The ‘first’ Princess Alice disaster

It’s often called the “forgotten” tragedy of the 19th century – the loss of nearly 700 lives aboard the Princess Alice steamer on the River Thames, following its collision with a coal ship. But this article describes another truly forgotten collision involving the SS Princess Alice seven years earlier. On this occasion it was our great-grandmother and her family on board a skiff returning on a day out to Kew that were the unsuspecting victims.

Approaching the new London Bridge, the Jewson family and their friends on the pleasure boat felt a mixture of exhilaration and exhaustion. It was May of 1872, the day had been overcast, accompanied by a mild wind. Benjamin “Robey” Jewson (aged 43), had planned the day meticulously, taking account of the weather conditions, the Thames tidal flow and the increasing number of pleasure boats out on a Sunday. He was a lighterman and took pride in his knowledge of the Thames and all its peculiarities.

In a way, the day was a celebration of his son Thomas Jewson’s introduction to the profession of lighterman: only a few months previously (13th February 1872) Benjamin Robey Jewson had presented him at Watermans’ Hall to be ‘bound’ as an apprentice. And now, at the age of 15, Thomas didn’t need any encouragement to take part in this family boat trip. It was a chance to show-off his oarsmanship. To make up for the deficit in sculling power, Benjamin had welcomed two other young lads –  Thomas Morgan (aged 14) and Thomas Llewellyn (aged 18).

Lead sculler was Benjamin Jewson (aged 20) who was hoping to become a ‘free’ unbound lighterman in just two months’ time (he was the writer of the ‘letter to the editor’ twenty years’ later). It was exactly a year since he had married Eleanor so the trip was something of an anniversary celebration.

Taking the family upriver to Royal Kew and back again was a welcome challenge for the scullers. They had to complete the return journey before the change of the tide and before dusk. It involved a 13 mile journey in both directions. As they approached the final few hundred yards of their adventure all that was left was to pass under London Bridge. They only had a hop skip and a jump to arrive safely at the family home in Botolph Lane in St Botolph, in the City of London.

Photo of the “new” London Bridge, published in the Swedish book “Jorden Rundt” in 1898. 

It was a family occasion and the rest of the Jewson family had very different ideas about the day. Mary Jewson the mother (aged 43) had gone to great lengths to provide the necessary victuals to sustain the group of twelve people while reluctantly having to adhere to the strictures of Benjamin regarding additional weight in the boat. Eleanor, the new daughter in-law was on hand to help. Amongst the children were Catherine (aged 20) who had welcomed the opportunity to parade her new parasol and bonnet. Alongside her, resting on the padded seating on the skiff were her siblings Caroline (aged 10) and Edwin (aged 8). The two of them had become more fractious on the return journey, bickering for space and feeling a little hungry. The youngest of the party, Hannah (aged 6) was more than ready for bed and lay curled up against her mother’s chest.

Thomas Morgan and Thomas Llewellyn sought to catch the eye of Catherine by demonstrating their stamina as oarsmen. Catherine showed indifference to their sinewy demonstrations by looking instead at the London panoramic as it passed by.  Thomas Jewson was keen to keep up the pace with his Welsh rowing partners and was also mindful of his father’s anxieties about returning back before dusk.

As they approached London Bridge, Hannah played with the lace that embroidered her new lemon dress. Benjamin Robey Jewson began to feel some anxiety, directing the lads through the central arch. A steamship was manoeuvring beneath the bridge having decanted its many day-trippers on Swan Pier. His anxieties were well-founded and as they say, the rest is history!

It appeared in all the papers the following day. From the Bolton Evening News to the Fife Herald, from the Taunton Courier to the Suffolk Chronicle: they all presented the same tragic account:

SHOCKING ACCIDENT AND LOSS OF THREE LIVES ON THE THAMES

A shocking accident occurred last night on the Thames, at London Bridge. Mr Jewson, foreman to Messrs. Philips and Greaves, lightermen, had been with his family and friends to Kew Gardens. On their return, when passing under one of the arches of London Bridge, the south-end steamer, Princess Alice swung round, and, capsizing the pleasure boat, precipitated its twelve occupants into the water. Mr Jewson caught his daughter’s dress with his teeth, just as she was sinking, and held on to the keel of the boat, which was upside down. Assistance arrived, and nine were rescued, but three youths – Thomas Llewellyn, aged 18; Thomas Morgan, aged 14; and Thomas Jewson, aged 15 – were drowned. The steamer had just discharged her passengers.

Bolton Evening News, 27th of May 1872.

A few days later, an inquest was heard into the fatal accident at London Bridge. The findings of the incident were as follows: –

June 8 1872 THE FATAL BOAT ACCIDENT AT LONDON BRIDGE

Mr W Carter has held an inquiry at Bermondsey touching the death of a youth named Jewson, who with two other lads was drowned on the occasion of a skiff coming in collision with the Princess Alice, Gravesend steamer, on Sunday the 26th ult at London Bridge. The skiff was returning with a party of twelve, in charge of Mr Jewson, a foreman lighterman and father of the deceased, from Kew, and on passing through the centre arch of London Bridge, about twenty minutes past nine o’clock, the steamer was seen about thirty yards off. She had just left Fresh Wharf, and was proceeding to her mooring. The steamer was hailed to go astern, and the helm of the boat was ported, and she almost immediately came into contact with the bow of the steamer and careened over, the whole of the occupants being thrown into the water. The mate of the steamer said as soon as he saw the boat he ordered the engines to be reversed, but before they could be moved, the boat struck the stern of the steamer. The engines were not moving when the boat was sighted. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental death”. The bodies of the other two lads have been picked up.

The reporting does not convey the horrors that the Jewson family and friends experienced as they struggled in fading light. You are reminded of the words written by the ‘anonymous lighterman’:

“There is something rather awful in the blackness and unfathomable mystery of the vast rolling flood, and many of the men seem to live under the spell of it. As you glide along through the murky night they will tell you of deep holes and dark corners far down beneath the treacherous surface, into which the swirl of the tide sucks the bodies of its victims,”

09 November 1889 – London Daily News – London, London, England.

But there is one final tragedy in this story. Again, it involved the Princess Alice steamer. But instead of being just our family’s tragedy, it was a tragedy of national and historic proportion. On 3 September 1878, just seven years after our family’s fatal collision, Princess Alice collided with another vessel. But this time the steamer was fully laden with passengers. Between 600 and 700 people died (all from the Princess Alice) following a collision with the collier (a ship carrying coal) Bywell Castle. It remains the worst inland waterway tragedy in British history.

The saloon steam boat Princess Alice. © National Maritime Museum, London Source: Wikimedia Commons

The BBC produced an article on 3 September 2018 with the title “Princess Alice disaster: The Thames’ 650 forgotten dead.’ Now it seems only appropriate to add three more young lives to this tally. The collision with the collier led to significant changes including the introduction of purification to sewage that had previously simply been dumped into the river Thames. Policing the Thames had until then been undertaken using rowing boats. These were replaced by steam launches in the mid-1880s. The opening of the Albert Dock in 1880 also helped to separate heavy goods traffic from small boats.

Grandchildren of Hannah Jewson (Norman Finch and Frank Finch) sculling on the Thames at Kew in 1956

Thank goodness our great-great-grandfather Ben Robey Jewson had strong teeth. Otherwise our family descendants, beginning with the little girl Hannah Jewson, might never have been.

Benjamin ‘Robey’ Jewson and family

Thanks to James Finch for undertaking the research used in this article and for uncovering the story.

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