Galloway's tragedy

19 September 2023
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The sinking of the Stranraer-Larne ferry Princess Victoria in 1953 remains the UK’s biggest peacetime maritime disaster. It was also a shattering blow for two small communities which had been socially and economically tied for many decades. Elaine Barton, Chair of the Stranraer & District Local History Trust will present a special event to mark the 70th anniversary of the event and the 25th anniversary of a book about the sinking by the famous Galloway author Jack Hunter.

Tell us a little about what happened to Princess Victoria?

On 31st January 1953 a huge storm front hit the UK. Sea conditions were atrocious when the Princess Victoria eventually set sail from her home port in Stranraer, at 7.45am, to make the routine voyage to Larne. It took her over 45 minutes to make it to the mouth of Loch Ryan. As she cleared the loch she was exposed to the full North Western gale.

Captain James Ferguson appears to have decided to turn the ferry around and return to safety, in effect reversing the ship back into the loch. However during this manoeuvre, the ship was exposed to the full force of the gale and the stern doors were breached by the sea - water started to flood into the car deck.

A party of crewmen tried to shut the stern doors which had buckled. The doors wouldn’t stay shut and after half an hour they abandoned their project as it was becoming too risky. The ship had also started to list when the cargo, secured on the higher port side, broke free and began to slide down to the lower starboard side which increased the degree of list.

At 09.46 the first message went out to say that the ship was in trouble. By 10.30 it had become a fully-fledged SOS. In response the lifeboat Jeanie Spiers was launched from Portpatrick. Unfortunately she was heading in the wrong direction in dangerous waters. With every minute that passed the Victoria was heading away from the search area across the channel towards Ireland. It wasn’t until 1pm, when her engines stopped, that the rescue mission changed to the Irish side of the channel but it was too late.

The Victoria’s last reported position was that she was in sight of the Irish coast when she went down and 135 people were lost. No women or children were among the 44 survivors.

What was the impact on the Stranraer and Larne Communities?

Both were small communities with strong connections to the sea linked by the ferries which had provided employment for generations. Twenty three people from Stranraer were lost and 27 from Larne. The sorrow was deeply felt by such a heavy loss of life within two small towns. The closeness continues to some extent but with P&O moving to Cairnryan in 1973 and Stena moving in 2011 there are no longer ferries leaving Stranraer.

Have there been any books about what happened?

Several books have been written including: The Loss of the Princess Victoria by Jack Hunter, Death in the North Channel by Stephen Cameron, Where Terror Came By Sea by Peter McCabe, Death of the Princess Victoria by Bill Pollock and The Great Storm by J. Lennox Kerr.

Is the disaster still commemorated?

At both Princess Victoria memorials (in Larne and Stranraer) there’s a memorial service and wreath laying ceremony, each year on the 31 of January at 11am. This year was particularly well attended as it was the 70th anniversary of the tragedy.

A commemorative event also took place afterwards in the Stranraer Millennium Centre. Over in Larne an event was staged entitled For Those In Peril. There are ongoing discussions at the moment in the hope that this event will be brought over to Stranraer in January 2024. It is hoped that we will build closer bonds with our friends across the water through being jointly involved in future events.

Tell us about your event at this year's festival

As chair of the local History Trust, I feel humbled and privileged to be paying tribute to those who were lost 70 years ago on the ill- fated, Stranraer – Larne ferry, Princess Victoria.

One of our authors, and an eminent historian, was the late Jack Hunter. Jack was a well-known Wigtown man and very involved with the book festival over the years. His first edition of The Loss of the Princess Victoria was written in 1998 and in 2010 a second edition was published.

The disaster remains the biggest loss of life in British coastal waters in peacetime. Jack was determined to keep alive the memory of those who were lost, particularly for future generations.

Similar to the book festival, Stranraer & District Local History Trust are celebrating 25 years since being established. In that period we have published 34 books and sold over 40,000 copies.