The funeral of Roseanne Baxter, one of those lost in the Princess Victoria disaster of 1953
AS the Merchant Vessel Princess Victoria set sail from Loch Ryan that January morning it should have been a routine voyage across the short sea channel to her berth in Larne Harbour.
But the Princess Victoria would never arrive and the empty berth would become a terrible symbol of the disaster which came about during the awful storm of January 31, 1953.
Gales lashed Britain and when the vessel emerged from the mouth of Loch Ryan and into the North Channel, her stern doors were breached by the sea. It set in motion a series of events. The ship’s car deck was flooded by the incoming waves and she lost power as she was flooded, drifting helplessly further into the dangerous waters of the channel.
An old photo of the Princess Victoria leaving Larne Harbour
Her captain sent an SOS which said that the vessel was not under command. The rescue got underway but confusion as to where the Princess Victoria actually was led to precious time being lost in locating her. The gale and the waves were unforgiving.
As the tragic drama unfolded, people in Larne began to fear for the safety of the ship that morning. As a journalist with the Larne Times from 1988 to 2003 I covered many of the anniversaries of the disaster and interviewed many of those who remembered that day as if it had been a few hours before.
There were common threads to what they remembered. One was a sense of disbelief that the ship would sink so close to land, another the expectation that she would still somehow get into Larne despite her difficulties.
One lady recalled how she had been at the cinema at a matinee with her sister and that when she came out people were shouting that ‘the ferry’ was in trouble. Initially, she thought it was the small Larne to Islandmagee ferry, which conveyed people across several hundred yards at the mouth of Larne Lough.
But it soon became clear that it was not. For Margaret Martin, who was 19 years old at the time, the enormity of the tragedy was, as for many in Larne and Stranraer in Scotland, deeply personal. Her uncle, Hugh Brennan, was on the ship and his body was found the next day.
“I remember his funeral. I went out to see it and the whole area down to the Inver Bridge was black with people. He was a very nice person – my favourite uncle – and he was well liked in the town,” she recalled to me in 1989 when I was writing a special feature for the Larne Times.
Hugh Brennan was just one of 133 men, women and children who lost their lives that day in 1953. There were no women and children who survived because they had all been put in the one lifeboat in an effort to get them to safety away from the ship. But the gales were so strong that they dashed the lifeboat against the side of the Princess Victoria and they were all tossed into the angry seas below. There were no survivors from the lifeboat.
Among the women who died was a young crew member named Roseanne Baxter. She had formally served in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) and was a popular local resident of Larne. In 1989 Betty Apsley, who knew Roseanne, recalled the news that she had been lost in the disaster, “It was a dark, dull, dismal day and people flocked to the harbour to see the raging sea when they heard the news,” she said.
Roseanne Baxter’s funeral was said to have been the largest ever seen in the town. But there were many more in Larne and Stranraer, where most of those who were drowned were from. Most local people attended them all. Betty Apsley’s mother told her that Larne was affected the way it had been when the news of the loss of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 filtered back to the town.
“I had known many of those men (on the crew) since I was a child,” Betty told me in 1989.
When the Belfast Telegraph produced a special edition the day following the disaster, Apsleys Newsagents opened despite the fact it was a Sunday. It was the only time the devoutly religious family opened their shop on the Sabbath and there was a queue of locals to buy the paper, which sold out in a half hour.
Captain James Ferguson; saluted the ship as he went down with her
Among those who would have been well-kenned on the route was the Captain, James Miller Ferguson, a Stranraer man. As the disaster reached its terrible climax, Captain Ferguson maintained the finest traditions of seafarers and went down with his ship. The last sighting of him was at the wheel, with one hand raised in salute to the ship.
Frantic efforts were made by the Donaghadee lifeboat and other vessels to try to save those on board and there were many individual and collective acts of heroism. Down through the years the efforts of the Donaghadee Lifeboat men have been remembered as has been the support of the vessel Pass of Drumochter, an aerial photograph from the time showing the ship sheltering one of the lifeboats in her lee until the passengers could be rescued. The Pass of Drumochter was captained by Master Mariner James Kelly from Carnlough in the Glens of Antrim.
A photograph shows the Pass of Drumochter providing shelter for a lifeboat
A Royal Navy vessel, HMS Contest, also raced to the scene and one of the officers threw himself into the sea to save two men on a raft.
Of the 177 passengers and crew on board the Princess Victoria, there were only 44 survivors.
“Larne is town of mourning. So many of her sons and daughters, as well as friends, who have for so long and often walked her streets, perished when the Princess Victoria foundered to near to the home shores on Saturday afternoon,” said the Larne Times in its edition following the tragedy.
“Memories dim but people will never forget the day the Princess Victoria went down,” the Galloway Gazette on the other side of the channel noted in 1989.
It was the Rev. Victor Lynas of Gardenmore Presbyterian Church who summed up the poignancy when he said at a memorial service at the harbour that Sunday that as an empty chair in the house reminded people of a loved one departed, so the empty berth at the harbour brought home the loss which had occurred.
In the years since the disaster there have been many commemorations. As a local journalist the most poignant for me was the 40th anniversary in 1993, when civic representatives from both Larne and Stranraer were taken on a contemporary ferry to hold a service and cast wreaths into the waters in the middle of the channel. Watching the waves and the darkness of the sea that cold January day it was possible to imagine the horrors of a January day decades before.
Each year at Stranraer in Scotland and Larne in Northern Ireland civic ceremonies are held at the harbours to mark the great loss which both towns sustained. There were people from different parts of Ulster and Scotland who perished that day, but most were from the twin towns united by the sea passage across the North Channel.
This year will be no different; the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes Princess Victoria Lodge fittingly organising the event in Larne. The ship is remembered primarily by a large memorial on the Larne seafront. An Orange lodge in the town also carries an image of her leaving Larne Harbour on the banner.
The ship finally went down off the Copeland Islands near the County Down coast, where she rests on the bottom of the sea. One can only imagine the terror and fear on board the vessel after she left the safety of Loch Ryan that day.
The loss of the Princess Victoria was the worst sea disaster in United Kingdom waters; it is still a loss felt by the families most directly connected to the tragedy.
1953 report on the memorial service at Larne Harbour; the loss of the Princess Victoria was Northern Ireland’s worst maritime disaster