The Princess Victoria was built by William Denny & Brothers, Dumbarton for the London Midland & Scottish Railway (LMSR). This was one of the earliest roll-on, roll-off car ferries to be employed in British coastal waters. The ship was no doubt part of the rebuilding program to replace the losses sustained during the Second World War. In fact her predecessor had struck a mine in the Humber estuary during 1940 and sunk. The new ferry was used on the short Stranraer to Larne service, with Stranraer being her port of registry.
At the very end of January 1953 a great storm moved south west from Norway across to Scotland, the high winds (100 mph+) combined with a high spring tide preceded by a coastal surge caused memorable and widespread flooding along the North Sea coasts, particularly in the Netherlands. Whilst many lives were lost in both the United Kingdom and the Low Countries, the Netherlands in particular, the largest single loss of life that occurred during this storm took place in the Irish Sea with the sinking of the car ferry Princess Victoria.
The Princess Victoria was plying its regular route between Stranraer & Larne and had departed from Stranraer on January 31st at 07.45 captained by James Ferguson with 128 passengers, 49 crew and 44 tons of cargo on board. A gale warning was already in force although Stranraer, at the southern end of Loch Ryan is some twenty miles from the open sea, thus the conditions on the open sea were not immediately apparent. Once clear of Loch Ryan the ship turned west leading to the stern bearing the full force of the gale with spray and waves breaking over the stern doors. Previous concern about the potential damage that heavy seas could do to the stern doors had seen a guillotine 'spray' door fitted. This extra protection had not been used on this trip, like many others because it took too long to raise and lower. Additionally the gale was not moderating as might have been expected, rather it was increasing in intensity, to become one of the strongest to hit this area during the twentieth century.
Attempts to secure the doors failed and water continued to enter the car deck. The ship started to list to starboard, the Captain deciding to return to the safety of Loch Ryan by going astern and using the bow rudder. The extreme conditions did not allow the crew to release the securing pin on the bow rudder, so the Captain then choose to head for Larne taking a course that would keep the stern of the ship protected from the worst of the heavy seas. A morse code distress call was issued at 09.46 requesting the assistance of tugs, at 10.32 with the list worsening an SOS transmission was sent and finally at 14.00 the order was given to abandon ship. The wording of the earliest messages suggested that the ship's engines had stopped, when in fact they hadn't, thus misleading the rescuers as to the expected location of the ship.
The reported position of the ship had been about five miles north west of Corswall Point, but until just after 1pm at least one of the ship's engines was still running, so quite possibly those attempting a rescue did not have an accurate location of the ship. Rescue attempts were made by the Portpatrick lifeboat and the destroyer HMS Contest, the latter coming from Rothesay and reaching the area about 1.30pm. Poor visibility prevented the crew of HMS Contest from locating the sinking ship. At 13.35 the crew of the ferry identified their location as now being within sight of the Irish coast and about twenty miles south east of Larne, their intended destination. At 13.58 the Princess Victoria broadcast its last message advising the ship was on her beam ends five miles east of the Copeland Islands.
With this new information the Donaghadee lifeboat was launched and an RAF Hastings aircraft was diverted from other rescue operations to drop supplies and aid the HMS Contest to the scene. It was never properly established why the positions provided by the ferry were wrong, especially those transmitted when the ferry was close to the Irish coast. Possibly the increasing list of the ferry had made accurate position taking very difficult.
On learning of the updated location of the sinking ferry four merchant vessels sheltering in Belfast Lough put to sea immediately, these were: the cattle ship Lairdsmoor, the trawler Eastcotes, the coastal oil tanker Pass of Drumochter and the coastal cargo ship Orchy. This latter ship was the first to encounter the site of the sinking, with its survivors and wreckage. At this point an accurate position was sent out to the other rescuers. On reaching the survivors these ships could only provide shelter from the ocean swells to the small lifeboats until the Donaghadee lifeboat arrived and was able to bring 33 of the survivors on board.
A number of honours were given to the ferry's crew and her rescuers:
David Broadfoot, the radio officer was posthumously awarded the George Cross for staying at his post to the very end.
The coxswains of the Donaghadee and Portpatrick lifeboats received British Empire Medals in addition to several RNLI awards.
There were 44 survivors, however all of the ferry's officers went down with the ship.
A total of 133 lives were lost in the sinking, including 23 persons from the town of Stranraer, the Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Maynard Sinclair and the MP for North Down, Lt Col Sir Walter Smiles. The small port town of Larne also was impacted by the loss of 27 persons in the sinking.
Ultimately the responsibility for the sinking lay with the owners (the British Transport Commission) in that they were negligent in allowing a vessel to operate on a route where the stern doors were incapable of withstanding the heaviest of seas generated by severe weather and to operate a vessel with inadequate scuppering of water that might be taken on to the car deck. As with nearly all ferries the car deck created an inherent vulnerability for these vessels in that there were no bulkheads across this deck to minimise or contain any flooding that did occurr. Ironically the Princess Victoria did have one bulkhead on her car deck. In October 1949 and November 1951 the Princess Victoria had suffered the same two conditions that would eventually lead to her sinking. The reports containing the details of these incidents were not heeded to the fullest extent.
The wreck remained undisturbed until 1992 when the BBC, wishing to create a 40th anniversary documentary provided support for a diving expedition. This team was assisted by a Royal Navy seabed survey of the area carried out in 1973. The wreck was resting in 90 metres of water.
Built: 1946/47 by William Denny & Brothers, Dumbarton, No. 1939
Page added August 31st 2008.