H.M.S. ‘PRINCESS IRENE’ – A tribute to my Great Grandfather and that fateful day on the River Medway – one of Kent’s biggest naval tragedies.

I never really knew much about my extended family until my sister-in-law started our family tree.  I am the youngest of nine brothers and one sister – the ‘baby’ of the family!

My Great Grandfather Harold Herbert Back was the fifth son in his family and was born in Ashford, Kent.  

From his Army records it tells us his eyes were grey, he had a very good character, he was a Waiter when he joined the army at the age of 18.  He was with the East Kent Militia training for 56 days and he served with the Lancashire Fusiliers. He became a Lance Corporal and served in India from 03 January 1889 to 15 February 1894.

He married Adela in 1895 and he played clarinet for the Railway Works Band and was also a Humorist.  We have also been told he was an officer in the Salvation Army.

He had one child, a daughter who he named Olive Constance.

In 1897 Harold and his family moved to Sheerness, Isle of Sheppey.  We are not sure what work he did when he first settled there but later he worked as a skilled labourer in the Dockyard maintaining the ships.  He also joined the Garrison Artillery.

This is where the story of his demise begins!

Harold was working on the ship H.M.S. ‘Princess Irene’ as a skilled dockyard worker when she blew up on 27th May 1915.  He was 48 years old and one of 76 dockyard workers and 273 crew to be killed in the explosion which was heard across Kent.   

He was not meant to be working that day and was standing in for someone else and had recently been promoted the day before he was asked if he would take the place of a colleague who could not work.

Princess Irene was a passenger liner converted to a minelayer and moored in the River Medway.  Mines were brought down in barges from Upnor and Woolwich.

On Thursday 27 May 1915, the mines were being activated ready for her third minelaying operation.

At 11:12 am there was a tremendous explosion, and then another, with a dense cloud of vapor and smoke shot two miles into the air.

An officer on another ship said it seemed as if she was hurled into the air a mile high in thousands of fragments, and that he could distinctly make out the forms of men amid the flying wreckage.

He said ‘she did not go down she simply went up and distributed her remains over an area of a score of miles’.

Another officer on another ship commented that he was slightly dazed after the explosion and all he could see was a mass of flames and white gas.  He said two mines burst 40ft up in the air.

There was simply no sign of the Princess Irene!

A section of steel from the ship weighing an estimated 10 tons was found on the Isle of Grain.

Initial reports concluded the ship exploded through some unidentified cause, but subsequent investigation suggested problems with the way the mines were primed, highlighting untrained personnel and hurried procedures.

It concluded a faulty primer could have been to blame but offered no definitive answer.

His wife Adela was only 40 years old when Harold was killed and Olive was only 19 – a devastating blow for both of them.

His name is on the cenotaph opposite Sheerness Bus Station, at the end of the High Street and also on the War Memorial at Chatham.

The coroner conducting an inquest into the deaths of the men in the disaster was forced to record a similarly vague conclusion.  

Mr. CB Harris said HMS Princess Irene had carried the mystery of her fate with her – and of my Great Grandfather!



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About Me

My name is Lyndy and I have worked in the travel industry for eight years, three years of these working on a cruise ship.  I enjoy cruising and have had many wonderful experiences both as a passenger and as a crew member (but that's another story). I returned from sea in January…

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