Princess Victoria disaster 70th anniversary: ‘I will never forget 31st January 1953’

To help commemorate the 70th anniversary of the MV Princess Victoria disaster, Larne resident and author Patricia E Beattie (now McKinley- Hutchinson) shares her memories of the tragedy in the storm and heavy seas of January 31, 1953.

“The MV Princess Victoria left Stranraer at 7.45am on Saturday 31st January 1953 to travel the 39 miles to Larne on her daily sailings between Scotland and Northern Ireland. The weather was atrocious with lashing rain and high winds. When travelling down Loch Ryan she encountered very rough seas and the predicted high winds but it was only when she reached the open water of the Irish sea that the full strength of the hurricane force gale hit her, soon smashing open her stern doors and flooding the ship.

“That morning my late dad, George Beattie, manager of the railway owned Laharna Hotel, was on sick leave. He had been due to travel to England and Scotland that week on the Princess Victoria to sell the Laharna Tour but because of his recent operation our GP Harry Rutherford said: ‘Wait for another week before returning to work.’

"Dad regularly travelled on the Princess Victoria with Harry Coleman, who similarly sold tours for the Kings Arms and McNeill’s Hotels, Larne.

The Princess Victoria Memorial, Larne.

“Because the railway owned hotel was not busy in the winter months some Laharna Hotel staff worked on the local railway owned ship Princess Victoria. That day there were two Laharna staff from Larne on the ship. One was our head waiter Paddy Shields and the other was Archibald O’Neill, who worked in Laharna kitchen.

“That Saturday morning on 31st January dad, mum and I left Larne by car for some shopping in Dublin. We stopped on route for petrol and it was whilst in the petrol shop that dad heard the owner’s radio with the news about the Princess Victoria. (One must remember that in 1953 there were no mobile phones and news was conveyed by newspaper, radio and/or telephone.)

“Dad used the garage shop phone to call Laharna to get the hotel prepared for any possible survivors from the ship and we rushed back to Larne.

“When we arrived home the town was deserted, blinds were drawn and Laharna staff were openly weeping. 137 passengers and crew drowned when the ship sank around 2pm that day, of whom 27 came from Larne.

Patricia E Beattie.

Funeral Corteges

“Later that next week and for many days the funeral corteges of those drowned passed Laharna corner on their way to funeral services in various churches in Larne. I remember attending with my parents the memorial service held at Larne Harbour, hearing Rev Victor Lynas conduct the service and seeing the wreaths floating on the water.

"Later the gallant crew of the Donaghadee lifeboat, who saved 33 lives under the command of coxswain Hugh Nelson, came to be honoured in Larne. They were entertained in Laharna and I remember thinking that these were ordinary men but they achieved an extraordinary act by saving so many lives.

“Why, after 70 years, do I remember that day? The sinking of the Princess Victoria was the worst maritime disaster in Northern Ireland. Forty-four survived but there were no survivors of women or children. Both the Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Major Maynard Sinclair and the MP for North Down Sir Walter Smiles were drowned.

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‘Pain and loss’ of Princess Victoria disaster still felt on 70th anniversary

“When I lay a wreath I remember the two Laharna Hotel staff, Ada Prior (mother of my school friend David Prior from Carnlough) and my father’s travelling companion Harry Coleman, Drains Bay - all of whom were drowned. I thank God for the fact that my father was not on board that fateful day and I think of the bravery of the lifeboat men who rescued so many from the mountainous seas.

“I will never forget 31st January 1953.”