Sinking of the Lakonia


On 22nd December 1963 my grandparents lives changed forever. My grandmother started what she considered her second bite of the cherry of life. My grandfather watched rich men’s possessions float by him in the water and never again put any value on them (though he was always modest materially being from an immigrant working class background). The night of 22nd December 1963 was the night the cruise ship Lakonia went on fire and 128 souls were lost at sea. A Christmas cruise from Southampton to the Canary Islands turned into a terrifying brush with death.

Yesterday my brother heard a trail on BBC Radio 5 for a programme about the disaster next Tuesday morning on Five Live hosted by Adrian Chiles. Today I tracked down the production team in Salford to offer some of our family archives. As I start to delve into them I thought it would be fun to share the investigations and discoveries here.

First (above) is the telegram my mother received from my grandfather on Christmas eve confirming her parents were alive and safe. She had just had her first child (yours truly) and was settling in to her first home of her own (it cost them £4,000 if I remember correctly). JFK had been shot 5 weeks earlier.

The sender of that telegram is mentioned in this article from Life magazine (edition of 3rd January 1964)


That’s my grandma looking terrified on the left. Her husband was the “Ian Harris of London” referred to in the copy “the only man known to have taken pictures while on board the doomed Lakonia”. He worked for Picture Post (the British rival of Life with photographers like Bill Brandt and Thurston Hopkins). He was a scientist involved with the technicalities of printing photographs and a keen amateur photographer so his photos featured in the Life picture story were the work of a man in the wrong place at the right time with his omnipresent camera (now you know where I got the bug from).

More to follow as I burrow away…

Update 17/12/16:

“Salta” referred to on the telegram above was an Argentine ship which was heading west to Argentina filled with immigrants from Europe, which picked up my grandparents after dawn of 23rd December from their lifeboat. The passengers were hauled up one by one by rope after a landing stage the Salta crew had dropped was smashed by the lifeboat. My grandfather thought it would make a great shot but my grandmother forbade him as she didn’t want the indignity captured for posterity. He still seemed to regret missing the shot 36 years later when I interviewed him on film. He was wearing, by chance, a grey jumper he had been given in Funchal, Madiera after landing from the Salta in sea-shrunken clothes.


21 comments so far

  1. theluckhabit on

    What time is the programme on?

  2. Dan Maudsley on

    10am on 20th December on 5 live.

  3. Andrea Lucas on

    what an amazing story. I remember hearing all about it when I came into the family in 1965/66.

  4. […] up from Sinking of the Lakonia this photo, from Paris Match magazine, shows my grandparents after their rescue from the Lakonia. […]

  5. Martyn day on

    Hi, my parents were on the Lakonia. Both survived but have harrowing stories, plus some British gallows humor. They said the ship had been painted in Greece and all the ropes to the lifeboats had been painted over so they stuck like glue. People were jumping off the side but as son as they hit the water the life jacket would shoot up and break their necks. My mum was lowered into a life boat by rope too. But there was a swell and she got crushed between the boat and the life raft.

    My father and his friend were waiting in line to get into a lifeboat when member of the orchestra were also evacuating. Ahead of them they watched as one of them got into his boat carrying cymbals! My father’s friend Eric turned to my Dad and said “and the bad news is that we have the piano player Coming with us”

    They drifted that night in their lifeboat. My mum said in the morning bodies floated by them, some sat in deck loungers – it was December in the Atlantic.

    My parents had a life long link with Madeira after that and go back, by plane, every year.

    Thanks for putting your grandparent’ story up.


    • ArkAngel on

      My grandfather had a similar account about the old-fashioned cork life jackets. Him and my grand-mother observed all kinds of safety failings including the painted up lifeboat ropes.Glad your parents also made it to the safety of Madiera.

  6. Owen Luder on

    Owen Luder. I was on the Lakonia with my then wife and two eldest daughters when it caught fire and eventually sank in December 1963,We all survived although they lost 130 passengers and crew.

    I wrote all about it immediately we all got back safly to the UK.

    A harrowing experience. You realise how unimportant material things are when you sit in an open lifeboat for eight hours through the night in the the Atlantic in December waiting to be rescued.

    Owen Luder CBE PPRIBA

    • ArkAngel on

      My grand-parents reached similar conclusions regarding material possessions. Good to hear your family survived intact.

  7. Chris Chaplow on

    Thanks for sharing your story. You or you readers may be aware of the thread that has been running on the Forum for a number of years and relates to the disaster. It was started by a British Navy sailor who arrived the following day to recover bodies and bring them to Gibraltar. Along with the Gibraltar Heritage Trust we organised a 50th anniversary event and plaque in Gibraltar.

    • ArkAngel on

      I have come across that forum in the last few days. There was a post asking for information on my grand-father specifically and I applied a couple of days ago to get posting status on the forum so I could reply.

  8. […] on Woman’s Hour on 2nd July 1964, recounting her perspective on the Lakonia disaster (see previous two posts). I also have the […]

  9. Daniel Cook on

    A very moving post. My grandparents (Arthur and Majorie Spurgeon) both died on that ship. DC

    • ArkAngel on

      Very sorry to hear that, Daniel – it was only on revisiting the story this year that I really appreciated the danger and depths of the tragedy

  10. genafrog on

    My great uncle and gt auntie were on the ship. They survived yet their two young sons who were asleep in their cabin whilst the parents were entertained, didn’t survive. My family have said that things were painted over regarding the lifeboats as several people have also stated. I’m on the Andalucia forum but had posted long before the radio show and sadly didn’t know about it, so it’s great being able to read your Grandmas memories of the horrible chapter in their lives.

  11. ArkAngel on

    That’s a truly tragic story, Genafrog, thank you for sharing it. What these tales tell us is something about how to keep a healthy perspective on our own lives and to make the most of our days.

  12. Dan on

    You can listen to the BBC 5 live ‘I Was There’ podcast on the Lakonia Disaster here:

    • KermitFroggatt on

      Thanx I just listened to it. Pretty harrowing stuff!

  13. ArkAngel on

    Thanks for the update, Dan.

  14. Joe Murat on

    How lovely to find this thread which I have mostly enjoyed. My parents were both crew on board (Purser and Nurse) and by all accounts behaved calmly, bravely and in a selfless manner at high risk to their own safety, despite the appalling lack of training and slack inspections administered at Southampton.

    And of course they were accompanied by the majority of the crew in this behavior.

    I have not doubts there were some very visible exceptions, but if the staff had behaved as selfishly as described, the death rates among crew would have been less than that among the passengers. They were equal.

    • ArkAngel on

      How fascinating, Joe – thanks so much for sharing this perspective. Lack of training and poor inspections sounds like it may well have been par for the course in the early 60s. Are you responding mainly to the Paris Match article?

  15. Lawrence McFarlane on

    According to Geoffrey Bond’s well researched book Lakonia the death toll was:-
    98 out of 646 passengers
    30 out of 376 crew
    A total of 128 lives lost out of 1,022
    The book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the story.

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