The victims of the worst peacetime sea disaster in UK history were remembered at a service in Donaghadee, Co Down yesterday, close to the shore where 60 years ago the few survivors of the wreck landed.
It was the climax to a weekend of events in the town, which included a concert on Friday with the Festival brass band and the Donaghadee Male Voice Choir, and a night at the movies on Saturday showing the 1953 movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The Princess Victoria, a car ferry, had been heading for Larne from the Scottish port in Stranraer on January 31, 1953, when it sank close to the Copeland Islands off the Co Down coast due to stormy weather. It claimed the lives of more than 130 passengers and crew.
Among the passengers who perished were the Northern Ireland Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Major J M Sinclair, and Sir Walter Smiles, the Ulster Unionist MP for North Down.
Just 44 people survived, thanks to the efforts of the Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat launched from Donaghadee as well as other lifeboats launched from Cloughey and Portpatrick.
One of the survivors, Billy McAllister from Larne, attended the service yesterday, which included a lifeboat going out to the site of the wreck and laying a wreath prior to the service. Mr McAllister was 17 when he survived the sinking.
The Rev Colin Anderson of First Presbyterian Church, Donaghadee, took the service in a marquee in the marina car park overlooking the Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat which saved 33 out of the 44 survivors.
Coxswain Hugh Nelson was awarded a Bronze Medal and the British Empire Medal for the skill, courage and initiative shown during the rescue.
Newtownards Mayor Hamilton Gregory, North Down MP Lady Sylvia Hermon, junior minister Jonathan Bell and representatives from all the town’s churches were among the 400 who attended the service.
Rev Anderson said Donaghadee bore lots of memories of the ferry disaster.
“With the Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat rescuing many of the survivors and the Imperial Hotel becoming a makeshift hospital and morgue, the people of Donaghadee wished to pay their respects to those who lost their lives in this terrible tragedy, and to build a permanent fitting tribute through the restoration of the Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat,” he said.
“There were two strands to the service, firstly as a memorial to all those who lost their lives, and secondly to mark the service of the lifeboats, particularly the Sir Samuel Kelly which managed to rescue 33 out of the 44 survivors. In absolutely ferocious weather conditions, it took them three attempts to get out of the harbour.
“Hugh Nelson Jnr, from that lifeboat, presented the memorial wreath to coxswain Philip McNamara yesterday before the boat headed out to the wreck.
“Families of those who perished, as well as families of survivors, also attended the service.
“The tragedy is still emotive for a lot of people in the town, but unfortunately as the years go by, there are fewer people who were adults when the sinking happened. So it is important to us to hold this service to remember those who perished and the bravery of the lifeboat crews.”
Meanwhile, Mr Gregory commented: “The harrowing events of that night left a mark on Donaghadee and are still recalled by many people in the town.
“It is only right that we pause to remember, not only those who lost their lives, but the survivors, those who put their own lives at risk to mount a rescue and those on land who rallied to help.
“Equally important is this new drive to preserve one of the vessels which played such a pivotal role in a huge maritime disaster.”