The ‘HMS Princess Irene’ Disaster of May 1915

The centenary of the destruction of ‘HMS Princess Irene’ in a massive explosion on the River Medway during World War 1 takes place on May 27th. The disaster followed the destruction of HMS Bulwark which also exploded on the river in November 1914.

Constructed in Scotland and launched on October 20th 1914, the Canadian owned ‘HMS Princess Irene’ started as a commercial liner until requisitioned by the Royal Navy and converted into a minelayer along with its sister ship ‘HMS Princess Margaret.’ It made two mine laying trips before being moored at Saltpan Reach between Port Victoria and Sheerness and loaded with a new consignment of 500 mines, that’s about 150 tons of high explosives.

At 11-14 in the morning of May 27th 1915 the vessel blew up without warning. Firstly, a column of orange flame shot up into the sky, seconds later a second column rose up to about 300 feet. A deafening explosion followed which blew the vessel to pieces. It rocked the area for miles around and could be heard in Maidstone.


The force of the explosion hurled debris to Sittingbourne where windows were shattered and people injured, severed heads fell in Hartlip and a boot, collar, tie and a case of butter landed in Rainham where, according to eye-witnesses, tiny fragments and soot from the explosion covered part of the village. Alfred Gulvin a bargeman from Henry Street got struck on the head by flying debris while working on the river and required stitches. A farm worker on the Isle of Grain died of a heart attack, a young girl was killed by a metal fragment while a man working on the Admiralty Fuel Depot at Port Victoria died after being hit by debris.

The dead included 273 officers and men and 76 dockyard workers who were on board ship at the time of the explosion. In total 352 people perished in the disaster. Three crew members who had gone ashore escaped while stoker David Wills got blown off the vessel and into the sea. He became the only survivor when he got pulled out of the water badly burned and covered in black oil by William Rider, a crew member aboard the tug ‘Bruno.’

A small harbour launch and two barges lying alongside ‘Irene’ were destroyed and the Admiralty Fuel Depot at Port Victoria got badly damaged when debris pierced the fuel tanks and the pumping station. Part of one of ‘Irene’s’ boilers landed on a collier about half a mile away knocking a crane off its bearings.

After the disaster recovered bodies were buried in the Naval Burial Ground of Woodlands Road cemetery in Gillingham and a memorial to the dead constructed there and opposite Sheerness Railway Station. A memorial plaque was also placed on the wall of Sheerness Holy Trinity Church.

Rumours spread that saboteurs had caused the disaster and a dockyard worker called John Harston was named as a suspect but the Special Branch released him after an investigation.

A Court of Inquiry set up after the incident concluded that a faulty primer on one of the mines hurriedly fitted by poorly trained personnel had caused the explosion. Therefore a verdict of accidental explosion ended the inquiry into one of the biggest naval disasters witnessed on the River Medway during World War 1.

David Wood





0 #3 Harry Couchman 2015-08-14 04:23
My Great-Uncle Edmund Couchman was a stoker on the Princess Irene and killed in the explosion. His name is on the memorial and on the Cenotaph in Rainham.
-2 #2 Sue D 2015-06-13 12:28
I attended the 100 anniversary of the explosion of the Princess Irene what a day to remember I am David Percy Wills's granddaughter, he was my Dads Dad. We owe everything to William Rider for saving my Grandad's life bless him. Xx
+1 #1 Tony Payne 2015-06-13 09:53
Great to see people remember the Princess Irene after 100 years. For years I've been look into the disaster as my father-in-law was the son of David Wills .

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