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Salty dog stories: Sir Samuel Kelly Lifeboat

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Hello Salty Dog lovers! I hope you are all keeping well. This is not where I expected the latest edition of Salty Dog Stories to be written, but Milo and I are working from home at the moment. As you can see Milo has already managed to work out how to type using only the power of his mind!

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As everyone adjusts to this new way of living, I thought I would update you with Milo’s latest maritime adventure.

Back in February, we were delighted to welcome members of the Donaghadee Heritage Preservation group to our stores at the Ulster Transport Museum in Cultra. As they are currently working on the conservation of the Donaghadee Lifeboat, the Sir Samuel Kelly, they had a particular interest in seeing the eight service boards we have in the collection from Donaghadee Lifeboat Station. These document the services and rescues from the establishment of the station in 1910 until 1979.

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Seeing the number of rescues the Sir Samuel Kelly was involved in is very humbling but of particular significance was the rescue of survivors from one of the most shocking maritime tragedies in our waters, that of the sinking of the Princess Victoria.

The Princess Victoria was a roll on/roll off ferry that operated between Stranraer and Larne from the later 1940’s.

Image: Princess Victoria (Image courtesy of Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company)
Princess Victoria (Image courtesy of Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company)

On 31 January 1953, severe gales had blown in around Scotland and Northern Ireland and as the boat made her way towards the Co. Down coast, the huge waves forced open the stern doors to the car deck. Water flooded into the ship and as the cargo shifted, the ferry started to list to starboard. The emergency calls for assistance were made and just over three hours after they had begun their journey, the order was given to abandon ship. RNLI Lifeboats were launched from Portpatrick and the Sir Samuel Kelly was launched from Donaghadee.

In their recently published booklet, “Sir Samuel Kelly; the Princess Victoria Disaster”, the Donaghadee Heritage Preservation group along with historian Stephen Cameron, tell us more about the crew of the ‘Kelly’ who went to provide assistance that day.

“At his home in Donaghadee, Hugh Nelson, the Coxswain of the local Lifeboat, the Sir Samuel Kelly was listening to the BBC radio news. Nelson had been a crew member of the Lifeboat since 1910 and for the last 4 years he had the honour of being the Coxswain. On hearing the news of the critical position of the Princess Victoria, he and his son who was also called Hugh, made their way down to the harbour in Donaghadee where the Lifeboat was moored.”

Image: Hugh Nelson and crew aboard the Samuel Kelly (Image courtesy of Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company)
Hugh Nelson and crew aboard the Samuel Kelly (Image courtesy of Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company)

“At 13.40 hours the lifeboat crewed by the Nelsons, with Alex, Frank and William Nelson, Samuel Herron, George Lindsay and Engineer James Armstrong, was making its way out of the sheltered harbour at Donaghadee on a journey that would see the crew and Lifeboat at sea for over 24 of the next 36 hours. Coxswain Hugh Nelson was to be continuously at the helm in the open cockpit of his vessel.”

The Princess Victoria’s last reported position was five miles east of the Copeland Islands just south of the entrance to Belfast Lough. In fact, the true location of the ferry was five miles to the north of the reported position. This confusion over the exact position of the Princess Victoria led to the rescue teams being unable to locate the ship until it was too late. Four hours after she began taking on water, the ship sank. Although the ship’s own lifeboats had been launched for the passengers, the stormy conditions smashed some of them against the hull of the ship and some of those that made it into the water were soon overturned by the high seas. No women or children survived.

Of the 177 people onboard, only 44 survived, 33 of whom were rescued by the Sir Samuel Kelly. The sinking was the UK’s greatest post-war maritime disaster at that time.

I had heard of the tragic story of the Princess Victoria from my parents who were children at the time it happened. One unconfirmed story about the sinking, that my mother had heard, piqued Milo’s interest. As the Captain of the Princess Victoria, was preparing to board the ship at Stranraer, his loyal four-legged companion, who never missed a sailing, refused to accompany him. Whether it was a sixth sense or this salty dog knew the conditions weren’t favourable, either way, this canine didn’t make the journey and tragically was never to see his owner again.

After their visit to our stores, the group kindly invited our Transport team (Salty Dog included) to Donaghadee to see for ourselves all of the work they have been doing on the Lifeboat.

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Built in 1950 the Sir Samuel Kelly was stationed in Donaghadee until 1976. The Lifeboat is a Watson Class built on the Isle of Wight. Her top speed was 8 knots and her length is almost 47 feet. The boat was designed to hold a crew of 8, while she could accommodate 95 passengers.

After a period operating out of west Cork, where she was involved in the rescue efforts in the 1979 Fastnet yacht race, she came to the Transport museum for a short time during the 1980s but was transferred to Donaghadee in 1987. Several attempts at some sort of conservation happened over those years but, after such a long time, a much greater effort was required.

More recently it was released into the care of North Down Museum and the Ards and North Down Borough Council. Behind the scenes, the Donaghadee Heritage Preservation group had been busy working away on acquiring funding, gathering information for temporary displays promoting its story and beginning the process of restoration and conservation of this historic vessel.

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Much of the money they have raised was spent on the temporary structure that now houses the Lifeboat; a very impressive steel and plastic building designed to protect the boat from the elements but also to enable ventilation.

Image: Image courtesy of Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company
Image courtesy of Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company

This was completed in early 2019 and more recently security lighting was also acquired.

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A conservation survey was carried out by freelance ship conservators from England who have made regular visits to check on progress and provide expert advice on best practice.

During the winter of 2019/20 it was decided that, for the timbers to thoroughly dry out, the Lifeboat would need to be stripped of as much paint as possible, from the hull and deck. After much searching, a local painter was recruited.

Image: Prior to work beginning (Courtesy of Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company)
Prior to work beginning (Courtesy of Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company)

It was towards the final stages of this part of the work, that myself, Milo and the Transport team visited the ‘Kelly’ and some of the members of the group extended their hospitality to us further through a tour around and on board the boat. Although this work has since been completed, you can see in these photos that the boat has survived remarkably well and that the original wood lying underneath the layers of paint and varnish still retains that warmth and richness synonymous with wooden built boats.

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We climbed aboard, well Milo was carried on board as he is not adept at climbing ladders. It was great being able to walk all around the deck as you get a real sense of what it was like for the crews going out to rescue people in all conditions. This really struck home when we were told that originally the wheelhouse would not have been as enclosed and the coxswain would have had little shelter from the weather. Getting into the wheelhouse was a real treat especially as we were able to see inside the engine room.

Milo decided against having a closer look as it involved a bit of balance work on the remaining supports and he hasn’t been keeping up with his doggy yoga. He did have a good peek inside though!

With the paint now removed, the group have begun to see the timbers drying. With the recent warmer weather, the group now expect this to take just a few more months and they’ll be ready for the next stage. In the meantime, they have been not been idle. As well as their booklet publication, they have been working in partnership with the Copeland Distillery to produce ‘The Sir Samuel Kelly Tribute Gin’. Only 400 bottles have been made of this limited edition gin in an effort to raise £10,000 towards the restoration of the Lifeboat.

The work this group has done is impressive and it is clear how much passion has gone into the project. Their continuing efforts to conserve the boat and raise awareness about its history and the stories of the people associated with her will ensure her survival for future generations.

Our thanks to those members of the group for their hospitality and we thoroughly enjoyed our fascinating visit to this amazing vessel.

And we couldn’t end a trip to Donaghadee without some ice cream! Or in this case doggy friendly frozen yoghurt…

Take care and stay safe everyone from the Salty Dog team! Woof woof!

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To find out more about this project check out the Facebook pages of North Down Museum and The Sir Samuel Kelly Project.