MV Princess Victoria
MV Princess Victoria
|Name:||MV Princess Victoria|
|Owner:||British Transport Commission|
|Operator:||1947-1948 London, Midland and Scottish Railway
1948-1953 British Railways
|Port of registry:||Stranraer|
|Route:||Stranraer to Larne|
|Builder:||William Denny and Brothers, Dumbarton|
|Launched:||27 August 1946|
|Fate:||sank 31 January 1953|
|Class & type:||roll-on/roll-off ferry|
|Length:||309.75 ft (94 m)|
|Beam:||48 ft (15 m)|
|Depth:||16.67 ft (5 m)|
|Installed power:||2x 2-stroke, single acting Sulzer diesel engines|
|Speed:||19 knots (35 km/h; 22 mph)|
|Capacity:||1,500 passengers, 70 tons cargo, 40 cars|
MV Princess Victoria was one of the earliest roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) ferries. Built in 1947, she operated from Stranraer to Larne. During a severe European windstorm on 31 January 1953, she sank in the North Channel with the loss of 133 lives. This was then the deadliest maritime disaster in United Kingdom waters since World War II.
Princess Victoria was built in 1947 by William Denny and Brothers, Dumbarton. She was the first purpose-built ferry of her kind to operate in British coastal waters and the fourth ship to bear the name, her 1939 predecessor having been sunk during World War II in the Humber estuary by a German mine. Although being innovative in her loading methods, the vessel looked externally similar to her namesake. She could hold 1,500 passengers plus cargo and had sleeping accommodation for 54.
Captained by the 55 year old James Ferguson, the vessel left Stranraer's railway loading pier at 07:45 AM with 44 tons of cargo, 128 passengers and 51 crew. Captain Ferguson had served as master on various ferries on the same route for 17 years. A gale warning was in force but he made the decision to put to sea. Loch Ryan is a sheltered inlet and the immediate force of the wind and sea was not apparent, but it was noted that spray was breaking over the stern doors. A "guillotine door" had been fitted because of the previously identified problem with spray and waves hitting the stern doors, but it was rarely used because it took too long to raise and lower. This would have provided extra protection for the sliding stern doors. On this occasion it was not lowered.
Shortly after clearing the mouth of Loch Ryan, the ship turned west towards Larne and exposed her stern to the worst of the high seas. Huge waves damaged the low stern doors, allowing water to enter the car deck. The crew struggled to close the doors again but they proved to be too badly damaged and water continued to flood in from the waves. The scuppers did not seem to be allowing the water to drain away. The ship took a list to starboard and at this point Captain Ferguson decided to retreat to the safety of Loch Ryan by going astern and using the bow rudder. This proved to be impossible, because the extreme conditions prevented the deckhands from releasing the securing pin on the bow rudder, and the Captain then made a decision to try to reach Northern Ireland by adopting a course which would keep the stern of the craft sheltered from the worst of the elements. At 09:46 AM, two hours after leaving Stranraer a message was transmitted in Morse code (the Princess Victoria did not have a radio telephone) by radio operator David Broadfoot to the Portpatrick Radio Station: "Hove-to off mouth of Loch Ryan. Vessel not under command. Urgent assistance of tugs required". With a list to starboard exacerbated by shifting cargo, water continued to enter the ship. At 10:32 AM an SOS transmission was made, and the order to abandon was given at 14:00. Possibly the first warship in the area was HMS Launceston Castle, Lt. Cdr J M Cowling, a frigate which was en route to Derry. Searches were carried out but Launceston Castle was forced to leave when her condensers were contaminated by salt. Upon the upgrade of the assistance message to an SOS, the Portpatrick Lifeboat the Jeannie Spiers was dispatched as was the destroyer HMS Contest. Contest, commanded by Lt Commander HP Fleming, left Rothesay at 1109hrs but although she came close to her position at 1330hrs, poor visibility prevented the crew from seeing the sinking ship. The destroyer had been trying to maintain a speed of 31 knots (57 km/h; 36 mph) to reach the listing ferry but after sustaining damage from the seas Captain Fleming was forced to reduce speed to 16 knots (30 km/h; 18 mph).
The Princess Victoria was still reporting her position as 5 miles north west of Corsewall Point but her engines were still turning and even at the speed of 5 knots (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph) were gradually drawing the vessel closer to Northern Ireland and away from her reported position. At 1308hrs the ship broadcast that her engines had stopped. The final morse code message at 1358hrs reported the ship "on her beam end" 5 miles east of the Copeland Islands.
The court of inquiry found that assistance to the Princess Victoria had been hampered by other distress operations already under way in the extreme weather conditions of the day. An RAF Hastings aircraft had been assisting rescues off Lewis and Barra and as a result did not reach the location of the doomed ferry until 1531hrs, dropping supplies and guiding HMS Contest to the scene.
The inquiry noted how different the outcome might have been if the aircraft had been available earlier. Confusion over the location of the Princess Victoria had contributed to the rescue vessels' difficulty in locating her and it wasn't until the crew had sighted the coast of Northern Ireland at 1335hrs and transmitted a new position fix that the rescue attempt was able to home in.
In addition to the naval, RAF and lifeboats then searching, four small merchant vessels which had been sheltering in Belfast Lough put to sea immediately to assist after hearing the transmission which placed the Princess Victoria close to their anchorage: the cattle ship Lairdsmoor, the trawler Eastcotes, the coastal oil tanker Pass of Drumochter and the coastal cargo ship Orchy.
Despite arriving before the lifeboats, the merchant ships were unable to rescue the survivors in lifeboats as the fierce waves were in danger of dashing the smaller boats against the sides of the larger ships. All they could do was to provide shelter from the worst of the seas until the Donaghadee lifeboat, the Sir Samuel Kelly arrived and was able to bring survivors on board. This lifeboat has been preserved and is now part of the collection of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
The captains of the merchant ships: James Alexander Bell of the Lairdsmoor, David Brewster of the Eastcotes, James Kelly of the Pass of Drumochter and Hugh Angus of Orchy each became Members of the Order of the British Empire. Lieutenant Commander Stanley Lawrence McArdle and Chief Petty Officer Wilfred Warren of HMS Contest were both awarded the George Medal for diving into the water to help survivors.
The ship's radio officer, David Broadfoot, was posthumously awarded the George Cross for staying at his post to the very end, allowing passengers and crew to escape, even though by doing so he was preventing his own escape. His medal is on permanent display in Stranraer Museum.
There were 44 survivors but notably none of the ship's officers were among them.
Loss of life
The sinking of Princess Victoria occurred during a severe European windstorm which also caused the North Sea Flood of 1953, claiming 531 fatalities in the UK alone, although this was the worst single incident in that storm. There were 133 deaths, including the Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, The Right Honourable Major Maynard Sinclair and the MP for North Down, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Walter Smiles. Controversially, there were no women or children among the 40 survivors. Eyewitnesses reported seeing a lifeboat containing at least some of the women and children being smashed against the side of the Princess Victoria by the huge waves. The disaster shocked many people because, although it took place in extreme weather conditions, it involved a routine journey, on a relatively short crossing (20 miles) in what were believed to be safe waters.
In Larne and Stranraer, small towns that largely relied on their seaports, most families were affected in some way. A ceremony was held in Larne; wreaths were thrown on the water and the crowd sang "Lord, hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea".
Court of Enquiry
The Court of Enquiry into the sinking, held in March 1953 at Crumlin Road Courthouse in Belfast, found that the Princess Victoria was lost due to a combination of factors. In a report of 30,000 pages the enquiry found that: firstly, the stern doors were not sufficiently robust. Secondly, arrangements for clearing water from the car deck were inadequate. The report concluded "If the Princess Victoria had been as staunch as those who manned her, then all would have been well and the disaster averted." The court also noted the failure of the duty destroyer HMS Tenacious from the 3rd Training Squadron based at HMS Sea Eagle in Londonderry to be able to put to sea as too many men had been released on shore leave. As a consequence of the enquiry the duty destroyer from the 3rd Squadron was subsequently based "on station" at the mouth of Lough Foyle on 1 hour readiness to put to sea.
Memorials have been erected in Chaine Road, Larne, Co Antrim, in Portpatrick, Wigtownshire and in Stranraer, Wigtownshire (where 23 inhabitants lost their lives in the disaster). It has become the custom for a memorial service to be held on both sides of the North Channel on the anniversary of the sinking. Many of the survivors continue to attend these religious services.
In 2003, on the 50th anniversary, a new plaque with the names of those lost was unveiled at the Victoria Memorial in Agnew Park, Stranraer. A piper played the tune Lament of the MV Princess Victoria. Two new plaques were also unveiled at the Victoria Memorial in Larne.
RNLB Sir Samuel Kelly (ON 885), from Donaghadee, one of the two lifeboats involved in the Princess Victoria rescue, has been preserved and is in a nearby car park. There is a memorial plaque and sculpture by Joseph Scherrer, on the cliff face over looking the Irish Sea, which was erected in 2003, 50 years after the disaster.
The wreck site
The wreck lay undiscovered until 1992 when a team from Cromarty Firth Diving, led by John MacKenzie and funded by the BBC, working from data provided by a Royal Navy seabed survey carried out in 1973, were able to locate it 5 miles north north-east of the Copeland Islands in 90 metres of water. Video footage and stills from this expedition were transmitted on a BBC programme called Home Truths (Things Don't Happen to Boats Like This) on the 40th anniversary of the sinking in 1993. In 2008, to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the sinking, a memorial service was held at Larne which was organised by the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. A specially composed accordion tune, "Victoria", was played during the service.
There have been other sinkings involving roll-on roll-off ferries e.g. the MS Jan Heweliusz and MS Estonia (which both sank in storms they should have survived), as well as the MS Herald of Free Enterprise (which capsized due to water on the car deck).
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Princess Victoria (ship, 1947).|
- BBC: "1953: 130 die in ferry disaster"
- BBC: "2003: Ferry disaster victims remembered"
- Report of the formal investigation into the sinking