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THE heroic efforts of Donaghadee’s Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat crew that helped save the lives of thirty-three people caught up in the Princess Victoria disaster are the focus of a new exhibition.

The Princess Victoria Disaster Exhibition will be open at the North Down Museum until Sunday, March 24 and takes a close look at the brave rescue efforts of the local crew in the worst shipping disaster in the province’s history.

The exhibition has been brought to life thanks to a collaboration between the Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company and the dedicated museum team.

It recalls how the MV Princess Victoria Stranraer to Larne car ferry foundered off the North Down coast with the loss of over 130 lives early in the great storm of January 31,1953 – the Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat, crewed by some experienced local fishermen, rescued 33 of the 44 survivors in horrendous sea conditions.

Not one woman or child survived out of 177 people who set sail from Scotland, with North Down MP Sir Walter Smiles, the great-grandfather of television survival expert Bear Grylls, and Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Maynard Sinclair, amongst those who lost their lives.

The Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat left Donaghadee in 1976 and became part of the RNLI Reserve Fleet. Three years later and while stationed at Courtmacsherry in West Cork, it was again involved in the rescue of 11 people aboard yachts in the Fastnet Race that were caught up in a storm.

The iconic lifeboat is currently under the care of the  Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company, a not-for-profit charitable company, that was formed by local volunteers nearly a decade ago.

Donaghadee Heritage hopes to find a permanent heritage and visitor centre home for the Sir Samuel Kelly, with ongoing conservation work ongoing at the Copelands Marina in Donaghadee.

The company recently received a £90,000 funding boost from the Heritage Lottery Fund to bring the story of the lifeboat and the town’s history to life; this recent funding boost will help create a temporary exhibition room with digital and static educational displays.

Alan Couser, chair of Donaghadee Heritage and Donaghadee Lifeboat chairman, was delighted The Princess Victoria Disaster exhibition would take place in the RNLI’s 200th anniversary year.

He praised the efforts of everyone involved in creating the exhibition particularly Shirley Cochrane, Donaghadee Heritage board member, whose family boasts a lengthy history with the RNLI stretching back to 1910.

He said: “Lifeboats played a major role in the borough, the main routes were seaways, it was easier to go by sea than by road 200 years ago. Lifeboats played a very important part in North Down and throughout the British Isles.”

That crucial role was witnessed on the fateful day the Princess Victoria foundered; after leaving the shelf of Loch Ryan and turning into the North Channel, waves burst open the rear doors and water flooded the car deck. Unable to return to safety, the ferry headed out into the storm for Larne.

Such were the worsening conditions, the crew believed they were only five miles off Loch Ryan but they were actually closer to Northern Ireland’s coast. Once the stricken ship reported sighting Mew Island Lighthouse, the Sir Samuel Kelly set off from Donaghadee to help those in peril.

In what was described by a Prince Victoria sailor as ‘the finest seamanship’ he had ever witnessed, Sir Samuel Kelly coxswain Hugh Nelson helped to pick up survivors from two lifeboats and a raft.

In recognition of his bravery, Mr Nelson was awarded the British Empire Medal and RNLI Bronze Medal. The following day the lifeboat was back at sea and recovered 12 bodies which were brought back to Donaghadee.

Conserving this iconic piece of seafaring history is clearly a passion for the dedicated Donaghadee heritage team as Mr Couser said: “We have a wonderful team around us, some of the people are maritime experts especially in the restoration of lifeboats. We have a great fundraising team and we also have people like Shirley who are keen historians. We have lots of people who are hands-on and are prepared to do the work to conserve the Sir Samuel Kelly.”

The Sir Samuel Kelly was clearly built to brave the ravages of the sea as Mr Couser said: “When we started to do the work on it and stripped her of all the paint we found she was in better structural condition that what we could ever have expected. This was due to the quality of the timbers used which were Honduran mahogany.”

He said: “Most of our work has been stripping back, allowing it to dry and filling in major blemishes, replacing any timbers that were completely rotten. We have almost completed all the external work on the boat and from a distance it looks like new. We are now starting the work on the inside.”

Their ultimate aim is to find a permanent home for the Sir Samuel Kelly. “We want to find a permanent home for the lifeboat. As a company we are looking at all options and are more than happy to work with all partners, including commercial partners.”

The future certainly looks bright thanks to their recent funding boost. “We recently received £90,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund which will allow us to put up an interpretative centre. The grant also covers the employment of a part time outreach officer and they will be going to schools, businesses and anybody who is interested in talking to us. We will be having a grand opening about Easter this year.”

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