A morbid request for a reward reminds London of the Princess Alice disaster

 

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For those of you following this blog regularly and especially this week I hope you can see that I have tried to follow the ‘doings’ of the Thames Police Court for a whole week. Due the selective reporting of the courts however, this has not proved possible. I had hoped to be able to follow a couple of remanded cases, to see them reappear with some conclusion reached, but sadly this hasn’t happened. It all helps me understand though, just how selective the reportage was and suggest readers were more interested in a variety of ‘titbits’ about the courts than they were in finding out exactly what occurs in each court on a regular basis.

Historical research is always problematic and we can learn from what we can’t find almost as much as we learn from what we do. There is also the unexpected gobbets of information that the newspapers offer, that can open up new avenues for research and understanding, there were two of these today.

On the 66th anniversary of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo the Standard newspaper chose to concentrate on two cases from the Woolwich Police Court. In the first a ‘reputed lunatic’, James Peacock, was sent for trial by jury for allegedly stealing rockets from the Royal Arsenal.

The other case concerned a boy who had summoned the overseers of the poor at Woolwich for non-payment of a reward he was due. The reward was for recovering a dead body from the Thames and this linked the police courts to a tragedy that had occurred three years earlier, in September 1878.

On the evening of the 3 September the Princess Alice, a pleasure steamer loaded with passengers, was passing the shore at Tipcock Point, North Woolwich, when it collided with another vessel, a collier barge, the Bywell Castle. The Alice went down in just four minutes, dragging its terrified passengers into the polluted river. Over 650 people, men , women and children, drowned in the river and the loss of life was shocking.

The tragedy lasted long in local and national memory and must have impacted Londoners in particular. Liz Stride, one of the victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ even claimed she had lost her husband on the Princess Alice, a claim that doesn’t seem to have much substance.  Stride might have been trying to get some charitable relief following the disaster, as several institutions, including the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House Fund, paid out to victims’ families.

Appearing in Woolwich on behalf of the Overseers of the poor, Mr Moore a relieving officer, said that the Overseers or the Guardians were normally quite happy to pay out for the recovery of bodies from the river. The boy also had a certificate from a coroner saying he was entitled to the money, so that seemed settled, but it wasn’t.

Mr Moore  told the court that a recent ruling at the Court of Queen’s Bench that in the case of the Princess Alice there was no actual law that gave authority for the paying of rewards. The Thames, he explained, was not included as part of “the sea”, which was what the original reward referred to. The magistrate, Mr Marsham grumbled that he couldn’t see how the two were not connected; after all the Thames was a tidal river which seemed to bring it within the act. Nevertheless he was bound to abide by the superior courts’ ruling and he dismissed the summons.

However, apparently the case was being discussed in parliament he was told, and so the lad (not named in the report) was advised to hang onto his certificate in the hope that the situation was eventually resolved to his benefit.

[from The Standard, Saturday, June 18, 1881]

As this was the 66th anniversary of Waterloo several papers mentioned the battle. The Daily News dedicated a small column to 200th anniversary of the Scots Greys, the ‘oldest dragoon corps’ in the British Army.  The ‘Greys’ had served with distinction in the Crimea at the battle of Balaclava, where they ‘tore through the Russians as acrobats go through a paper hoop’ (as the reporter described it). Their charge at Waterloo, which was more brave than effectual (if military historians are to be believed), was forever immortalised in Lady Elizabeth Butler’s Scotland Forever which was painted in 1881, to celebrate the anniversary. 

[from Daily News, Saturday, June 18, 1881]

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