VALUED medals earned after one of Northern Ireland’s worst maritime disasters have been stolen during a burglary of a house in Donaghadee.

A British Empire Medal and RNLI Bronze Medal awarded to coxswain Hugh Nelson for his efforts to rescue survivors of the MV Princess Victoria tragedy in 1953 were taken during the incident at the house in the Manor Street area. Mr Nelson had been the only crew member of the Donaghadee lifeboat of the time, the Sir Samuel Kelly, to have been rewarded with these particular medals for his part in the rescue effort of the worst peacetime incident in British waters.

Other crew members were awarded different medals for bravery after they plucked 33 men to safety. The ferry tragedy claimed the lives of 133 people, including women and children and also the Northern Ireland deputy prime minister, Maynard Sinclair and Sir Walter Smiles, the north Down MP. The stolen medals had been in the possession of Mr Nelson’s granddaughter, Shirley Cochrane, who said two other medals, cash and jewellery were also lost in the break-in.

It is understood the culprits gained entry to the house via a window. Police are investigating the crime – understood to have occurred sometime between Tuesday, September 27 and Friday, October 7 – and want to hear from anyone offered such items for sale. The PSNI have also warned householders to take whatever steps they can to protect their homes and to ensure windows and doors are closed and locked, even if the property is empty for a short time.

Shirley stressed that though the medals had little monetary value, they were however of great sentimental value to both her and the town of Donaghadee. “They belonged to my grandfather Hugh Nelson who had been coxswain at the time of the Princess Victoria disaster in 1953 and he died the following year, when he had been in his 60s.”

Shirley had been the keeper of her late grandfather’s medals as they had been in the possession of her father, also called Hugh, who had been part of the lifeboat crew involved in the rescue. He had been a young man in his 20s at the time. Shirley revealed that she had exhibited the medals in the past and that they were destined to be placed on permanent display by the Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company, of which she is a member.

One of the four medals stolen had belonged to her greatgrandfather who had been the coxswain of the first ever Donaghadee lifeboat which had established in the town in 1910. He had received it in reward for his bravery by the French government for the rescue of a French boat which had floundered off the Donaghadee coast in 1915.

The Donaghadee woman said the fourth medal was a South African war medal. “People would find it very hard to sell because the medals all have the names of these men on them and I’m not sure they knew what they were lifting,” she said. News of the theft was posted on social media and has since been shared and liked widely since the burglary was discovered last Friday. North Down Assembly member Alex Easton, has called for the return of medals, which he acknowledged were ‘an important part of the local history of Donaghadee’.

“I am calling on anyone with information to help with the recovery of these items to contact the family, myself or the PSNI. I would urge those responsible to explore their consciences and to return the items stolen and do the right thing for once in your lives.” Anyone with information is asked to contact police on 101 quoting reference number 2095 07/10/22.

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