Ray Cleere recalls ‘the worst disaster in peace-time Channel shipping’, which occurred in the Irish Sea seventy years ago this month and in which 133 people lost their lives.


One hundred and thirty-three people were drowned when the 2,700 ton British Railways motor-vessel, the MV Princess Victoria, which became famous as the ship on the “milk run” between Northern Ireland and Britain, sank within sight of the Copeland Islands, at the entrance to Belfast Lough, seventy years ago on Saturday, January 31st, 1953.

Described as “the disaster that sank from memory”, the ship, which was making the Stranraer to Larne crossing – a journey which normally took only two and a half hours – had survived seven hours of a gale which was almost like a hurricane, before she sank under the waves to her doom at 3.02p.m. having remained upside down for ten minutes.

Wind speeds of 120 miles per hour were recorded across Ireland. Tidal waves which swept Britain claimed the lives of 307 people while Holland reported at least 1,300 dead.

The storm struck its fatal blow just 90 minutes after the vessel set sail. At 9a.m. a massive wave burst through the stern doors and buckled them hopelessly out of shape. Crew members struggled desperately to keep the mangled doors cleared, but sea water surged onto the car deck. One of the engines was irreparably damaged.

In hospitals, homes and hostels in counties Antrim and Down, the 44 survivors told the story of the worst disaster in peace-time Channel shipping; it still remains so seventy years later in 2023, As they did, the thoughts of everyone in Northern Ireland turned to the angry waters of the Irish Sea, where ships and aircraft co-operated in a search for the remainder of the passengers and crew. It was a search without hope.

Those unfortunate people were officially referred to as being missing, but it would have been a miracle if they were not dead, for no one on a raft or in a lifeboat was expected to survive the Artic-like conditions in the Irish Sea on Saturday, or the less violent conditions on Sunday.

Particularly chilling was the fact that not one woman or child survived the ship’s sinking, which was regarded as “a generation’s Titanic”, but very little is known about the tragedy outside Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own