The Princess Victoria was one of the earliest roll-on, roll-off (RORO) ferries, built in 1947 by Wm Denny & Bros, Dumbarton. She was employed by British Railways on the crossing from Stranraer in Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland and was the first purpose built ferry of her kind to operate in British coastal waters. She was the fourth ship to bear the name, her predecessor having been sunk during WW2 in the Humber estuary by a German mine. Although being innovative in her loading methods the vessel looked externally similar to her namesake. She could hold 1,500 passengers plus cargo and had sleeping accommodation for 54.
The sinking of Princess Victoria occurred during a severe European windstorm which also caused the North Sea Flood of 1953, claiming 531 fatalities in the UK alone, although this was the worst single incident in that storm.
Captained by the 55 year old James Ferguson, the vessel left Stranraer's Railway loading pier at 0745am with 44 tons of cargo, 128 passengers and 51 crew. Captain Ferguson had served as master on various ferries on the same route for 17 years. A gale warning was in force but he made a decision to put to sea. Loch Ryan is a sheltered inlet and the immediate force of the wind and sea was not apparent, but it was noted that spray was breaking over the stern doors. A "guillotine door" had been fitted because of the previously identified problem with spray and waves hitting the stern doors but it was rarely used because it took too long to raise and lower. On this occasion it was not lowered. This would have provided extra protection for the sliding stern doors. Shortly after clearing the mouth of Loch Ryan the ship turned west towards Larne and exposed her stern to the worst of the high seas. Huge waves damaged the low stern doors, allowing water to enter the car deck. The crew struggled to try and close the doors again but they proved to be too badly damaged and water continued to flood in from the waves. The scuppers did not seem to be allowing the water to drain away. The ship took a list to starboard and at the point Captain Ferguson decided to retreat to the safety of Loch Ryan by going astern and using the bow rudder but the extreme conditions made it impossible for deckhands to release the securing pin on the bow rudder so this option had to be abandoned and the Captain made a decision to try and reach Northern Ireland by adopting a course which would keep the stern of the craft sheltered from the worst of the elements. At 09:46, two hours after leaving Stranraer a message was transmitted in morse code (the Princess Victoria did not have radio) to the Portpatrick Lifeboat Station: "Hove-to off mouth of Loch Ryan. Vessel not under command. Urgent assistance of tugs required". With a list to starboard exacerbated by shifting cargo, water continued to enter the ship. At 10:32 an SOS transmission was made, and the order to abandon was given at 14:00.
By 10.30 the assistance message had been upgraded to an SOS and the Portpatrick Lifeboat the Jeannie Spiers was dispatched as was the destroyer HMS Contest, commanded by Lt Commander HP Fleming, which left Rothsay at 1109hrs but although she came close to her position at 1330hrs, poor visibility prevented the crew from seeing the sinking ship. The destroyer had been trying to maintain a speed of 31 knots to reach the listing ferry but after sustaining damage from the seas Captain Fleming was forced to reduce speed to 16 knots. The Princess Victoria was still reporting her position as 5 miles north west of Corswall Point but her engines were still turning and even at the speed of 5 knots were gradually drawing the vessel closer to Northern Ireland and away from her reported position. At 1308hrs the ship broadcast that her engines had stopped. The final morse code message at 1358hrs reported the ship "on her beam end" 5 miles east of the Copeland Islands.
The ship's radio officer, David Broadfoot, was posthumously awarded the George Cross. For staying at his post to the very end, allowing passengers and crew to escape, even though he knew that by doing so he was preventing his own escape. His medal is on permanent display in Stranraer Museum. The George Medal was awarded to the ship's captain, James Ferguson (posthumously), and a number of people involved in the rescue operation. 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.
The court of enquiry 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. An RAF Hastings aircraft had been assisting rescues off Lewis and Barra and as a result did not reach the location of the doomed ferry until 1531hrs, dropping supplies and guiding HMS Consort to the scene. The enquiry noted how different the outcome may have been if the aircraft had been available earlier. Confusion over the location of the Princess Victoria had contributed to the rescue vessels difficulty in locating her and it wasn't until the crew had sighted the coast of Northern Ireland at 1335hrs and transmitted a new position fix that the rescue attempt was able to home in. In addition to the naval, RAF and lifeboats then searching, four small merchant vessels which had been sheltering in Belfast Lough put to sea immediately to assist after hearing the transmission which placed the Princess Victoria close to their anchorage: the cattle ship Lairdsmoor, the trawler Eastcotes, the coastal oil tanker Pass of Drumochter and the coastal cargo ship Orchy. Despite arriving before the lifeboats, the merchant ships were unable to rescue the survivors in lifeboats as the fierce waves were in danger of dashing the smaller boats against the sides of the larger ships. All they could do was to provide shelter from the worst of the seas until the Donaghadee lifeboat, the Sir Samuel Kelly arrived and was able to bring survivors on board. This lifeboat has been preserved and is now part of the collection of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
The captains of the merchant ships: James Alexander Bell of the Lairdsmoor, David Brewster of the Eastcotes, James Kelly of the Pass of Drumochter and Hugh Angus of Orchy each became Members of the British Empire. Lieutenant Commander Stanley Lawrence McArdle and Chief Petty Officer Wilfred Warren of HMS Contest were both awarded the George Medal for diving into the water to help survivors.
There were 44 survivors but notably none of the ships officers were among them.
There were 133 deaths, including the Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Maynard Sinclair and the MP for North Down, Lt Col Sir Walter Smiles. Controversially, there were no women or children among the 40 survivors. Eyewitnesses reported seeing a lifeboat containing at least some of the women and children being smashed against the side of the Princess Victoria by the huge waves. The disaster shocked many people because, although it took place in extreme weather conditions, it involved a routine journey, on a relatively short crossing (20 miles)in what were believed to be safe waters.
In Larne, Northern Ireland, a small town that largely relied on its seaport, most families were affected in some way. A ceremony was held at the port; wreaths were thrown on the water and the crowd sang "Lord, hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea".
The Court of Enquiry into the sinking , held in March 1953 at Crumlin Road Courthouse in Belfast, found that the Princess Victoria was lost due to a combination of factors. In a report of 30,000 pages the enquiry found that: firstly, the stern doors were not sufficiently robust. Secondly, arrangements for clearing water from the car deck were inadequate. The report concluded "If the Princess Victoria had been as staunch as those who manned her, then all would have been well and the disaster averted. The court also noted the failure of the duty destroyer HMS Tenacious from the 3rd Training Squadron based at HMS Sea Eagle in Londonderry [sic] to be able to put to sea as too many men had been released on shore leave. As a consequence of the enquiry the duty destroyer from the 3rd Squadron was subsequently based "on station" at the mouth of Lough Foyle on 1 hour readiness to put to sea.
Memorials have been erected in Chaine Road, Larne, Co Antrim, in Portpatrick, Wigtownshire and in Stranraer, Wigtownshire (where 23 inhabitants lost their lives in the disaster). It has become the custom for a memorial service to be held on both sides of the North Channel on the anniversary of the sinking. Many of the survivors continue to attend these religious services.
In 2003, on the 50th anniversary, a new plaque with the names of those lost was unveiled at the Victoria Memorial in Agnew Park, Stranraer. A piper played the tune Lament of the MV Princess Victoria. Two new plaques were also unveiled at the Victoria Memorial in Larne.