The Princess of Wales was an iron paddlesteamer built by Barclay Curle & Co Ltd., of Whiteinch, Glasgow (Yard No. 353). The vessels dimensions were 216.0′ x 21.15′ x 8.2′ and tonnage was 324gt. Power was supplied by a two cylinder compound diagonal engine of 220nhp also manufactured by the builders.
Recently launched on the 24 May 1888 to the order of the Southampton and Isle of Wight Royal Mail Steam Packet Co, the Princess of Wales left Glasgow on the morning of Saturday 16th June to run speed trials along the measured mile at Skelmorlie. Aboard were between fifty and sixty people consisting of guests, workmen and crew.
Arriving off Wemyss Bay shortly after midday, she completed her first run down the measured mile about 1pm. She immediately commenced her return run at dead slow speed. Around this time, the large steamer Balmoral Castle entered Wemyss Bay to the north to run down the measured mile at full speed. The two vessels closed on their respective courses for a few minutes, with the Balmoral Castle initially taking a line slightly inshore of the Princess of Wales. As the Balmoral Castle entered the northern end of the mile it would appear that her pilot, James Parker, considered his course too close inshore and headed his vessel to starboard, further off shore. On seeing this manoeuvre, pilot James Barrie aboard the Princess of Wales immediately altered his course to suit, although both vessels were still at this stage passing starboard to starboard.
The distance between the two vessels closed rapidly. When a further change of course to starboard was made by the Balmoral Castle she was within two hundred yards of the other steamer and a collision was unavoidable. The engines of the Princess of Wales were put full ahead but she was unable to clear the path of the oncoming steamer. The Balmoral Castle cut through the paddle steamer, aft of the engine room, sending the people aboard sprawling across her decks. Amidst the confusion the one remaining undamaged lifeboat on the Princess of Wales was quickly launched and the ladies were safely landed at Skelmorlie. Most of those remaining aboard were rescued by other small boats sent from the shore, yachts nearby and boats from the Balmoral Castle. Around fifteen of the survivors sustained serious injuries and, once landed, were cared for by a local doctor.
The stern section quickly sank after the collision taking with it three workmen who had been putting finishing touches to the aft saloon. Meanwhile the forepart of the wreck remained afloat, saved by the engine room bulkhead. A passing steamer, the Adela, on her usual run from Rothesay to Wemyss Bay took the forepart in tow in an attempt to beach her at Wemyss Bay. However, before they could do so, the forepart heeled over and sank off Wemyss Bay Pier.
There were conflicting reports among contemporary sources as to exactly where the forepart sank, with depths of five, ten and twenty five fathoms being mentioned. Five days after the collision Captain Burns of the Glasgow Salvage Association, established her position from oil seeping to the surface off Wemyss Bay Pier, in approximately thirty fathoms. Due to the depth of the water salvage was considered impractical, being too deep for divers to work safely. The Princess of Wales, still under the ownership of the builders, was written off as a total loss thus ending one of the shortest careers of any vessel built on the Clyde.
The Wreck Today
The wreckage of the fore section of the Princess of Wales was located in 1992 lying in 62 metres in position 55° 52.525’N, 04°54.084’W. The bow section from stem to aft of the engine room lies inverted on a mud seabed, directly out from Wemyss Bay ferry terminal. Lying in seabed depths of 62 metres the forepart rises up to a maximum of 57 metres and is oriented 165°/345°. The sketch below was generated after a dive by the Northern Gas Team in 1995 and published in the 1995 third quarter issue of the 9>90 Magazine published by Ron Mahoney. Conditions on the wreck are silty and expect visibility to be 2-3 metres, a dive either side of slack water will help to shift any silt generated. Nets are on both paddle hubs.
There are no confirmed reports of the location of the stern section which sank quickly after the collision. Many rumours of a wreck off the Skelmorlie shore line at the top of the measured mile have arisen over the years, including the possibility of a submarine wreck from WWII. Most of these reports place the wreckage of the stern section in deep water around 60-70 metres around a third of a mile into measured mile.