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Princess Victoria
By Bob O'Hara

Princess Victoria Your Family History magazine published a comprehensive coverage of this story, also written by Bob O'Hara, in Issue 5 for September 2010. See the article here.
Quoting the magazine promotion:
"Sinking Of The Princess Victoria.
Bob O'Hara investigates why one of the first roll-on, roll-off car ferries sank off the coast of Northern Ireland over 50 years ago."

"A 19th century disaster in the middle of the 20th century".

Those were the headlines following the sinking of the Stranraer to Larne railway ferry with the tragic loss of 133 lives. The story is revealed in several files in the National Archives held at the Public Record Office in Kew.

The Inquiry opened in Belfast on 23rd March 1953, the report of which was issued on 11th June 1953 under the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. Judge J H Campbell presided. i

He heard that the 'Princess Victoria' was built by William Denny & Brothers of Dumbarton in 1947 and was owned and operated by the British Transport Commission. Evidence was given by many witnesses, including survivors, about what happened on the fateful day.

On 31st January 1953, Captain James Millar Ferguson, took the decision, despite bad weather, to make the routine journey from Stranraer to Larne. 'Princess Victoria' with 172 passengers and crew onboard, sailed at 0745. Two hours after departing from Stranraer she reported that she was not ?under command? and requested assistance from a tug. No tug was available in Stranraer and 45 minutes later the ferry sent a distress message asking for immediate assistance. By this time the Captain of the 3rd Submarine Flotilla had been informed and ordered HMS 'Contest', the duty destroyer located at Rothesay, to proceed with all haste to provide assistance to the endangered ferry.

According to her log , ii 'Contest' received orders at 1026 to proceed to assist MV 'Princess Victoria'. She prepared for sea and slipped her buoy at 1109, set a southerly course and was underway with a speed of 21 knots at 1117. An entry in the 'Contest' log shows the reported 1200 noon position of the stricken ferry as bearing west by south from Corsewall Point, at a distance of 5 miles. Corsewall Point is just outside the mouth of Loch Ryan. 'Contest' reached that position shortly after 1300 but found no signs of the 'Princess Victoria' and continued southwards. She recorded her own position as 54 degrees 40 minutes north, 5 degrees 21 minutes west, (almost the mid-point between the narrowest part of the Scottish and Irish coasts) at 1450. By this time Lieutenant Commander H P Fleming, captain of HMS 'Contest' realised that he must have gone too far south and returned northwards. At 1523, wreckage was sighted and 'Contest' began searching for, and embarking survivors, in the mouth of Belfast Lough. Eventually, the survivors were landed in Belfast at 2345.

According to the Meteorological Office, in a weather forecast broadcast by the BBC at 0655, there was a gale but no more than Captain Ferguson and the ferry had encountered on other occasions. However, the gale did not moderate as expected; indeed the force increased, and it is now considered to be amongst the worst weather experienced in Scotland in the 20th century. The forecast of worsening weather was not available when Ferguson took his decision. iii

After leaving Stranraer, the 'Princess Victoria' had been drifting slowly South West away from Corsewall Point and Loch Ryan and towards Mew Island and Belfast Lough. As a tug was not available and the vessel was then in distress, the Coastguard had launched the Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboats from Portpatrick and Donaghadee and they were en route to the stricken ferry. However, they headed for the position broadcast from the 'Princess Victoria' and, like HMS 'Contest', the lifeboats did not find her.

Neither the Inquiry nor the subsequent Appeal court, were able to establish why the 'Princess Victoria' had transmitted wrong positions. A witness at the lower court was asked, "Were steps taken to check the positions given by the ship"? The witness explained how "snap" bearings were taken by Portpatrick and Malin Head radio stations, (and later by Seaforth Radio), but these were unreliable for technical reasons, although the bearing taken at 1101 by Portpatrick was relayed to the 'Contest'.

50 years later, a member of the Radio Officers Association, Ernie Jardine, recalls being on duty at Portpatrick Radio Station when he made the exchanges with the 'Princess Victoria'. Despite having dwelt on the matter for so long, Ernie still could not explain why the 'Princess Victoria' continued to give erratic positions with reference to Corsewall Point when she was almost in the Belfast Lough.

Nor could Ernie understand why the 'Contest' had failed to get a bearing. He recalled that the line bearings taken from Portpatrick, were class A bearings, (within 2 degrees), and that if a cross, (of any quality), could have been obtained, more accurate knowledge of the distress position would have been available. Bearings from the Irish side and from Seaforth did not provide a cross from Portpatrick whilst a bearing from 'Contest' would have been almost at right angles to that from Portpatrick. Yawing by 'Contest' should not have totally eliminated the possibility of a bearing of some sort and this would have made a great difference.

Radioed reports continued to show the 'Princess Victoria' near Corsewall Point. As late as 1200, 'Princess Victoria' was still indicating her position relative to Corsewall Point and at 1232 she radioed that she was 7 miles West of Killantringan Light House, (near Portpatrick), and still on the Scottish coast. It was not until 1335 that Captain Ferguson said the Irish coast was visible and a few minutes later, at 1347, a message was broadcast saying that they were now off the entrance to the Belfast Lough. The final message sent at 1358 was addressed to HMS 'Contest' and repeated the information about the location outside Belfast Lough. A little after 1400 'Princess Victoria' sank near Mew Island.

Lieutenant Commander Fleming of 'Contest' appeared before Judge Campbell and stated that his ship could not have reached the 'Princess Victoria' in time even if the correct position had been given. He said that during her journey from Rothesay 'Contest' had achieved 31 knots at times, but occasionally had to slow to 16 knots. Fleming agreed with the Court that it would have been difficult for Captain Ferguson to give an accurate position with the ship listing over 45 degrees. He also stated that radio direction finding was impossible from 'Contest' because of yawing.

Commander P J H Hoare, Staff Officer at the Royal Naval Air Station at Pitreavie, Scotland told the court that on 31st January six other vessels in UK waters were sending distress signals. He stated that the sea area to the west of Portpatrick was under the command of the Commander-in-Chief Plymouth and that the distress messages from the Admiralty would have been sent to all ships and stations on the Royal Navy shore-to-ship broadcast. Receiving stations would have included HMS Sea Eagle, the shore base at Londonderry and HMS Gannet, the Royal Navy Air Station at Eglinton in Northern Ireland as well as the Senior Naval Officer at Rothesay.

The judge, (who sat with three technical assessors), asked probing questions about the construction of the 'Princess Victoria' and her suitability for deployment on the Stranraer to Larne journey in Winter. The Court noted that the British Transport Commission had rejected this vessel for the regular Fishguard to Rosslare crossings, as it was not considered robust enough.

The judge identified two deficiencies, which were attributed to the owners:-
1. Weak and badly designed stern doors.
2. Scuppers, which were inadequate for the run-off of large quantities of water on the car deck.

The owners were held to be principally at fault in causing the disaster.

An Appeal under Lord MacDermott, iv the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, against the main findings of the lower court, confirmed that the owners could not avoid their responsibilities. Lord MacDermott concluded:
The loss of the M V 'Princess Victoria' was caused or contributed to by the default of the owners and the manager in that they were negligent before the disaster:

a) In failing to appreciate that the vessel was unfit to encounter the full range of foreseeable weather conditions on the Larne and Stranraer route by reason of the inabilit6y of the stern doors to withstand heavy seas.

b) In not taking appropriate steps to provide adequate freeing arrangements on the car deck or else to make the stern doors sufficiently strong and adequate to prevent heavy seas from flooding that deck.

No whitewash here! Both courts were clear in their condemnation of the owners, but the writer would question whether others, not identified at the Inquiry, were also negligent and why neither the Inquiry nor the Appeal asked the Admiralty to explain why a ship was not sent from Londonderry.

Apart from the 'Contest' based at Rothesay, the Royal Navy had a number of ships, which might have helped in the disaster. The 3rd Training Squadron at Londonderry consisting of half a dozen operational anti-submarine frigates and destroyers were all on station that Saturday morning. Given its proximity to the disaster, should the duty destroyer at Londonderry, HMS 'Tenacious', not have been involved in the rescue?

According to her log, v about the time that 'Contest' received orders to assist the stricken vessel, 'Tenacious' was preparing for captain's rounds, a routine weekly inspection of mess deck accommodation, by Commander C K S Aylwin.

At 1450, when 'Contest' was reporting her position in the Irish Sea, 'Tenacious' still had not left her berth in Londonderry and had let so many seamen and specialist ratings go ashore that she did not have enough hands to take the ship to sea. During the afternoon, naval and civil police were employed throughout the city of Londonderry to recover essential ratings. Volunteers were sought from those on other ships who had not gone on weekend leave to help man the emergency destroyer. Eventually, 'Tenacious' was able to head down river at 1710 and reached the sea at Magilligan's Point at 1900. By this time, it had long since been dark. No traces of the 'Princess Victoria' or her passengers or crew were sighted by 'Tenacious'.

Princess Victoria Lifebelt Next day, it was the turn of HMS 'Crispin' under the command of Lieutenant Commander F G Lachlan, MBE, to be the Londonderry duty destroyer and she searched the area off Mew Island. Despite a diligent and wide-ranging search, all 'Crispin' found was a single lifebelt from the 'Princess Victoria' (see note below at end of article).

On its own the heavy weather would have made only for an uncomfortable crossing. The failings identified by the Inquiry, however, suggest that the 'Princess Victoria' was not seaworthy in such conditions. Still, the tragic loss of life might have been spared if the situation had been better managed by the Admiralty. Within a few days after the disaster, the Londonderry duty destroyer did not proceed up river on completion of sea exercises, but was stationed at the mouth of Loch Foyle at Magilligan's Point and remained at one hour's notice for steam. This arrangement continued for the rest of the time that the 3rd Training Squadron was based at Londonderry.

Despite these serious failings on the part of the owners and the Admiralty, the records reveal instances of great personal bravery.

George Medals were awarded to Lieutenant Stanley McArdle and Chief Petty Officer Wilfred Warren Owen of the 'Contest'. Both entered the water in mountainous seas to rescue a survivor who had reached the limit of his endurance and could no longer cling to a life raft. The personal bravery of McArdle and Owen was in the best traditions of the Royal Navy. See an Obituary for Rear Admiral McArdle by Peter Hore (reprinted with his permission).

OBEs were awarded to the Masters of four small vessels, which put to sea, despite being in ballast, and managed to locate some survivors. The coxswains of the Donaghadee and Portpatrick lifeboats received BEMs and several RNLI awards.

Judge Campbell's Inquiry was unanimous in placing on record the outstanding and selfless conduct of David Broadfoot, the wireless operator of the ferry, who remained at his post to the last, transmitting messages in circumstances of the utmost difficulty and danger.

The highest award for bravery, which can be made to a civilian, is the George Cross. The following announcement appeared in the London Gazette dated 6th October, 1953:

"David Broadfoot, (deceased), Radio Officer.
'Princess Victoria' left Stranraer on the morning of 31st January, 1953, carrying 127 passengers for Larne. After leaving Loch Ryan she encountered north-westerly gales and squalls of sleet and snow.

A heavy sea struck the ship and burst open the stern doors and sea water flooded the space on the car deck causing a list to starboard of about 10 degrees. Attempts were made to secure the stern doors but without success. The Master tried to turn his ship back to Loch Ryan but the conditions were of such severity that the maneouver failed. Some of the ship's cargo shifted from the port to the starboard side and this increased the list as the cripple vessel endeavoured to make her way across the Irish Sea.

From the moment when 'Princess Victoria' first got into difficulties, Radio Officer Broadfoot constantly sent out wireless messages giving the ship's position and asking for assistance. The severe list which the vessel had taken and which was gradually increasing, redered his task even more difficult.

Despite the difficulties and danger, he steadfastly continued his work at the transmitting set, repeatedly sending signals to the coast radio station to enable them to ascertain the ship's exact position."

David Broadfoot was born in 1900 and started work as a GPO messenger before going to a Marconi College where he trained to be a wireless operator. He had served on several other ships before joining the 'Princess Victoria' on 2nd October 1950. On 20th October 1953, Mrs Muriel Broadfoot, of Royal Avenue, Stranraer, accompanied by her 13-year-old son William, attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace to receive the George Cross from HM the Queen, which had been awarded posthumously to her husband.

Judge Campbell's report concluded saying that if the 'Princess Victoria' had been as staunch as the men who manned her, then disaster would have been averted.

A 19th century tragedy indeed on 31st January 1953.

Bob continues:
I was a Telegraphist on HMS 'Crispin' and on deck when the lifebelt was retrieved from the sea. The image shown above was sent to me in March 2010 by Caroline Barr, who said:

"Regarding your article on the Princess Victoria disaster 1953 I have in my posession a lifebelt from the Princess Victoria. It was brought ashore from a naval vessel (which I presume may be the HMS Crispin) to Londonderry, it was then sent to York road rail station Belfast where it remained for some years in the lost property office. On a clear out of this office my grandfather who was a ticket collector claimed it. On Reading the book Death on the North Channel by Stephen Cameron, we see no mention of lifebelts and were wondering could this be the only one found?"

I replied:
"...If you heard that it had been brought ashore from a Naval vessel, then this almost certainly had to be the one from HMS Crispin as no other ships found anything".

i ADM 1/24998 Return to text
ii ADM 53/13487 Return to text
iii BJ 5/274 Return to text
iv ADM 53/136819 Return to text
v ADM 53/132187 Return to text

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