On this day in history : 31st January 1953 – The Princess Victoria, a car ferry, sinks in the Irish Sea during a severe gale – claiming the lives of over 130 passengers and crew….
The Princess Victoria, owned by British Railways, was one of the first roll on-roll off ferries…. It had left Stranraer on the Southwest coast of Scotland bound for Larne, Northern Ireland at 7.45am, in the charge of Captain James Millar Ferguson…. 128 passengers were onboard, along with 51 crew and 44 tons of cargo…. Warnings for severe gales had been issued….
Just 90 minutes later the ferry was in serious trouble – as a huge wave had smashed through the stern doors, mangling them out of shape…. The crew desperately tried to shut the doors but water poured on to the car deck…. As the ship filled with water it began to list alarmingly towards the starboard…. The passengers, by now wearing life jackets, tried helplessly to bail water out of the lounge area….
At 10.32am the first SOS was sent out by the ferry’s radio operator…. In the confusion the responding rescue lifeboat was given the wrong directions of how to find the stricken vessel….
At 1pm a message was put out from the Princess Victoria to other vessels in the area that the intention was to abandon ship at 2pm…. The very last message was transmitted at 1.58pm…. By 2pm the ferry was listing so badly that it was impossible to launch the lifeboats on the starboard side….
Two lifeboats, filled with women and children, were dropped so violently into the sea that they capsized, tipping their occupants into the icy sea…. The ferry then tipped over…. As the Princess Victoria went down 55-year-old Captain Ferguson stood on the deck, one hand gripping the hand rail – the other raised in a salute….
44 men were saved by the rescue operation – not one woman or child survived…. Among the dead were deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, J Maynard Sinclair and MP for North Down, Sir Walter Smiles….
At the inquiry it was revealed that the Princess Victoria had been unseaworthy and British Railways was to blame for this…. In concluding the inquiry summarised : “If the Princess Victoria had been as staunch as the men who manned her, then all would have been well and this disaster averted”….
67 bodies were recovered from the sea after the sinking of Princess Victoria….
Later the highest civilian award for bravery was given posthumously to the ferry’s radio operator, David Broadfoot – who remained at his post sending out SOS messages right up to the moment the ferry sank….