Nelson, William George

Nelson, William George


Miss Betty, Pilot Launch

Drowned on Saturday 8 May 1943 (aged 28) (Bangor Bay Disaster)


Donaghadee Parish Church of Ireland Graveyard, Donaghadee, Co. Down


Donaghadee and District War Memorial (Bangor Bay 1943 Plaque)


Three men from Donaghadee along with one man from Bangor were drowned on Saturday 8 May 1943 in what became known locally as the ‘Bangor Bay Disaster’.  There were no survivors.  The four men died when the Pilot Launch Miss Betty capsized and sank while returning to port after responding to a call from a ship entering Belfast Lough.  The four men who died worked on the pilot boats that were based in Bangor.  These pilot boats were in constant service, not only for merchant shipping coming into Belfast, but also for many of the naval vessels using Belfast Lough.  At the outbreak of war Miss Betty was requisitioned by the Admiralty from Jim Davidson, Donaghadee.

The three men from Donaghadee who died were Harry Aiken, William George Nelson and William White.  The Bangor man who died was William Anderson.  Aboard Miss Betty on the day they died, William White was the pilot and William George Nelson was the coxswain.  William Anderson was the engineer and Harry Aiken was the deck hand.

William George Nelson was born on 3 November 1917 and he was a son of David and Mary Nelson (nee Lennon) who were married on 11 August 1904 in Ballycopeland Presbyterian Church.  David Nelson, a sailor from Donaghadee was a son of William George Nelson, a fisherman.  Mary Lennon from Donaghadee was a daughter of William Lennon, a diver.

David Nelson worked as a fisherman and he and Mary had seven children (five sons and two daughters):

Martha (known as Rosie, born 8 May 1907 in Shore Street, Donaghadee; died 1966)

John (born 25 June 1909 in Moat Street, Donaghadee)

William (born 24 March 1911 in Shore Street, Donaghadee; died 2004)

Sadie Ferguson (born 3 November 1913 in Moat Street, Donaghadee; died 2010)

Samuel (Sammy, born 3 October 1915 in Moat Street, Donaghadee; died 15 January 2001)

William George (born 3 November 1917 in Moat Street, Donaghadee)

Francis (Frankie, born 3 November 1919 in Moat Street, Donaghadee; died 12 August 2000)

The children were baptised in Donaghadee Parish Church of Ireland Church.  Mary Nelson’s sister-in-law (her brother William’s wife), Margaret Lennon was a civilian casualty of war as the result of the sinking of the SS Athenia.

William George Nelson was named after his paternal grandfather who was drowned off the coast of Donaghadee on 2 November 1917 (the day before his grandson was born).  Grandfather William George Nelson’s wife’s name was Martha (nee Tollerton), and he was coxswain of the Donaghadee lifeboat from 1910 until his death in 1917.  Successive generations of the Nelson family have served aboard Donaghadee lifeboat.

William George Nelson who died in the Bangor Bay Disaster on 8 May 1943 was a member of the crew of Donaghadee lifeboat and his father David was the mechanic.  The Nelson family boat was named The Five Brothers and she was requisitioned by the Admiralty.  She was lost during the war and when David Nelson purchased a replacement boat, Roberta, he renamed her The Brothers.

When the MV Princess Victoria sank on 31 January 1953 William George Nelson’s uncle, Hugh Nelson Senior, was coxswain on the Donaghadee lifeboat and Hugh’s son, Hugh Nelson Junior, was a member of the crew, as were Alex Nelson and William George Nelson’s brothers William, Sammy, and Frankie.

William George Nelson’s mother Mary died in 1964 and his father David died in 1967.

The Pilot Launch Miss Betty was around 40 feet long and the disaster was witnessed by Bangor Harbour Master John H. Corry and Customs Officer G.A. Coppard.  Miss Betty was owned by the Admiralty but crewed by civilians under naval direction and she left Bangor in moderate weather conditions at 8.55 am on 8 May 1943.  During the trip, the weather deteriorated and, on the way back to Bangor the crew had to contend with a strong north-easterly gale and a heavy breaking sea.  At 11.40 am, when they were only about 60 to 70 yards from the safety of Bangor harbour, the disaster happened.  The boat successfully negotiated several strong waves before being overwhelmed by a broadside hit on the port side.  Miss Betty capsized, turned over in the water and remained upside down.

William George Nelson and Isobel Gordon were married on 12 October 1938 in First Donaghadee Presbyterian Church and they lived at 62 East Street, Donaghadee with their two children Audrey (born 28 November 1939) and John Alexander Gordon (born 21 August 1941).  It was some time after the sinking of the Miss Betty before William George Nelson’s body was recovered.  It was his uncle Hugh Nelson who found his nephew’s body floating face-down in the water when he was fishing off Bangor and he recognised his nephew immediately by his distinctively curly hair.

William George Nelson was 28 when he died on 8 May 1943 and he was buried in Donaghadee Parish Church of Ireland Graveyard, near to the grave of Harry Aiken.  On 12 August 1943 William George Nelson’s widow Isobel gave birth to a son and he was named William George in memory of his late father.   Isobel Nelson suffered a further bereavement when baby William George Nelson died on 17 October 1943 and was buried beside his father.

Along with Pilot William White and Deck Hand Harry Aiken, Coxswain William George Nelson is commemorated on a separate plaque on Donaghadee and District War Memorial.