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Work Progresses on Historic Sir Samuel Kelly Lifeboat at Donaghadee Harbour

8th December 2021
The Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat at Donaghadee Harbour
The Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat at Donaghadee Harbour

Take a walk from Donaghadee Harbour east towards the Commons on the North Down coast and you’ll see the 70-year-old Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat in its purpose-built shed near the Harbour.

Protected now from the elements, it is being restored by the Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Co. Ltd. in what has proved to be a long-term project.

Sir Samuel Kelly was a well-known Belfast coal importer and philanthropist whose widow bequeathed in 1950 to the RNLI the cost of a new lifeboat for Donaghadee. The vessel was named after Sir Samuel and today can be seen overlooking the North Channel where it made in 1953 probably its most famous rescue under Coxwain Hugh Nelson, when it saved 33 survivors of the sinking of the Stranraer – Larne car ferry, the MV Princess Victoria.

Coxswain Hugh Nelson Photo: S CochraneCoxswain Hugh Nelson Photo: S Cochrane

Hugh Nelson was awarded the British Empire Medal for courage on that day. In I976 it became a reserve lifeboat stationed at the opposite end of Ireland at Courtmacherry on the County Cork coast. From there it saw action in the storm struck Fastnet yacht race in 1979.

Sir Samuel Kelly Lifeboat and crew Photo courtesy: County Down SpectatorThe Sir Samuel Kelly Lifeboat and crew Photo courtesy: County Down Spectator

The 47 ft Watson class lifeboat was built by J Samuel & Co in Cowes and has two diesel engines. As a vessel that would often have to operate in dangerously shallow waters, the propellers are cleverly protected by the curved shape of the hull.

The Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company is a not-for-profit charitable company, formed by local volunteers in Northern Ireland in 2015. It aims to advance and promote education, heritage, and culture, primarily by the conservation, rehabilitation, maintenance, and protection of the historic lifeboat Sir Samuel Kelly.

Sir Samuel Kelly in its purpose made shelterSir Samuel Kelly in its purpose made shelter

On retirement, the lifeboat was bought by the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra and arrived back in Northern Ireland in 1980. But funds had not been found to maintain and restore her and with the agreement of the museum the lifeboat was brought to Donaghadee. She was cleaned and painted before being left on display to the public in the Commons car park where she sat for 30 years.

After the formation of the Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company in 2015 ownership of the boat was transferred to the local council’s North Down Museum and later the Company signed a loan agreement for the lifeboat with Ards and North Down Borough Council in addition to a lease for the compound in which it is located.

Chairman if the Donaghadee Heritage Company explains. “Three years ago, over the “Kelly” we erected a steel-framed shelter, clad in perspex and netting. This has allowed the Lifeboat to dry out after 70 years or more open to the elements, both at sea and at its current location ashore. This excellent structure has also enabled work to be done in relative comfort, sheltered from the worst of the weather. To date, it is our biggest and best investment!”.

Now the temporary shelter aims not only to reduce the destructive processes of the weathering that jeopardises the lifeboat's future and provide a base for the conservation work to take place but has allowed the creation of a new public interpretation space for the town to raise the profile of the longer-term project for which the vision is to exhibit the wider maritime heritage of Donaghadee.

A recent specialist survey highlighted the areas of the boat requiring attention and the Company is concentrating on these activities. Considerable funding will also be necessary to complete the conservation and refurbishment work over the coming years. Virtually all this work is done by volunteers, several of whom have experience in particular skills such as painting and metalwork.

Since the formation of Donaghadee Heritage Preservation Company, the Sir Samuel Kelly Project has enjoyed the support of the local community and Ards and North Down Borough Council. The Company, together with many local organisations has run events providing the funds for the shelter. The local council has been very supportive in facilitating the loan agreement for the lifeboat and the lease for the site. In addition, the parties have signed a Memorandum of Understanding, to work together to achieve a satisfactory outcome to the project. The aim is to provide a permanent home for the refurbished Sir Samuel Kelly and other exhibits in a Heritage Centre.

Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat Photo: National Historic Ships UKSir Samuel Kelly lifeboat Photo: National Historic Ships UK

Alan Couser anticipates another couple of years of work on the Sir Samuel Kelly Lifeboat to bring it up to museum standard. “We are already seeking out the possibilities of housing it in a permanent Heritage and Education Centre. Ideally, this would be built adjacent to the current Community Centre, which is close to the harbour. It would become a major attraction and centre of interest in that part of the town. Our team is currently in talks with consultants tasked with the redevelopment of the area and we believe we have a strong case. In the meantime, we continue to progress our work preserving the Lifeboat to the best of our ability, trusting it will last another 70 years and serve as a reminder of the lives saved and lost over her lifetime”.

Betty Armstrong

About The Author

Betty Armstrong

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Betty Armstrong is Afloat and Yachting Life's Northern Ireland Correspondent. Betty grew up racing dinghies but now sails a more sedate Dehler 36 around County Down

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