No.46 The Ark

In this week’s edition I’d like to have a look at the Ark: no, not Noah’s, though it seems that we might emulate his example if the recent weather continues!

The first Ark Royal, a name with a distinguished tradition in the Royal Navy, was built as Ark Raleigh for Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587. The date was ominous. She was purchased by the Crown as the clouds of war gathered, and became the Ark Royal, flagship of the English fleet that issued out of Plymouth in July 1588 in response to a threat spotted by a scout off the Lizard. At a much later date, Macaulay described the scene, evocatively but with more romance than accuracy:

It was about the lovely close of a warm summer day,

There came a gallant merchant-ship full sail to Plymouth Bay;

Her crew had seen Castile‘s black fleet beyond Aurigny’s* isle

At earliest twilight, on the waves lie heaving many a mile . . .


Ark Royal, then, was involved in events that have become the very stuff of history and legend intermingled, with names that ‘everyone knows’ from history. Ark Royal was where Howard of Effingham wrote his despatches as the English pursued the Armada up-Channel. The legend of Drake’s cool finishing of his game of bowls has been interpreted by several commentators as an acknowledgement that it would take some time to warp the fleet out of Plymouth against the flood tide. There was also the ‘Protestant Wind’ that scattered the Armada; and Queen Elizabeth’s speech of defiance at Tilbury the following month: I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king . . .

By a strange twist of fate, Tilbury, too, was where Ark Royal met her end in 1636, leading to an official enquiry. According to her master: ‘Soon after 8, the flood coming on, she floated again, and sheered in a whole cable’s length to the north of her anchor, where she was in four fathom and a half of water, not complaining any way, for aught he could perceive. Then she took ashore offwards to the south, and touched upon some bank . . . and presently they cried out in hold there was a great leakage, and whilst they were loosing the foresail and topsail to run her to the north shore, the ship suddenly overset to the larboard (port side).’ She was recovered by the summer of that year, but was so badly damaged that it was more profitable to sell her hull for £300 than to repair her for £5,000, so that she was broken up at Blackwall.

A career that included one of the most famous actions in maritime history ended up literally mired in controversy, as, while she lay in the mud and men hacked holes in her to get at their personal effects, their masters wrangled over who was to blame for her being ‘bilged on her own anchor’.

No.47 The Carl

With the effects of the storms still with us, I have recently been processing quite a number of reports of shipwrecks uncovered by recent storm activity. The latest is the SV Carl, a German ship said to have been wrecked in Booby’s Bay within Constantine Bay, north Cornwall in 1917.

Images of the archaeological remains are stunning and certainly show the lower ribs and plates of a steel-hulled vessel which clearly stranded in this location in the inter-tidal zone (thus certainly not “sunk”!) As the sand cover has been scoured away, the wreckage has been exposed to a greater extent than recently. She was first charted by the Hydrographic Office in 2007.

An extensive gallery appears here:

But – and there’s always a ‘but’ – the history of the vessel herself is difficult to establish. If she is the SV Carl, she was impounded at the start of the First World War in Cardiff as an alien vessel. She then entered Admiralty ownership. Three years later, while under tow to be broken up in London, she struck the Cornish coast; when they attempted to re-attach the tow she simply broke her back.

This information comes from the Daily Mail report, which cites a letter to the local press  in 1966, from a gentleman citing his mother’s eyewitness testimony, thus within living, or recent, memory in 1966. An anecdote about a ‘wrecker’ coming face to face with the coastguard as published in Cornish Shipwrecks, Vol.2, Clive Carter, 1970, suggests that this also came via the oral history route as repetition of a contemporary rumour that she had been captured at sea involved in clandestine minelaying.

This last illustrates how secondary sources can break the chain of evidence connecting a wreck event to the site. The Carl has so far proved very elusive although her builder and date of build are said to be as follows: Ritson of Maryport, 1893. She did not appear in the Times reports of the Prize Courts in 1914, while from fairly early on in the war British newspapers were subject to censorship on shipping losses (as were American newspapers from 1917). As she was neither British, Allied, nor neutral, nor was she lost to war causes, she falls outside the scope of Lloyd’s War Losses for 1914-18; as a sailing vessel she similarly falls outside von Munching’s list of Allied, Neutral and Central Losses for 1914-18.

What seems clear is there exists a photograph annotated “The wreck of the Carl of Hamburg, Constantine Bay” (full view available to wrecksite subscribers) in handwriting consistent with that era, which is complemented by a similar photograph from a different angle further to the landward in the Mail photo gallery; however, both are undated.

A sailing vessel named Carl, built at Maryport in 1893 and in Admiralty ownership, appeared in the Mercantile Navy List in 1920, and her register was closed in 1923. So what, exactly, is going on here? How can we fill in the gaps between 2007 and 1917? First-hand testimony from 1966 is a help, but it has come to us fourth-hand. Was this another ship? Do any local residents have any memories or remember stories from their forebears of the wreck event, or any subsequent sightings of the wreck? The identification as the Carl is clearly based on local knowledge, which tends by its very nature to be oral history, with all that implies for the potential for disappearance.

Can you help?

If she is indeed the Carl, then she may well prove to be another example of a ship lost while destined for the breakers: see also

For another wreck which was revealed by storm damage last year, please see:

No.45 The Raphael

In this week’s instalment of our mini-series looking at wrecks and their associations with English Heritage properties, I’d like to have a look at the ‘right to wreck’.

In 1468, or perhaps a little earlier, the Raphael of ‘Dansk in Pruce’ (Gdansk in Prussia) was ‘imperilled at Bedebay [BudeBay] in the County of Cornwall, where it was perysshed upon the high sea, and out of the jurisdiction of every county’.

Wreckage washed ashore in Bude Bay near Poughill and was claimed not by a local manorial landowner, but by the servants and tenants of the Abbot of Cleeve in Somserset, citing a grant made to John, Abbot of Cleeve, of ‘wrekke de meere in all his demene londes and tenements in Poghwell and Trelasten in the Countie of Cornwall’ and to his ‘successors for evermore’.

The Abbot claimed the goods, addressing a letter to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, while John May of Bristol, merchant, launched a counter-claim. At issue was the fact that ‘Richard Herlok and Thomas Donne and other mariners of the said ship being in the same ship at the time of the perysshing thereof came to BudeBay aforesaid alive’. If anyone escaped alive from a wreck, then under medieval law it was *not* technically a wreck (regardless of the state it was in): upon such arcane arguments hung many medieval disputes over the right to wreck and salvage.

The outcome of this interesting link between two places so far apart on the Bristol Channel coast, Cleeve Abbey and Bude Bay, remains unknown – as is often the way with medieval wreck records – leaving us to imagine the sequel and to speculate whether any income from this or other wrecks helped to pay for the splendid contemporary late 15th century roof. 

Late 15th century refectory roof, Cleeve Abbey, Somerset, (c) English Heritage Photo Library
Late 15th century refectory roof, Cleeve Abbey, Somerset, (c) English Heritage Photo Library

No.44 The Dmitry

As a result of a comment left on the Heritage Calling blog, I’ve been thinking about the relationships between EH properties and wrecks. Coastal properties come to mind: castles and religious sites on easily defensible headlands, overlooking the sea, sites of warning and succour in time of need, witnesses to battle and wreck alike. Here’s one example:

One day in 1885 a brigantine from Narva in modern-day Estonia, but called ‘Russian’ at the time, managed to make it safely into harbour during a ‘storm of great violence’ which battered the north-east coast. A ship had already been lost nearby, and the lifeboat was prepared in case she, too, should need assistance: ‘A little excitement prevailed among the thousands of people on shore, for it seemed certain that if the vessel was cast upon the rocks she would be immediately dashed to pieces and the crew drowned. The craft, however, steered straight for the port, and by good seamanship got into the harbour safely. She proved to be the Russian brigantine Dmirty‘. [sic] Another newspaper noted: ‘A cheer broke from the spectators on the pier when they saw her in safety.’

The following day the gale had abated: ‘The Russian vessel Dimitri [sic] which so gallantly entered the harbour on Saturday in spite of the terrible sea afterwards ran ashore in Collier’s Hope. It was supposed that she would be safe here, but on the rise of the tide yesterday morning, the seas beat over her with great force. Her masts fell with a terrific crash, and the crew were obliged to abandon her. She is now a complete wreck.’  

‘Collier’s Hope’, or Collier Hope, indicates the importance of the coal trade for local ships and others from further afield who called here en route for the Tyne in ballast. The Dmitry was also in ballast, with silver sand from Antwerp for Newcastle, suggesting she too was bound to the Tyne for coal.  

Does she sound vaguely familiar? Then read on!

Anyone at Whitby Abbey that morning would have seen the wreck down below at Collier Hope, in the lower harbour between Tat Hill Pier and the East Pier at the harbour entrance.  She must have been among the most memorable of the many wrecks at Whitby, her loss to a freak accident in apparent safety a shocking counterpoint to her safe arrival when all seemed lost. Here she is:

‘The sequel to the strange arrival of the derelict in the storm last night is almost more startling than the thing itself. It turns out that the schooner is a Russian from Varna, and is called the Demeter. She is almost entirely in ballast of silver sand . . . ‘ (Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897) 

Whitby Abbey, N080819, © English Heritage
Whitby Abbey, © English Heritage