60 years on ... town remembers Princess Victoria disaster

Local artist Chris Gilbert and Larne Mayor Gerardine Mulvenna with the painting Chris presented to the Borough on the 60th anniversary of the tragedy. INLT 06-325-PR
Local artist Chris Gilbert and Larne Mayor Gerardine Mulvenna with the painting Chris presented to the Borough on the 60th anniversary of the tragedy. INLT 06-325-PR

A POIGNANT service was held on the shores of Larne last Thursday to mark the 60th anniversary of one of the UK’s worst peacetime sea disasters.

Despite driving rain and howling winds, a large crowd gathered near Larne Harbour at 11am to remember the 133 lives lost on January 31, 1953, when the car ferry Princess Victoria sank during a ferocious storm.

The ship, one of the first roll-on roll-off ferries, had been heading for Larne from the Scottish port of Stranraer when it was damaged by pounding waves, took on water and went down close to the Copeland Islands off the coast of Co Down.

Only 44 of the 177 people on board escaped with their lives; not a single woman or child survived.

The disaster had a huge impact on the Larne community, with 27 of the victims from the town. And the legacy of that fateful day six decades ago is still etched in the minds of those who lived through it, as evidenced by the large turn out at the commemoration service.

Local ministers gave readings, pupils from Larne Grammar School sang a hymn, and a piece of music called ‘Victoria’ was also performed by composer Ivan Black. A number of wreaths were laid at the Princess Victoria Memorial by various groups, including relatives of the passengers and crew.

One of the few remaining survivors, Larne man Billy McAllister, was present at the commemoration service and spoke to the Times of his memories of that terrible day 60 years ago.

Billy, who was just a teenager at the time, had been working as a pantry boy on the Princess Victoria along with his cousin William Hooper.

“I got up at six o’clock that morning and the ship was due to set sail at seven,” he recalled.

“When we got out to the open sea, the ship was hammered about by large waves, and the stern gates to the car deck burst open. The crew couldn’t get them shut, water flooded into the ship and as the cargo shifted, the ferry listed onto her side.”

Billy was eventually rescued by the RNLI lifeboat the Sir Samuel Kelly, from Donaghadee, Co Down. However, his cousin was not so fortunate - his body was recovered from the sea the following day.

“The memories of that day are as fresh in my mind today as they were in the days after the sinking. These commemoration services are very poignant for me, but they are important as they help to keep alive the memory of those who died that day,” an emotional Billy added.

For many of those affected by the disaster, time has not lessoned the pain of losing a loved one in such tragic circumstances.

Larne woman Betty Crawford, who’s younger brother Jack Peoples perished in the sinking said: “I remember the awful feeling of waiting to hear whether or not Jack had survived.

“Even after 60 years, the memories are still raw. Jack’s body was found the day after the sinking and his was the first funeral out of Larne.”

After the commemoration service, those in attendance made the short trip to Larne Leisure Centre to view a Princess Victoria exhibition, which included newspaper articles dating back to the sinking and photographs of some of the local survivors.

And for Larne man Jim McCarlie, one particular item from the exhibition stirred up vivid memories of the days following the disaster.

That item was a policeman’s notebook (belonging to Detective Charles Lynch, father of Larne Councillor Michael Lynch), which recorded details of the bodies that were recovered after the sinking.

One of those bodies was that of Jim’s uncle, William McCarlie, who had been bosun on board the ship. At the tender age of 15, Jim had been tasked with identifying his uncle’s body at a mortuary in Belfast.

He told the Times: “My father was at sea at the time of the sinking, so I was asked to do the preliminary identification of his brother’s body.

“I remember being taken to a room in a horrible building, where the bodies were lined up in rows.

“The first thing that drew my attention to my uncle’s body was the uniform he was wearing.”

When asked if he could remember how he felt about having to perform such a difficult task at such a young age, he said: “I don’t think I was too distressed; I was maybe just numbed by what had happened.”

But it is not just those who lived through the Princess Victoria disaster who have strong ties to the events that took place that day.

Former Larne woman Dawn Wilson, whose father Robert Henderson Taylor was an inspector at Larne Harbour at the time of the sinking, grew up hearing stories of how the tragedy affected the town.

“As a child, I remember hearing about the profound sense of sadness and loss in the town in the aftermath of the disaster, with grown men in tears,” she added.

One of the central pieces at the exhibition was a painting of the Princess Victoria by Larne artist Chris Gilbert, who also remembers hearing stories about the disaster as a boy.

He told the Times: “I heard a lot about the sinking of the Princess Victoria from my mother, who lost a relative in the disaster.

“I am honoured to be able to unveil this painting of the ship at the 60th anniversary commemoration.”