Death at Sea

Vol. 9 No. 1 - 2007

Death at Sea

by Arnold Sleator

d. 30 Nov. 2020

The Princess Victoria, a roll-on roll-off ferry vessel, set sail from Stranraer at 8 am on 31 January 1953, into weather so severe that it is still referred to as the ‘Great Storm’. In spite of courageous efforts by the crew to keep the ship afloat in the terrible sea conditions of that day, the Princess Victoria foundered at 2pm, five miles east of the Copelands entrance to Belfast Lough.

There were a total of 179 people on board, and of these the only survivors were 10 male crew members and 34 male passengers. All the women, children and senior officers on board the vessel were drowned.

It is not the purpose of this article to deal with the raised at the enquiry into this disaster, but to refer to the connection with Portadown.

On board was Mrs Nansy Bryson (nee Pollock) from Castlerock. She had met and married Edgar Bryson, who was the youngest son of James and Catherine Bryson of Portadown. Edgar was educated at the Royal School in Armagh, and in 1920 went into the family business of Spence Bryson Limited, linen and handkerchief manufacturers in Portadown’s Meadow Lane. They were married in 1934.

Both felt led to serve as missionaries in Africa, and in June 1934 they left Portadown for Kenya; they served there until 1951, establishing a Mission Station, and their home, at Tambnach, where their daughters Margaret, Jennifer and Rosaleen were born. The second World War prevented them getting home for 17 years until 1951; after an extended time in Northern Ireland their leave was due to end in the middle of February 1953. Towards the end of January that year Nansy had gone to Scotland on her own to visit a friend; Edgar was waiting to meet her at Larne.

A vignette from the enquiry:

‘As the storm raged on the 31st about noon, Steward James Blair was assisting passengers to don their life-jackets and running out lifelines. Blair noticed that many of the passengers, because of the list to starboard, had slid down the deck, and he with another steward slid down the sloping deck, tied lines round the passengers, and hauled them up to the port side of the ship. Nansy Bryson’s handbag had slipped from her grasp and was still lying at the starboard side of the ship. She was in quite a state of panic following the loss of her bag, and the steward again slid down the deck and managed to retrieve it.’

That winter Nansy had written two letters to her friend Miss Jean Corbett of Quarry Bank in Portadown:

‘Cremona’, Castlerock
27 December 1952

We had a very exciting Christmas. We spent it with my sisters, and the children thought it was the best we have ever had. I found it a bit difficult to keep from thinking about coming partings.

And again, nine days prior to the sinking:

We would love to call and say good-bye but I’m afraid to make arrangements in case we can’t keep them. The last weeks fill up so quickly. Hope shall be laid upon all the wounds of life. It shall be antidote to care and fear, to waning joys and haunting shadows.

Edgar and Nansy

Was this a premonition?


Edgar Bryson eventually returned to Kenya, to a place called Eldoret; he re-married in 1955, and carried on his mission work until 1970. He returned to Stranraer and sadly died in March 1971.

  1. ‘Death in the North Channel’ by Stephen Cameron, 2002
  2. ‘Edgar Bryson Missionary to Kenya’ by George R. Chapman 1971
  3. First Presbyterian Church, Portadown: Archives
  4. Mrs Joan McKittrick

  5. Princess Victoria
    Princess Victoria