.
West of Canvey Island, © Bill Pearson.
Before I could take a close-up of The Princess Alice’s sign, the pub was unexpectedly refurbished and re-named Culpeper; this is after Nicholas Culpeper, a Doctor, Herbalist and radical Republican who had set up a pharmacy in Spitalfields in the 1630’s. The Culpeper link is undoubtedly more appropriate for the 21st Century East End; where once was violence and grinding poverty, now there are designer outlets, stratospherically expensive houses and family-friendly pubs. Anyway, another link to London’s greatest ever civilian disaster seems to be lost, although the new owners of the Culpeper did tell me that they intend to keep The Princess Alice sign and put it on display. My own memorial to the tragedy is the pictures I have taken of the Thames Estuary, of the shores that would have been familiar to those aboard the Princess Alice, ghosts of the routes the doomed paddle steamer once plied.
© Bill Pearson. For more detail on the Princess Alice tragedy, see the page on the Thames Police Museum site.
From the South Barnet Recorder*:
Dean and Jeanette Jackson were returning from a night out celebrating their son’s Ricky’s birthday party when they saw a mysterious figure darting across the A41 just north of Hendon.
Mr Jackson, forty, an office supplies salesman from Mill Hill, said: “I saw a man on the other side of the carriageway, a tall geezer wearing this big black cape and I reckoned he was going to a fancy dress do or something. I couldn’t see a car, but then he ran across two lanes, vaulted up the bank and vanished from sight – all in just a couple of seconds. He had no face as such, he was wearing a sort of mask that lit up like a toy robot. We were well baffled and voiced our startlement straight away. He was dead quick, and could jump like a Grand National champion.”
Mrs. Jackson, a beautician – thirty-seven – added: “Dean and I have slept with the light on for the past six nights. It is far and away the strangest thing to have happened to us since we moved to Mill Hill from Worcester Park. Every year something special happens on Ricky’s birthday. Last year it was the Pope, this year it’s Spring Heeled Jack.”
* Not real news item. However, Spring Heeled Jack was an urban myth of the Victorian era. A mysterious dark figure reported to be responsible for a string of attacks in the 1800s and known for his ability to leap great heights, was first sighted in Wandsworth in 1837 and given the SHJ sobriquet by the penny dreadfuls of his (or its) day. For further reading, see The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack.
Tim Turnbull’s poems have appeared in these pages before; this is the first time he has contributed as an illustrator. See: Clapham Common Clowns, Black Cab Blues, Frankie Howerd, Robert Graves, The Last Squat in Hackney.
See also: Edward Heath’s Feet
A Sunday in May, on the towpath by the River Lea, just south of Lea Bridge Road:
Ding! … Ding! … Ding! … Ding! Ding! Ding!
The cyclist (mid-20s, jutting beard, sickly smile, deeply hittable face) steered his vintage eBay treasure inches between myself and my young son. Fifteen minutes into what was supposed to be a leisurely Sunday outing on the first really sunny weekend of the year and I was reduced to hissing violent epithets at various types of cyclist. Hipster cyclists, as above; Spandexed cyclists, often in entire family groups; unnervingly swift and purposeful cyclists with business on their minds; kids on mountain bikes; even a brace of fancy-dress cyclists, decked out in Edwardian gear – bowlers, waistcoats, plus-fours, spats – on authentically recalcitrant machines. Whatever their costume, they were all united by their fondness for those little silver bells, their peremptory tinkle an indication of assumed moral right. As a pedestrian on the towpath, on the Lea or a London canal, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that cyclists see you as merely a car-driver deprived of your vehicle. (Suggested collective noun: an entitlement of cyclists.)
Not that long ago, this stretch of the Lea was a backwater; and the landscape still offers those with a taste for brownfield-rural the opportunity to participate in an Ian Sinclair-ish topographical narrative in a lush setting. There are overgrown meadows, deserted municipal sports facilities, mysterious structures to negotiate, structures often covered in an abundance of picturesque graffiti (whilst photographing the uncharacteristically polite cyclists walking their bikes under the East Cross Route, I noticed a young man posing his girlfriend for snaps on the other side of the decorated pillars). Of course, this riverside has been ravaged in recent years by the Alphaville of the Olympic Park, and the new residential developments that line the western bank south of Lea Bridge are testament to the burgeoning popularity of East London-lite: Hipster London, Foxtons London, Fatuous London.
Yet somehow, the houseboats remain aloof from it all; and the beauty of the Lea leads to daydreams of buying one, the idyll of having your very own piece of river within (distant) earshot of the churning city. A friend of mine has his own boat, a proper sea-going job, which he occasionally sails from Lowestoft to Limehouse Basin, where he moors it as his London base. This always struck me as simultaneously butch and civilised, an impression only slightly marred by a desperate call I once received from him en route, somewhere near Sheerness, asking if I’d heard the Shipping Forecast because his radio was broken. Several of the vessels moored on the Lea have all the appurtenances of the riverside ‘luxury apartments’ touted by Foxtons and their ilk, and it is not too exotic to imagine some of them actually sailing somewhere. A London houseboat might be the nearest thing to bucolic living anywhere within the M25; but a cursory inspection of some of the more ramshackle examples give one pause. More than a couple appear to be actually sinking, invoking thoughts of Viv Stanshall’s houseboat foundering on the Thames near Chertsey. A houseboat is not a very safe place to store a life’s work, and much of Viv’s life sank with The Searchlight. Even if your boat is watertight, there are other dangers: Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock during a drunken attempt to access his houseboat after a night out. (Eddie Mirzoeff has just pointed out to me that Penelope Fitzgerald’s Chelsea Reach-moored houseboat sank not once but twice in the early 1960s, inspiring her Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore.)
Still the temptations persist … walking south, we encountered a riverine barbecue-cum-jam session, two barges lassooed together, a party of expert folk musicians playing together in an atmosphere of easy familiarity and home-brewed ale. I’m generally allergic to the claims of folk music but even I was charmed and wondered whether the water offered a better way of life for those in the know … but only a few yards further south, jungle was being played at industrial-noise level from a flat in a new block, obliterating the reels from upstream and putting paid to idyllic wonderings. Any remaining notions of hippie-ish promise were soon trashed as we reached the East Cross Route, where the aggressive post-Olympic new builds proved demoralising enough for us to turn back. Perhaps there is no such thing as a backwater in London any more; a sage with a tin of spray paint helped articulate this thought by stating the obvious on a bridge …
Back at Lea Bridge, the Prince of Wales was doing brisk business as football played on the TV. A massive new development is under construction on the north of the Lea Bridge Road. For real peace, you have to go further upstream, way beyond Springfield Park and up into Tottenham Marshes; if you moored there, maybe you would have a shot at a life of tranquility. If you saw a naked cyclist, it would be someone who did it every day. And that would be fine. Just an unpretentious houseboat, not too big, easy to manage through the locks, kitted out with obsolete technology – VHS tapes, audio cassettes – and overflowing with old paperbacks you could read by paraffin lamp. You know where to find me …
… for The London Column.
See also: Before the Blue Wall.