Deep River

I’ve just finished reading a strange but wonderful book entitled Thames: Sacred River written by Peter Ackroyd. On one level it’s a kind of biography of the River Thames, from prehistoric times to the present day, but it’s much more complex and involving than a simple narrative history. What Ackroyd does is to look a the river from many different angles, each time focussing on a different aspect. There are chapters on connections between the Thames and human life- religious observance, art and artists, poetry and literature, commerce and crime and so on – as well as its wildlife, geology and other physical properties. As you can probably imagine, this means that the book jumps backwards and forwards through history, often visiting the same period many times but from a different perspective.

Rather like the river whose progress it charts, this book is both large and meandering.  I have to admit that at times I found it heavy going. Ackroyd’s prose is often magisterial in its beauty, but he does get a bit grandiose every now and then. I got a bit irritated by his persistent use of the word “riverine”, for example. I’ve nothing against the word itself, but he uses it with such regularity that you can predict when the next appearance is due, as if he’d  allowed him a certain number at the outset and determined to spread them uniformly through the text.

Despite all that, what makes this book so wonderful  is that,  for all its majestic sweep, it’s also full of rich and fascinating detail. Surprising little tidbits of information appear on practically every page to illustrate some aspect of the river, some playful and amusing, others dark and disturbing. Ackroyd’s mastery of the little details is really marvellous and it more than compensates for his occasional verbosity. I’d heartily recommend this as a work that can be read all the way through, but is also very rewarding to dip into.

As usual with my little reviews I’m not going to give a systematic description of the book, but just pick something that struck me as a read it to try to convey an impression of the content.  Near the end there’s a chapter about a particularly dark side of the Thames,  namely its association with death by drowning. For a start I was staggered to read that there are approximately 400 suicides each year involving people jumping into the Thames at some point along its length; most, but by no means all, of these happen in London. It’s also striking that this figure appears not to have changed much over the past couple of centuries. The Thames seems to be a magnet for the suicidal. Not long ago, a young French lady travelled all the way to London from Paris, specifically to throw herself in the Thames.

But, of course, not all deaths by drowning are suicides. Over the centuries countless unfortunate people have lost their lives by falling accidentally into the water. The worst peacetime  loss of life in the history of the Thames occurred on September 3rd 1878 when a paddle steamer, the Princess Alice, collided with a collier and sank almost immediately. Many passengers on the Alice died by drowning, but most of those that didn’t drown suffered the perhaps worse fate of being poisoned by the heavily polluted water in the river. Many of those rescued died in the ensuing days and weeks of unknown ailments almost certainly caused the range toxic materials that were routinely dumped in the Thames in thos days. It’s estimated that around 700 people died altogether as a result of the sinking of the Princess Alice.

I knew about this terrible event before reading Ackroyd’s book, as it features prominently in others I read about the East End of London when I  lived there, years ago. However, one particularly unsettling  coincidence  had escaped my attention until now. Apparently, one of the very few survivors of the Princess Alice disaster was a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Stride. She lived another ten years, in fact. But her ultimate fate was to be no happier than the many who died in 1878. On 30th September 1888 she became the third victim of Jack the Ripper….

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3 Responses to “Deep River”

  1. Not saying that Wikipedia is the ultimate source of truth, but this is what it has to say about Long Liz and the Alice

    “She told acquaintances that her husband and two of her nine children had drowned in the sinking of the Princess Alice in the River Thames in 1878. In the accident, according to her story, she had supposedly been kicked in the mouth by another of the victims as they both swam to safety, which had caused her to stutter ever since.[6] In fact, John Stride died of tuberculosis in Poplar and Stepney Sick Asylum on 24 October 1884, more than five years after the Princess Alice disaster, and they had no children.[7]”

    • Mrs Trellis Says:

      Yes, Ackroyd himself mentions that Long Liz (Elizabeth Stride) claimed that she lost her husband and three children in the Princess Alice disaster, a version of the story which isn’t consistent with what she said on other occasions.

      No record of Elizabeth Stride can be found in the passenger list either

      http://forum.casebook.org/archive/index.php/t-928.html

      but it’s by no means complete. It is therefore possible that she have made up her involvement with the disaster, but we’ll never know.

      Incidentally, it is supposed that Elizabeth Stride acquired the name “Long Liz” because she was exceptionally tall for a woman in the Victorian era, a fact discussed in the Inspector Morse episode “The Wench is Dead”. Her height was actually 5’5″.

    • Elizabeth’s story is indeed a sad one. She was brought to London from her hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden, by John Stride, who met her on a visit there (various stories say that he was a merchant navy officer, some suggest that he was a lowly deckhand). After a period of relative stability her life descended into chaos, compounded by the loss of her husband, and she ended up a fallen woman working the streets. There is no evidence to say that she bore any children and there is nothing whatsoever, other than the desperate fantasies of a woman who had hit rock-bottom, linking her to the Princess Alice. One thing that is known is that she always longed to return to Sweden, but meeting Jack The Ripper one fateful night put paid to that.

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