This beautiful photograph is by my colleague David Winston, of whom I’ve written previously. It’s part of his recent London exhibition, Mood Indigo.
The image shows a shoal of Venetian ferries, known as vaporetti, gliding down the Grand Canal with minimal wake, humble stature and self-effacing lines. The vaporetti know their place – it is to serve Venice: not to dominate her, not to reduce her to a backdrop, not to repurpose her as a place to maximize alcohol sales and not to do so at the cost of residents’ peaceful enjoyment of their homes nor at possible risk to human and marine life.
Everyone’s the same on a vaporetto. A vaporetto doesn’t care if you’re an influencer or a celebrity. And even if you are one of the latter, please note that Venetian courtesy still dictates that you give up your seat to an elderly person or a mother and baby.
The vaporetto is the right vessel in the right place. Just as the Grand Canal is the perfect waterway, protected from the commodification of greedy new skyscrapers and only occasionally subject to tasteless advertising on shrouded scaffolds while her ancient facades are restored.
If only the Thames were so lucky. London’s greatest public realm, our river has suffered successive attempts at commodification, like the Garden Bridge and the River Park. Now we have (arguably) grotesque sky-grabs along the Thames, with buildings like 72 Upper Ground agglomerating ungainly masses from small footprints. Residential communities are drained by successive campaigns against what is happening to the Thames, which has become, as journalist Rowan Moore describes in the linked article, ‘a gold-diggers’ gulch, a miles-long mine of real-estate value.’
Riparian development is controlled by land-based authorities, but the river is ruled by the Port of London Authority (PLA), operating on a 1909 charter and funded by the dues it extracts from its client-vessels and its River Works licences.
When something goes wrong on the river, however, it is not the PLA but the publicly funded emergency services that must deal with it, as well as the RNLI, a charity.
Sadly, things do go wrong on the Thames, especially given the swift 23ft tide and the intertwining of industrial, commuter and traffic on a river that snakes as much as it flows.
And when things do go wrong, they can go tragically wrong.
Most Londoners know about the 1989 Marchioness disaster, in which, at approximately 1.46am, the 262ft Bowbelle dredger ran down an 85.5 ft party boat near Southwark Bridge. The Marchioness sank in minutes. There were 51 casualties, most of them young. In subsequent hearings, safety, crew training and lookouts on both vessels were judged inadequate.
Grieving families and friends still gather in remembrance of the dead on the anniversary. Southwark Cathedral hosts a permanent memorial to those lost. The Marchioness has remained a household name for nearly thirty-five years.
But few people know about the Marine Accident Branch’s 2015 publication on the Marchioness disaster. Additional possible factors named in the report included: disco music so loud that the captain couldn’t hear the radio warnings about the Bowbelle; hydrodynamic interaction, by which two boats are drawn together, losing steerability, especially in shallow, winding waterways.
And even fewer people know about the river’s worst disaster so far, that of the Princess Alice. And that, historians have theorized, is because most of those who died were poor. They were ordinary Londoners, lacking celebrity except, briefly, for the hideous manner of their deaths.
The PSS Princess Alice, a paddle steamer, left Swan Lane Pier – by the northern foot of London Bridge – in glorious sunshine on September 3rd, 1878. A long, low vessel, she bore a crowd of around 800 Londoners on a pleasure excursion to the Rosherville Pleasure Gardens at Northfleet, Gravesend and Sheerness. The Princess Alice’s owners, the London Steam Company, operated a kind of hop-on hop-off system with its other ships so no one knows how many passengers joined the vessel that evening for the ‘moonlight trip’ home.
Entertainment continued all the way back, with the band playing on deck. The sun had set and the moon was rising around 7.30pm when, near Gallions Reach, the Princess Alice (219ft) was rammed in the starboard side by the SS Bywell Castle, a cargo ship (254 ft).
In less than four minutes, the Princess Alice broke into three and sank. Her deck passengers were pitched into water horribly enriched by gallons of raw sewage. Those below decks were entombed inside the doomed vessel.
In the minutes after impact, a few male passengers from the Princess Alice were able to climb up the Bywell’s ropes or use the life-buoys, chicken-coops and chairs thrown down to them. But, like the captain of the Bowbelle in 1989, the Bywell’s master chose not to stay long on the scene to help rescue victims. Instead, he steamed away. In the dark, in the foetid water, around 650 drowned. Few women made it to shore alive. Impeded by their long skirts, women were also far less likely than the male passengers to know how to swim. At the moment the Bywell struck, many women were below decks, tending to their children. The young fared badly too. Among the dead and missing were 95 children of twelve and under as well as 30 babies aged 15 months or less. A diver investigating the wreck a few days later found bodies packed, vertical, near the doors through which they were probably trying to escape.
Of the Princess Alice’s passengers, just 130 survived. More than a dozen of those died soon after, possibly from ingesting the foul water.
As the news seeped out, Londoners made the grim pilgrimage to Woolwich to claim their dead, who were now being washed up at different points along the Thames. The mourners were accompanied by journalists, newspaper artists (whose work you see here) and tragedy tourists, some of whom – in a queasy pre-echo of today’s clamorous social media – felt obliged to inundate the newspapers and the coroner’s post-box with ‘helpful’ letters about the best way to manage the gruesome situation.
Only gradually was a ghost passenger list compiled, never to this day completed. We know now that it included 46 out of 51 members of the Clerkenwell Mission Bible Class and eight pupils from the Queen’s College Institution for Young Ladies. The professions of the dead sketched their social classes: zinc plate worker, coach trimmer, caulker, commercial traveller, servant, nursemaid, tobacconist, greengrocer, ironmonger’s porter, pipe maker, sweet-seller, shoemaker, draper’s assistant, rising to solicitor’s clerk, organist and the mistress of Limehouse Industrial School.
The police found an ingenious way to spare relatives the pain of inspecting hundreds of corpses – in deteriorating condition – when searching for their loved ones. Trinkets and valuables were put in numbered glass-topped cigar-boxes. Shawls and other items were hung up, also with the same numbers. Clothes taken from bodies were boiled and then sewn together so they could not be scattered. Only relatives who recognised the possessions would be taken to view and identify the body with the corresponding number.
Many of the drowned were buried as ‘unknown’. Ten were later exhumed at the expense of their families. But most of the anonymous dead remained unclaimed, listed only by the colour of their hair and sometimes their height. Among them were 18 children, including infants.
Perhaps eighty people were never recovered from the river. Family historian Colin Aylsbury has put online a list of the dead, the saved and the missing here. And this Facebook page serves as a meeting place for people who are descended from Princess Alice victims, crew, survivors and the Lightermen who collected the corpses from the Thames.
Although it’s largely forgotten now, for some months personal accounts, funerals and scandals kept the Princess Alice tragedy in the press and in the courts. The captain of the Princess Alice had died in the accident, and with him the truth about the last minutes of his vessel. Various court cases blamed first the Bywell Castle and later the Princess Alice, for wrong steers and misleading signalling. There were accusations of drunkenness against the Bywell’s crew. Some said that the cargo vessel’s engine had not been cut, thus failing to prevent its propellor from injuring flailing victims. Some Lightermen, who collected the bodies for five shillings apiece, were denounced for rifling their valuables or piling them up so that the dead were further disfigured; there were stories of alcohol-fuelled fights over corpses. The Lighterman also earned by rowing sightseers out to the wreck.
Some of the scandals are recounted in this eight-page pamphlet below, from Wikimedia Commons. It describes its contents as follows: ‘An Authentic Narrative by a Survivor, not hitherto published. Heartrending Details - Facts not made public - Noble efforts to save life - Robbing the Dead - Particulars as to lost, saved, and missing - Plan of the Locality. Sketches by an eye-witness. Beautiful Poem, specially written on the event, now first published. Memorial for all time of this fearful calamity.’
The coroner concluded that the Princess Alice was not properly or efficiently manned, lacked adequate life-saving equipment and was probably overloaded with passengers. There were also claims that the Princess Alice’s design had sealed her fate. Her length was 28 times her draught, rendering her riskily top-heavy. Nevertheless, the vessel had been passed by the Board of Trade in 1878 to carry maximum of 936 passengers between London and Gravesend in smooth conditions.
Where Venice has its vaporetti, and London has its Clippers, today’s Thames also hosts a fleet of around 60 leisure boats, most of which offer beautiful days or evenings on the river at reasonable costs. Certainly, there’s a problem with thundering music, bellowing DJs and shouting passengers. However, the 1200 complaints registered in the last year focussed on just a very small number of vessels. The vast majority cause harm to no one and give pleasure to thousands.
But the Thames horizon may be about to change, with the arrival of a massive new ‘floating events space’.
These days, passenger vessels on the Thames are certified by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA), which is now being asked to approve an extremely long, low vessel – longer than a Boeing 747 – for 1000 - 1500 passengers. Described by its owners as a ‘super-yacht’, it’s called the Oceandiva, a portmanteau name that carries a substantial weight of expectation.
Last summer the Oceandiva consortium applied for a 2.30/3am liquor licence and also bought control of two old Thameside piers – Butler’s Wharf (below) and West India Pier.
Butler’s Wharf, designated in some Oceandiva’s publicity as its ‘main residence’, is surrounded by around 5000 residents; close by are two communities of boat-dwellers including dozens of children. Diagonally across the river is the Tower of London, where 100 people live.
Meanwhile, tiny West India Pier (above) was abandoned and derelict for years, during which time a community of around 700 residents grew up around the site, which is served by a single narrow street. Now West India Pier is slated for transformation into a high-voltage charging, telecoms and servicing station.
In the two riparian communities, the shock is palpable.
Elsewhere, Londoners have been frank, if not brutal, when it comes to their opinions of the ‘super-yacht’s size, design and its designs on the city’s public realm. ‘I've seen better looking coal barges,’ observed one reader of the Daily Mail. Another said, ‘That ship would give me the creeps. Cold, dark, uninviting, and creepy.’ Others expressed fears that London’s emergency services lack adequate capacity to deal with an Oceandiva-sized emergency: ‘It's another Marchioness waiting to happen.’
Meanwhile, no one (except perhaps the Oceandiva consortium) knows exactly when the vessel will arrive on the Thames. Last week, the consortium withdrew their liquor licence application, citing construction/certification delays, but stating that they will re-apply in the near future.
The sudden withdrawal of the liquor licence application cancels out the 1000 objections that were made within the deadline last October.
I conclude with a final picture of the Princess Alice’s last moments, this time from Harper's Weekly October 12, 1878. (Wikimedia Commons). One hundred and eleven years before the Marchioness, this picture encapsulates the danger of a busy, narrow river where, even at night, industrial vessels compete for space with pleasure craft, where the sinuous nature of the river plays hide-and-seek with sightlines and also, incidentally, increases the danger of hydrodynamic interaction. Recent news about river sewage releases does not give comfort when we contemplate the possibility of a large-scale incident on the Thames, which has been, incidentally, the site of all three of the most recent London terror attacks.
Michelle Lovric’s website
River Residents Group website
Petition · The Ocean Diva party boat will ruin the most historic part of the Thames · Change.org
Petition · No OceanDiva · Change.org
Princess Alice Memorial, Woolwich Cemetery: https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2985013
Royal Museums Greenwich: https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/blog/library-archive/drowning-sewage-sinking-princess-alice
Art in the Docks commissioned a moving collaboration between artist Christopher Mike and sculptor Vincenzo Muratore to commemorate those lost on the Princess Alice. You can see images here.