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BBC Timewatch: The Greatest Storm 1953


“Timewatch” The Greatest Storm (2003)

In January of 1953, unusual weather conditions caused Britain’s worst national peacetime disaster of the 20th century.

A storm surge flooded the eastern coast of England, killing more than 300 people and leaving thousands homeless.

Fifty years later, ‘Timewatch’ re-examines a calamity which is largely forgotten today.

About the Princess Victoria. Fifty years ago, the MV Princess Victoria sank off the County Down coast in treacherous weather, with the loss of 133 lives. . One of the worst to happen in British coastal waters – dominated the headlines and devastated families and communities in Larne, Stranraer and further afield.

31 January 1953. Parts of western Europe and the UK were in the grip of freak weather from the north Atlantic killing hundreds of people.

Timeline of disaster 0745: Princess Victoria leaves Stranraer 0900: Wave bursts through stern doors 0946: First emergency signal sent: No tugs available 1032: SOS call: “Car deck flooded” 1100: Portpatrick lifeboat given wrong directions 1300: Starboard engine room flooded – position critical 1308: Ship lying on beam end 1315: “We are preparing to abandon ship” 1330: Steamer passes Victoria without seeing her 1340: Passengers ordered to deck 1358: Last message from ferry’s radio operator

Larne man, John McKnight, 92, is one of the few remaining survivors. He was chief cook on the ferry and remembers that day vividly. (Deceased 2 weeks after interview) “I started work at 5.30am and the train from London arrived (in Stranraer) at 6am. Everything had to be prepared for breakfast, we served that to the passengers before setting sail. The ferry proceeded up Loch Ryan and soon we discovered that there was a severe gale blowing,” he recalled. At the helm of the Princess Victoria that day was 55-year-old Captain James Ferguson. An experienced seaman, he had worked on the Larne – Stranraer route for many years.

Jack Hunter, has written about the tragedy, With the stern doors irreparably damaged, water flooding the car deck and inadequate drainage on board, Captain Ferguson decided the best course of action was to try and steer the ship towards Northern Ireland.

Stephen Cameron, author of a book on the Princess Victoria tragedy, said David Broadfoot was posthumously awarded the George Cross for his heroic actions. When Captain Ferguson made the final call to abandon ship, eyewitnesses say he was at the bridge as the Princess Victoria went under. It happened just five miles off the Copeland Islands and within sight of the north Down coast.

On two previous occasions – in 1949 and 1951 – these same design faults had caused problems on the ferry. Jack Hunter believes if they had been fixed back then, things might have been very different. “Most certainly, it is a disaster that could have, and should have been avoided. The problems were discovered, they were known to be there, one assumes they were reported through official channels, yet nothing was done about them,” Whatever the causes of the Princess Victoria sinking to a watery grave on that stormy Saturday afternoon in January 1953, the passing of time has not erased the sorrow felt by many, whose loved ones went down with the ship. They are commemorated every year at services in Larne, Stranraer and in Donaghadee -and on the forthcoming 60th anniversary, the overriding sentiment will remain the same.

Never forget.

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