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Lifeboat hero of Princess Victoria disaster passes away at age of 84

By Eddie McIlwaine

Old seadog Hugh Nelson, who has died aged 84, was the last survivor from the crew of the lifeboat Sir Samuel Kelly, which sailed to the rescue of passengers on the ferry ship Princess Victoria when she sank in the North Channel on January 31, 1953, with the loss of 133 lives.

His passing, leaving widow Sylla (82), to whom he was married for 60 years, comes just as the Donaghadee Preservation Company is raising money to build a shelter in the town for the vessel on which Hugh served and of which his late father, Hugh Snr, was coxswain.

The Sir Samuel Kelly currently occupies a site in the open air, a stark reminder of the Victoria sinking.

The cash to build the Sir Samuel Kelly - named after the businessman who owned the Kelly Coal fleet - was donated by his widow in 1950.

The Princess Victoria, which served the Larne-Stranraer route, was caught up in one of the worst storms ever to strike that coastline, and rescue attempts were hampered because so many other vessels were in trouble, too.

Two different crews made valiant efforts on the Sir Samuel Kelly to reach the sinking ship, making sweeps on Saturday night and Sunday as the dangerous waves beat them back.

Hugh Jnr was on board each time and he and his lifeboat mates rescued many souls from the foaming water.

His funeral service was held in Donaghadee Parish Church, conducted by the rector, the Rev Ian Gamble. He was buried in Ballyvester cemetery on the outskirts of the town.

Edna Robinson, whose father, Thomas Trimble, was also a lifeboatman that terrible day, was at the funeral.

Her father's brother - her uncle John - was a lifeboatman, too, and served a spell as coxswain of the Sir Samuel Kelly.

Six crew members of the Sir Samuel Kelly had the same surname - Nelson - and belonged to interconnected Donaghadee families.

Three of Hugh's direct relations, William, Frank and Alexander, were lifeboatmen and other crew members were James Armstrong, Sam Herron, George Lindsay, Hugh Trimble, John Trimble and Sam Nelson.

Hugh Nelson's daughter, Shirley Cochrane, tells me that the 65th anniversary of the sinking will be commemorated next year, and survivors and the families of those who were lost are being contacted.

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