A history of the lifeboats of the Ards Peninsula

The Ballywalter, Cloughey, Cloughey/Portavogie, Donaghadee, Groomsport and Portaferry Lifeboats

Website established 1999  

by Jim Brown

Past President and former Co-ordinating Chairman - Portaferry RNLI Lifeboat Station

This website page was initiated in 1999 to collate and preserve the history of the Portaferry RNLI Lifeboat Station and subsequently that of the past and present RNLI lifeboat stations of the Ards Peninsula.

For credits and sources for some of the history on this web page click here

© Portaferry RNLI Lifeboat Station



The Ards Peninsula (known locally as 'The Ards') is located in County Down, Northern Ireland.  The peninsula is largely surrounded by water, the Irish Sea to the East and an almost land-locked Strangford Lough to the West.  At the south-eastern area of Strangford Lough there is a relatively narrow channel known as the Strangford Narrows which connects the lough to the Irish Sea.  

During the 18th and 19th century increasing numbers of merchant vessels were wrecked on reefs or driven ashore, in particular on the Irish Sea coastline.  Often, there was considerable loss of life.

1834 Chart (left) of Strangford Lough and the Ards Peninsula and a present day map of the area


In 1858 the RNLI established its first lifeboat station on the Ards Peninsula at Groomsport, then a small coastal village at the southern entrance to Belfast Lough.  To go directly to some of the history of the Groomsport Lifeboat click here or scroll down

In 1865 the Royal National Lifeboat Institution decided to establish its 2nd lifeboat station on the 'Ards' at the coastal village of Ballywalter, County Down.  To go directly to the history of the Ballywalter Lifeboat click here or scroll down.

Twenty years later, in 1885, an additional RNLI lifeboat station was established at the village of Cloughey, located about 10 miles south of Ballywalter.  To go directly to the history of the Cloughey Lifeboat click here or scroll down,

In 1910, a RNLI lifeboat station was established at Donaghadee.  To go directly to a short history of the Donaghadee Lifeboat click here or scroll down.

In 1965 the Cloughey Lifeboat was moved to Portavogie.  To go directly to the history of the Cloughey/Portavogie Lifeboat click here or scroll down.

In 1979 the RNLI decided to trial a small in-shore lifeboat in Strangford Lough which was based at Portaferry.  The trials were successful and an in-shore lifeboat station was established at Portaferry on 1 May 1980.  To go directly to a brief history of the formation of the Portaferry Lifeboat click here or scroll down.

Two of the above lifeboat stations still provide life-saving services along the Ards Peninsula; Donaghadee RNLI Lifeboat Station & Portaferry RNLI Lifeboat Station.

Note: A RNLI Lifeboat Station was established further North in Belfast Lough at Bangor, Co. Down in May 1965

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RNLI HISTORY of the Ards

The following is part of the history of the RNLI lifeboat stations of the Ards that originates from a smaller research document that was initially prepared by Portaferry Lifeboat Station for a RNLI 'Coast Review' in 1998.

The history was later updated for use during preparations for the granting of the 'Freedom of the Borough of Ards' to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution by the Ards Borough Council on 2 March 2001 in celebration of the 175th anniversary of the founding of the RNLI during which the Donaghadee and Portaferry Lifeboat Stations participated.  

This is only a small part of a history about all those brave men of the Ards and elsewhere, who, with the support of their families and without question of their own safety, day by day, month by month and year after year put to sea in small pulling (rowing) and sailing lifeboats during life-threatening weather conditions with one aim, to save the lives of others in peril on the sea.

Words, none better that those of Winston Spencer Churchill, spoken during the centenary celebrations of the RNLI in 1924, best describe the purpose of the RNLI lifeboats and the courage of those who man them;

'It drives on with a courage which is stronger than the storm.  It drives on with a mercy, which does not quail in the presence of death; It drives on as a proof, a symbol, a testimony, that man is created in the image of God, and that valour, and virtue, have not perished........'


And, in the words of Sir William Hillary, founder of the RNLI;

'With courage, nothing is impossible'

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Hazards, Lightships and Lighthouses of and off the Ards Peninsula


Off the east coast of the Ards Peninsula, County Down, Northern Ireland, there lye several off-shore half-tide rocky reefs such as, the 'Skullmartin Rocks' off Ballywalter and the 'North' & 'South' rocks off Portavogie.

In addition, there are strong tidal currents in areas along this coastline and in particular at the entrance to Strangford Lough (the Strangford Bar) where, in stormy conditions, there can be high and confused seas on ebb tides, especially when winds are from the north-east thru south-east.   During spring tides currents in the Strangford Narrows can reach in the region of 7 knots in places.

Further north lye the Copeland Islands around which there are strong tidal currents producing high seas during strong winds especially when there are wind against tide situations.

It is therefore not too difficult to realise that in the 'days of sail' it was not uncommon for vessels to come to grief along and off this coastline, especially if those on board had little or no local knowledge.  

This area was often referred to as 'The graveyard of the East Coast'.

Although now well marked and charted, these hazards still need to be respected by all mariners, especially anyone planning a passage within or close to the Ards Peninsula for the first time.  

NOTE : Strangford Lough is a sheltered and picturesque sailing area and today is home to no less than 10 yacht clubs.   There is a marina at Portaferry with some space reserved for visitors and a visitors pontoon in Strangford harbour.  For maximum enjoyment, visitors by sea to Strangford Lough should consult one of the various publications that give sailing directions, such as those published by the Irish Cruising Club (with sailing directions updates).  See also the 'Links Page' on this website for some local information.


Aids to Navigation - The early years

The 17th & 18th centuries saw significant growth in maritime trade between Great Britian, Ireland, the Far East and the new americas.   Not unsurprisingly the numbers of merchant vessels lost at sea or running aground etc, increased significantly.

The coastline of the Ards, with its many off-shore hazards, saw such increasing numbers of shipwrecks.

In 1701, William Montgomery (1633-1707) of 'Greyabbey House', Greyabbey, County Down, in his updated Topographical description of the 'Ardes', wrote about the hazards off the coastline referring to the importance of a local landmark, 'Kirkistown Windmill', as an aid to navigation;

'Is seen far off at sea, and serves in day-time in good steade as a landmark for saylors to avoyd the north and south rocks whare noted in all mapps for the misfortune that ships especially foreigners have had on them in stormy and dark weather. So that it were to be wished that a lighthouse were to be erected and maintained there'.

Over 40 years later the Irish historian, Walter Harris (1686 - 1761), wrote; 'But beware of the South Rock on which many brave ships have perished; for it overflowed every tide, and no crew can save their lives {as it stands a full mile from the shore} if the winds blow high.'

In 1783 the newly formed Belfast Chamber of Commerce, in a petition to the Irish House of Commons, requested that a lighthouse be erected at the 'South Rock' and advised that between 1735 and 1768 sixty-four vessels had been lost in this area and, as a consequence, 253 persons had perished.  

With the financial and lobbying support of Lord Kilwarlin, 2nd Marquiss of Downshire, a grant of £1,400 was obtained to assist in the building of a lighthouse on the South Rock by resolution of the Irish House of Commons on 14 November 1783.   

'Resolved, That the sum of £1,400 be granted to the Right Honourable Lord Kilwarlin, Robert Ross Esq and George Hamilton Esq towards erecting a light house on the south rock on the east coast of the county of Down'

However, it was not until 1793, ten years later, that construction began.  

The lighthouse was designed and built under the supervision of Thomas Rogers, lit for the first time on 25 March 1797 and named the 'Kilwarlin Light' in honour of the Marquiss.   Only two 'wave washed' lighthouses, the Eddystone and Bell Rock lighthouses, had been built earlier.   

Thomas Rogers, an Englishman, had hithertoo been involved with the design and supply of lamps, reflectors and lenses for use in lighthouses with his business partner, George Robinson, who was an optical engineer.

In 1789 Rogers was contacted by a representative of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Marquis of Buckingham, offering him the commission to design and construct a new lighthouse at Howth, County Dublin, to replace the one already in existance.  Rogers accepted the commission and henceforth became much involved in the construction and design of lighthouses around the coastline of Ireland.  He was credited with the design and the building of several lighthouses including; Aranmore Island, Cranfield, Howth, Loophead and Old Head of Kinsale.   

Rogers was also responsible for improving the lights of various lighthouses, including that on the Copeland Islands (Lighthouse Island), altering it from candle power to that of oil.  The new lantern he helped to develop consisted of six Argand oil lamps (invented and patened in 1780 by the Frenchman Aimé Argand).  Rogers fitted each lamp with a silvered copper parabolic refelector that focused the light from each lamp through six bulls-eye lenses.   (In later years the lighthouse on Lighthouse Island was replaced by a new lighthouse on the closely adjacent Mew Island which was fitted with Fresnel lenses developed by the French physicist and engineer Augustin-Jean Frensel and first used in the Goudauan lighthouse at the mouth of the Gironde estuary in 1823.)  

The Belfast Newsletter of 19 July 1793 reported;

'Mr Rogers an eminent artist has now begun the lighthouse on the South Rock, under the patronage of the Earl of Hillsborough.   The several lighthouses now in the Kingdom have been viewed by Mr Rogers preparatory to their being improved'


1834 chart of Cloghy Bay (currently spelt Cloughey) showing the South Rock Light (bottom RH corner) and Newcastle Quay directly left with Light Keepers adjacent house.

When construction of the Kilwarlin Lighthouse began in 1793 plans to use finished stone blocks from Wexford had to be abandoned after the first supply vessel sank on passage and the second was driven well off course onto the English coast.  It was then decided to use local granite from a quarry near Newry, County Down, and a squad of 20 masons, 18 labourers, 2 blacksmiths and 2 foremen were employed.  They were based in the townland of Newcastle on the Ards Peninsula (Note : not the town of Newcastle, County Down) where a masonary platform and a short quay was built from where the construction materials were transported to the South Rock.  

From recent (2018) and on-going research in the US by Catherine Nealy Judd, she advises;

There is a bit of information about Thomas in his son Jasper's 1847 'Facts for the Kind-Hearted of England as to the Wretchedness of the Irish Peasantry, and the Means for their Regeneration'. (London: James Ridgway}     

Here Jasper lets us know that Thomas Rogers raised a pro-British "yeomanry brigade" to protect Dublin's "eastside" during the 1797 United Irishmen uprising-but that his mother's family, the Devereux brothers of Co. Wexford were active United Irishmen who escaped punishment, disappeared, and had their castle (Dungulph) torched for their participation in the uprising.   Jasper Rogers also gives us some details regarding his father's building of Kilwarlin/South Rock lighthouse - how the workmen were loyal to Thomas Rogers despite holding different political views. In the 1890s, an anonymous Dublin resident recalls both Thomas and Jasper Rogers and the impressive home they lived in on 1 Nottingham Road and how Thomas encouraged his son's engineering talents'.

Jasper Rogers followed in his father's footsteps and with his business partner, Sir James C Anderson, became closely involved with the introduction of steam-propulsion road vehicles in Ireland.


The Kilwarlin Lighthouse (or South Rock)

Photo credit - Gill Mladek

The provision of lighthouses around the coastline of Ireland had hithertoo been managed by the Revenue Board.  The Revenue Board had little interest supervising or maintaining lighthouses and offered Rogers the position of 'Lighthouse Contractor and Inspector'.  He accepted the post and took over the construction and supervision of Irish lighthouses.   Sadly, Rogers attempted to cut the cost of running the lighthouse service and in so doing did not hire sufficient numbers of keepers, paying those he did employ very poor wages.  

Many keepers turned to additional ways of enhancing their income, some of which were illegal or immoral and the matter eventually became such a scandal that an Act of Parliament was passed in 1810 transferring the management of the lighthouse service into the care of the Dublin Ballast Board, latterly the Commissioners of Irish lights.

Although unused since 1877, the former Kilwarlin Lighthouse still stands.  It is reportedly the oldest wave-washed lighthouse structure in the world that remans standing.

Unfortunately, some well equipped and 'knowledgeable' thieves broke into the lighthouse in 1972 and removed the old lantern of which the thereabouts remain unknown.  

The Kilwarlin Lighthouse remains unlit.


Photo credit: ©James (Jimmy) Kelly


Photo: Dr G S Millington OBE

Photograph of the entrance to the Kilwarlin Lighthouse over which is the Crest of the Marquess of Downshire.   Note the high quality of the masonary work after enduring storm and tempest for over 225 years.


The South Rock Light Vessel

The 'Kilwarlin Lighthouse' (or the South Rock Lighthouse) remained lit for 80 years, until 1 April 1877, when it was replaced by a manned light vessel, named the 'South Rock Light Vessel', positioned about 2 nautical miles further east of the Kilwarlin Light.   

Photo: Philip Simons - from Light Vessels of the UK & Ireland

1905 - The South Rock Light Vessel
Possibly the 'Cormorant' built of wood in 1878 and sold out of service in 1942 to Belfast Harbour Commissioners



Photo: Commissioners of Irish Lights

1955 - The South Rock Light Vessel 'Osprey' at Dartmouth after her completion
Built of steel 1955 - she replaced the origional 'Osprey' built of wood in 1868
Sold out of service 1998 and moved to France



Photo: Comissioners of Irish Lights

2008 - The South Rock Light Vessel


The light vessel was automated on 31 March 1982 and the crew was then withdrawn.

The 'South Rock Lightvessel' was taken out of service on 25 February 2009 and replaced by a red, port-hand lateral superbuoy with a racon and an AIS transponder.


The Skullmartin Light Vessel

When the 'South Rock Lightvessel' was commissioned (1 April 1877) a 'bell boat' was also placed off the dangerous Skullmartin Rocks, located several miles further north, off Ballywalter.   

This was replaced by a manned light vessel, The Skullmartin Light Vessel, on the 1st January 1886.


Photo: from poastcard - author unknown

The Skullmartin Lightship

The 'Skullmartin Light Vessel' was replaced by a lit whistle bouy on 9 June1967.    This bouy was recently replaced from a Safe Water Mark Buoy to a Port Hand Buoy.


Dundrum Bay

South of the Strangford Bar, the sea area off Dundrum Bay presented an additional hazard to sailing ships.  

Several miles off Dundrum Bay tidal flows from the Atlantic meet in the Irish Sea, one flowing and ebbing via the North Channel and the other from the St Georges Channel resulting in an area where there is almost continual slack water.   In the days when merchant vessels had sail as their sole means of propulsion, if they were unable to make sufficient weather to stand well off St John's point, they could become embayed in light winds in Dundrum Bay, such that if un-favourable on-shore winds developed, they could be driven ashore or put aground.

As a result, in 1884 a lighthouse was established at St John's Point, at the north-easterly point of Dundrum Bay, to warn vessels to stand off the coast.    The St John's Lighthouse was the first in Ireland to be fitted with a dioptric lens, invented by Augistin Fresnel in 1882.  It remains lit today.

Photo: Pacemaker - BBC

The St John's Lighthouse


Lighthouse Island (Cross Island) and Mew Island Lighthouses (Copeland Islands)

Off the town of Donaghadee on the County Down coast lye the Copeland Islands.   Their name is believed to be associated with the De Coupland family who settled in the area in Norman times during the 12th Century.

There are three islands, Great Copeland, Lighthouse Island (formerly Cross Island) and Mew Island.

In 1715 a lighthouse was built on Cross Island (renamed Lighthouse Island).   Its light was from a coal fired beacon on the top of a square tower.   Coal had to be transported on small sailing craft from the mainland to keep the beacon lit.   The use of coal was discontinued in 1796 and a 6ft diameter lantern was fitted using six Argand oil lamps with reflectors under the supervision of Thomas Rogers .

In 1810 Revenue Commissioners handed over the responsibilities of lighthouses to the Ballast Board (which became the Commissioners of Irish Lights) who subsequently erected a new 52ft round tower beside the existing lighthouse to the design of George Halpin, then the Inspector of Lighthouses.  The lantern was first lit on the 14 January 1815 and comprised 27 Argand lamps with reflectors.   In 1851 a fog bell was installed in the adjoining former lighthouse square tower which was operated using a weight driven mechanism that could be wound up when necessary by the lighthouse keepers.

In 1882 the construction of a new lighthouse was started on the adjoining island, Mew Island, and was first lit on 1st November 1884.  The lighthouse was designed by William Douglass, the Engineer of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

The lighthouse was converted to automatic operation in March 1996 and the lighthouse keepers withdrawn.

In 2014 the lantern with its Fresnel lenses was removed and subsequently transferred to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast where it is on display in a specially designed structure.   

The lantern of the Mew Island Lighthouse was replaced by a solar powered LED array.


Photo: from PRONI archives

1842 - Section of a chart of 'Belfast Bay' showing the lighthouse on Lighthouse Island.


Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

1715 - remains of the 1st lighthouse and buildings on Lighthouse Island


Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

The first lighthouse tower on Lighthouse Island


Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

The remains of the second lighthouse on Lighthouse Island, Copeland Islands built 1813


Photo: Wikipedia

Mew Island Lighthouse 2016 - 1st lit 1884


Some Significant Shipwrecks off the County Down Coast

One of the shipwrecks along this coast that may have sealed the fate of the catholic-presbyterian 'United Irishmen' uprising in 1798, and perhaps that of the history and future governance of Ireland, occurred on the County Down coast on the night of 7 April 1797.  

The three-masted French frigate, L'Amitie of Brest, was carrying cannon and munitions destined for the 'Untied Irishmen', most likely those in the north of County Down, when she ran ashore and sank during a storm and blizzard conditions on a desolate part of the coastline of County Down, off Sheepland Harbour, north of Ardglass.   Of the 104 persons on board only one survived, believed to be the helmsman.  Legend has it that the Frenchman was able to make his way to the little village of Sheepland where he was given shelter and hidden from the authorities.   It was said that thereafter he frequently returned and took a path to the Sheepland Harbour to visit the place where his ship and fellow crew had foundered.  The path was known by locals as 'The Steersman's Path'.

Just some of the many hundreds of shipwrecks during the 19th Century off the coastline of the Ards Peninsula, the Strangford Bar and southwards to Newcastle, County Down, included;

January 1805 - the brigantine 'Three Sisters' - loss of captain & 2 crew

24 March 1810 - the 'Mally of Workingtown' - all crew lost

6 March 1826 - the barque ' Richard Pope' - loss of 4 - 11 saved

11 September 1837 - the 'Coeur de Lion' - bound Quebec from Liverpool - 24 saved    Patick Goolaghan & George Starkey from the Newcastle - St John's Point lifeboat station were drowned during the rescue - their names are inscribed (see below) on the Lifeboat Memorial sculpture at the RNLI Headquarters, Poole, Dorset.

NEWCASTLE > 1837 > P Goolaghan . G Starkey   (listed on the 5th row)

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

22 September 1846 - Brunell's iron steamship 'Great Britain' - 180 passengers & all crew saved

1855 - the French sailing vessel 'Saint Marie' - loss of all 30 crew

28 January 1860 - the scooner 'Barbara' - loss of captain, mate and 2 crew

14 August 1861 - the square-rigger 'Coriolanus' - loss of all 28 on board

15 February 1861 - the brigantine 'Manchester' - loss of all 5 on board - 1 dog survived

2 January 1867 - the brigantine 'General Williams' - loss of 1 person

1867 - A Spanish ship - loss of her entire crew of 27

27 February 1881 - the brig 'John Kendall' - 5 saved, mate & 2 crew lost

11 January 1883 - the clipper 'The Wild Deer' with 209 emigrants and 40 crew - bound New Zealand from Glasgow - all on board were saved.


A detailed history of the shipwrecks along the coastline of Northern Ireland can be found in the publication, 'Shipwrecks of the Ulster Coast' by Ian Wilson - published by Impact-Amergin, Stone Row, Coleraine, Northern Ireland. ISBN 0948154933


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The Ballywalter Lifeboat

Established 1865

During the 19th century more than 1,000 merchant vessels were lost along the coastline of Northern Ireland; the largest proportion were off the County Down coast.

In addition there were many un-recorded incidents relating to fishing vessels and other small craft.

One such shipwreck of a merchant vessel occured off the coastal village of Ballywalter, Co. Down on 21 October 1813 when the merchant vessel, 'Caesar' of Greenock, on passage to Jamaica with a cargo that included 14 nine-pounder carriage cannon and munitions, was driven ashore in a storm and three of the crew were drowned.

Five men from Ballywalter put to sea in a bid to rescue the crew of the Caesar but perished when their boat overturned.   The 'Ship's Bell' of the 'Caesar' was recovered and since 1813 has been displayed in Ballywalter Presbyterian Church in memory of all those who perished.  


Photo: Jim Brown 2022

Five saplings were also planted in their memory on land off the beach where the rescuers were washed ashore. (They are believed to be amongst 10 of the somewhat aged trees located close to the tennis courts in Ballywalter)


Photo of painting by Ernest Dunbar

A painting by Ernest Dunbar from Ballywalter of the five men setting out to save the crew of the Caesar


The Wreck of the Caesar by Asmy Purse

Ye seamen of Erin, so merry and gay,
Come, listen the poet and hear the sad lay,
Ye nymphs of the village assist me to sing,
The news from Parnassus on the doleful string.

On the 21st October 1813 at the break of day,
The Caesar from Greenock, drove into the bay,
The wind being eastward as she tacked about,
She struck on Skulmartin on the clearing out.

The sea rose like mountains, which increased their fear,
Their masts cut away, pale death did appear,
Their boats broke the hawsers, drove on to the strand,
But their was none to assist them upon the long sand.

Be calm O ye breezes: be still O ye deep;
Ye mariners (do) join those you made for to weep,
Since memory has printed where time's course will stand
Where five noble seamen (were) lost on the long sand.

They were five noble seamen excelled by few,
Their hearts were undaunted, their principals true,
With courage they launched their boat on the waves,
And intended the crew of the vessel to save.

But fate had ordained that they should lose their lives,
For a tremendous breaker their boat did capsize.
Some shouted, some swam, some waved their hands,
But their was none to assist them upon the long sands.

There were ROBERT ADAIR and JOHN BOYD by name,
Their family and friends may lament for the same,
And DAVID ALEXANDER, that seaman so brave,
Along with the rest found a watery grave.

Lament ye Freemasons, your loss still deplore,
For alas! WILLIAM NIBLOCK, alas! he's no more,
And likewise JOHN ASKIN, that handsome young man,
These were the five seamen lost on the long sand

Ballywalter may lament for her unfortunate swains,
No more will they sport on their dear native plains,
No more will they wander nor carelessly stray,
Nor go for a dander along Matthew's Bay


When the RNLI was founded on 4 March 1824, one of the resolutions was to award Gold and Silver medals for acts of outstanding gallantary to those who endeavoured to save lives from shipwreck by lifeboat, a shore-boat or from the shore.   (The Bronze medal was not introduced until 1917)

Frequently medals were awarded to coastguard or other persons whose efforts to save lives showed outstanding bravery.

One such event along the coastline of the Ards Peninsula took place on 30 December 1828 when the steam packet passenger vessel, Sheffield, on passage from Liverpool to Belfast, went aground on the Skullmartin Rock in strong winds.  She was seen by coastguards to be flying a distress signal and they put to sea to affect the rescue of those on board.  A local man, Mr James Askin, volunteered to fill a vacant place on a coastguard skiff that put to sea under the command of Chief Boatman, Philip Lithaby.

Several other local boats also put to sea, the lead being given by William Morrison, a local pilot.

Having reached the Sheffield, after coastguards had rowed for over an hour, the chief boatman coastguard, Philip Lithaby, was able to get aboard the stricken vessel using a line attached to a buoy that had been thrown from the Sheffield. Together with the ship's master, over a period of 6 hours, he supervised the lowering those on board onto rescue boats using the ship's booms.

All on board were saved, the 24 passengers including women and children, 16 crew, two engineers, two ship's mates and the Captain by using the coastguard and the three other rescue boats.   

C.G. Philip Lithaby and pilot William Morrison were awarded a Silver Medal by the RNLI for their gallantry.

For many years some of the hazards off Ballywalter had been marked by local seafarers using various means but they were frequently washed away or moved out of position by storms.  One of the greatest hazards were the Skullmartin Rocks off Ballywalter.    

In 1836 a black cone buoy was placed off the Skullmartin Rocks by Trinity House.  The black buoy was useless in darkness or in poor visibility and in 1854 it was replaced by a cage bell buoy.  This was an improvement, but the bell could not be heard in strong winds, especially to windward.  

On the 1st April 1877 (when a light vessel was placed off the South Rock), a 'bell boat' with a louder sounding bell was placed in position further off the Skullmartin Rock by the Ballast Board.  

On 1st January 1886 the 'bell 'boat' was removed by the Ballast Board (Irish Lights) and replaced by a manned light vessel, the 'Skullmartin Lightvessel'.  (The 'Skullmartin Light Vessel' was replaced by a lit whistle bouy on 9 June1967)

Photo: Portaferry RNLI


At a meeting of the RNLI Committee of Management on 2 August 1865 the Royal National Lifeboat Institution decided to establish a lifeboat station at Ballywalter.  

A boathouse to house the new lifeboat was built the following year by Samuel Grivin at a cost of £178-10-0d.   

At that time there were RNLI lifeboat stations at the village of Groomsport
(est. 1858), to the north, and Newcastle (est. 1854), to the south.   Note - A lifeboat station was established earlier at Rossglass, near Tyrella, Co. Down in 1825 by the County Down District Association and then moved to St John's Point in 1835.

Ballywalter's first lifeboat was the 'The Admiral Henry Meynell', a pulling (rowing) & sailing lifeboat.

The 'self-righting' lifeboat was 32 feet in length, had a beam of 71/2 feet, was fitted with 10 oars, two masts with sails and was donated by the Misses Meynell Ingram of Rugeley, Staffordshire, in memory of their uncle, Admiral Henry Meynell.  She was built by Forrestt of Limehouse in London at a cost of £242.

The Ballywalter Lifeboat station was officially opened on 27 September 1866.  The Rev Hugh Wilson was appointed Honorary Secretary, Robert Boyd as coxswain and Robert Adair as second coxswain.

Admiral Henry Meynell, born in Yorkshire in 1789, had a distinguished and interesting naval career.  He joined the Royal Navy in 1803 at the age of 14 and then served for thirteen years in various commissions on conveys to the East Indies and China.  In 1816 he was appointed Captain of HMS 'Newcastle', the flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm, Commander-in-Chief at the St Helena Island Station. Captain Meynell was charged with maintaining a blockade around the St. Helena Island where Napoleon Buonaparte was being imprisoned.   Capt Meynell accompanied Rear-Admiral Malcom during many private meetings with Napoleon Buonaparte after which he recorded details in a diary of the many interesting conversations.  In 1826 Capt Henry Meynell was elected as a Member of Parliament for the Borough of Lisburn, County Antrim and continued to serve as an MP for the constituency until 1847.   He was appointed Admiral (reserve list) in 1862.  He never married and died in Paris on 25 March 1865.

The 'Lifeboat Journal' of 1866 quotes;

'Ballywalter Ireland - The Institution has formed a lifeboat establishment at Ballywalter on the coast of Down, that place having been thought suitable for a lifeboat station, as there was a considerable distance of coast between Groomsport to the north and Tyrella*** to the south, unprotected by lifeboats and wrecks were not of infrequent occurrence in the locality.  There were also pleanty of fishermen to man the boat on all occasions.  A 32 foot lifeboat, pulling 10 oars double-banked, and provided with a transporting carriage, has been placed here in a substantial and commodious boathouse, built for its reception.  The cost of the boat, carriage and stores, amounting to £500 has been munificently presented to the Institution by the Misses Meynell Ingram, in memory of their late uncle, Admiral Henry Meynell, after whom the boat is named.  The lifeboat and carriage were conveyed, free of charge, in July last by the London and Belfast Steam Shipping Company and were readily taken thence to their station by land.'

*** NOTE: Partly due to the efforts of William Ogilvie, a wealthy Scot, who was much involved with the enlargement and improvement of the port of Ardglass, the first lifeboat station on the County Down coast was established at Rossglass in 1825 by the County Down District Association.   Rossglass, is located in the north-west corner of Dundrum Bay, between Tyrella and St John's Point.  The lifeboat was reported to be just over 18 feet in length and was equipped with 8 oars. In 1835 she was moved to the coastguard station at St John's Point at the request of Coastguard Captain, R H Browne, where she remained in service until the late 1840's. The RNLI's Newcastle Lifeboat Station was opened in 1854.   The reference above in the RNLI records of the Ballywalter Lifeboat in 1866 to a lifeboat station existing at Tyrella rather than at Newcastle tends to support some evidence that a secondary RNLI associated lifeboat may have been operational again for a short period in the Rossglass/Tyrella area during 1866.  It is also possible that an error was made in refering to Tyrella rather than Newcastle in the RNLI 'Lifeboat Journal' of 1866.

One of the earliest services of the Ballywalter Lifeboat was on 1 January 1867, to the brigantine 'General Williams' of 105 tons, bound Belfast from Maryport with a cargo of coal.   The vessel had gone aground on the 'Long Rock' at 2 am that morning in a severe easterly gale and in blizzard weather conditions.

At the break of dawn wreckage was noticed on the Long Rock and the Ballywalter Lifeboat, under the command of coxswain Robert Boyd, put to sea.  Four men were found clinging to the remaining rigging of the brigantine and the exhausted survivors were eventually brought ashore by two local boats each manned by four fishermen.  Sadly, the body of a young deck-hand was recovered, a Richard Gribben from Ardglass.

Later that year, on the night of 11th September 1867, the scooner rigged yacht 'Tana' of 45 tons , owned by a British army officer, Captain Knowles, of the 63rd regiment, was on passage from Greenock to Dublin.  On board were his wife, their child of 18 months, Agnes Murray (a female servant), and three crew.  

The yacht was heading south and beating to windward along the coast.  Capt Knowles had just gone below to check his charts when, just before midnight, the Tana struck the Skullmartin Rocks and sank within a few minutes.  There was insufficent time to make signals of distress.  A small tender on board the yacht was too full of chattles and was unable to be cleared in time to aid any escape.  In the confusion that followed the female servant lost hold of the child who fell into the sea. The crew of 3 took to the rigging, as did Agnes Murray.  

Mrs Knowles put on a life-ring and was lashed to the vessels shrouds to prevent her from being washed away.  Captain Knowles stayed with her in the sea but he slipped away two hours later.  Mrs Knowles sank beneath the waves shortly before dawn followed by Agnes Murray who fell from the rigging.  

At dawn the wreck was spotted by coastguards at the Roddans Coastguard Station, located a few miles south of Ballywalter, and the three exhausted crew members were rescued.  

Those involved in the rescue were Chief Officer William Blissenden, chief boatmen John Alcorn & William Betts and 4 boatmen, James Colter, Patrick Cooper, Joseph Harris and William Widdecombe who were recorded to have each received an award of £1 from the Board of Trade.

During an inquest that followed, Robert Boyd, coxswain of the Ballywalter Lifeboat, advised, 'if distress signals had been sent, all of those on board could have been saved'.  

The jury recommended that a lighthouse be built on the Skullmartin Rock.   
It was not until 1877 that a 'bell boat' was established off the Skullmartin Rock

On 6 December 1867 the ship 'Annie Gray'
of Glasgow got into difficulties off Ballywalter.   The Ballywalter Lifeboat was launched and stood by the vessel for several hours until weather conditions improved and the ship was able to proceed safely on her way.

A lesson and early warning about the importance of wearing a lifejacket

In 1854 an Inspector of Lifeboats, Capt. Ward, designed a life-jacket using narrow blocks of cork attached to a vest made of canvas.  The life-jacket was designed to be flexible and worn by lifeboatmen whilst at sea. One instance prooving the importance of wearing the new cork lifejacket occurred on 9 February 1861 when the Whitby Lifeboat capsized whilst on their 5th rescue mission that day.  Only one of the thirteen crew members survived, Henry Freeman, the only one wearing a cork lifejacket and on his first day as a crewmember.  Henry Freeman went on to become the Cosxwain of the Whitby Lifeboat.

A fitting memorial to the 12 Whitby lifeboatmen who perished is located in the entrance to the 10th century St Mary's Church, Whitby.   The church is on a high hill overlooking Whitby and reached by 199 steps from the town.


Henry Freeman - the lone survivor


The twelve lifeboatmen who perished


One of the four inscriptions on the memorial

All Whitby Lifeboat Memorial photos: RNLI - Jim Brown


Ballywalter Lifeboat coxswain drowned

On 26th December 1868, whilst on exercise, the Ballywalter Lifeboat capsized and all on board were thrown into the sea.   The lifeboat quickly righted but the coxswain, Robert Boyd, was drowned.  

The 'Lifeboat Journal' of April 1st 1869 records the tragedy, with an aptly modern-day message to everyone about the importance of the wearing life-jackets correctly;

'The Committee regret, however, having to report that on one occasion when exercising, the Ballywalter Lifeboat in the month of December, it was upset by being over-pressed with sail, and the coxswain, through having neglected properly to adjust his life-belt, unfortunately perished.  It is a source of much satisfaction to the Committee to be able to report that the crews of several life-boats of the Institution continue to regard them with un-bounded confidence.  This confidence is un-doubtedly full justified by the very small number of lives lost which (considering the perilous character of the life-boat work) have been lost from them, amounting to less than an average one in each year since the Institution, in the year 1852, * undertook the work of providing our coasts with improved lifeboats.'   

(* The Duke of Northumberland was appointed President of the RNLI in 1851 and launched a competition the following year for the best design for a new lifeboat for the RNLI)

Following the drowning of Coxswain Robert Boyd, the Institution's Committee of Management donated the sum of £50 to his dependants.

Robert Boyd is remembered on the RNLI Memorial sculpture in Poole, Dorset, alongside the many others who lost their lives in the service of the RNLI.


RNLI Memorial sculpture - RNLI Headquarters, Poole, Dorset

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

Ballywalter > 1868 > R Boyd   (listed on the second row)

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

in 1809 the 'Preventive Waterguard' was established in Great Britain with the primary objective to assist the Board of Customs in addressing the large increase in smuggling along the south coast of England.  A secondary task of the new force was to give assistance during shipwrecks.  

Water Guard watch stations were soon established along the coastline of Great Britain and Ireland at frequent intervals, in particular in areas where the levels of smuggling, actual or suspected, was high.  

In 1821 a recommendation was made by a Government committee of enquiry to transfer the management of the Preventative Waterguard to the Board of Customs and the service to be re-named the Coast Guard.

Thus, on 15 January 1829 the present-day Coastguard Service became operational.

During these formative years seven Coastguard stations were built along the 30 mile Irish Sea coastline of the Ards Peninsula.  These were positioned a few miles apart; at Donaghadee, Ballywhisken (south of Millisle), Roddans (south of Ballywalter), Burr Point (Ballyhalbert), Cloughey (Cloghy), Tara (Quinton Bay) and at Portaferry.  Some of these still stand and are private dwellings.

Prior to and during the 19th Century coastguards were often directly involved in putting to sea in their own rowing vessels to affect rescues.  Senior coatguard officers would often be appointed as the Coastguard Captain (2nd coxswain) in many RNLI lifeboat stations.  Coastguards frequently joined with lifeboat crews on their rescue missions.

One example of such a rescue off the Ards Peninsula took place on 14 April 1877 when a smack, the Boaz of Carnarvon, bound from Glasgow for Dundalk with a cargo of coal, was driven ashore in Ballyhalbert Bay in gale force winds and rain.

Her plight was spotted by a coastguard look-out at the Roddans Coastguard Station.  (Roddans is located about 2 miles south of Ballywalter where the coast road first meets the sea whilst travelling south towards Ballyhalbert) Having struck a reef the Boaz quickly filled with water and began to sink when the three crew, the captain, a seaman and a boy took to the rigging.   

Fearing that the vessel would break up in the heavy surf the chief coastguard officer John Aiken and his men, William Coffin, James Greenham, Hollingshead and John Rees made ready to put to sea.  In addition a John Bell from Ballyhalbert and a Captain Ballie, the Lloyds Agent from Ballywalter, both joined in the rescue mission in the coastguard's rowing galley.  With great difficulty the seven men put to sea.  Eventually they reached the wreck of the Boaz and were successful in getting a line aboard and took off the crew of three.  

On turning to make for the shore large following and breaking seas overwhelmed the galley which filled with water and then overturned throwing the rescued and rescuers into the water.  Only five of the ten aboard the galley were able to make it to safety ashore.  

Coastguard John Rees, Captain Ballie, John Bell, the Captain of the Boaz and the boy of the Boaz, all perished.

Several people who had gathered on the shore sought to assist, in particular a Miss Bella Clinghan, the daughter of a Ballywalter farmer.  She rushed into the sea and caught one of the coastguards, William Coffin and helped to bring him to safety ashore and then returned to assist the others.  

For her bravery Bella Clinghan was awarded the 'Thanks of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution on Vellum'. 

On 4 December 1869 the scooner 'Brenton' of Fowey ran aground in heavy seas gale force north-easterly winds on the Skullmartin Rocks off Ballywalter.   The Ballywalter Lifeboat was launched and the lifeboat crew suceeded in rescuing the ship's crew of 5 men.

On 13 March 1872 a local fishing boat capsized off Ballywalter throwing the crew of three into the water.   
Three local men launched a small boat and succeeded in rescuing two of them.  The station's Honorary  Secretary, Rev Hugh Wilson, on hearing about the capsize drove his horse and cart into the sea and with the help of one of his servants dragged the other man into his cart and brought him safely ashore.   

The Rev Wilson was awarded the 'Thanks on Vellum' by the RNLI.

On the evening of 15 December 1876 in heavy seas during a south-easterly gale the brigantine 'Jenny Lind' of Whitehaven, heavily laden with coal, was driven aground on the Pladdie Rocks off Ballywalter.

Several of the lifeboat crew were away at the time and thanks to the Rev Henry Wilson (son of the local rector & Honoray Secretary) extra men were found with he Rev Wilson going out as one of the crew. It took an hour to reach the stranded vessel and all 5 crew members were rescued.  The RNLI later awarded the 'Thanks on Vellum' to the Rev Wilson for his service as a crew member.

In 1877 Mr William Gibson was appointed as Honorary Secretary'

Due to continuing shipwrecks on the Skulmartin reefs a boat-shaped bell buoy was placed to the east of the Skulmartin Rocks on 1 April 1877.   It broke free from its moorings 4 years later and was recovered by the Ballywalter Lifeboat.  The bell buoy was replaced nine years later by a manned light vessel, the Skullmartin Light Vessel, on 1 January 1886


Late on the evening of 20 October 1877 the brigantine 'Wancoma' of Belfast ran aground in a gale on Wallace's Rock, about 1 mile south of Ballywalter.  A local coastguard boat was launched to assist but on reaching the vessel the master and crew refused to leave until daylight, when the coastguard boat brought 7 men ashore leaving the master and one crew member on board.

On the high tide the following morning the brigantine floated clear of the rocks but her rudder had been broken and so, being totally unmanageable, she drifted onto the nearby Twin Rocks'.  The Ballywalter Lifeboat was launched and the remaining two crew members were rescued.  The 'Wancoma' became a total wreck.

In 1878 the Rev J O'Reilly-Blackwood took over as Honorary Secretary.


At 10-30 pm on 11 January 1879, on a clear night and a smooth sea, the 1,231 ton passenger clipper Loch Sunart was on passage from Glasgow to Melbourne when she ran aground on the Skulmartin Reef.  She was carrying 45 passengers.  The crew  immediately made distress signals and the Ballywalter Lifeboat was launched along with a coastguard boat and other local vessels.  The 20 women and children passengers were taken ashore by the Ballywalter Lifeboat and the remaining 25 male passengers by other boats.  

Several local men were then put aboard the clipper to help try and refloat her but as the night wore on sea conditions changed dramatically and by 6 pm the following evening a very strong south-westerly wind was blowing accompanied by torrential rain with occasional sleet.  When distress signals from the clipper were seen ashore the Ballywalter Lifeboat was launched again and in two trips brought all the salvage workers and ships crew, a total of 35 men, to safety ashore.  The ship's master, Capt Weir, and three crew men remained on board.   The 'Loch Sunart' was later refloated and made port safely.

Following an enquiry it was established that the Mate had mistaken the Skullmartin Rock for a scooner.  Captain Weir's certificate was suspended for nine months and the Mate's (David Higie) for three months. 

Lifeboat crew in the 1800's were often fishermen, but the Ballywalter Lifeboat from time to time had two local clergymen as crew members, the Rev Henry R Wilson, incumbant of Drumbeg and the Rev J O'Reilly-Blackwood, incumbant of Ballywalter.

The Rev J O'Reilly-Blackwood was a member of the crew when just before midnight on the 11th March 1880 theBallywalter Lifeboat responded to signals of distress from the brigintine 'John and Mary' of Belfast, bound for Portrush from Maryport with a cargo of coal.  She had lost her rudder in a south-easterly gale and gone aground on the Long Rock off Ballywalter.  The records read;

'In response thereto the life-boat "Admiral Henry Meynell" was promptly launched and proceeded to the spot; but the night being very dark, with a gale blowing from the S.E., and a heavy sea running on the rocks, upon which there was not much water, the boat was compelled to wait for daybreak before going alongside the stranded vessel.  During the time of waiting the tide fell, which rendered the task somwhat easier.  The night was a very severe one, with tremendous rain squalls, to which the life-boat men were exposed for about six hours.  However, they at last had the satisfaction to save the shipwrecked crew of 5 men, arriving back with them at Ballywalter at about 7 a.m.'  

For his help in rescuing the master, Captain Monaghan, and his crew of four, the Rev J O'Reilly-Blackwood was awarded the 'Thanks of the Institution on Vellum'.

During a sudden squall on 9 December 1980 with the westerly wind reaching gale force at times the Balywalter Lifeboat was launched following reports of an open boat with two men and one boy on board being swept out to sea.  The vessel was taken under tow and the three occupants were landed safely ashore.  The Rev J O-Reilly-Blackwood was once again awarded the RNLI 'Thanks on Vellum'.


The Rev J O'Reilly-Blackwood was a member of the crew when the Ballywalter Lifeboat responded to reports received at 1 am on 4th March 1881 of the grounding in Ballyhalbert Bay, of the wooden 1,361 ton square-rigger 'Castlemain' of Liverpool, on passage from Rangoon for the Clyde with a cargo of teak.   The records read;

'At about 1 a.m. intelligence was received that a ship had stranded in Ballyhalbert Bay, three miles south of this life-boat station.  The wind was blowing a hurricane from the S.E., with heavy sleet and rain at the time.  Horses were obtained, and the life-boat "Admiral Henry Meynell" proceeded by road to the scene of the wreck.  Great delay was occasioned on account of the horses being unable to draw the boat against the gale and rain, the road being very bad and exposed.  However, she at last reached the Bay, and was then launched with great difficulty over the very rough shore through a very heavy surf.  She was repeatedly driven back by the seas, but after great exertion the crew managed to get hold of a line drifted to leeward from the ship, and by rowing and hauling they got under the bow of the vessel, which proved to be the ship "Castlemaine", of Liverpool, bound from Rangoon to the Clyde, with a cargo of teak and bones, and in two trips brought ashore the crew of twenty-five men'.

Other reports referred to the lifeboat being taken down to the shore on her carriage over rocks at Ballyhalbert by the launchers who had the very difficult and dangerous task of launching the lifeboat.  On several occasions the lifeboat was knocked backwards due to the heavy breaking surf but her crew battled on and eventually got clear and made for the stranded vessel.

The Rev O'Reilly Blackwood was awarded the RNLI's 'Silver Medal' for his outstanding gallantary on this and on previous occasions.  He was also awarded a silver medal by the 'Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society' for his gallantary during the rescue of the crew of the ship 'Castlemaine'.

On 14 October 1881, in one of the worst storms for many years, the Ballywalter Lifeboat was launched after coastguards reported a fishing boat with a crew of two in difficulty near the Long Rock.  A north-westerly gale was gusting up to hurricane force whipping up enormous seas and the lifeboat was unable to make way out to sea having to drop anchor and await for conditions to improve.  Eventually the lifeboat was able to proceed and rescued the two men on board the fishing boat.


On 19 October 1882 the brig Saint George was off Ballywalter during a severe south-easterly gale when signals were seen at 1:30 am and she was observed to have gone aground near the Table Rock.  The lifeboat was taken by road on her carriage nearer to the scene of the grounding.

The Dublin newspaper, The Freeman's Journal, reported on 20 October 1882: 'The crew of the lifeboat of the National Lifeboat institution quickly assembled and the boat having been taken on her carriage as near as possible to the scene of the wreck was launched and proceeded to the stranded vessel which proved to be the brig St. George 280 tons of and from Maryport in ballast.  The crew of nine men were taken into the lifeboat and safely landed.'

A few weeks later, on 13 November 1882 at 12:45 am the lifeboat was launched to assist the scooner 'John and Ann' of Belfast which had gone aground on the Long Rock in heavy seas during near gale force south-easterly winds.  The crew of 3 were rescued.

At 1:30 pm on 6th February 1883 a messager arrived at Ballywalter with the news that a ship had run aground at the north end of the Long Rock.  With the assistance of many villagers the Ballywalter Lifeboat was hauled along the beach to a position nearer the casualty and launched.  In the absence of the coxswain the Rev O'Reilly Blackwood took command of the lifeboat.

A violent SSE gale was blowing and great difficulty was experienced in launching the lifeboat.  The casualty was the 149 ton brig 'Euphemia Fullerton' of Londonderry, which had been on passage to Maryport with a cargo of coal.   Such were the sea conditions that the lifeboat was driven ashore, 3 of her oars being broken, with the lifeboat receiving some damage. The Lifeboat Station helpers had to work in extremely difficult conditions, often at great personal risk, in recovering the lifeboat onto her carriage.

At 3 o'clock another attempt was made to launch the lifeboat and she got away safely, again under the command of the Rev O'Reilly-Blackwood.  This time they succeeded in reaching the casualty and rescued the whole crew of 6 men who had sought refuge in the ship's rigging.

For his truly outstanding gallantary that day the Rev O'Reilly-Blackwood was awarded a second-service clasp to his 'Silver Medal'.   A 'Silver Medal' was also awarded to the Chief Officer of the Coastguard, George Prior, 'in recognition of his services in helping to launch and recover the lifeboat on this occasion'.
Mr J B Glover, another of the launchers, was awarded the RNLI 'Thanks on Vellum' for his considerable help.  Awarding medals to shore helpers in the 1800's was most unusual and remains so today.   The award of a silver medal to George Prior must have been for an act of exceptional courage.

In 1883 Mr Henry Mulholland took over as Honorary Secretary.

In July that year the Coxswain, Robert Adair, now aged 70, retired after serving as such since 1868.  During his years of service he had served as coxswain on 20 service launches and helped save 120 lives.  For his years of dedicated service he was awarded a Silver Medal by the RNLI.  His son, also named Robert, succeeded him as Coxswain.

At 4:30 am on 30 September 1883 the Coastguard on duty at The Roddans Ballywalter spotted lights in the direction of the Skulmartin Light.  The coastguard boat was quickly manned and put to sea to investigate.  It was found that the barque 'Cuyuni' of Glasgow, with a crew of 14, had run aground on the reef but the heavy seas had prevented that coastguard boat approaching the stranded vessel.  
On returning ashore this news was conveyed to the Honorary Secretary of the Ballywalter Lifeboat and and at 7:20 am the lifeboat was launched. Two members of the casualty vessel were taken off but the remaining 12 crew refused to leave their ship.

No sooner had the lifeboat returned ashore that signals of distress were spotted and the lifeboat was launched again, this time taking off the remaining crew of 12 men and brought them safely ashore.  The barque later became a total wreck.

On 23 October 1884 at 4:30 am the Ballywalter Lifeboat was launched after signals of distress were spotted in the direction of the Ocean Rock. The lifeboat men found the casualty to be the scooner 'Trial' of Donaghadee that had been homeward bound with a cargo of coal.  The vessel had run aground on a falling tide and the master hoped to refloat the vessel on the next rising tide.  The master was brought ashore to arrange further assistance whilst the crew remained on board.  The master was taken back by the lifeboat to the scooner which was eventually refloated and proceeded on her way.


On 31 January 1885, Ballywalter's 'Admiral Henry Meynell' was replaced with a new lifeboat, the 'William Wallace', at the cost of £300, funded from the legacy of William Wallace of Shoreditch.  The new lifeboat was also a pulling (rowing) and sailing lifeboat, equipped with 10 oars, 2 masts and sails. She was 34 feet in length, 2 feet longer than its predecessor and had the same beam of 7' 6".   She was built by Woolfe & Son of Shadwell, London and was a 'self-righter'.

Photo: Derek Patton - Ballywalter Presbyterian Church

In 1885 the Cloughey Lifeboat Station was established by the RNLI in the village of Cloughey, located about 10 miles south of Ballywalter.

Early in 1883 the Glasgow Shipowners Association had written to the Ballast Board (Commissioners of Irish Lights) requesting that a light be placed on the Skullmartin Rock and for other improvements to the lighting to be made along the County Down coast.  The Ballast Board consulted with the Belfast Harbour Board and following a meeting in Dublin in May 1984 it was suggested by the Belfast Harbour Board's deputation that a lighthouse be placed at the eastern end of the South Ridge.  In response the Ballast Board expressed concerns over the high costs and the delay that would be incurred in building a lighthouse.  They suggested the placing of a lightship off the Skulmartin Rocks until the proposal for a lighthouse had been fully investigated.   

On 1 January 1886, the bell-boat buoy off the Skulmartin Rock was removed and a light-ship, the Petrel, was placed on station further east by the Irish Lights vessel, Princess Alexandra.  A lighthouse was never built.

An early photograph of the Skulmartin Lightship (Note that the photo is titled the Ballywalter Lightship)


In 1887 the Rev O'Reilly-Blackwood again took over as Honorary Secretary.

On 23 November 1891 the 'William Wallace' was taken away and sent to Forrestt's Boatyard in London to be altered and improved and was replaced by one of the RNLI reserve lifeboats on temporary duty.

On 4 January 1892 distress signals had been seen in the direction of the Skip Rock 1.5 miles north of the Ship Rock.  The relief Ballywalter Lifeboat was launched at 5:30 am.  The lifeboat headed out into rough seas and a stronge NNE wind with frequent hail showers.  The casualty vessel was found to be the steam tug 'Defiance' of Greenock.  Heavy seas were breaking all around the stranded vessel but as she was lying head-to-sea and it was hoped she would refloat on the rising tide. The Ballywalter Lifeboat stood by the tug until she floated off and proceeded on her way.  The lifeboat returned to station at 10:30 am.

In 1895 the Rev Dr J A Greer took over as Honorary Secretary.

The first effective service recorded by the 'William Wallace' was on 5 March 1896 when she was launched at 12:15 pm to assist the smack 'Governor Ready' of Douglas which was in difficulties several miles off-shore having been disabled during a violent squall.  She had been on passage from Dromore to Belfast with a cargo of paving stones when she had lost her top-mast, two jibs and the mainsail which had been torn to shreds.  On the arrival of the lifeboat with the casualty the lifeboatmen assisted the 3 crew to re-rig the smack which was then escorted to safety in Ballywalter harbour.  The Honorary Secretary Rev Dr J A Greer who had gone out with the lifeboat was later sent a RNLI 'Letter of Thanks' for his help.

On 16 March 1986 the Ballywalter lifeboat was launched at 9:30 am to assist the four-masted scooner 'Reform' of Stavanger which had been seen off Burr Point flying signals indicating that she was sinking.  Conditions at the time were reported to be 'truly appalling' with winds gusting to hurricane force, violent seas and frequent sleet showers, it being bitterly cold.  The lifeboat reached the schooner at 10:30 am and were informed that the vessel had been holed when she struck a rock off Burial Island, off Burr Point.  Some of the lifeboat crew boarded the schooner in order to assist the crew in pumping out the water but this prooved unsuccessful and the master gave the order to abandon ship. All the crew were then taken aboard the lifeboat with 'The Reform' sinking just 5 minutes later.

On the evening of 31 December 1897 the SS 'Marmion' of Glasgow ran aground in thick fog off Ballyferris Point.  The Ballywalter Lifeboat was launched at 10:15 pm and stood by the steamer until 1:30 am when she refloated undamaged and proceeded on her way.

In 1901 the Rev W S Kerr took over as Honorary Secretary.

On 17 February 1904 the last recorded rescue by the Ballywalter Lifeboat, 'The William Wallace', took place in thick fog when the new 1,700 ton ship 'Wellgunde' and the tug that had been towing her from Greenock to Port Talbot both went aground on the Butterfly Rock off Ballyferris Point.  The lifeboat was launched at 8:45 am and stood-by until the tug refloated when the lifeboat crew assisted in helped to refloat the 'Wellgunde' before returning to the Lifeboat Station.

Copy of graphic courtesy of Mervyn Dunbar

Copy of graphic courtesy of Mervyn Dunbar

Improvements in lighting and the introduction of steam driven ships that did not wholly rely on sail for their propulsion started to improve the safety of shipping and in consequence a lower frequency of shipwrecks along the County Down coast.   Subsequently, coastguard stations and their associated living accommodations, that were at that time placed every five or so miles along the Ards Peninsula, began to close.  Coastguards and their life-saving apparatus were withdrawn from Ballywalter in 1904.

In 1906 the Ballywalter Lifeboat station was also closed, 'due to lack of suitable men for a crew', quite possibly influenced by the lack of coastguards following the closure of the local CG station.

The Ballywalter lifeboat house was subsequently sold for £75.

The old Ballywalter lifeboat boathouse still stands - 2012

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

Shipwrecks continued to occur along the County Down coast.   During the first decade of the 1900's over 170 serious incidents relating to merchant vessels were recorded of which 37 resulted in a total loss.

The last known photograph of the Ballywalter Lifeboat, the 'William Wallace', in 1906 with the coxswain Robert Adair at the helm

Photo: Thanks to Donaghadee RNLI


Ballywalter fishermen circa 1900 - some possible Ballywalter Lifeboat crew members or shore helpers

Photo: courtesy of Mervyn Dunbar


During the 40 years of service of the Ballywalter Lifeboat the following lifeboats were on station;

ADMIRAL HENRY MEYNELL            1866 to 1885       launches - 22     lives saved - 142  

WILLIAM WALLACE - ON 93             1885 to 1906       launches - 15     lives saved -   12

TEMPORARY LIFEBOAT                   1892                      launches -   1     lives saved -     0


During the 40 years of service (1866 and 1906) the Ballywalter Lifeboat saved 154 lives.

RNLI records list the names of the coxswains and honorary secretaries;


Robert Boyd   1866 to 1868
(Drowned 26 December 1868 when lifeboat capsized whilst on exercise)

Robert Adair   1869 to 1883 (retired aged 70)

Robert Adair  1883 to 1906 (Son of Robet Adair above)

   Honorary Secretaries

Rev Hugh Wilson    1866 to 1877

William Gibson       1877 to 1878

Rev J O'Reilly Blackwood       1878 to 1883

Henry L Mulholland        1883 to 1885

Rev W McManus       1885 to 1886

Henry Mulholland       1886 to 1887

Rev J O'Reilly Blackwood       1887 to 1895

Rev J A Greer       1895 to 1901

Rev W S Kerr       1901 to 1906


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The Cloughey Lifeboat

Established 1885

Cloughey [Cloughy] (Clochaigh - a stoney place) is located on the eastern coast of the Ards Peninsula, County Down, approximately 30 miles southeast of the capital city of Northern Ireland, Belfast.

Cloughey is about 10 miles south of Ballywalter, where the first RNLI lifeboat station of the 'Ards' was established in 1866.

The North and South Rocks, Butter Pladdy and many other hazards had claimed many lives over past centuries.  The off-shore, 'half-tide' rocks presented a particular hazard to sailing vessels in stormy weather or in conditions of poor visibility.  Often, when the hazards were first seen, it was too late to take evasive action.


Photo: Commissioners of Irish Lights

After the Kilwarlin Lighthouse was built on the South Rock in 1797 there was little improvement in the number of vessels coming to grief and it became clear that an advance warning of the hazards was needed further out to sea.  Thus, in 1877, a manned light vessel using the same light sequence as the Kilwarlin Light was placed a few miles to the east and further out to sea from the South Rock.   Being manned 24/7 by a crew of 8, if there was poor visibility the fog signal cannon would be fired manually every 15 minutes (the Skullmartin Light Vessel further to the north every 10 minutes) to identify it as the South Rock Light Vessel and thereby warn any vessel standing into danger.

Prior to a RNLI lifeboat station being established at Cloughey, local fishermen and coastguards had often rendered assistance to vessels in distress.  

Such was the case on the 27th February 1881 when the brig the 'John Kendall', of Penzance, on passage from Greenock to Barbados with a cargo of coal went onto the 'Ridge', off Cloughey.  A boat was lowered by the crew but it was swamped by the high waves.  A second boat was lowered and the captain and four of the crew took to the South Rock where they were able to make signals of distress.  Shortly afterwards the ship foundered with the loss of the mate and two crewmen.  The distress signals were seen ashore in Cloughey and local fishermen and coastguards put to sea.  After some time the rescuers were able to bring five survivors to safety ashore.  Of the men who went to the assistance of the 'John Kendall', five had the surname Young, a family that would for coming decades provide coxswains and crew members for the Cloughey Lifeboat.

At a meeting of the RNLI Committee of Management on 3rd May 1883 it was decided to open a Lifeboat Station at Cloughey, mid-way between Ballywalter and the entrance of Strangford Lough.

A boathouse was built in 1884 by a local builder, Mr N Parkinson, at a cost of £451-2-6d.   It was located on the shoreline of Cloughey Bay close to the 'old' Presbyterian Church (built 1842) whose graveyard headstones still bare testimony to many of those who, aboard or ashore, served the Cloughey Lifeboat.

The Cloughey Lifeboat Station was opened by the RNLI in 1885.  

Cloughey's first lifeboat, the 'Faith', ON 94, was built at a cost of £363 by Woolfe & Sons of Shadwell in London and was one of three lifeboats paid for out of the legacy of a Mrs S H Bradshaw of Reading.  

(Mrs Bradshaw had requested the the three lifeboats ahould be named 'Faith', 'Hope' & 'Charity'.  'Hope' ON 82 was stationed in Castletown and 'Charity' ON ?? in Drogheda, both in 1885)

ON 94 was a 34ft x 8'3", 10 oared self-righting lifeboat.  The boat's launching carriage was built by Napton at a cost of £129.

Before coming to Cloughey lifeboat ON94 went through harbour trials in June 1884 and was then exhibited at the 'International Fisheries Exhibition' of 1884.  She was shipped to Cloughey from London on 18th March 1885 and arrived a few days later.

The Rev A W Whitley was appointed as the first Honorary Secretary of the new Cloughey Lifeboat Station.

Cloughey Lifeboat's first coxswain was Frank Young who served as such for 5 years until October 1890 when his brother, John Young, took over the role.  

The first service was on 19 September 1885 after the fishing smack 'Busy' of Beaumaris got into difficulty 4 miles south of the South Rock Lightvessel during heavy seas in a WNW gale. Assistance by the lifeboat was not required and it took 5 hours to return to the lifeboat station.

It would appear that there were some initial difficulties in launching the lifeboat off the beach at Cloughey and it was reported some years later that  'adequate arrangements' had been made to aleviate the problems.  There are also some suggestions in other records that during the first few years of the Cloughey Lifeboat that the Ballywalter or Tyrella lifeboats were launched to give assistance to casualties in the area.  

In December 1986 the Southport and St Annes lifeboats, both self-righters, capsized with the loss of 27 lifeboat-men and doubts were raised about the self-righting capabilities of a number of lifeboats, including the 'Faith'.  In June 1887 she was sent to Forrestt's boatyard in London to be modified.  Her place was taken by a reserve lifeboat.

The relief Cloughy Lifeboat was called out once on 24 September 1889 at 3:15am to assist the steam ship 'Lady Ailsa' of London which had gone ashore in a very strong ENE wind.  The lifeboat-men helped to lay out a kedge anchor and then stood-by until she refloated on the high tide.

In the early 19th century Coastguards were frequently part of a lifeboat's crew.  Cloughey Lifeboat records show that from 1885 to April 1900, under the heading, Second Coxswain - 'Coastguards always appointed'.

In 1900 pushing poles were provided to the station to assist the launching of the lifeboat off the Cloughey beach.

The 'Faith' remained on service at Cloughey until 1906.  During this period she was launched on service 32 times, saving 54 lives.  She was replaced by the 'John', another pulling and sailing lifeboat, built at a cost of £973 and funded from the legacy of Mr John A Hay of Cheltenham.


A postcard of the Cloughey Lifeboat and crew , early 1900's
Note that two of the crew in the front row are wearing 'kapok lifejackets' first introduced by the RNLI in 1904

Photo: by permission RNLI Heritage Trust

On 14 November 1908 the French steel barque, Croisset of Rouen, of 3,080 tons, ran aground on the South Rock during, what was reported to be a hurricane.  She was on voyage from New Caledonia to Glasgow carrying a cargo of 3,500 tons of nickel.  The Cloughey lifeboat was launched with Coxswain Robert (Robbie) Young at the helm.   The lifeboat crew of fifteen had to row to and from the foundering vessel several times and were successful in rescuing the entire crew, no less than twenty-six souls.


The steel sailing barque 'Croisset' of Rouen

Following this rescue the French Government awarded Gold Medals to the Coxswain, Robert (Robbie) C Young, and the Chief Officer of the Coastguard, Edwin Cupman.  The lifeboat crew were awarded silver medals.  In addition all the medals were accompanied by diplomas.   The Honorary Secretary of the Cloughey Lifeboat, J A McMullan, was presented with an aneroid barometer.

The Irish News of 17 June 1909 reads;


The Paris Journal officially announces that for saving the crew of the French three-masted sailing ship Croisset, on November last, on South Rock at Cloughey, County Down, the following awards have been made by the French Government:  

Gold medals of the second class to Mr. Robt. Young, coxswain of the Cloughey lifeboat; and Mr.Edwin Cupman, chief boatman in charge of coastguards.

Silver medals of the first class to Messrs. John Young (assistant coxswain), Andrew Young, David Young, Beggs, Drysdale, James Donnan, William Donnan, Palmer, Namara , seamen;  and Solway, Rose and Taylor, coastguards.

Note: In the above newspaper clipping the surname Namara should have read McNamara


The Cloughey Lifeboat crew in 1908

Photo: Belfast Telegraph archives

Above are some of the crew of the Cloughey Lifeboat, 'The Faith', after rescuing all the twenty-six persons on board the French three-masted sailing ship 'Croisset' on 14 November 1908.  Front row (left to right & seated on the 4 horse shafts); John (Jonny) Young, George Drysdale, John Young, Davy John Young, Robert Young.  Second Row; Andy Young, Bob Young, Andrew (lame Andy) Young.  Third Row; Edwin Cupman (Coastguard Captain), Robert (Robbie) Young (Coxswain), John Beggs.  Back Row; are 4 unidentified coastguards - three are possibly surnamed; Solway, Rose and Taylor who also received Silver Medals from the French Government.

In 1913 the practice of using horses to transport the Cloughey Lifeboat onto and off the beach was discontinued and additional 'shore helpers' were then used.  Shore Helpers, all too often un-recognised for their bravery, played a very significant and important role during the 19th and early 20th century, often working to launch lifeboats in dangerous weather conditions.   During 1913, an acetylene beach light to assist shore-helpers in launching at night was suppied to the station.

The 'John' was involved in many daring rescues during the following 25 years, such as;

On 18 November 1920 the SS Scarpa ran aground on the North Rock during a gale.  After several passages by the lifeboat the entire crew of thirty were brought safely ashore by the Cloughey lifeboat under the command of acting coxswain, Andrew (Andy) Young.

The brigantine 'Helgoland', laden with barley, ran ashore at Tara Point in a strong southwesterly gale at about 10 pm on 11th January 1924.  Flares were fired from the stricken vessel that were seen ashore and coastguards were informed.  The Coxswain of the Cloughey Lifeboat at that time was John Young but he was away from the Lifeboat Station.  Another brother, Robert Young, who was the second coxswain, was at home, gravely ill.   A third brother, Andrew (Andy) Young, was with his ill brother, Robert.  Andy was a member of the lifeboat crew and as both his brothers were unable to lead the rescue bid he decided to leave his brother Robert's bedside and, as acting Coxswain, took charge of the rescue.   He had served as acting coxswain on previous occasions.

The S V Helgoland

The RNLI records read; 'The 'Helgoland' had sunk and the crew were in the rigging.   She lay surrounded by rocks and the night was very dark.  There was a strong S.S.E gale and showers of sleet and hail'.   The rescue could not be effected until first light and was witnessed from the shore by an Inspector of Coastguards who later made a report in which he declared that 'it was the finest piece of seamanship I have ever seen'.  Others witnessed the rescue reported that just after the last man had been rescued from the rigging the foremast fell onto the deck and the 'Helgoland' sank.  

Sadly, after the safe return of the lifeboat with five survivors on-board, Andrew Young received the news that his brother Robert had passed away just two hours after the Cloughey Lifeboat had put to sea on its rescue mission.  


RNLI Centenary 1924

At the Centenary meeting of the RNLI in 1924, held at the Mansion House, London, Andrew 'Andy' Young was presented with the RNLI 'Bronze Medal' by HRH Prince Edward, Prince of Wales, for his part in the rescue of the crew of the Helgoland.

Photo: RNLI 'The Life-Boat'

Note - Andrew Young (seated) prior to receipt of his bronze medal from HRH The Prince of Wales

Over her 25 years at Cloughey this pulling and sailing lifeboat was responsible for the saving of no less than 131 lives.   Her service years also included those of the first World War when she was sometimes called to aid survivors from vessels that had been sunk, scuttled or damaged by German U-boat activity in the north Irish Sea.


The 1st World War Years

Some of the vessels sunk by U-Boat activity off the County Down coast during 1917/1918 were;

ss Amber - 401 tons - cargo of coal bound Waterford from Troon - scuttled by U-boat crew

ss Derrymore - 485 tons - in ballast bound Troon from Dublin - explosives placed on board by U-Boat crew

ss Morion - 299 tons - in ballast bound Carnlough from Dublin - bomb exploded by U-Boat crew

ss Saint Mungo - 402 tons - cargo of coal bound Dublin from Troon - bomb exploded by U-Boat crew

ss Neotsfield - 3,821 tons - cargo of coal & coke bound Naples from the Clyde - torpedoed by U-Boat

4 Annalong, 5 Kilkeel & 2 Portavogie fishing boats - sunk by U-Boat on 30 May 1918

ss Daybreak - cargo of maize - torpedoed without warning by U-boat 87 - sank rapidly with the loss of 21 lives (The following day, Christmas Day, U-boat 87 attempted to attack a convoy in the Irish Sea but was rammed by the sloop HMS Buttercup and the British patrol boat No.56.  All 44 of the crew of U-boat 87 perished)

Censorship was applied during the 1st World War to limit the availability and amount of information available to Germany about maritime activity and the reporting of the services carried out by RNLI lifeboats were very limited.

The following press report appeared in June 1918 relating to the sinking of local fishing vessels by German U-Boats.

Note: The British merchant vessel Belgian Prince was of 4,756 Tons and had a crew of 40 including the master.  She was sunk in the Atlantic, approximately 175nm NW of Tory Island.

As well as the sinking of local fishing vessels, the merchant vessels SS Amber, SS Derrymore & the SS Saint Mungo (and others) were sunk a few miles off the lower Ards Peninsula by the German U-Boat UC-65 which was under the command of Otto Steinbrinck.  

For information about some 'Wartime Wrecks of County Down' associated with U-Boat UC-65 researched by James Kelly click here


A detailed account of U-Boat activity off the County Down coast during the 1st World War can be found in the publication by M & H Maginnis 'Mourne Men & The U-Boats' by Matt Maginnis - ISBN 978-0-99266664-1-5

The 'John', remained on service until 1931 when she was sent to Newcastle Lifeboat Station and remained in service there until 1937.      

In 1931 'The John' was replaced by the self-righting motor lifeboat 'William Maynard' (ON 746)   The William Maynard had previously been stationed at The Skerries Lifeboat Station.   She had been built a few years earlier at a cost of £3,804 from the legacy of the Rev. William Maynard of Gresingham, Lancashire.  


Photo and text: RNLI 'The Lifeboat' archives

At this time George Young became the station's first motor mechanic (part-time) and in later years (1949 to 1954) he was to serve as coxswain.

On 1 January 1936, Robert Young was appointed as coxswain, the fifth coxswain to bare the surname Young.   At that time it was often said, "Cloughey Lifeboat coxswains are always Young".

Whilst the surname Young had been, and still was very prominent in the crew of the Cloughey Lifeboat, other surnames began to emerge, such as; Adair, Donnan, Drysdale, Ferris, McNamarra, Palmer, Polly, Semple, etc.

A publication by Elizabeth J C Lyttle and Amy Anderson celebrating the 1988 centenary of the founding of Kirkistown Primary School records that in 1934 the committee and senior crew of the Cloughey Lifeboat were;

Chairman - Sir Roland Nugent

Honorary Secretary - Rev. D Palmer

Hon. Treasurer - H W Maclaine (Bank Manager, Portaferry)

Coxswain - Robert Young  (5th member of family in this position)

Assistant Coxswain - Sam Adair

Motor Man - George Young

Assistant Motor Man - Samuel Donnan

Bowman - Andrew Young (jnr)

Tractor Engineer - George Drysdale

Assistant Tractor Engineer - John Drysdale


Late in the evening on November 16th 1937 the three-masted auxillary scooner Inverness of Dublin with a crew of 5 was disabled in the Irish Sea when her fore and mizzen masts were carried away as huge waves, whipped up by a severe south-easterly gale, battered the vessel.   Her auxillary engine then broke down and she drifted, helpless before the storm.

She had left New Ross with a cargo of pit props bound for Gaston. 

In all, seven lifeboats from Port St Mary, Douglas, Port Erin, Peel, Newcastle, Donaghadee and Cloughey were called out to look for the vessel.

The Cloughey Lifeboat William Maynard had been launched from Cloughey on the 19th at 7:45am and quickly found the disabled vessel 2 miles SSE off Ballyquinton Point.  Despite the heavy seas that were still running they tried to take the Inverness in tow.  Each time the line parted under strain.  Shortly afterwards the larger Donaghadee Lifeboat, Civil Service No 5, arrived in the area. She was a 45' twin-engined Watson Class lifeboat.  Both lifeboats working together were able to establish tow lines onto the scooner and slowly took the Inverness into the harbour at Portaferry on the morning of 20th November 20th 1937.


The auxilliary scooner 'Inverness' at Portaferry after being towed into Portaferry by the Donaghadee Lifeboat (right) and the Cloughey Lifeboat.

Due to unsettled weather the Cloughey lifeboat was unable to be recovered off the beach at Cloughey and made her way to Donaghadee which she reached at 5-30pm.  Four days later she was able to return to the Cloughey Lifeboat Station.


In 1937, the Cloughey Lifeboat Station had been expecting a new motor lifeboat, a 35' 6" single-engined Liverpool Class lifeboat to replace the William Maynard but it was destroyed during a fire at the building yard of Groves & Guttridge on 18 June 1937.  

It was not until 15 July 1939 that a new motor lifeboat, the Herbert John, ON825, was put on station at Cloughey.

The Herbert John was a 35' 6" Liverpool Class non-self-righting lifeboat powered by a 35 BHP petrol driven Wayburn engine giving the boat a top speed of 7.25 knots.

On 9 May 1939, just a few days prior to the arrival of the Herbert John, the Arantzazu Mendi of Bilboa, of 6,600 gross tons, ran aground in thick fog onto the Butter Pladdy off Kearney Point.  The vessel was in no immediate danger but after several unsuccessful attempts to refloat her the crew were taken off and replaced with a salvage team of eleven men.  On the 8 June 1939 a storm blew up and heavy waves began to break up the vessel.   The William Maynard was launched to rescue the salvage crew.

The William Maynard ashore following the rescue of 11 men from the Arantzazu-Mendi

The RNLI record reads;

On 9th May 1939 the s.s. Arantzazu-Mendi of Bilbao went aground on Butter Pladdy Shoals outside Kearney Point.  Efforts were made to salve her and on 17th June there was a salvage party on board when the weather changed.  Seas 15' high were breaking over the steamer and were sweeping clean over her after part from which everything moveable had been swept away.  The 11 men on board were on the fore deck knee deep in water.  For this rescue of the 11 men Coxswain Robert Young was awarded the Silver Medal and Motor Mechanic George Young the Bronze Medal.  Both medals were presented by Lady Abercorn.

During her 8 years of service at Cloughey (1931-1939) the William Maynard was responsible for the saving of 36 lives.


The 'Herbert John'

A few weeks, after the shout on the 9th May 1939 to the Arantzazu-Mendi, the William Maynard was withdrawn from service and replaced by a new motor lifeboat, the Herbert John, ON825.   

The Herbert John was provided through the legacies of Miss B A Athill of St John's Wood and Mrs S M Poland of Brockham Green, Betchworth.  Her cost of building was £4,054.00.


Crew members and supporters in the 1940's with the 'Herbert John'


On 28 January 1941 the s.s. Alhena of 4,930 tons grounded on the North Rock.  She was bound for Port Said, Egypt, with supplies for the Eighth Army.   The Cloughey Lifeboat, the Herbert John, stood by the vessel several times over a period of five days and eventually had to take off the crew and army technicians, in total forty-five men.  One crewman from a Royal Navy destroyer that were standing-by was also taken ashore.

One of the most unusual events in the history of the Cloughey lifeboat occurred late on the evening of 21 January 1942.    A south-easterly gale was blowing when the motor vessel Cairngorm went aground at Ballyquinton in squalls of hail and sleet.    Flares were spotted ashore and the 'Herbert John' was launched just after 1:00 am.   On their way to the Cairngorm the lifeboat crew observed that there were several large ships in the vicinity.  As dawn broke it became apparent that these vessels had all gone aground, between Kearney Point and Ballyquinton Point.

It later transpired that the corvette, HMS Montbretia, had been escorting a convoy of merchant vessels northwards when her crew had seen the distress flares from the Caingorm.   The warship had gone to assist the Cairngorm but unfortunately had grounded in doing so off Tara Point.   She had been followed in succession by four merchant vessels in the convoy that she was escorting, the Asiatic, Bronxville, Browning and Orminster.   In addition, a small coaster, the Dorian, had also gone aground making a total of seven vessels stranded that morning.

The Newcastle Lifeboat, the L.P. & St. Helen, was launched at 5:00am to assist and was tasked to the position of the ss Browning that was aground further south, off Kearney.   The tide was rising and Coastguards who had rescued 17 of the crew had been forced to retreat.   The service was a very difficult one with very little room for manouver.  With great skill Coxswain Paddy Murphy was able to bring the Newcastle lifeboat along-side the lee side of the Browning and took all 39 of the Browning's remaining crew aboard.  With the lifeboat overloaded and the only escape route across a shallow reef towards the ship's stern, the coxswain waited for a suitable wave and was just able to clear the reef and then proceeded towards the fishing village of Portavogie where the 39 survivors were landed to safety ashore. 

Paddy Murphy, Coxswain of the Newcastle Lifeboat, was awarded the British Empire Medal and on 21 May 1942 was voted to receive the RNLI's highest award, a Gold Medal, for his valour.  Silver medals were awarded to the Second-Coxswain, William Murphy and the mechanic, Robert Agnew.  Bronze Medals were awarded to four crew members, William Leneghan, Thomas McClelland, Patrick McClelland and Patrick Rooney.  

The RNLI record of the rescue reads:

'In a South-East gale with very heavy seas, rain and sleet, a convoy of ships missed its way in the morning, a number of them going ashore near Ballyquinton, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. As the Cloughey lifeboat was already on service, the self-righting motor lifeboat L.P. and St. Helen was launched at 5 a.m., with a voyage ahead of 20 miles in limited visibility. Reaching the scene, Coxswain Murphy found seven ships ashore but only one, the Liverpool S.S. Browning, was capable of being reached. 17 of her crew had been taken ashore by life-saving apparatus; one of the remaining 39 had shot himself in the hand while destroying horses. The Coxswain made several attempts to reach the vessel from windward but without success. Switching to the lee side, he manoeuvred the lifeboat through a dangerously narrow channel into a small lagoon of calm water and took off all survivors. The lifeboat was now seriously overloaded, but the Coxswain took the only way out and crossed the reef of rocks at full speed judging the time to perfection. With no chance of returning to Newcastle in the conditions, he landed the survivors at Portavogie, a small fishing station'

Following the grounding of the seven ships a large salvage operation swung into action and all the vessels were eventually refloated, the Asiatic and Bronxvville having to be taken away for major repairs.

Source of newapaper cutting: Newcastle Widows Row

Harbour Newspaper cutting referring to the awarding of medals to the coxswain and crew of the Newcastle Lifeboat following the rescue of the crew of the SS Browning.


The SS Browning, referred to above, had previously survived an encounter with a German U-Boat in 1938;

On 5 September 1939 the ss Browning was some 200 miles south-west of Lands End.  

The German U-Boat U48 had earlier engaged with the 4,835 ton merchant vessel Royal Sceptre that was on route to Belfast from Rosario, Argentina, with a cargo of wheat.  A shot from the U-boat's cannon failed to make the vessel stop and the Royal Sceptre veered off course, made smoke and continued radioing SOS signals.  In an attempt to stop the vessel the U-boat's commander decided to fire at the bridge.  Shortly afterwards the vessel stopped and the officers and crew took to the ship's lifeboats, except for the Radio Officer who continued to send distress messages whereapon some U-boat crew boarded the Royal Sceptre and took him prisoner.   U48 then sunk the Royal Sceptre with one torpedo.  

Later in the day the U-boat's commander, Herbert Schultze, manouvered his U-Boat towards one of the ship's lifeboats and then released the radio officer, saluting him for his courage. At that time food provisions were also provided to those in the lifeboats.

Having seen some smoke from a vessel on the horizon, Commander Schultze made way and discovered it was from the SS Browning.  On sighting the U-boat the crew of the Browning took to the lifeboats fearing that their vessel was about to be sunk.   They were however pursuaded by Commander Schultze to return to their vessel during which time he advised them of the sinking of the Royal Sceptre and the position and plight of its officers and crew.


The SS Browning

(built 1919 by Lamport & Holt Ltd , Liverpool)

The Browning was allowed to proceed unhindered and subsequently picked up the officers and crew of the ill-fated Royal Sceptre.  All officers and crew, except for one crewman, survived the sinking.

The Browning had survived the encounter with the U-boat in 1939 and her grounding off the Ards Peninsula in 1941.  

However, she did not survive an encounter with U-boat U.593 on 12 November 1942.   She was approaching the port of Oran, Algeria, with a military cargo including munitions and gelignite when she was torpedoed by U-boat U.593.  The crew abandonded her just before she blew up and sank. Fortunately only one life was lost.


8th OCTOBER 1942. - CLOUGHEY, CO. DOWN. At 12.30 P.M.

The Tara coastguard reported that the motor boat Dawn, of Glasgow, engaged on salvage work, was showing signals of distress at the entrance to Strangford Lough. A strong westerly breeze was blowing, with squalls and heavy showers, and the sea was rough. At 12.50 P.M. the motor life-boat Herbert John was launched and found the boat with her engine broken down. She had no sails or oars, and the two men on board her were helpless. The life-boat towed her to Portaferry Quay, and returned to her station at 4.45 P.M. - Rewards, 10 13s.

21st OCTOBER 1942 - CLOUGHEY, CO. DOWN. At 6.50 A.M.

The Tara coastguard reported a vessel on the rocks at the old lighthouse on South Rock, and the motor life-boat Herbert John was launched at 7.30 A.M. A moderate westerly breeze was blowing, with a smooth sea. The life-boat found H.M. Minesweeper Wedgeport getting clear of the rocks on the rising tide. Her captain said that he was off his course, so the life-boat coxswain went aboard the minesweeper, piloted her to South Rock Lightship and put her on her course. She had sustained some damage and was making water, but her captain decided to go on his way, and the life-boat returned to her station, arriving at 9.5 A.M. - Rewards, 10 19s.


A loud explosion had been heard and a flash had been seen, but nothing could be found. - Rewards, 10 7s.



Cloughey Lifeboat crew in the late 1940's and the 'Herbert John'

Note - Andrew Young with his walking stick on the ground - 6th right

During the following years many life-saving services continued to be carried out by the Herbert John.

On 30 April 1946 a US victory class troopship of 7,046 tons, the Georgetown Victory, was on passage to Glasgow from Freemantle, Australia, with over 1,200 demobbed members of the Royal Navy and marines on board.   She grounded hard on Killard Point having somehow mistaken the entrance to Strangford Lough for that of the Clyde.  Within a few hours of the grounding she had broken her back.  The Cloughey and Newcastle lifeboats were launched on service on the afternoon of 1 May and all aboard the Georgetown Victory were saved with the assistance of other vessels.  The Newcastle Lifeboat also rescued 9 men who had left the Georgetown Victory on a life-raft and were drifting out to sea.  The Georgetown Victory was designed as a troopship and had been built the previous year in Bethlehem, USA by the Fortfield Shipyard.   She became a total loss and has now become a popular dive scene.


At 10:30 on the 30 January 1950 the riding chain of the South Rock Lightship, the Shearwater, parted during a severe south-easterly gale.  Her reserve anchor was deployed by the crew about fifteen minutes later which fortuately held fast, leaving her in a position about 1 mile downwind from her charted position.  Distress rockets were fired on the order of the acting Master, William McGrath, after which the Cloughey Lifeboat, the Herbert John, was launched and on arrival stood by the lightship in high seas that were to last for several days.  

Just before dawn the following morning the Irish Lights tenders Alexandra and Granuaile arrived off the lightship but being unable to pass lines or take off the crew they were forced to seek shelter in Belfast Lough leaving the Cloughey Lifeboat the only vessel standing by the lightship.

The gales continued on and off for four days.

At about 15:00 on 3 February the master of the lightship decided it was time to begin abandoning ship.

In a severe south-easterly gale and in high seas, the crew were taken off one by one by the Cloughey Lifeboat.  During the rescue the lifeboat sustained some damage after being dashed against the side of the lightship several times.   

Having successfully transferred all of the lightship's seven crew members, the Cloughey Lifeboat proceeded homewards taking all on board to safety ashore.   The rescued lightship men were then taken to the home in Cloughey of the lifeboat's mechanic, William (Billy) Bell, where his wife had food and warm beverages ready for the rescued and the rescuers.

The Irish Lights vessel, Alexandra, had been instructed to take up the charted position of the lightship but was unable to do so for several days due to the continuing bad weather and not until around noon on 6 February.

The coxswain of the Cloughey Lifeboat, George Young, received the 'RNLI Thanks on Vellum' for the rescue.  On one occasion the 'Herbert John' had stood by the South Rock lightship for a continious period of 38 hours.   Many in the area felt that the Coxswain and his crew should have received more recognition for their bravery.


Photo: Portaferry RNLI

The crew of the Cloughey Lifeboat, the Herbert John, following the rescue of the crew of the South Rock Lightship

From left - David Thompson (Hon Secretary), Alex McNamara, Hugh Palmer, Johnny Gibson, Billy Bell (Mechanic), George M Young (Coxswain) George Coffey and Sam Adair


As a charity, the RNLI relies on donations and legacies.  It also relies on RNLI fund-raisers.

One such local fund-raiser during this period was a William Thompson from the townland of Ballyfrench, Ballyhalbert, County Down, located a few miles North of Cloughey.   As a child, William developed a love for writing poetry.  William's eldest brother, Robert, went to sea at an early age but was unfortunately drowned in 1911 when boarding a boat in Gloucester docks.  

Following his eldest brothers death, Robert started to raise money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution with his poems about the lifesaving work of the Cloughey and Donaghadee lifeboat stations.  These were frequently published in newspapers or in small booklets of poems that William sold for six-pence as he travelled from door to door to raise monies for the RNLI.  

William worked tirelessly to raise funds for a new lifeboat for the station.   His proudest achievement came in August 1953 when he saw the naming and launch of the Constance Calverly.

One hundred and seven of William's poems were published in 2007 by 'The Thompson Family' under the title: William Thompson (Big Bill Tamson) - Low Country Poet.  (ISBN 978-1-900935-79-1)    Many of the poems are about the bravery of the lifeboat crews of the Cloughey and Donaghadee lifeboat stations.

All proceeds from the book of poems are donated to the RNLI.  Currently, copies can be obtained from Portaferry Lifeboat Station and the Donaghadee RNLI shop at The Parade, Donaghadee. 

One of William Thompson's poems about the saving of the crew of the South Rock Lightship in 1950 by the Cloughey Lifeboat, the Herbert John, is published below with the permission of the Thompson Family.


Gallant Coxswain Honoured

by William Thompson

You have heard of George Young and the lifeboat men,
Who work on the ocean wave;
And the sacrifices they often make
In order to seek and save.

As soon as the rockets go skyward,
The lifeboat is heading to sea;
They knew in attempring this rescue
What a difficult job it would be.

The storm still raged its fury,
But the lifeboat was there standing by;
Its gallant crew had their minds made up - 
It was a case of do or die.

We are proud to say that they did it,
These men from the Cloughey shore,
And the lightship's crew were rescued,
And their time of trial was o'er.

When the news was flashed to headquarters,
Their faces were wreathed in smiles;
"The greatest feat by a lifeboat crew
In the whole of the British Isles."

They gave him a scroll of merit,
And in it they told the tale;
How he rescued the crew of the South Rock
In the teeth of a southeast gale.

They deserved the greatest of credit,
These men of the lifeboat crew,
Who stood by the drifting lightship
In the fiercest gales that blew.

And the Lifeboat Institution
Awarded the lifeboat crew,
For its days and nights on the briney,
With a scroll for the coxswain too.

Then think when the storms are howling,
And the sea is a mass of foam;
That the men of the Cloughey lifeboat
May have left the comforts of home.

To go out and effect a rescue,
When others are fast asleep:
These men should not be forgotten,
For their work on the mighty deep.

© The Thompson Family 2007


Just five months later, on 25 May 1950, one of the saddest days in the history of the Cloughey Lifeboat occurred when Andrew (lame Andy) Young (78), his brother John Young (75) and John's son, Andrew (25), were out lifting lobster pots on their fishing cobble, Ricia.  

They did not return when expected and George M Young, then the coxswain of the Cloughey Lifeboat, went out on his own boat to look for his two uncles and cousin.  After an unsuccessful search he returned to raise the alarm and the Cloughey Lifeboat, the Herbert John, was launched to search for them.   

The'Ricia' was found, submerged, the following morning and the bodies of those lost were recovered a few days later.


Andrew Young - 'Lame Andy'


Photo: Portaferry RNLI

  Born 1 May 1871 - Drowned 25 May 1950


Andrew Young was born lame in one leg.  He was nicknamed by locals as 'Lame Andy'.   Despite his disability he worked as a fisherman and became highly respected, not only as a person but also for his seamanship and selfless service to the RNLI and the Cloughey Lifeboat.  He was appointed as Coxswain of the Cloughey Lifeboat on 25th November 1927 and retired as such on 31st December 1935.  He continued to help as a member of the crew until the late 1940's.  He was drowned when his fishing coble ''Ricia' was lost on 25th May 1950.  Drowned in the same incident was his younger brother, John, (who had preceeded him as Coxswain from 1919 to 1927) and John's son, Andrew, aged twenty-five. They were all laid to rest in the graveyard of the Cloughey Old Presbyterian Church, only a few yards away from their beloved Lifeboat Station.

The Lifeboat Journal in the autumn of 1950 recorded the following;



Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown 2020

Memorial to Fishermen (2003) at Portavogie


Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown 2020

Memorial to Fishermen (2003) at Portavogie with the names of Andy Young, Andy Young Jnr & John (Jonnie) Young who were all lost at sea on 25th May 1950


Thrilling Epics

by William Thompson

The Cloughey Lifeboat, "Herbert John",
Put out to sea one night in May;
Coxswain George Young was in command -
A hero of sweet Cloughey Bay.

The praises of this gallant Cox
Are sung by people near and far;
He saved the South Rock Lightship's crew,
and a Cornish yacht at Strangford Bar.

Where'er I go within the Ards
I hear his name from time to time;
His record on the lifeboat books
Like ever, like the stars, shall shine.

His charming and efficient crew
Are praised by people far and wide;
But for their gallant work at sea,
How many people would have died?

With radio telephone now installed,
They now can talk from ship to shore;
And so we know what's going on
Until their dangerous task is o'er.

They put to sea that spring-like day,
Two gallant coxswains and a son;
Not knowing it was their last voyage,
Or that their day would soon be done.

The wheel chair on the shore proclaimed
It's occupant had not returned;
And as the lifeboat put to sea
The whole of Cloughey village mourned.

They searched the sea for miles around,
The wreckage of the yawl espied;
'Twas then they knew of these men's fate -
It marked the place near where they died.

'Twas Coxswain Young's sad lot to search
For his two uncles, staunch and brave;
Both heros of the mighty deep,
Who others sought to seek and save.

Their bodies all recovered were,
And laid in Cloughey, near the sea;
How these men met such a cruel fate
Will always be a mystery.

And but for Coxswain George M. Young,
This station would have been closed down;
I'm glad he undertook to keep
The "Herbert John" in Cloughey town.

We wish this gallant coxswain well,
And pray God's blessing on his crew
These noble lifeboatmen have served
The Cloughey station well and true.

The "Herbert John" and they soon part,
And with her memories sad and gay;
The honour falls to Coxswain Young
To bring the new one to Cloughey Bay

And soon from Cowes, in the Isle of Wight,
The "Constance Calverley" will come;
And Coxswain Young will still command
This lifeboat in her Cloughey home.

©  The Thompson Family 2007


In 1952 the 'Herbert John' was replaced by a new twin screw Liverpool Class lifeboat, the Constance Calverley.

During her 13 years at Cloughey (1939 to 1952) the Herbert John was launched on service on 46 occasions and saved 67 lives.

The 'Herbert John' went on to save more lives at Youghal RNLI Lifeboat Station, County Cork.  

Between 1952 and 1966 she was launched on service 14 times and saved 30 lives.  One such rescue was on 27 October 1963 when she went to the aid of the French trawler, Fee des Ondes, which went ashore in Ardmore Bay in strong SE winds.  Four persons were rescued during the service and the Coxswain, Richard Hickley, was awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal for his seamanship and the bravery of his crew.

NOTE - The Herbert John has now been restored to her former glory.   Click here to find out more.


The 'Constance Calverley'

In August 1952 the Herbert John was replaced by a new motor lifeboat, the Constance Calverley, ON 902, provided through the legacy of Miss Constance Calverley of Huddersfield at a cost of £14,337.

Early in the morning of 9 August 1952, shortly before the Constance Calverley's naming ceremony, the new lifeboat was called out to assist the cargo vessel Lassell of 7,256 tons that had gone aground on the North Rock.


The Constance Calverley naming ceremony

Photos: RNLI - Portaferry



Davy Martin - Tractor Driver


The launch of the Constance Calverley

Photo: Spectator Newspapers

Note - In the background is the merchant vessel Lassell hard aground on the North Rock


The last Cloughey coxswain

George M Young retired as the Coxswain of the Cloughey Lifeboat on 30 June 1954 and was appointed as the station's motor mechanic.   

Walter Semple then became coxswain; only the second coxswain of the Cloughey Lifeboat to have a surname other than Young.

It was not long before Walter Semple was to receive an award from the RNLI after he rescued 11 persons on 21 January 1955 from the Norwegian merchant vessel Roskva that had ran aground in storm force winds onto Burial Island, near Ballyhalbert.  

During 1958 a relief lifeboat was put on service at Cloughey for a few months whilst some work was carried out to the Constance Calverley.

On 7th March 1962 the Cloughey Lifeboat went to the aid of the Dutch coaster, Frida Blokzijl, that was in danger of being driven ashore off the Strangford Bar in a south-easterly gale.  

After taking off the crew of four after six previously unsuccessful attempts, the lifeboat returned to the coaster and in a second attempt took off the captain in terrible sea conditions.   The Coxswain, Walter Semple, was awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal, the motor mechanic, George Young, 'The Thanks of the Institution on Vellum' and the lifeboat crew, Walter Beggs, George Calvert, John Donnan, James Master and Archie Watts, the Institution's Medal Service Certificate.

Note: In 2010 the wife of the late Coxswain Walter Semple presented his 'Certificate of Thanks' for the rescue of the crew and master of the MV Frida Blokzijl , a certificate of thanks for the rescue of 11 persons from MV Roskva and his 'Certificate of Service' as coxswain of the Cloughey Lifeboat to the Portaferry RNLI Lifeboat Station for safekeeping.  These are proudly displayed in the Station.

The Constance Calverley returning to rescue the captain of the Frida Blokzijl

Photo: Portaferry RNLI

In 1964 the RNLI decided to close the Cloughey Lifeboat Station and move it to the harbour of the fishing port of Portavogie located about 2 miles further north.   The move occurred on 26 November 1965.

Some of the crew and shore helpers of the Cloughey Lifeboat Station before the station closed in 1965

Photo: by kind permission of Spectator Newspapers Ltd

Cloughey lifeboat's last life-saving service was on 23 June 1963 when she saved one person from a harbour tug.

The last service was on 6 October 1965 when the Constance Calverley stood by the motor vessel 'Normanby Hall'.

During 81 years of service the lifeboats of the Cloughey Lifeboat Station were launched 152 times saving the lives of 311 people.


RNLI Medal Record

Bronze - to Acting Coxswain Andrew Young for a rescue on 11 January 1924

Silver - Coxswain Robert Young for a rescue on 9 May 1939

Bronze - Lifeboat Motor Mechanic George Young for a rescue on 9 May 1939

Bronze - Coxswain Walter Semple for a rescue on 7 March 1962


Foreign Medal Awards

Gold medals - from the Government of France - awarded to Coxswain Robert C Young and Chief Coastguard Officer Edwin Cupman for a rescue on 14 November 1908

Silver medals of the first class for a rescue on the same date to crew members John Young (assistant coxswain), Andrew Young, David Young, Beggs, Drysdale, James Donnan, William Donnan, Palmer, McNamara.  Silver medals were also awarded to Coastguard crew members surnamed Rose, Solway and Taylor.


The Service record boards of the Cloughey Lifeboat Station are on display in the Portaferry Lifeboat Station

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown


The Cloughey Lifeboat Memorial

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

A memorial to the bravery of the crew of Cloughey Lifeboat was erected in the village of Cloughey in 2001.  The monolith, in granite by Gary Drostle and Rob Turner, represents the history of the Cloughey Lifeboat through carved images that follow the bravery of the lifeboat crew.  The memorial is located at the sand dunes of the Warren, Cloughey, that overlook Cloughey Bay.   The Cloughey Lifeboat Station was located on the right-hand side of the picture amid the cluster of buildings in the distance.  After the Lifeboat Station closed the boathouse was eventually sold and converted into a private dwelling.

The 'Herbert John' has now been restored

The restored Herbert John at Donaghadee Marina - 13 April 2012

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

The 'Herbert John' has now been restored to her former glory by Quinton Nelson from Donaghadee. Following restoration the lifeboat was launched at Donaghadee on 13 April 2012.   Quiton, a former long-serving crew member of Donaghadee Lifeboat, spent three years restoring this historic Cloughey Lifeboat.

Further information on 20 May 2012 to Portaferry RNLI from Graham Mountford, owner of the restored 'Herbert John': "ON825 is now with me in Cornwall, and kept at Restronguet Creek, one of the tributaries of the Falmouth roads"   (Note: Graham Mountford is a founding member of the Historic Lifeboats Owners Association and is currently a serving member of Newquay RNLI Lifeboat Station)

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The Cloughey-Portavogie Lifeboat Station

The Cloughey-Portavogie Lifeboat Station was established on 26 November 1965 when the Glencoe Glasgow, ON857, was put on station in the harbour at Portavogie, County Down.  She was built at a cost of £11,885, defrayed by the legacy of a Mrs Lawerence Glen.


The Cloughey/Portavogie Lifeboat, Glencoe Glasgow, at sea off Portavogie

Photo: Lalouette Photographers

John Donnan was appointed as the part-time Coxswain/Mechanic of the Cloughey-Portavogie lifeboat on 1 April 1966, having been the second coxswain from 4 December 1965 to 31 March 1966.   Previously, he had been a crew member of the Cloughey Lifeboat since 1952.


Coxswain John Donnan

Photo: by permission RNLI Heritage Trust

William Keenan, who joined the Cloughey-Portavogie lifeboat crew in 1965, was appointed as 2nd coxswain on 31 March 1972.

Other crew members in the records of the Cloughey-Portavogie Lifeboat Station were;

Assistant Mechanics - Samuel Thompson (1 July 1973 to 30 Sept 1981)

Emergency Mechanics - W H Keenan (24 May 1972 to 30 Sept 1981) & A R Carson (3 Oct 1972 to 30 Sept 81)  


Blessing of the Cloughey/Portavogie Lifeboat at Portavogie harbour in 1966
Center, at the micophone, is David Thompson (Station Hon Secretary) and immediate right is Major William Brownlow (Station President)

Photo: by kind permission of Spectator Newspapers Ltd

During late 1978 significant redevelopment of Portavogie Harbour commenced and on 26 October 1978 the lifeboat station was temporarily closed with the intention of re-opening the station when the harbour work was completed.  The Glencoe Glasgow was put into storage at the Robertson's Yard at Sandbank.

In 1980, with harbour improvements still taking place, it was decided that the Gencoe Glasgow would not be put back in service.   

The Cloughey/Portavogie lifeboat station was permanently closed on 30 September 1981.

The last life-saving service of the Cloughey-Portavogie Lifeboat was to the yacht 'Seawitch' on 2 November 1975 when 3 lives and the vessel were saved.

The last service of the Cloughey/Portavogie Lifeboat was on 27 November 1977 when the she was launched to search for a man reported overboard from the ferry, Ulster Prince.

Between 26 November 1965 and 26 October 1978 the Cloughey-Portavogie Lifeboat was launched on service 49 times and saved 31 lives.

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The Groomsport Lifeboat

Established 1858

After several wrecks had occured in the Belfast Lough area with the loss ships and many lives the RNLI decided to open a lifeboat station at Groomsport, County Down, in 1858.

The first Groomsport Lifeboat was a pulling (rowing) lifeboat using 6 oars, 28 feet long and build at a cost of £129.   There appears to be no record of her name.  A boat-house to accommodate the lifeboat and her carriage was erected on land donated by a local landowner, Mr J W Maxwell, at a cost of £150 which was raised by the local village inhabitants and surrounding area including Belfast.  

A drawing believed to be that of the type of the first Groomsport Lifeboat
(a non self-righting 6 oared lifeboat on her carriage)

The RNLI archives relating to the formation of the Groomsport Lifeboat Station reads;

July 1858 - GROOMSPORT, IRELAND.A new life-boat has been stationed at Groomsport, County Down, by the NATIONAL LIFE-BOAT INSTITUTION, and a branch of the Society established there. Lying at the entrance to the bay of Belfast, this station will afford a protection to the shipping frequenting that prosperous trading mart, which was much required. This boat is a 28 ft. boat, rowing six oars single-banked. She has been tried by her crew in a heavy sea, and is very highly spoken of by them. She will be supplied with a transporting-carriage, and a handsome, substantial, and serviceable boathouse is being built for her on a site of ground granted by J. W. MAXWELL, Esq., the proprietor of Groomsport. The cost of the house has been raised locally, by the inhabitants of Groomsport and its neighbourhood, and by residents at Belfast. Annual contributions towards the permanent expenses of the establishment have likewise liberally come forward. Major PERCEVAL MAXWELL, of Groomsport House, the Treasurer of the local Committee, and Mr. BOAG, of Belfast, have taken great interest in the formation of this branch of the Institution.

The un-named lifeboat appears to have only been launched on service two times between 1858 and 1867 during which one life was saved.  Whilst on exercise in 1866 the lifeboat capsized, fortunately without any loss of life.

30th May 1865 - Early on the morning the smack 'Agnes and Mary', of Glasgow, struck on the rocks off this place, during a strong northerly wind and heavy surf. The Groomsport life-boat put off, and brought the master of the smack safely ashore. The crew of 2 men had previously succeeded in reaching the shore in the vessel's boat.

In 1867 the lifeboat was replaced by the 'Florence', a pulling lifeboat with 10 oars.  The new lifeboat was gifted by a Mrs Dormer of Brampton, Oxfordshire.

During her years of service between 1867 and 1885 the 'Florence' was launched on service 10 times and saved 36 lives.

14th March 1876 - During a gale at W.S.W. the brig 'Linwood', of Maryport, came to anchor off White Head in a dangerous position. At 2 P.M. she parted her cables, and about the same time hoisted signals of distress. The Groomsport Life-boat Florence was promptly launched, and stood off to the distressed vessel under sail, with the intention of rescuing her crew before she fell among the rocks; fortunately for the Linwood, however, soon after the Life-boat got alongside, the steamer Voltaic, of Liverpool, bound up the Loch, observed her in danger and turning out of her course and succeeded in taking her in tow and ultimately into port, the distressed vessel being also assisted by some of the lifeboat's crew.

19th. May 1877 at 10 A.M - The wind blowing hard from the N.E., the smack Newland, of Kilkeel, riding to her sole remaining anchor on a lee shore, in Ballyholme Bay, hoisted a signal of distress, and the Life-boat Florence having been conveyed by land to the Bay from her station at Groomsport was launched, and her crew found means to secure the distressed vessel by passing hawsers to the shore. Subsequently, after many hours of hard service, the Life-boatmen got the Newland out of danger and safely into Bangor Harbour. Difficulty was found in launching the Life-boat, from the heavy sea, on a peculiarly rough beach, the sea washing both horses and men off their legs.

One of the noteable rescues missions was to the barqe 'Margaret' on the afternoon of 14 October 1881 which had been on passage from Quebec with a cargo of timber and was attempting to enter Belfast Lough in a strong gale and heavy seas.  The barque had been taken under tow by a steam tug but the towing hawser broke and the barque ran aground in Bangor Bay.   The Groomsport Lifeboat 'Florence', under the command of Coxswain William Orr, was transported on its carriage to Bangor from where it was launched and subsequently rescued all 15 crew members.

In l885 a new larger lifeboat came to the station named the 'George Pooley' paid for through a legacy of James Pooley of Hadley at a cost of £309. The 'George Pooley' remained on service until 1901 and during her 16 years at the station took part in 17 rescues and saved 32 lives.

19th October 1889 - During a strong E. wind and a heavy swell in the morning the barque 'Brucklay Castle', of Aberdeen, was observed to be in a very dangerous position in Crawfordsburn Bay. The Life-boat George Pooley put off to her assistance at 9.15, and found that she had anchored daring the night, and dragged her anchors until she struck on an outlying reef. The boat remained by her until 4 o'clock, when a Liverpool tug arrived and towed her afloat, the Life-boatmen assisting to get her anchors up.

20th September 1890 - The 'Hobah', of and for Falmouth, from Glasgow, laden with coal, ran ashore between Ballycormick Point and Groomspoit whilst trying to obtain shelter during stormy weather. The circumstance having been reported to the Coxswain of the Life-boat he at once summoned his crew, and at 9.15pm the George Pooley was launched. Some, of the lifeboat men went on board, assisted to get the vessel afloat, and took her to a safe position.

26th February 1893 - The Lifeboat George Pooley was launched at 9.30 A.M. and proceeded to the schooner 'Maria Farleigh' of Fowey, bound from Glasgow for Cardiff, which was in a dangerous position, embayed on a lee shore, about a mile S.S.E. of Grey Point, Belfast Lough. The wind, which was blowing strongly from the E.N.E., was increasing and there was a very heavy sea. Seven of the Life-boat men boarded the vessel at the master's request, hove up the anchors, set sail, and finally the vessel, which had a crew of four men, was taken up the Lough to a safe anchorage in Whitehouse Roads. As it was impossible for the Life-boat to beat back to her station until the weather moderated she was taken to Belfast and returned to Groomsport on the following day.

Another noteable rescue was that by the 'George Pooley' on 16 June 1897.

Photo: By permission of Dereck McCready

Within the picture frame above containing several photographs relating to the Groomsport Lifeboat is the following note;

Henry Waterson RNLI Coxswain 1888 - 1916
Groomsport Lifeboat 'George Pooley' 1885 - 1901

16th June 1897 - The George Pooley was unable to launch from the station slip because of the Northerly gale and was conveyed by her carriage to Bangor and launched from the South Pier to the aid of two vessels in distress. The men had a hard pull to get windward of the vessels but firstly took off four men from the 'Harp' of Wicklow before veering down on the 'Hollyhow' of Galway and rescuing eight people, including the master's wife and three children. Course was then set for Ballyholme Sailing Club and the survivors landed.


21st February 1899 - The George Pooley was launched at 5.40am while a gale was blowing from E.S.E., and proceeded to the assistance of the schooner Caledonia, which, while on a voyage from Ayr to Wexford, with a cargo of coal, stranded on Briggs reef. As the vessel was filling with water, her crew of five men took to the Life-boat and were safely landed at 6.45am.

In 1901 a new Liverpool Class lifeboat, the 'Chapman', was provided to the station by the legacy of a Mrs M H Chapman of West Brompton, London at a coat of £922. The lifeboat was 38 feet in length with a 10 feet beam, with spaces for 12 oarsmen and put to sea with a crew of 15.  She was built by Thames Iron Works of London and completed in May 1901.   During her 19 years at the station 'The Chapman' was launched on service 16 times and saved 18 lives.

Thirteeen of the lives saved by the 'Chapman' were due to a remarkable service by the Groomsport crew on 27 February 1903.

Shortly after 9.00am that morning, the Coastguard reported that a barque situated about a mile north-west of the Copeland Islands was signalling for immediate assistance. The Groomsport coxswain, Henry Waterson, assembled his crew and launched the lifeboat.

The vessel in distress was the Danish ship 'Hjertness of Sandjeford', bound from New Zealand for Glasgow laden with timber. One of her anchor cables had failed and there was a risk, in the strong west-north-west gale which was blowing, that the other might also be lost.

The heavy sea prevented the 'Chapman' going alongside, so she manoeuvred beneath the stern of the troubled barque.

The twelve crew members and a pilot were all lowered by rope into the safety of the lifeboat. The ship's dog - 'Amon' - was also rescued.

The 'Chapman' then set sail for Groomsport in the heavy seas. She was fortunate to be met by a steam tug which towed the lifeboat much of the way back.


The Groomsport Lifeboat, 'George Pooley', going to the assistance of the 'Harp of Arklow' and the 'Hollyhow of Galway' that had dragged their anchors in a northerly gale on 16 June 1897

Photo: North Down Heritage Centre


The 'Groomsport Lifeboat', the 'George Pooley' (possibly landing survivors at Ballyholme on 16 June 1897)

Photo: Thanks to Phyllis McDowell


Photo: By permission of Dereck McCready

Coxswain Henry Waterson in the Groomsport Lifeboat Boathouse

During Henry Waterson's period as Coxswain, 50 lives were saved.  The lifeboat 'George Pooley' was credited with 32 of that number.


Photo: By permission of Dereck McCready

Coxswain Henry Waterson outside his family home in Groomsport with his family


The Groomsport Lifeboat Boathouse 1904/1905 & Coxswain Henry Waterson

Coxswain Henry Waterson is pictured in the centre, his brother John (with white goatee) on his left and his son Jander (John Alexander) wearing a large flat cap to his right.

Second adult left in the photograph with trilby hat and waistcoat is Jimmy Waterson (grandfather of Roberta Waterson Fraser) and next left is Wee William Waterson (cousin of Coxswain Henry Waterson).


Above 2 photographs & associated information suppled by Roberta Waterson Fraser


After leaving Groomsport in 1920 the 'Chapman' was held in the RNLI reserve fleet and served for a short period as a relief lifeboat at Cromer in 1920 under Coxswain Henry Blogg.

In 1924 she was sent to Hilbre Island at the mouth of the estuary of the river Dee on the border between England and Wales. During her period at Hilbre Island she was launched on service 3 times and was credited on saving 3 lives. Her last launch on service was on 23 July 1937 to the yacht 'Seabird' in difficulties on the Sailsbury Bank. The Hilbre Station was temporarily in December 1938. During 1939 the station was permanently closed and the 'Chapman' was taken to London where she was stored in the RNLI Limehouse Yard.


Photo: RNLI Hoylake

The 'Chapman' at Hilbre Island

In 1939 she was sold for £80 to a Mr Milner from Lancashire and the 'Chapman' was fitted with an engine and became a working boat on the river Dee for the Point of Ayre Collieries where she remained until 1945.

In 1945 she was purchased by Mr William Hogart from Morcambe and the 'Chapman' was renamed 'Harbinger' and was used as a pleasure boat.   In 1965 she was renamed 'Peggy' with the intention of using her as sailing boat based at Hoylake Sailing Club.  During 1956 she was bought by Harold and Thomas Gardner having been renamed 'Peggy' was redecked and a wheelhouse fitted by Nickolsons of Glasson Dock on the river Lune. During this period she was used as a pilot boat and for fishing. During 1970 a new 40hp engine was fitted.

In 1992 she was sold out of the water to a Mr A Tolley, a mechanic of the Hoylake Lifeboat, with the intention of returning her to her origional lifeboat format but work was not completed and she ended up as a children's attraction in a caravan park in Moels.

After being abandoned on the river Ribble for several years she was discovered in a sorry state by John Parr, a person with a particular interest in old lifeboats, and was bought for £800 in 1998.  She was subsequently restored by Graham and John Steedman and trainees from the Laird Foundation of Cammell Lairds Yard at Birkenhead.

Following various challenges and misfortunes in completing her restoration and finding her a new home, she eventully was homed during 2015 in the Lytham Lifeboat Museum which is the restored Lytham Lifeboat boathouse built in 1863.

In September 2003 she was registered on the National Register of Historic vessels and was at that time the oldest known Liverpool Class lifeboat in existence.


Photo: Nicholas Leach

The restored Chapman in the Lytham Lifeboat Museum



The Groomsport lifeboats were all pulling (rowing) and sailing lifeboats without engines and had frequent difficulties in reaching casualty vessels due to the strong currents experienced around and off the Copeland Islands.

Following the establishment of a lifeboat station at Donaghadee in 1910, where a Watson Class lifeboat with an inboard petrol engine was in use, it was decided ten years later to close the Groomsport Lifeboat Station in 1920.  

During 62 years of the Groomsport station's service its lifeboats were launched on service 55 times and saved 87 lives.

Coxswains between the years 1861 to 1920 were;

William Orr   1861 to 1888
Henry Waterson   1888 to 1916
Ross McIntosh    1916 to 1918
Robert Waterson   1918 to 1920
  (the station was temporaily but not officially closed from 1919 to 1920)

Honorary Secretaries were;

Unknown at present  1858 to 1898
Rev SS HJolmes MA   1898 to 1900
Unknown at present  1900 to 1915
Lt Campbell Gardner   1915 to 1918

NOTE: Further North from Groomsport, a new RNLI Lifeboat Station was established in May 1965 at Bangor, County Down, mainly to cover Belfast Lough and the surrounding area.  Bangor Lifeboat Station operates an Atlantic 85 lifeboat and is one of the busiest lifeboat stations in Northern Ireland.

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The Donaghadee Lifeboat

The Donaghadee Lifeboat Station was established by the RNLI on 10 July 1910.

The first Donaghadee Lifeboat was the 'William and Laura', a Watson Class lifeboat with two masts and sails, 10 oars and powered by a single 40 hp petrol engine.  She was launched on service 61 times and saved 65 lives.

The William and Laura

Photo: Donaghadee RNLI

The 'William and Laura' was replaced in 1932 by another Watson Class lifeboat, 'Civil Service No 2'.   The lifeboat had a single mast for use with a stay sail, had 4 oars and was powered by two 65 hp petrol engines.  There was a small cabin for survivors and a MF Radiotelephone.  She was launched on service 80 times and saved 56 lives.

Civil Service No 5

Photo: Donaghadee RNLI

In 1950 the station received the 'Sir Samuel Kelly', a Watson class lifeboat powered by two diesel engines.  She was launched on service 134 times and saved 79 lives including 31 lives saved after the sinking of the Princess Victoria on 31 January 1953.  

For a shortened history of the sinking of the Princess Victoria and the part played by the Donaghadee Lifeboat and others in rescuing survivors click here or scroll down.


The Sir Samuel Kelly

Photo: Donaghadee RNLI

In 1976 a Wavney Class lifeboat, 'Nelsons of Donaghadee', replaced the Sir Samuel Kelly.
The new lifeboat was similar in design of that in use by the US Coastguard and had a semi-planing hull giving it a top speed of 15 knots using twin 250hp diesel engines.


The Nelsons of Donaghadee - 44-017

Photo: Donaghadee RNLI

The new lifeboat proved to be problematic with several engine problems and was replaced by another Wavney Class lifeboat 44-006, the 'Arthur and Blanche Harris' in 1979.


The Arthur and Blanche Harris

Photo: Donaghadee RNLI

The 'Arthur and Blanche Harris' was launched on service 81 times and saved 41 lives.  She was replaced by an Arun Class lifeboat 52-33, the 'City of Belfast',  in 1986.


Photo: Courtesy of Kate Devlin

1985 - City of Belfast arriving in Donaghadee with Arthur & Blance Harris on moorings


The City of Belfast

Photo: Donaghadee RNLI

The 'City of Belfast' was powered by two 485 HP Caterpillar diesel engines and had a top speed of 18 knots.  She remained on service until 2003 during which she was launched 153 times and saved 35 lives.

The 'City of Belfast' was replacement in 2003 was a Trent Class lifeboat 14-36, the 'Saxon'


The Saxon

Photo: Donaghadee RNLI

Following 20 years of service the 'Saxon' was replaced during 2023 with an upgraded Trent class lifeboat, the 'Macquarie'


Donaghadee Lifeboat - RNLB 'Macquarie'

Photo: Donaghadee RNLI


Photo: Courtesy of Kate Devlin

Donaghadee Lifeboat Station in 1976 - pictured opened for the sale of RNLI souveniers by the Ladies Lifeboat Guild


Photo: Donaghadee RNLI - Jim Brown

2019 - Donaghadee Lifeboat Station


Photo: Donaghadee RNLI - Jim Brown

2019 - Donaghadee RNLI Shop



A detailed history of the Donaghadee Lifeboat Station can be found in the publication 'Donaghadee Lifeboat - 100 years of service' by William Lennon BEM published by Ballyhay Books ISBN 978-1-900935-79-1    

(William Lennon is a former coxswain of the Donaghadee Lifeboat)

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31 January 1953


Compiled from RNLI archives, published records and personal recollections.

On 31 January 1953, severe gales were buffeting the British Isles and many coastal areas of Europe.

Northerly storm force winds, combined with spring tides created a significantly high storm surge down the North Sea causing severe coastal flooding along the east coast of England and that of the Netherlands and Belgium.   

By the following day over 2,000 people had lost their lives in what was called the 'Great Storm' or 'The North Sea Flood'.   Several vessels in the North Sea had been or were still in distress.

On the morning of 31 January, gale force winds and higher were being recorded at Portpatrick on the west coast of Scotland.

The Larne - Stranraer ferry, the Princess Victoria, was due to sail for Larne at her scheduled time of 7:00am.  A heavy swell prevented the loading of vehicles and some cargo including mail had to loaded by hand as a loading crane could not be used.  Many, including local dockers, thought that the sailing might be cancelled but at 7:45am the Princess Victoria left her berth, bound for Larne, County Antrim in Northern Ireland, under the command of Captain James Ferguson.   She made slow progress up Loch Ryan in the face of the north-westerly gale.   The vessel had made crossings in the past in strong to gale force winds.

Having left the shelter of Loch Ryan, the weather unexpectedly deteriorated further and very high and confused seas were experienced.  Captain Ferguson then decided to return to the relative shelter of Loch Ryan.  

Having turned towards the safety of Loch Ryan, the following seas burst open and damaged the stern doors resulting in significant amounts of water entering the car deck.   Attempts to close the doors by the crew were unsuccessful.  During these events some of the cargo shifted and debris was washed into the vessel's scuppers, thus restricting the drainage of water from the car deck.   The vessel developed a small but noticable list to starboard.

In an attempt to prevent further intake of water the Princess Victoria was turned again to windward with the intention of returning astern to the shelter of Loch Ryan by utilizing the vessel's bow rudder.  Such were the breaking seas over the bow that brave attempts by several crew members to deploy the bow rudder had to be abandoned and it is assumed that the captain then decided that he had no alternative but to proceed slowly in a northerly direction so as to keep the vessel's head to windward.

The first indication ashore that the Princess Victoria was in difficulties was an urgency message (XXX) transmitted at 0946 in morse code on 500 kHz by the ship's Radio Officer, David Broadfoot.  The urgency message advised that the vessel was hove to off the mouth of Loch Ryan and requested the urgent assistance of a tug.  The message also stated 'vessel not under command'. 

At 1032 a distress message (SOS) was transmitted requesting immediate assistance and advising that the Princess Victoria's position was 4 miles north-west of Corswall Point, the car deck was flooded, there was a heavy list to starboard and the vessel was not under command.  

The Portpatrick Lifeboat, the Jennie Spears, was launched 15 minutes later and the destroyer, HMS Contest, left Rothesay, on the Clyde, at 1109, under the command of Lt Commander Fleming.   Both vessels proceeded towards the distress postion, all co-ordinated through the Portpatrick Radio Station, call-signed GPK. 

Radio direction finding equipment located at Portpatrick Radio (GPK), Malin Head Radio (EJM) on the north coast of the Republic of Ireland and at Seaforth Radio (GLV) in Lanchashire, estimated the Princess Victoria's position to be several miles south-west of her reported position.  However, as the signals from the Princess Victoria had been received across land by Malin Head and Seaforth radio stations they were theoretically subject to radio coastal refraction and the DF position was therefore considered to be suspect.   In addition, from the positions being given in messages transmitted from the Princess Victoria it had been assumed that she was still drifting southward along the scottish coast without engine power as all the urgency and distress messages had indicated that the ship was 'not under command'.

In reality, the Princess Victoria had been gradually steaming slowly towards the Northern Ireland coast at a few knots and it later transpired that the position determined by the radio direction finding equipment in use by the coast radio stations had been relatively accurate.  

Direction finding equipment aboard the destroyer HMS Contest was giving readings that could not be relied upon due to the yawing of the vessel in the following high seas.  

Searches by the Portpatrick Lifeboat towards the reported position off Corswall Point proved to be negative.  Communications between the lifeboat and the Princess Victoria were hampered as the Portpatrick Lifeboat was equipped with a medium wave marine radio telephone (using the marine radio (RT) distress/calling frequency 2182 Khz) whilst the Princess Victoria was equipped with marine radio morse (CW) communications equipment (using the CW calling/cistress frequency 500 KHz). Thus there was no direct communications between either vessel and messages had to be relayed via the Portpatrick Radio station and in addition the responses or instructions through the Portpatrick Radio radio (GPK) station operators were controlled through HM Coastguard officers at Portpatrick.   

At 1252 radio officer Broadfoot reported that the starboard engine room had been flooded followed by a message at 1308 that the vessel was stopped and was on her beam end.   At 1315 Broadfoot keyed the message, 'We are preparing to abandon ship'.  

Having heard about the plight of the Princess Victoria on a local radio station the coxswain of the Donaghadee Lifeboat, Hugh Nelson, decided to go immediately to the lifeboat station to prepare for a possible launch.  At 1321 the station's Honorary Secretary, David McKibbin, gave the order to launch and the Donaghadee Lifeboat proceeded out of the harbour at 1340 with a crew of eight.

At 1335 Radio Officer Broadfoot reported in morse code that the bridge could see the Irish coast and at 1347 that the lighthouse on the Copelands was in sight.  The last message from the 'Victoria' was sent by Broadfoot at 1358, just before the ship keeled over:


The upturned Princess Victoria lingered for several minutes before sinking beneath the waves.

Captain Ferguson had been seen standing at salute on the bridge.

Three merchant vessels and a trawler that had been sheltering in Belfast Lough joined the search on hearing that the Princess Victoria could now be somewhere off Belfast Lough or close to the Copeland Islands.  

At 1449, one of the four, the cargo vessel Orchy, came upon "oil and wreckage and lifejackets approximately 5 miles east of Mew Island" and one minute later "we see people on rafts" .  At 1503 the Orchy radioed, "There are a lot of people here but they cannot get hold of the line" and shortly afterwards  "Position hopeless. Cannot lower lifeboats but doing our best".   

Attempts at a rescue by the other two merchant vessels, the Lairdsmoor & the Pass of Drumochter, having arrived shortly afterwards, were fustrated by the terrible sea conditions.  At 1512 the Lairdsmoor radioed "Coming up to lifeboat full of people".   The Pass of Drumochter was able to get a line aboard one of the Victoria's lifeboats.  The trawler Eastcote had less freeboard and its crew, using boat hooks, were able to pick up 7 persons.  Sadly, only one was alive.

At 1531 a Hastings aircraft from Coastal Command dropped survival equipment in the area.

The Donaghadee Lifeboat, the Sir Samuel Kelly, arrived at 1551 and with outstanding seamanship the coxswain, Hugh Nelson, was able to rescue the 29 persons on board the lifeboat held on a line from the stern of the Pass of Drumochter.   One person was picked up from a second lifeboat and another was found clinging to a liferaft.   

The destroyer, HMS Contest, arrived shortly afterwards when Lieutenant McArdle and Chief Petty Officer Warren, having attached themselves to safety lines, dived into the icy waters and over a lengthy period and were able to rescue 7 persons.   

Just before 1600 the Portpatrick Lifeboat arrived and rescued 2 persons from a life raft.

The Cloughey Lifeboat was also launched to search the sea area south of the Copelands.  

After many hours of extensive searches, in terrible seas and a blizzard, no further survivors were found.

At 1800 the Donaghadee Lifeboat landed 34 survivors at Donaghadee harbour followed by the Portpatrck Lifeboat at 1915 with 2 survivors.   The Donaghadee lifeboat resumed the search at 2130 followed shortly afterwards by the Portpatrick Lifeboat.

HMS Contest arrived in Belfast Harbour with 8 survivors at 2200  

No further survivors were found.

Donaghadee lifeboat left Donaghadee the following Sunday morning at 0700.   Following a wide search to the south lasting 12 hours the crew recovered 13 bodies, one was a child, one an adult female and eleven adult males.  The search was carried in relatively calm conditions.  Also recovered were some mail bags.    The lifeboat returned with its sad cargo to Donaghadee at 1915 where the harbour was lined with many funeral vehicles. (a vivid childhood memory of this author)

Of the 177 persons aboard the Princess Victoria, only 44 were saved.  No women or children or ship's officers survived.

Radio Officer, David Broadfoot, who remained at his post in the radio room sending messages as the ship went down, was posthumously awarded the United Kingdom's highest civilian medal, the George Cross.  The radio log alone gives a vivid insight into the tragedy as it unfolded.  Broadfoot's valour followed in the footsteps of many other Radio Officers, such as that of the Marconi Radio Operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, during the sinking of the Titanic, when RO's would remain at their post in the radio room sending distress messages if there were any lives still in danger, and if necessary, until the vessel went down. 

Captain David Ferguson, who remained on the bridge as the Princess Victoria went down, was posthumously awarded the George Medal.   No one from the bridge of the Princess Victoria survived.

Hugh Nelson, coxswain of the Donaghadee Lifeboat, was awarded the British Empire Medal and the RNLI Bronze Medal for his courage and skill in rescuing 31 persons.  Hugh Nelson was also awarded the Maud Smith Award for the bravest act of life-saving during 1953. The mechanic of the Donaghadee Lifeboat, Jim Armstrong, was awarded The Thanks of the Institution on Vellum.

Portpatrick Lifeboat coxswain, William McConnell, was awarded the British Empire Medal and the Thanks of the RNLI on Vellum

Lieutenant Stanley Lawrence McArdle and Chief Petty Officer Wilfred Warren of HMS Contest were awarded George Medals for their bravery in jumping into the icy sea and rescuing seven persons.

The masters of the four vessels that left Belfast Lough to join the rescue attempts were awarded British Empire Medals; David Brewster of the trawler Eastcotes; James Alexander Bell of the cattle ship Lairdsmoor; Hugh Angus of the cargo vessel Orchy; and James Kelly of the coastal oil tanker Pass of Drumochter.

Memorials to those who were lost in the sinking of the Princess Victoria are located in Agnew Park, Stranraer, Scotland and Chaine Road, Larne, Northern Ireland.   A plaque commemorating those whose lives were lost was unveiled at the harbour of Donaghadee, Northern Ireland on 31 January in 2003, the 50th anniversaty of the sinking of the Princess Victoria.  

Many memorabilia of the disaster are now on permanent display in the Portpatrick Museum.

A Court of Inquiry, that began its work in Belfast in March 1953, produced a 30,000 word report that laid the blame for the disaster mainly on the lack of robustness of the stern doors and the arrangements for clearing water from the car deck.  (Problems with the stern doors and scuppers had occured in the past) 

The report concluded;

"If the Princess Victoria had been as staunch as those who manned her, then all would have been well and the disaster averted."


The Sir Samual Kelly and crew in 1953

Photo: Donaghadee Lifeboat - 100 Years of Service by William Lennon BEM

The Coxswain and crew of the Samuel Kelly following the rescue of 31 persons
(L to R) Jim Armstrong, Hugh Nelson, Samuel Heron, Hugh Nelson Jnr, Frank Nelson, John Trimble, George Lindsay, Alec Nelson, William Nelson and Sammy Nelson


The Sir Samuel Kelly ashore at Donaghadee - photographed in April 2012

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

On the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Princess Victoria, 31 January 2003, a plaque was unveiled on the harbour wall of Donaghadee close to where the Sir Samuel Kelly lay when moored.

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

In 2015 the Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company was formed with the aim to conserve and restore the 'Sir Samuel Kelly' and to enhance and promote the maritime history of the lifeboat and that of Donaghadee RNLI.


Sir Samuel Kelly - February 2019 - Donaghadee Marina pre-commencement of restorartion.

Photo: Jim Brown

Since 2019 the company's 'Sir Samuel Kelly Project' has re-housed the 'Sir Samuel Kelly' in a temporary shelter and commenced the restorarion of the lifeboat through the efforts of its volunteers. Further information relating to the 'Sir Samuel Kelly Project ' can be found at Historic Ships and the FaceBook page Sir Samuel Kelly Project



'Sir Samuel Kelly' - hull restoration progress August 2023


Wheelhouse of the 'Sir Samuel Kelly' awaiting further restoration - August 2023

Photos: Jim Brown - August 2023


William Thompson, in a poem about the sinking of the Princess Victoria, aptly described the valour of Coxswain Hugh Nelson of the Donaghadee Lifeboat and her crew and the many others involved in the rescue attempts;


Coxswain Hugh Nelson of Donaghadee

by William Thompson

There's a sweet little town in dear County Down
And in it there lives a man of renown
 His name is now famous, he's a man of the sea 
 He is Coxswain Hugh Nelson of Donaghadee 
      I used to go there on our Sunday School trips
And walk down the harbour and gaze at the ships
To view its fine lighthouse in days so carefree
When the trains were then running to Donaghadee

The fair Copeland Isles, the station and Moat
The 'William & Laura', in the harbour afloat
In these far off days I think you'll agree
The Nelsons were famous in Donaghadee

'Tis years since I've been to that little town
That has the least rainfall in all County Down
But the memories of it are pleasant to me
Especially the lifeboat in Donaghadee

The old lifeboat has gone and a new crew is there 
The 'Sir Samuel Kelly' is under the care
Of Coxswain Hugh Nelson and sons, as you'll see
Who made lifeboat history in Donaghadee

Now he has been honoured with a medal of gold
For the service he rendered that day in the cold
On the 31st January in the year '53
When the Princess Victoria sank off Donaghadee

The Nelson touch was seen on that day
When the 'Sir Samuel Kelly' went ploughing her way
Through the tempest and blizzard on a wild stormy sea
To bring souls to safety to Donaghadee

The Portpatrick boat and the Cloughey one too
Sought to do all that brave men could do
We admire their courage and in this they agree
On the honour conferred on this man from the 'Dee

'Tis not for the first time I've lifted my pen
To praise the work of brave lifeboat men
May I congratulate this man of the sea
Coxswain Hugh Nelson of Donaghadee

©   Copyright 'The Thompson Family'

A detailed history of the loss of the Princess Victoria can be found in the publications

'Donaghadee Lifeboat - 100 years of service' by William Lennon BEM  ISBN 978-1-900935-79-1

'Death in the North Channel' by Stephen Cameron    ISBN 978-1-904242 01 7

'The Loss of the Princess Victoria' by Jack Hunter   ISBN 978-1-906737-04-7

'Portpatrick through the ages' by R R Cunningham - published by Wigtown Free Press

'Shipwrecks of the Ulster Coast' by Ian Wilson (1979) - published by Impact Amergin

'William Thompson - Low Country Poet - published by W G Baird Ltd

'Kirkistown Primary School Centenary 1888-1988' by Elizabeth J C Lyttle & Amy Anderson

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The Bruckless Bay Disaster, County Donegal - 1813

The previous largest loss of civillian life around the coastline of the province of Ulster, excluding the 1st and 2nd world wars, was on 11 February 1813 when an estimated eighty fishermen were drowned.     

Whilst tending herring nets 200 fishing curraghs and boats capsized during a sudden storm in 'Bruckless Bay' off the coast of County Donegal near Killybegs.

Reports at the time recorded between 40 and 100 fishermen as missing.

In  2012 it was decided to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the disaster by commissioning a commerative stone in a small stoned garden overlooking Bruckless Bay.

On 11 February 2013 a sandstone monument in memory of those fishermen who lost their lives was unveiled and stands overlooking the area in which they perished.

Photos: RNLI - Jim Brown

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Portaferry Lifeboat Station

Established 1980

During the 1970's concerns were expressed about the lack of a lifeboat service for Strangford Lough and its approaches.  The all-weather lifeboats at Cloughey and Newcastle had maximum hull speeds of about 10 knots such that, if called to an incident within Stranford Lough on an ebb tide, they could take several hours to reach a casualty.  

Concerns were heightened when the Cloughey-Portavogie lifeboat was temporarily withdrawn from service on 26th October 1978 due to the major improvements being started at Portavogie Harbour.

Portaferry Sailing Club, local boatmen and others lobbied hard to establish a lifeboat station in Strangford Lough and following an inquiry by Capt. A G Course, Inspector of Lifeboats for Ireland, the RNLI decided to trial a single-engined D class lifeboat at Portaferry in 1979.

Following successful trials, the RNLI agreed to establish a lifeboat station in Portaferry on 1 May 1980 when a twin-engined D Class lifeboat was put on service.

Thus the Portaferry Lifeboat Station was born and the pages within this website hopefully bear testimony to the bravery and dedication of all those who have served, and those who continue to serve, in;

'saving lives at sea'.

For a history of the early years of the Portaferry Lifeboat Station go to the 'Scrapbook' page of this web-site or click here

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS - Information and Photographs (links are underlined)

RNLI - records of the Groomsport, Ballywalter, Cloughey, Cloughey/Portavogie and Portaferry Lifeboat Stations

RNLI - records held at RNLI Headquarters, Poole, Dorset, England

RNLI - Heritage Trust, Poole, Dorset, England

RNLI - information from copies of the 'Lifeboat Journal'

RNLI - photos by Colin Watson honorary RNLI photographer

RNLI - Mr Jeff Morris, Honorary Archivist, The Lifeboat Enthusiasts' Society

RNLI - Donaghadee Lifeboat Station

RNLI - Newcastle Lifeboat Station

RNLI - Lifeboats Past & Present

'Beam' - the Journal of the Irish Lighthouse Service

Commissioners of Irish Lights

Association of Lighthouse Keepers

Shipwrecked Mariners' Society

Irish Wrecks OnLine

The 'Scrapbook Page' of this website (History of the Portaferry Lifeboat 1979 to 2004)

The 'Our Rescues' page of this website ('Shouts' from 2000 to 2022)

The 'Links Page' of this website

'Donaghadee Lifeboat - 100 years of service' by William Lennon BEM  ISBN 978-1-900935-79-1

'Death in the North Channel' by Stephen Cameron    ISBN 978-1-904242-01-7

'The Loss of the Princess Victoria' by Jack Hunter   ISBN 978-1-906737-04-7

'Portpatrick through the ages' by R R Cunningham - published by Wigtown Free Press

'Shipwrecks of the Ulster Coast' by Ian Wilson (1979) - published by Impact Amergin - ISBN 0948154-93-3

'Mourne Men & The U-Boats' by Matt Maginnis - Published by M & H Maginnis - ISBN 978-0-9926664-1-5

'William Thompson - Low Country Poet' - published by W G Baird Ltd

'Kirkistown Primary School Centenary 1888-1988' by Elizabeth J C Lyttle & Amy Anderson

Information from the RNLI and the Portpatrick Museums

The Belfast Telegraph

Spectator Newspapers & their former associates

Down Recorder & their former associates

Lalouette Photographers

Ernest Dunbar

Lawrence Edge

Mr James (Jimmy) Kelly

Dr G S Millington OBE

Mr Dereck McCready

Portrush RNLI Raft Race Committee 2001

North Down Museum & Heritage Centre

Catherine Nealy Judd - Miami USA

Roberta Waterson Fraser

The Chapman - National Historic Ships

Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company - The 'Sir Samuel Kelly Project'

National Historic Ships UK - Sir Samuel Kelly Project

Discover Groomsport - The Groomsport Lifeboats

Light Vessels of the United Kingdom & Ireland 1820 - 2006 - Compiled by Philip Simons

All those who provided photographs and/or documentation from family or other archives.

Past and current members of Portaferry RNLI Lifeboat Station

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This website page is provided primarily to collate and preserve the history of the Portaferry RNLI Lifeboat Station and that of the past and present RNLI lifeboat stations along the coastline of the Ards Peninsula. Where possible the source(s) and that of the contributors (with available links) are listed above.

There is no objection to the use, sharing or copying of the information on this website page.

We would appreciate appropriate credits and acknowledgements are given to Portaferry Lifeboat Station and/or where appropriate, the contributor(s), the source(s) of information and that any necessary copyright requirements/credits are observed.    

The above history has been compiled during the past 30 years and remains an on-going project. Any information or old photographs that could assist in adding or correcting this record would be much appreciated and will be acknowledged.


Please e-mail: webmaster@PortaferryLifeboat.com

Last update: 25/01/24

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