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THE RIVER OF DEATH

A trip on a River Thames clipper craft is usually on the agenda for visitors from abroad and day-trippers to London. Westminster, the Tower of London, Greenwich are just three of the stops for this water-bus service and the journey is truly a voyage through London's history.

Yet the river itself, often calm and apparently safe, can be a killer.   Over the past 2,000 years there have been many instances of tragedy and disaster.  The Princess Alice disaster in September 1878 when a mid-river collision led to the death of over 650 people is one of the worse river tragedies anywhere in the world.   The Princess Alice, packed with families who had been on a day-out down river, sank in a matter of minutes after being sliced in two by the Bywell Castle at Gallions Reach.

As the Princess Alice steamed up-river against the tide, her skipper, Captain William Grimstead, changed course   for some reason and despite desperate avoiding action was hit amidships.  Passengers were trapped below decks and those who leapt into the river were soon overcome by the toxic condition of the water. Only hours before huge quantities of untreated sewage had been discharged into the river.

Grimstead, who appeared to be following normal practice when changing course, was blamed for the accident at the subsequent enquiry.  Another recommendation led to the tightening of river safety procedures to prevent such an incident happening again.  Yet in 1989, the Marchioness sank after a collision with the Bowbelle, a dredger, near Cannon Street Railway bridge and 51 people lost their lives.  The river has to be respected.  It cannot be taken for granted.

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