Video: 65 years on, town pays tribute to victims of ferry disaster

A poignant service was held on the shores of Larne this morning to mark the 65th anniversary of what has been called 'a generation’s Titanic'.

A large crowd gathered near Larne Harbour at 11am to remember the 133 lives lost on January 31, 1953, when the ferry Princess Victoria sank during a ferocious storm.

The Princess Victoria.

The ship, one of the first roll-on roll-off ferries, had been heading for Larne from the Scottish port of Stranraer when it was damaged by pounding waves, took on water and went down close to the Copeland Islands off the coast of Co Down.

Only 44 of the 177 people on board escaped with their lives; not a single woman or child survived.

The disaster had a huge impact on the Larne community, with 27 of the victims from the town.

Also lost 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.

Wreaths were laid in memory of those whose lives were lost during the sinking of the Princess Victoria.

This morning's ceremony included the unveiling and dedication of a new plaque featuring the names of two men, Gordon Wright and Thomas Saunders, who lost their lives in the disaster but had not been included on the original memorial.

Local ministers gave readings, while pupils from Larne Grammar School and Larne High School sang a hymn.

A number of wreaths were laid at the memorial by various groups, including relatives of the passengers and crew; Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Councillor Paul Reid; Lord Lieutenant for Co Antrim, Joan Christie, and branches of the RAOB.

Representatives of the Royal National Lifeboat Association (RNLI) were also among the special guests.

Wesley Kerr lost his life in the disaster.

Larne woman Dora Ogilby's father, Samuel McReynolds, was one of those who perished in the disaster. "I was only four and a half, but I do have memories of it happening. It stays with you," Dora said.

"My father was 37 and a father of eight; he worked for Harland and Wolff at the time and was on his way back from doing a job in Scotland."

Samuel's body was eventually recovered and he was buried in his home town of Carrickfergus, at Victoria Cemetery.

Patricia Kerr Irons, who lives in Carrick, attends the service every year in memory of her uncle Wesley Kerr.

The names of Thomas Saunders and Gordon Wright were added to the memorial.

A crew member on the Princess Victoria, Wesley was only 24 years old when he died.

A strange twist of fate saw the father-of-one serving aboard the Victoria for the first and only time.

"He was actually supposed to be on the Princess Margaret that day; he was never supposed to be on board the Victoria," said Patricia.

Speaking about the memorial service, she added: "It's a very sad time - it brings it all back. I remember it all like it was yesterday. There were photographs in the papers of the ship in distress and as a young child, I couldn't understand why they were able to take photographs, but they couldn't rescue people."

Although still alive when he was rescued, Wesley sadly passed away shortly after he was brought ashore by lifeboat crews from Donaghadee.

He was later laid to rest in Larne.

Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Cllr Paul Reid; Lord Lieutenant for Country Antrim, Joan Christie; Gillian Bingham, High Sheriff of County Antrim, and Louise Kennedy, Mid and East Antrim Council.

Wesley's daughter, Elaine Kerr Woods, now lives in Canada. "He has a great-grandson who has been named after him," Patricia said.

This morning's service was also attended by Janet Chapman, niece of Thomas Saunders.

Thomas, an airman form Darlington, was on his way back to his barracks in Northern Ireland when the ship sank.

His death had a devastating impact on the family. "My grandfather never got over it," said Janet, from Leeds. "[Thomas] was only 20 and he'd come back home to visit his sister, my mum; she was 18 at the time and she had been ill."

Today was Janet's first visit to the Larne memorial service, having usually attended the commemoration in Stranraer. "My uncle's name wasn't on the memorial there either - we're not sure why. We know he wasn't on the passenger list," she said. "A few weeks ago, out of the blue we got a call to say his name was going to be on the memorial in Larne."

Thomas's name, along with Gordon Wright's was added as a result of research by the Ulster Historical Foundation.

They discovered paperwork that confirmed both men died at sea on January 31, 1953, the date of the Princess Victoria disaster.

Mid and East Antrim Council subsequently agreed to inscribe the names onto the memorial, with the plaque to be dedicated on the 65th anniversary.

Meanwhile, Lifeboat crews laid wreaths at the spot where the ship sank in advance of this week's commemorations. "We went out last Sunday afternoon along with members of Donaghadee and Portpatrick Lifeboats," said Frank Healy of Larne RNLI.

"We met at the site above the wreck and laid two wreaths before going back to Donaghadee for a church service."

Commenting on today's commemorations, Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Councillor Paul Reid, said: “The sinking of the Princess Victoria devastated families and communities here, in Stranraer and further afield.

“More than six decades may have passed, but the pain and sense of loss is still felt by many.

“The memorial service is organised by Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes MV Princess Victoria Lodge in conjunction with Mid and East Antrim Borough Council.

“We are also working closely with our colleagues in Stranraer, who also hold a commemoration on the anniversary of this terrible event.

“We are honoured that a number of relatives of those who died in such tragic circumstances will join with us in Larne to pay their respects.”

The author of 'Death In The North Channel: The Loss Of The Princess Victoria', Stephen Cameron, described the 1953 disaster as a “generation’s Titanic”.

A small exhibition is on display at Larne Leisure Centre from January 31, along with a special commemorative booklet which will be distributed to local schools in the area.

Dr David Hume will be giving a lecture focusing on the impact of the tragedy on Larne and Northern Ireland this evening at 8pm in Larne Town Hall.

Members of Larne RNLI.

Janet Chapman (right) laid a wreath in memory of her uncle, Thomas Saunders, whose name has just been added to the memorial.

Pupils from Larne Grammar and Larne High sang a hymn.

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