Recalling the Princess Victoria disaster in which 133 died 70 years ago

One of the biggest peacetime maritime disasters that ever occurred between these islands

It has largely been forgotten in most of Ireland and Britain, but the tragedy is still remembered and commemorated on both sides of the Northern Channel that divides Larne in Co Down and Stranraer in Scotland. The sea divides them but the ports are linked forever by the loss of the Princess Victoria in one of the biggest peacetime maritime disasters that ever occurred between these islands.

It was while making its daily crossing from Stranraer to Larne on January 31st, 1953, that the car ferry was hit by a raging storm whose violent waves were to toss it helplessly around the sea until, despite the best efforts of its crew, it sank with the loss of 133 lives.

Only 44 people were saved, all of them adult males. Not one of the women and children on board survived. It is thought that they had all been in one lifeboat which was hit by a wave and thrown against the side of the ship just before it sank. There were 32 women – three of them crew members – listed among the dead. There were four small boys on board, travelling with their parents, all of whom also perished.

The most prominent name among the dead was Maynard Sinclair, the deputy prime minister of Northern Ireland, and Sir Walter Smiles, a Unionist MP who was returning home from Westminster. Other passengers, some returning home, some travelling on business or for leisure were from several different parts of Britain and Northern Ireland.


The captain and many of his crew lived in Stranraer, while the rest were mainly from Larne and areas nearby. The single biggest complement of passengers that day were also from Larne.

The Princess Victoria was not an old ship: it was built in Dumbarton on the Clyde in 1946 by William Denny & Bros. – but it had a flaw that would lead to its undoing – as was pointed out by the Board of Trade inquiry that followed the disaster. That inquiry placed the blame almost entirely on the ship’s owners. The Princess Victoria was held to be unseaworthy due to the inadequate strength of her stern doors and the lack of sufficient scuppers on the car deck to clear the accumulated water. The ship’s owners, the British Transport Commission, were also blamed for their failure to respond to specific incidents two years earlier which had revealed those defects.

Capt James Millar Ferguson and his officers who had been on the bridge that morning were found to have done everything in their power to save the ship, but their efforts were in vain. They all went down with the ship. Also among the crew that drowned was David Broadfoot, the radio officer who stayed at his post until the end.

But should the Princess Victoria have left Stranraer at all? There was a huge storm already affecting much of northern Europe that week and there were warnings that further gale-force winds were imminent. One person who saw the ferry docked in Stranraer that morning said the waves in the harbour were rocking it so violently from side to side that he assumed it would not venture out into the open sea. But the captain, who had been sailing this route for 17 years in all weathers, took the fateful decision that it was safe to depart, and it weighed anchor at 7.45am.

The captain’s first request for assistance was transmitted at 9.45am. The words did not indicate that the ship was in any immediate danger of sinking: “Hove to off mouth of Loch Ryan. Vessel not under command. Urgent assistance of tug required”. But no tugs were available: they were dealing with other emergencies. This was just one of a succession of “might-have-beens” that doomed the Princess Victoria that day.

In some reports after the sinking, it was conjectured that Capt Ferguson had changed his mind shortly after leaving the shelter of the Loch Ryan estuary and attempted to get back to Stranraer. But whatever his intentions, one of the ship’s manoeuvres exposed the stern to a massive wave that buckled the doors to the drive-on deck. Water began to pour in. The crew tried desperately to close the doors firmly again, but their efforts were in vain and the Princess Victoria began to list badly to starboard.

The ship appears to have changed direction again as the captain attempted to find a course that would let the ship edge closer to Ireland. But just after 10.30am, the ship sent out an SOS: “Princess Victoria four miles north-west of Corsewall [the lighthouse at the entrance to the Loch Ryan estuary]. Car deck flooded. Heavy list to starboard. Require immediate assistance. Ship not under command.”

The would-be rescuers took this last sentence to mean that the ship was drifting helplessly: they expected it to be driven south and positioned their craft accordingly. In fact, the engines were still working, and Capt Ferguson, battling the ship’s inexorably increasing list, was trying desperately to get to the Irish coast.

The ship was within sight of the Copeland Islands off Co Down when the order was given to abandon ship.

At 12.52pm the radio officer reported that the starboard engine-room was flooded and that the ship’s position was critical. At 1.08pm, he tapped: “We are preparing to abandon ship.”

Just before 2pm the Princess Victoria vanished under the waves. The sea was full of the dead and those about to die; people were clinging to rafts and to the few lifeboats that were still afloat. Ships from Belfast Lough attempted to rescue them, but again the mountainous seas made it impossible to lower boats to them or for more than a few of the passengers to catch the lifebelts thrown to them. It was not until the lifeboat Sir Samuel Kelly arrived from Donaghadee at 4pm that any survivors were saved.

The lifeboat had the grim task of returning later that evening to start recovering as many bodies as possible.

Footnote: I am aware of only one Dublin connection to this tragedy – a tangential one based on personal recollection. As a child I lived a few doors away from a family whose two grown-up cousins sometimes used to come down for a visit from Belfast, and the girls in the house were excited whenever they came. All changed one February morning when they got the news: both brothers were among the dead.