Services to mark 60 years since sinking of Princess Victoria

The haunting memorial to the MV Princess Victoria on the cliffs at Portpatrick
The haunting memorial to the MV Princess Victoria on the cliffs at Portpatrick

NEXT week marks 60 years since the tragic sinking of the MV Princess Victoria during its sailing between Stranraer and Larne.

With the loss of 133 lives, including some political figures, it was seen as the worst maritime disaster since WWII and a series of memorials will take place to commemorate the 1953 tragedy on 31 January.

One of the first ro-ro ferries (roll on, roll off), the Princess Victoria ran into trouble after departing from Loch Ryan.

Captained by the 55-year old James Ferguson, the vessel left Stranraer’s railway loading pier at 7.45am with 44 tons of cargo, 128 passengers and 51 crew oblivious to the strength of the storm whipping up the channel further out.

As soon as the vessel turned west out of Loch Ryan, the winds and strong waves began battering the stern doors, damaging them and rendering them useless. Water began to pour into th car deck and the ship developed a list.

The captain decided to retreat into Loch Ryan but the strong winds forced the crew back, and they were unable to release the securing pin on the bow rudder.

Instead, Captain Ferguson - who had captained the route on various ferries for 17 years - decided to take a path to Northern Ireland which he believed would shelter the ship from the worst of the storm.

However, at 9.46am came a call for help from the captain to Portpatrick Radio Station asking for ugent assistance of tugs.

Portpatrick Lifeboat the Jeannie Spiers was dispatched as was the destroyer HMS Contest when the call for help was upgraded to an SOS at 10.32am.

Contest left Rothesay at 11.09am but although she came close to her position at 1.30pm, poor visibility prevented the crew from seeing the sinking ship.

The Princess Victoria was still reporting her position as five miles north west of Corsewall Point but her engines were still turning and were gradually drawing the vessel closer to Northern Ireland and away from her reported position.

At 1.08pm the ship broadcast that her engines had stopped. The final morse code message at 1.58pm reported the ship “on her beam end”.

Captain Ferguson was observed by those in the water or in lifeboats to be stood at the salute on the bridge in the classic pose of the captain who goes down with his ship.

There were 40 survivors - none of which were women or children - and 23 of the dead were from Stranraer.

The court of inquiry found that assistance to the Princess Victoria had been hampered by other distress operations already under way in the extreme weather conditions of the day.

A memorial can be found in Agnew Park, Stranraer depicting an anchor and naming the deceased, and another is adorned on the cliffs of Portpatrick in honour of the lifeboatmen from the village who joined the rescue effort.

Next Thursday, a service will be held at 11am at the memorial in Agnew Park, Stranraer. The second service will be held in the Town Kirk, Stranraer at 11.30am.