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Kelly's Heroes

The lifeboat which went to the aid of the stricken ferry the Princess Victoria in 1953, lies rotting in a Donaghadee car park.

The Sir Samuel Kelly Lifeboat

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Article - January 2004

A life boat which saved the lives of the county down community and beyond for nearly 30 years, is now in need of saving itself.

The RNLI lifeboat Sir Samuel Kelly, now sits forlornly on wooden blocks in the corner of a car park near the marina at Donaghadee. Open to the elements and subjected to mindless vandalism, this once proud vessel is simply rotting away.

The 'Kelly' heroically went to the aid of the stricken ferry, Princess Victoria, during the great storm of 1953, picking up 33 of the ship's 44 survivors.

The Sir Samuel Kelly


The plight of the Kelly was brought to YPAM's attention by a Belfast man who has become very passionate about the boat and its brave contribution to the UK's worst peacetime sea disaster, which claimed more than 130 lives, on 31 January 1953.

Albert Morrison, as a young boy, vividly remembers the sound of bells ringing as the emergency services raced past his house near Dundonald on that fateful night. Since then Albert has always had an affinity with the Princess Victoria disaster and in recent years has educated himself further on the fate of the ferry.


Albert Morrison describes his passion for the Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat



Albert took us to the current 'berth' of the Kelly in the car park at the marina at Donaghadee. Just before you turn into the car park your eye is drawn to the modern million-pound lifeboat in the sea below and the brightly painted lighthouse beyond suggesting a proud and responsible seafaring vision of the town, which contrasts sharply with the next scene.

As we approach the rusted, wire fence surrounding the rubbish-strewn pen that now houses the old lifeboat, which sits perched on damp and moldy wooden blocks, I notice a proud but fading sign on the ground next to the vessel..."The Sir Samuel Kelly....."

To see this knight of the waves in its current state is a very sad sight for those who know what the boat once achieved. Billy Lennon who served for more than 37 years with the RNLI at Donaghadee, including a stint aboard the Kelly, and John McGimpsey, ex-RNLI crewman and Treasurer of the Sir Samuel Kelly Preservation Society were able to bring us up to date with the recent history of the lifeboat.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

from left to right - Billy Lennon, Albert Morrison and John McGimpsey

Standing at the bow of the Sir Samuel Kelly are :
(from left to right) - Billy Lennon, Albert Morrison and John McGimpsey

Billy Lennon and John McGimpsey talk about the history of the 'Kelly'


After giving 29 years of life saving service with the RNLI from Donaghadee, the Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat was retired in 1979. A year later it was bought by the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum for the purpose of an exhibition highlighting the Kelly's proud history.

close inpsection finds the Kelly in a poor stateUnfortunately as the years past, so it would seem, did the interest in the boat's pedigree and due to budgetary pressures in the mid-eithties the UF&TM saw the condition of the lifeboat slowly fall from grace. When ex-RNLI coxswain Willie Lennon inquired about the Kelly at the museum, he was shocked to find the boat "in very poor repair, covered in moss and full with rainwater".

In order to bring the boat back to life the ex-crewmen formed the Sir Samuel Kelly Preservation Society and took the Kelly on loan from the museum back to Donaghadee where it was painstakingly restored by volunteers with a limited budget. Cleaned, repainted and with the engine "fit for sea" the Sir Samuel Kelly stood proud once more.

However, by 2005 with no sanctuary and with only pennies left for maintenance the lifeboat slowly succumbed to coastal exposure and even vandalism. It stands today a poor reflection of the boat which braved 40 foot waves and hurricane force winds in the Irish Sea in 1953.


part two - RNLI life, the future of the 'Kelly' and more on the Princess Victoria disaster>>


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