History Hub Ulster associate member Peter McCabe is a historian who enjoys visiting local graveyards and discovering long lost stories. In this short article, Peter discusses the Harland and Wolff ship, ‘Reina del Pacifico’.
I first became aware of ‘Reina del Pacifico’ on one of my many wanderings around Dundonald Cemetery, noticing on John Redmond’s headstone that he was ‘accidently killed on Reina Del Pacifico’. Thinking initially that it was a place-name, with the help of a friend and then Google, I then realised that, rather than an exotic island in the Pacific Ocean, ‘Reina del Pacifico’ was, in fact, a ship.
A couple of weeks later, nearby I noticed the grave of Samuel Richmond who died as a ‘result of an explosion on the ‘Reina Del Pacifico’. I still thought that both individuals were sailors who had perished at sea. Months later when reading Tom Thompson’s ‘Auld Hands’ book (essentially detailing his experiences of working in Harland & Wolff in the 1950’s), I noticed that the book ended with short chapters on a number of vessels including, as expected, the Titanic and the Canberra, but also the Reina del Pacifico.
So, from that chapter and further trawls of Dundonald Cemetery looking specifically for victims of the Reina del Pacifico disaster – another September 11th disaster – here are brief details of my discoveries (interestingly of 8 headstones in Dundonald Cemetery, the first two that I stumbled across are the only two that mention the name of the ship, the others just referring in varying forms, to an accident):
Built by Harland & Wolff for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company and launched on 23rd September 1930, Reina del Pacifico was the largest and fastest motor liner of her time.
She became famous in 1937 after the former British Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald died aboard whilst on a cruise at the age of 71, just two years after leaving government.
In 1947, after service during the Second World War, she was ‘taken in hand’ at Queen’s Island. When the refit had been carried out, the liner crossed to the Clyde for speed trials which were completed satisfactorily over more than 33 hours on 10th and 11th September.
Tragically however during the return voyage to Belfast, while speed was being increased, seven miles off the Copeland Islands, all four engines exploded without warning. In an instant the engine room was a shambles, the lighting extinguished, ladders and access platforms destroyed and the atmosphere thick with smoke.
When rescuers entered the engine room they found fires breaking out and bodies everywhere.
The appalling result was that 28 people died, either instantly or from their injuries, and a further 23 were hurt, including William Thompson who suffered burns to 90% of his body. Unbelievably those injured in the explosion were docked a half-day’s pay…
From the Belfast City Council Burial Records website, I have been able to identify nine victims of the disaster, all buried in Dundonald Cemetery (unless stated, each of these individuals died on 11th September and were buried on 15th September. They were:
James Barnes, fitter, aged 61
Lived at 11 Botanic Bungalows (between Botanic Gardens and Stranmillis Embankment). All that remains on the grave is a homemade sign ‘in loving memory of Barnes Ellen died November 1906’ with, sadly, no reference at all to James.
James S. Collins, fitter, aged 27
28 Baltic Street (near the Waterworks). ‘Beloved husband of Elizabeth Collins killed as the result of an accident’.
Robert Ellis, fitter, aged 46
Lived at ‘Hillmount Ballybeen Dundonald’ (Ballybeen townland, rather than estate).
Ferran Glenfield, draughtsman, aged 19
Home address was 16 Keatley Street (a street that doesn’t exist anymore, off Templemore Avenue), and died at the Royal Victoria Hospital on 13th September. Grave also contains Susan Reid who lived at 21 Cyprus Avenue and who died on 13th September 1989 (exactly 52 years later) aged 91.
John Davidson McBlain, fitter, aged 26
Lived at 30 Dunraven Parade. ‘Jack dear husband of Betty McBlain accidently killed 11th September 1947′.
Robert Cairns McClure, fitter, aged 25
Lived at 63 Beechfield Street, Short Strand. ‘Beloved husband of Rachel McClure accidently killed 11th September 1947′ and buried on 16th September.
Wesley Patterson, fitter, aged 21
Lived at 54 Enid Parade, Ballyhackamore. ‘In loving memory of our dear son killed as the result of an accident’.
John Redmond, fitter, aged 42
Lived at 36 Raleigh Street (off Crumlin Road). ‘In loving memory of my dear son accidently killed on Reina Del Pacifico’. Wife Elizabeth died 49 years later, still whilst living at Raleigh Street.
Samuel Richmond, aged 33
Lived at 33 Parkgate Gardens dying at the Mater Hospital on 13th September as the ‘result of an explosion on the Reina Del Pacifico’. Tragically his wife Elizabeth had died aged only 27 earlier in 1947 on 23rd February.
The inquest on 10th October 1947 found that ‘the accident seemed – and it is no exaggeration of language – just impossible, but it happened’, said the Belfast Coroner Herbert P Lowe who himself is buried in Dundonald Cemetery dying on 28th October 1970, my first birthday.
Associate Member History Hub Ulster