In May 1915 the loss through an explosion of HM Auxiliary Ship Princess Irene in Sheerness Harbour on Thursday brought grief, sudden and overwhelming, into many Ramsgate homes. Several shipwrights from the port who had left Ramsgate recently to undertake Government work were on board the vessel, which was undergoing re-fitting.
Telegrams received at their homes on Thursday prepared the families for the terrible news, advising them to travel to Sheerness at once, and the list of dead posted outside the dockyard gates at night confirmed the tragic facts.
The Ramsgate men who lost their lives while on the ship were:
Mr Harry Strevens
Mr Hilary James Bent Farley
Mr Frank William Sidney Adams
Mr Joseph Wigley
Mr T Stead
They were all married men. Mr Harry Strevens whose parents live at the Nest, Richmond Road, was a very popular and promising young shipwright. He leaves a widow and one child. Formerly working under his father for Messrs Strevens and Stone, Military Road, he left Ramsgate six months ago for the dockyards at Sheerness. As recently as last Sunday he was home on leave for the day. Mr Strevens, senior, who immediately went to Sheerness, is prominently connected with the Queen Street primitive Methodist Church, and has the heartfelt sympathy of his fellow churchworkers. A younger son has been a prisoner in Germany since the early days of the war.
Mr Farley, who left Ramsgate about five months ago, left a widow and one little boy. He had been in the employ of the Board of Trade, at Ramsgate, and lived at Boundary Road. Mr Farley died on his twenty-eighth birthday. Henry Farley was one of five Ramsgate shipwrights working on board the HM Auxiliary ship Princess Irene at Sheerness when she was destroyed. Henry’s body was only identified because his landlady recognised the laundry mark on his clothes! Shipwrights Henry Farley and F. Adams are buried in Ramsgate Cemetery.
Mr F Adams, who was 29 years of age, was a married man but left no family. He was employed by Messrs Strevens and Stone, at Ramsgate, before leaving for Sheerness, and had lived at Olive Grove, Trinity Place, but his wife had recently moved in order to be near him.
Mr Joseph Wigley, whose wife and four young children lived at Staffordshire Street, only left the employment of Messrs Beeching and Moses a few weeks before the explosion and was home on leave during the Zeppelin raid.
The death of Mr T Stead, formerly of Ramsgate, was confirmed in a letter received by his sister Mrs Hales, wife of PC Hales in Addington Street. The son of Mr Stead, formerly for many years foreman to Messrs Beeching and Moses and Co – and now in the dockyards at Dover – left a widow and five children. The explosion could be seen from his home in Sheerness.
HMS Princess Irene was an ocean liner built in 1914 for the Canadian Pacific Railway. She was requisitioned by the Royal Navy on completion and converted to an auxiliary mine-layer with a capacity to carry 400 mines.
On the morning of the 27th May, 1915 she was moored in Salt Pan Reach in the River Medway, approximately three miles from Sheerness town centre. Her crew and naval personnel drafted from Chatham were preparing the ship to lay mines in the North Sea. Additionally there were on board civilian workers from Sheerness Dockyard who were carrying out repairs and modifications to the ship. Mines were also being loaded from barges and stowed on the ship’s two mine decks. At about 11.15am there was an explosion and the Princess Irene disintegrated. A column of flame 300-feet high rose up above where the Princess Irene had been moored. A small steam ship and two barges lying alongside were also destroyed and a collier moored half-a-mile away downstream had its crane blown off its mountings.
There was only one survivor, a stoker who was found amongst the floating wreckage and rescued. 273 officers and men and 76 civilians perished in the explosion. Three crew members had a fortunate escape as they were ashore at the time of the explosion.
Wreckage fell up to twenty miles away from Sheerness. Civilians in Sittingbourne were injured by falling debris and a 10-ton section of a boiler damaged Admiralty oil storage tanks on the Isle of Grain. Body parts were found at Hartlip and on the Isle of Grain. Several men belonging to vessels lying close to the Princess Irene were wounded by falling splinters.