A blogpost by Anna Fry (School of History, University of Kent) about her research into the HMS Princess Irene disaster for the Criterion Bluetown Heritage Centre.
Back in February of 2015, I responded to a request for a volunteer to conduct some research on a World War One disaster, involving the explosion of the HMS Princess Irene whilst she was being loaded with mines in the Sheerness Dockyard. The disaster occurred on the 27th May 1915 at 11:14am and resulted in not only the death of many officers and crew, but also civilian dockyard workers.
HMS Princess Irene
The research was centered around the identities of over 350 men whose lives had been lost: Who where they? What were their names? How old were they? Who were their families? Where were they buried? There were further details that needed to be researched such as those regarding the local memorial which is a model of the Statue of Liberty. Questions regarding the circumstances of its commission created the focus for this particular topic. Resources, such as Ancestry.com, where census records could be accessed, and library records of local newspaper cuttings, were essential to answering these questions.
A photo of Joseph Wigley, one of the victims of the explosion, alongside a record of his death. (http://www.hms-princess-irene.co.uk/#!wigley-joseph-richard-inkerman/y109p)
Starting with the biggest task of identifying those who had fallen victim to the explosion, some of whose names are not even spelled correctly on the memorial, understanding local census records was a key skill that had to be mastered. It was here that online databases such as Ancestry became indispensable. When all available online resources had been exhausted, it was down the the library records and old newspaper cuttings to provide any further details as to the disaster and its impact on the community that lost so many of their young men that morning. It was also here that details regarding the memorial could be found and also pictures showing the smoke that remained from the Princess Irene, documenting the explosion.
Once all the research had been gathered and compiled together, it was used in an exhibition, at the Criterion Bluetown Heritage Centre, to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the disaster. My role as a volunteer then moved on to using what I had learnt about the disaster to produce work sheets for any school children visiting the heritage centre. This would play a vital role in the project, as teaching younger generations about the sacrifices made ensures these memories are preserved. Acting as a further reminder, of those that died on the morning of the explosion, the research was used to create a website and a book both detailing the event and the identities of those who lost their lives.
It has been an honor to work on a project commemorating so many brave men who gave their lives for this country. Not only has this project provided me with a personal gain in regard to new skills learnt but it has also created the opportunity for the memory of those who were lost to be brought back into the minds of those living today.
For those who are interested in finding out more about this engaging, albeit tragic, event the website can be accessed at http://www.hms-princess-irene.co.uk and the book can be purchased from the Criterion Bluetown Heritage Centre for £10.
The unveiling of Sheerness War Memorial on 29 April 1922. © Trevor Edwards http://www.pbase.com/luckytrev/image/34563293.