The last day of January 1953 is remembered for a number of reasons, foremost of which is the loss of BR/S Princess Victoria and 132 of its 172 passengers and crew. It is also remembered for ‘The Great Storm’ when winds reaching over 100 miles per hour swept from the Atlantic Ocean across the British Isles. The winds whipped up the abnormally high tide, which battered the coastal defences in Scotland and Northern Ireland. No fewer than 300 people lost their lives at sea during the storm. However the greatest single tragedy was that of the Larne-Stranraer ferry, the Princess Victoria.
The Princess Victoria was launched in 1947 and was designed to carry passengers, vehicles and cargo. In Kerr’s book on the subject, the vessel is described as having "a spacious car deck in her after end and her stern was open, except for a five and a half foot high steel door". The door was more like a gate and folded back in two parts to allow cars to be loaded and unloaded. The vessel had the typical look of a passenger ship with sleeping quarters, lounges, dining areas and bars. Captain Ferguson, a well-experienced seaman who lived in Stranraer, headed the ship’s crew. The crew lived in either Stranraer or Larne. Most had worked on the ‘railway ships’ for many years.
According to survivors, it never occurred to anyone on board that the sailing on the morning of he 31st January from Stranraer would be different to any other. It was clearly going to be an uncomfortable crossing as high winds prevented the crane loading some of the cargo on board, delaying the ships departure from berth. However, at 8am, the ship was making its way towards the mouth of Loch Ryan, its passengers including the North Down MP Sir Walter Smiles and the then Deputy Prime Minister Major Maynard Sinclair. Indeed, conjecture after the event by some observers says that the presence of the two politicians is the only reason the ship sailed that day.
The ship discovered the first ‘big sea’ soon after passing Cairnryan, indeed, according to witnesses from the time, the ship met ‘a howling gale and an horrific rolling sea’ that attacked the ship from all sides as it
travelled towards open sea at the mouth of Loch Ryan. To try to control the ship, Captain Ferguson sailed northwards. The inquiry into the disaster was told by survivors that at some point soon after, the decision was made
to turn back towards Stranraer. Circumstances took over, however, when a huge wave forced open the steel doors on the car deck, buckling them in the process. Crew sent to inspect the damage were met by a torrent of water inside the car deck. Soon afterwards a Morse code communication began from the ship to Portpatrick Wireless Station. In turn the Wireless Station radioed the coastguard with the message "Princess Victoria to Portpatrick Wireless Station - Hove to off mouth of Loch Ryan. Vessel not under command. Urgent assistance of Tug required." It is, in hindsight, somewhat ironic that 2 ocean going tugs had been in Lough Ryan only 2 days before. The two tugs in question had set sail for Douglas, Isle of Man arriving in their home port earlier that day.
After the initial message, communications would soon open even further to include Donaghadee and Portpatrick lifeboats; RAF Aldergrove; the oil tanker Pass of Drumocter; the cargo ship Lairdsmoor and a trawler, the Eastcoates.
In normal conditions, the area would have been busy with cross-channel traffic, but many were not sailing that day, instead taking shelter in Belfast Lough.
One of the first problems was that the fact that the Princess Victoria was only able to communicate in Morse Code, while all the other ships and stations were only able to communicate by radio. This led to delays in communicating important information between all the parties concerned over the next few hours. It also hampered attempts to
ascertain the Princess Victoria’s true location. The ships crew estimated, in the terrible conditions, that the ship was close to the Scottish Coast. It was to that area, therefore, that the rescue ships headed, 10 miles away from the Victoria’s actual position.
It was not until 13.35, when the ship was in real danger that the message came through that the Victoria’s crew had spotted the coast of Northern Ireland and could see the Mew Island lighthouse on the Copeland Islands. Suddenly, the ships sheltering in Belfast Lough realised how close the stricken vessel was to their location.
On board the ship, initially, passengers were kept calm by frequent reassuring messages from the Bridge. The crew, it would seem, did not foresee sinking as an option. Around midday, the captain had announced the ship was passing through a period of grave emergency and those life jackets would be distributed. The ship was already listing to 45 degrees at this point. Passengers were gathered, mainly, in the lounge and smoking rooms at the top of the hip. As the ship listed further, the situation aboard became more critical. Passengers had difficulty moving
around, as the walls had, in effect, become the floor. Many tried to make their way to the life
rafts via the highest point on the ship. The male passengers and crew assisted women and children.
When the life rafts launched, some were overcome by waves and broke up in the water, leaving their occupants in the sea. At 13.30, the order was given to abandon ship, but by then, passengers had begun to be washed into
the sea. At the same time, the Donaghadee Lifeboat, the Sir Samuel Kelly,
was launched. The Lifeboat men were fully aware of the conditions at sea.
In the shelter of Donaghadee Harbour, the Creevy Coal boat had already had difficulty in docking and unloading. The horses being used had nearly been blown off their feet and into the harbour by the
strong winds. The Lifeboat was beginning a period of 24 hours at sea.
At 13.58, David Broadfoot, the Victoria’s radio operator sent what would be his last message; "SOS estimated position now 5 miles east of Copelands, Entrance Belfast Lough". Then the communications ceased. According to survivors, the Victoria rolled over and slid under the waves just after 2pm.
The first rescue ship on the scene was the ‘Orchy’ and arrived around 14.40. It’s crew reported seeing survivors in the water and on rafts. An aircraft also arrived to assist and reported the same scenario. The ‘Pass of Drumocter’ was the next ship to arrive in the area and attempted to rescue the survivors. The Donaghadee lifeboat arrived at the
same time and assisted the other ships in rescuing 33 people. Portpatrick lifeboat also assisted in the rescue efforts. Both lifeboats made for Donaghadee where the Imperial Hotel had become the headquarters of the emergency operation. With all the survivors accounted for, the grim search for bodies began, again involving a number of ships and lifeboats. Due to the high seas and strong currents, bodies were found in various areas from the Scottish Coast to the Isle of Man. Inquests into the deaths were held on the Island for those washed up at Port Luce, Hango Hill, Kentraugh, College Green in Castletown and Arbory.
In the days after, the tragic event was marked by remembrance services in Donaghadee, Larne and Stranraer.
The official inquiry into the tragedy was held at Crumlin Road Courthouse in Belfast in March 1953. It lasted for 25 days and resulted in a 30,000-word document. Two main reasons were given for the loss; the inadequacy of the stern doors, which yielded under pressure from the sea and the inadequacy of the clearing arrangements for the water, which accumulated on the deck, causing the starboard list culminating in the ship capsizing and sinking.
Many questions have been asked since the tragedy. One concerns the unheeded warnings, caused by incidents on the ship in the preceding years. On 25th October1949, the ship was carrying tankers when some broke free from their holding lines in rough sea. The ship started to list and made its way slowly to Stranraer. Due to the list, it could not dock and some of the tankers had to be emptied. The delay in the wasted milk getting into the sea showed the scuppers, there to carry seawater off the car decks were to small to cope with a large amount of liquid. In November 1951, the ship met a heavy sea in Larne harbour. The seawater entered the car deck and again the small scuppers could not discharge the water quickly. This led to another dangerous journey across the Irish Sea. These issues should have shown a major problem that if fixed at the time, may have prevented the tragedy.
The tragedy is one, which has touched many in the British Isles. The fact it occurred within living memory and that some of the survivors and rescuers are still alive make the 50th anniversary all the more poignant. It is of some consolation that the terrible events of the 31st January paved the way for major changes in the structure of future ro-ro ferries and lessons were learnt that may have saved lives since.