50 Years of Protecting Shipwrecks

CGI image of 'ship-shape' outline on a sandy seabed with scattered guns inside, and turquoise sea overhead
Still from dive trail of the protected wreck of the Stirling Castle (1703) on the Goodwin Sands
© Trendive

For this blog we welcome our Historic England colleague, Hefin Meara, National Listing Adviser – Marine, who takes us on a voyage from the beginnings of the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973 to Historic England’s work in protecting shipwrecks today.

The origins of the Protection of Wrecks Act

July 2023 sees the 50th anniversary of the Protection of Wrecks Act. The Act was brought into effect in order to prevent damage and destruction of historic shipwrecks as a result of indiscriminate salvage that was taking place, causing public outcry. The late 1960s and early 1970s had seen a great increase in the use of diving equipment, with scuba diving becoming an affordable and accessible pastime. This meant that the large amount of historic shipwrecks that were in relatively easily accessible, shallow depth were suddenly open to access. Several high-profile incidents in the early years encouraged the development of the Act, which was put forward as a private members’ bill.

It was envisioned that only a small number of sites would need to be designated, and that they would be de-designated fairly soon after any significant threat was removed, following the successful completion of any work being undertaken.

One of the key incidents involved in the development of the Act was the salvage on one of England’s most significant shipwrecks, HMS Association (1707), lost among the Isles of Scilly in an unparalleled naval disaster which led to the Longitude Act of 1714. Large quantities of material were removed from this site by competing groups of salvors, which meant that information about the site was lost, as they were not recorded archaeologically.

The first site to be designated under the Act was a 16th century wreck in the Cattewater estuary, Plymouth. This wreck is still designated to this day and is being investigated by Licensee Martin Read. A substantial portion of structure and a large assemblage of finds were recovered in the 1970s. Current research being undertaken by Licensee Martin Read has been reassessing the finds assemblage, and researching potential candidates for the identity of the wreck.  (See Martin’s blog on this site about Cattewater celebrating the 45th anniversary of the Act.)

Since then a wide variety of sites have been designated, forming a representative sample of the broad range of vessels that would have been seen off the English coast over the centuries. These range from Late Bronze Age cargo scatters to the remains of early 20th century submarines and a near complete steam trawler of the First World War era. The most recently designated sites include two wrecks located on the Shingles Bank off the Isle of Wight discovered by Martin Pritchard, and a 13th century wreck in Poole Bay, discovered by charter boat skipper Trevor Small.

Diver to centre right shining a light on a grave slab on the seabed with intact foliate decoration in relief even after 8 centuries underwater.
Decorated 13th century gravestone which helped to date the protected wreck in Poole Bay, and shed new light on the production and transport of grave slabs. © Bournemouth University

Why not explore all of these on the Heritage List for England? Go straight to Advanced Search and turn off all filters except Protected Wreck Site to explore all 57 of the designated wreck sites in English waters.

Location map of 57 wreck sites in England, concentrated along the south coast, with legend 'Protected Wreck sites under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973' at bottom right; Historic England logo at top left
Location map of the 57 wrecks designated in English waters under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973

Access to shipwrecks designated under Act is by a licence, which is administered by Historic England on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The role of the Licensee has played a vital part in the ongoing management of sites designated under the Act, with Licensees operating as the custodians for these nationally important archaeological sites. In recent years there have been over 200 Licensees and team members active on England’s Protected Wreck sites. We would like to say a huge thank you to all licensees past and present for their hard work and dedication in monitoring and investigating the Protected Wrecks.

Changes over the last 50 years

Circumstances have changed considerably since the Act first came into effect 50 years ago. In practice designation is permanent, rather than temporary, for example. Sites which were once considered inaccessible, due to their depth, are now fairly easy to access as a result of developments in diving technology. Furthermore, the leaps and bounds which have been made in the development of geophysical survey technology allow for the discovery and investigation of many new shipwrecks.

Seabed development is currently proceeding at a pace which has never been seen before, with a massive increase in offshore renewable capacity. For example, the production of electricity from offshore wind has risen from an operational capacity of under 700MW in 2009 to more than 10,000MW by the end of 2020. Proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy to meet net zero target by 2050 includes 50GW of offshore wind delivery by 2030.[1] In addition, approximately 21 million tonnes of aggregate were extracted from the seabed last year across multiple different licence areas.[2] As a result many more shipwreck sites are discovered each year.

The management of shipwrecks designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act became the responsibility of Historic England following the National Heritage Act 2002, which modified functions to include securing the preservation of, and promoting the public’s enjoyment of, ancient monuments in, on, or under the seabed. The Act also transferred the administrative functions relating to the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 to Historic England, and provided the ability to grant-aid projects in relation to Protected Wreck sites.

It is our role to ensure that all activities on protected wreck sites are undertaken to the highest standards, which includes for example, being in line with the rules of the Annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which the UK government has adopted as best practice.

How our role has changed

How has our role in the care of these sites changed in the 20-plus years since we took on responsibility for their management?

Diver exploring a seaweed-encrusted cannon nearly upright on the seabed in murky conditions with heavy seaweed cover.
Colossus Dive Trail © CISMAS
Physical dive trails like these, allowing visitors the experience of exploring protected wreck sites, are now being supplemented by virtual trails reaching wider audiences.

We have worked hard to ensure that protected wreck sites are accessible to all. We’ve encouraged responsible access to the wrecks on the seabed through the commissioning of physical dive trails on the seabed. Mindful that not everyone can dive, we’ve also developed a programme of virtual dive trails which allows those that can’t dive to access the sites without getting wet. To date there are 18 virtual dive trails accessible from the Historic England website, with plans for new ones in the pipeline. These can all be seen in our StoryMap.

As well as managing the licensing of access to protected wreck sites on behalf of DCMS, and providing grant funding for several projects being undertaken on these sites, we are also looking towards the future of heritage protection at sea. We have commissioned several projects with partner agencies and contractors which will improve the protection of heritage assets offshore and secure their preservation for the future.

One of the ways that we’re working to ensure that sites are better protected is through a project being undertaken by MSDS Marine on the development of a product for the forensic marking of material on protected wreck sites. This is similar to the kind of material used to mark lead on the church roofs at risk of theft. The product has been in development for some time, and will be deployed on several wrecks this summer. The marker will be a deterrent to those looking to lift material from sites, and will also allow for investigation and prosecution, should the worst happen and material be taken from the sites. We’ll have more information to reveal about this project later this year. 

We’ve also commissioned a project from the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST) and OceanMind, who have developed the Maritime Observatory. This project will use a combination of satellite data, artificial and human intelligence, to detect patterns of behaviour from vessels around protected wreck sites, in a pilot focused on Poole Bay and the Goodwin Sands. This will aim to detect any unauthorised activity, such as unlicensed diving, as well as potential threats to the sites from other activities. This project will be reporting back later this summer.   

It is not just Historic England working to monitor and care for Protected Wrecks offshore: we work closely with partner organisations who also have the resources and capacity to investigate and monitor these sites. These include the Receiver of Wreck at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCGA), the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), as well as heritage crime officers in various police forces. In order to strengthen this partnership working, we’ve commissioned Plymouth University to produce the Common Enforcement Manual for Heritage Crime at Sea. This will enable improved cooperation and inter-agency working.

Marking 50 years of the Act

In order to mark the 50th year of the Act, we’ve commissioned several projects. These include a broad range of projects which celebrate exciting discoveries, research projects and investigations relating to Protected Wrecks, engage the public and reach new audiences and participants. We’re also reflecting on how the Act has shaped the heritage sector and considering the implications for sector resilience in future, and drawing lessons from the last 50 years that can inform the next 50 years of protecting marine heritage.

We’ve been particularly keen to ensure that we’re not just sharing our stories with the same traditional audiences. We’ve often taken stands to coastal locations while fieldwork is under way, such as the open days in relation to the Rooswijk project in Ramsgate. This year we’re heading inland to bring the story of protected wrecks to people in landlocked counties, with multiple events across locations in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, reaching new audiences and exploring links between these locations and the sea. Check out the calendar of events (until 1 October 2023).

Visitors of all ages explore shells, bones and artefacts from the sea with a helper from MSDS Marine: a Protected Wreck Roadshow banner is in the background
Visitors exploring maritime archaeology finds at one of the ‘Landlocked & Looking Out’ #PWA50 roadshows, 2023 © MSDS Marine

Our work has also often focused on the south coast, so this year we’ve commissioned a project from Tees Archaeology to examine and promote the Seaton Carew protected wreck, engaging with a new audience on the north-east coast.

The timbers of a wreck on a shingle beach fill up with water as the tide comes in, under heavy cloud cover.
Seaton Carew protected wreck, © P Grainger

As part of the call for projects, we were eager to engage with groups we’ve not worked with previously. Therefore we were delighted to receive an application from the volunteer-run Teign Heritage Centre, which holds material related to the late 16th century Church Rocks protected wreck. The centre will use the funding to enhance the museum display, and to enable the deposition of the site archive with the Archaeology Data Service, including dive logs, site drawings, reports and photographs.

We’ve commissioned Cornwall Archaeological Unit to undertake a project looking at the links between protected shipwrecks and the wider landscape. This project includes drone survey of wreck salvage activity in the vicinity of Gunwalloe, and a GPR survey of a mound site, potentially covering a wreck burial or a barrow which was formerly a coastal mark, or perhaps the location of a lost coastal settlement coeval with the nearby wreck of the St Anthony lost in 1527. This project will conclude with an open event for providing identification of beach finds and the sharing of local knowledge.

As mentioned earlier, the contribution of volunteer licensees is vital for the care and monitoring of protected wreck sites. We’ve commissioned the Nautical Archaeology Society to produce a series of bite-sized online training session to assist current and prospective licensees. These cover a variety of topics, including how to apply for a licence, how to help reduce heritage crime, how to apply for funding, and many others. These sessions are recorded and will be made available online in perpetuity – check out the playlist so far.

We’re also eager to ensure that new people come forward to become licensees. We’re conscious that the demographic has been largely male throughout the years. As a result we commissioned the Maritime Archaeology Trust to undertake a project to investigate the engagement of women with protected wreck sites, through a combination of desk-based research, interviews, and an online survey, which is still open for further responses (July 2023).

The history of those involved with protected wreck sites is fascinating and MSDS Marine will be working with underwater cameraman Michael Pitts to create a short film to communicate this important work on protected wreck sites. The film will celebrate the role of volunteers in the management of wreck sites over the years, reflect on the contribution to knowledge made by the investigation of protected wreck sites, and emphasise the need for new volunteers to become involved in future.

Finally we’ve commissioned the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) to undertake a critical analysis of the Protection of Wrecks Act, and to facilitate a discussion of how things can be improved. This will include a seminar to reflect on what has been achieved and how we can seek to update and improve policy and practice in future. The seminar will take place in November, and there is an online survey that you can complete in advance to inform the discussion on the day.


As you can see, this is a busy year for work in relation to protected wrecks at Historic England. We’ve many projects and events looking at long term legacy, engaging the public, sharing the successes and looking critically at how we can do things better. This is all as well as our continuing programme of work relating to assessing sites for protection, monitoring existing sites, and developing new ways to protect sites from unauthorised activities.

From Bronze Age scatters to 20th century conflict archaeology via the Mary Rose, here’s how to discover protected wrecks in more detail . . .

Learn more

NEW! Our colleague Angela Middleton, Senior Archaeological Conservator, explains conservation of the finds from the protected wreck of the Rooswijk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytaNnO9aTzE

What are protected wreck sites? Further information and links to guidance

Explore the Dive Trails – your chance to explore 18 of the protected wreck sites without getting your feet wet!

Search the List – discover all 57 protected wreck sites (uncheck all Heritage Categories except Protected Wreck Sites)

Check out our past blogs for the Act’s 45th anniversary:


[1] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1167856/offshore-wind-investment-roadmap.pdf

[2] https://www.thecrownestate.co.uk/en-gb/media-and-insights/news/the-crown-estate-and-bmapa-release-annual-area-involved-report-and-2022-aggregates-review/  

Diary of the Second World War: October 1939


In wartime there are some vessels whose fate seems to involve one thing after another, exacerbated by the ‘fog of war’ in which events are not wholly clear even to those who have taken part in them: War Knight during the First World War was a case in point, and U-16 on 25 October 1939 another.

The news of U-16‘s loss followed the recent tragedy of HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed in the apparent safety of the Scapa Flow anchorage, Orkney, on 14 October 1939, by U-47 under the command of Günther Prien. Barely six weeks into the war it was already apparent that the U-boat threat to Britain was significant.

On the afternoon of Tuesday 24 October 1939 an anti-submarine indicator loop at St. Margaret’s Bay, Kent, picked up suspicious activity in the Straits of Dover. The Kingfisher-class patrol sloop HMS Puffin and the requisitioned trawler HMS Cayton Wyke were sent to investigate. So far the defence of the Straits of Dover differed little from the previous war in the use of loops (see post of August 1918), of smaller patrol vessels in the form of naval and requisitioned fishing vessels, and of a mine barrage.

As their counterparts had also done in the previous war, one after the other, the two vessels dropped depth charges in the vicinity of their target some three miles east by south of St. Margaret’s Bay. (1)  

It seems that the effect of this was to disable the submarine, but not so severely that communications were disrupted: the U-boat was able to send a radio message in the early hours of 25 October 1939. (2) 

On Thursday 26 October, a German U-boat was discovered stranded on the Goodwin Sands but with no explanation of how it had got there. A statement prepared by the Admiralty and widely disseminated in the press, said:

‘How the submarine went aground was not explained last night. Gunfire was heard off Deal on Wednesday, when it was believed that an enemy submarine might have been attacked, but nothing could be seen because of mist.

‘Another theory is that the submarine may have been sunk a few days ago off Folkestone and may have drifted or bumped along the sea bed and become fast on the Goodwins.’ (3)

There was not only a sea haar, but also a smokescreen thrown up by the Admiralty. Both ‘theories’ allowed to materialise in the press certainly had a germ of truth to them – an enemy submarine was certainly attacked ‘a few days ago’ somewhere between Deal and Folkestone barrage. An emphasis on ‘gunfire’ nicely side-stepped the use of depth charges or the presence of a mine barrage, although some further conjecture from Deal also made it into the press release, albeit still carefully worded:

It is thought possible at Deal that the U-boat did not go on to the Goodwins under her own power, but was sunk in deeper waters by depth charges or bombs and that some of her bulk heads may have remained undamaged, permitting her to bump along the seabed, carried along by the current.(4) 

To coin a phrase apt in the maritime context, the waters were muddied by a claim that ‘a large German submarine has been sunk by the French. This is confirmed by the finding of the bodies of the crew. A message from Dunkirk states that the British Admiralty was represented when the French authorities gave a Naval funeral yesterday to a U-boat officer and five German sailors . . . ‘ (5)  

This funeral was well attended by both French and British naval representatives, and jointly led by both Protestant and Catholic clergy to cover Germany’s two principal religions. (6) The Yorkshire Post was of the view that the funeral was ‘almost the last flicker of chivalry in warfare’.

The German High Command admitted the loss of three U-boats. (7)  Five are recorded as lost for the month of October 1939, but none of these are attributed to French action. Two were depth-charged by British ships in the North Atlantic south-west of Ireland on 13 and 14 October respectively (U-42 and U-45) , and three in the Straits of Dover: U-12, which was mined on 8 October; U-40, which also fell to a British minefield on 13 October; and U-16, attributed to a British minefield. (8) 

Could French action have contributed to the demise of U-16? The French press reported that their Navy had recently been active and that a patrol vessel had recovered some bodies from a submarine sunk off Dunkirk. (9) That patrol vessel was the Épinal, which had launched a night attack on a submarine on 26 October (presumably in the early hours of that day), while acting on intelligence that U-boat activity was expected in the Straits of Dover on 26-27 October. (10)

It thus seems that the Épinal might have been the last on the scene, which is also suggested by her crew recovering the U-boat commander alive. (11) Action by British and French patrols, unknown to each other, would also account for the actions reported in the press as heard at different times in different places. Some sources suggest that the Épinal was first on the scene, with the British second, but this fits less well with the time frame and the known actions of Puffin and Cayton Wyke

That U-boat commander subsequently died despite being taken to hospital. He was identified as Kapitänleutnant Horst Wellner and, it seems, the loss may have been attributed to U-14. It is possible that his lifejacket was marked U-14, which he had commanded up until two weeks previously, his service aboard U-14 ending on 11 October 1939, before taking on the command of U-16 the following day.

The British and French press widely reported the discovery of ’50 or 60′ bodies, surely a conjecture or an exaggeration for propaganda purposes, since the normal crew complement was 22-24. (12) In total 19 bodies washed ashore or were picked up at sea on the Kent coast, near Dunkirk, and Ameland, Netherlands. (13) It seems likely that four bodies were recovered from the wreck by the British, since four German seamen whose date of death is 25th October 1939 are buried in Cannock Chase German Cemetery, namely, Paul Hanf, Hans Keil, Rolf Krämer, and Friedhelm Mahnke, and these four, together with the other 19 bodies, would fit with a crew complement of 23. (14) 

Did the Goodwin Sands themselves play a part in the U-boat’s loss? It would have been all too easy for a disabled submarine to drift helplessly and become ensnared upon the sands, an easy prey for any patrol vessel happening by. The ‘Demon Sands’ headline in the Manchester Evening Press made good copy and the article rehashed the many legends of the Goodwin Sands: though fanciful, it almost seems to suggest that the Sands themselves had reached out to snare the enemy. (15)

The expression ‘ships that pass in the night’ reveals a fundamental truth about not only shipping movements but also shipping losses: a spider’s web spins out interconnecting one wreck with another. Wellner in U-14 (which would be scuttled in 1945 off Wilhelmshaven as the Allies closed in on Germany) had been responsible for the reconnaissance mission which had led to the very recent loss of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. (16) 

Similarly, U-16‘s British attacker HMS Cayton Wyke would herself be lost to war causes on 8 July 1940, near the U-16 on the Goodwin Sands: her position of loss links her both to her victim and to the landscape of war in which she served as patrol vessel. HMS Puffin would survive the war, closing the war as she had begun, by accounting for a German submarine.

By the end of October the U-16 was regarded as unsalvageable: ‘The submarine is little more than a shattered wreck, and the remains are gradually sinking into the sand owing to the continuance of the bad weather.’ (17) 

Fairly unusually for the Goodwin Sands, where even very recent wrecks have disappeared completely, the site of the U-16 has a secure charting history since early 1940 as the location of a submarine, although the identity of the site is not confirmed.  (18) However, the description of her position  ‘near’ two other wrecks, now among those which have disappeared, may provide a clue to their location: the uncharted Sibiria and the Val Salice, both lost in the same storm in 1916, whose charting is now regarded as ‘dead’. (19) This suggests that in 1939 either that they remained partially visible or at least their positions were still within living memory among the seamen of the Kent coast.


(1) based on the location of the vessel identified as U-16, UKHO 13666.

(2) https://uboat.net/boats/u16.htm

(3)  or example, in The Scotsman, Friday 27 October 1939, No.30.083, p9, and elsewhere in the British national and regional press.

(4)  Birmingham Mail, 27 October 1939, No.22,988, p9

(5) Belfast News-Letter, 30 October 1939 [no issue number] p5, and also reported elsewhere in the British press.

(6) Nord-Maritime, 29/30/31 October 1939, repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French) ; Yorkshire Evening Post, 27 October 1939, No.15,302, p6

(7)  Belfast News-Letter, 30 October 1939 [no issue number] p5

(8) uboat.net

(9)  Nord-Maritime 29 October 1939, repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French)

(10) ibid; also an article from 11 years later in Le Nouveau-Nord, 27 October 1950clearly commemorating the anniversary of previous events, similarly repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French)

(11) Le Nouveau-Nord, 27 October 1950, repr. in http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm   with further commentary on the same link (in French)

(12) https://uboat.net/types/iib.htm

(13) https://uboat.net/boats/u16.htm

(14) Commonwealth War Graves Commission 

(15) Manchester Evening News, 27 October 1939, No.21,989 p1, p6

(16) Konstam, A. 2015 U-47 in Scapa Flow: The Sinking of HMS Royal Oak 1939 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd) p20

(17) The Scotsman, 31 October 1939, No.30,086 p11

(18) UKHO 13666

(19) North-Eastern Gazette (later Middlesbrough Gazette), 27 October 1939 [no issue no.], p1; Val Salice, UKHO 13729

The Rickmers Line

Wrecks of the Rickmers Line

Bow and masts of a tall ship painted green, with a white band and red keel, in harbour, against a blue sky.
The Rickmer Rickmers (1896), now a museum ship in Hamburg. She recalls two ships of the Rickmers line lost in English waters: in her colours, the Etha Rickmers, while as a steel ship she gives us a good idea how her close contemporary Erik Rickmers once appeared © Andrew Wyngard

As part of our occasional summer season (and before the summer comes to a final end) with a leitmotif of German wrecks, I’d like to turn now to the Rickmers Line, which had its origins in the shipbuilding firm founded by Rickmer C Rickmers in 1836. Rickmer Rickmers was born and bred to the sea in Heligoland in 1807, the son of a fisherman and pilot, and learned the trade of ship’s carpenter, which led naturally to the establishment of his shipbuilding interests. In turn this developed by mid-century to a shipowning empire, which specialised in the grain trade – rice from the Far East and wheat from the United States.

Inevitably his ships had to pass through the English Channel as they went to and fro on their oceangoing voyages, with consequent losses. We have records for four Rickmers ships lost within English waters. The earliest was Etha Rickmers, named after the owner’s wife, lost in September 1870 with all hands on the Goodwin Sands en route from New York, last from Queenstown, with coffee, tobacco, and staves for Rotterdam.

She overtook a ship in the Channel on the 9th, whose master then recognised a ship in distress off the Goodwins on the 10th as the same vessel, as he himself arrived in the Downs. On the 11th she struck and part of the wreckage was described as “an American-built ship of between 700 and 800 tons, painted black and copper fastened, and apparently from two to three years old. The upper portion of the copper was painted green, the lower mast and bowsprit white, the double topsail yards scraped bright and the rigging was of wire.” (1) As descriptions go, this wasn’t a bad one, for the Etha Rickmers was only four years old.

The next loss did not concern the company, as it involved one of their former ships which had, however, retained the name of Ellen Rickmers when sold on in 1875. This ship sank off Plymouth while inbound with a cargo from Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1882.

Two years later, the crew of the Deike Rickmers (named for the owner’s mother) spent what must have been a cheerless and exhausting Christmas Day when their barque stranded and broke her back in snow squalls on the Long Sand off Harwich. They were fortunate because the new lifeboat house at nearby Walton-on-the-Naze had just been commissioned, on the 18th of November 1884. (2)

Thus one of the earliest services of the Walton lifeboat was to attend the Deike Rickmers in the dark of Boxing Day morning, picking the men up at 8am. It took them nearly 12 hours to battle back to shore with all 25 hands from the Deike Rickmers saved. History does not record whether both rescuers and rescued were treated to a slap-up Christmas dinner, but they all surely deserved one!

The final ship of the Rickmers Line lost within English waters was the steel full-rigged ship Erik Rickmers, homeward-bound to Bremerhaven with rice from Bangkok. She struck Scilly Rock in the same dense fog that also led to the loss of the French barque Parame, in October 1899. She remains SE of Scilly Rock, where she struck more than a century ago. It may have been this loss, among other reasons, that prompted the sale of the line’s Far Eastern ships to Norddeutscher Lloyd in 1899. (3) 

The history of a German mercantile family can be traced in wrecks around the coast of England.

(1) Liverpool Daily Post, 19 September 1870, No.4,732, p7

(2) The lifeboat house is now Grade II listed. https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1455213

(3) The Ships List, Rickmers Line



Diary of the War: November 2016

The Goodwin Sands strike again

There are occasions when the Goodwin Sands just seem to claim more victims than usual and the night of 19-20 November 1916 was one of those nights, when two steamers, the Italian Val Salice, and the American Sibiria, bound to London with a cargo of Canadian wheat, stuck fast on the South Sand Head of the Goodwins, in a violent storm with extremely heavy seas which claimed wrecks elsewhere, particularly in Northumberland.

The Val Salice was the first to strike with the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargrave and Ramsgate lifeboat Charles and Susannah Stephens bringing off all 30 survivors. (The latter’s cox’n would shortly afterwards be awarded a medal by the RNLI for his 25 years’ service.) (1) Captain Bolognini of the Val Salice was widely quoted in the press as never having been shipwrecked before in all his career, but he clearly considered that he had shipped a ‘Jonah’ on board: ‘who during four months had been shipwrecked no fewer than three times’. (2)

It was a long and arduous night for the lifeboat crews who had to resort to the assistance of the searchlights from a patrol vessel to locate the Val Salice, before going out again to the Sibiria, which was being pounded to pieces on the Goodwins. The Sibiria‘s situation was reported while the rescue effort was still in progress as a ‘drama of the seas which may result in tragedy’. (3)

The seas were raging so high that both the Deal and Ramsgate lifeboats and their crews were in danger of being lost. They capsized but fortunately righted without losing any of their crew members overboard, although it was a close-run thing. The impact left several men on both boats so injured that, together with the damage to the lifeboats, they were forced to turn back – leaving behind 52 crew and passengers huddled in an exposed position in the sole portion of bridge still holding together,’in momentary peril of the vessel being engulfed in the treacherous quicksands.’ (4) How desolate those on board must have felt at seeing their rescuers turning back!

It was a race against time to save the crew and passengers of the Sibiria but finally the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargrave was manned with an uninjured crew comprising members from different lifeboat stations, and towed out by a patrol vessel, which trained its searchlights to find that all 52 persons were still alive awaiting rescue. They were taken off and once more the patrol vessel took the lifeboat in tow ‘weighed almost to the water’s edge with sixty-eight on board,’ i.e. all 52 survivors plus the 16 lifeboatmen. (5) (One of the local lifeboats in service at that period, the reserve lifeboat Francis Forbes Barton, is still extant and is on the National Register of Historic Vessels.)

The warships of the Dover Patrol thus enabled not one but two successful rescues under atrocious conditions. However, the real-life war was followed by a transatlantic newspaper war full of icy innuendo. Neither side overtly stated the issue at hand in so many words but each understood the other all too well.

The Times thundered: ‘The stranding of the United States steamer Sibiria on the Goodwins this week has opened British eyes to the fact that this vessel, which was a Hamburg-Amerika liner, has been transferred to owners in the United States during the war.’ (6)

Note the use of the word ‘transferred’, not ‘sold’. This was enough to elicit a clarification from the vessel’s agents through the New York Times: the Sibiria had been chartered at the time of the outbreak of hostilities to an American company, which bought her outright in May 1915, then sold it on to the Hudson Bay Company of Canada, while retaining her American crew. (7)

The question at issue was the Trading with the Enemy Act 1914, under which the Hamburg-Amerika Linie was defined as an ‘enemy’. (8) The British press continued to niggle at the question of whether ownership of former German vessels in neutral countries (for the United States was not yet in the war) was a ‘front’ or ‘flag of convenience’ with a view to the long-term preservation of the German fleet. (9)  Just a few months after the loss of the Sibiria, their premises in Cockspur Street, London, were offered for sale in 1917, under the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act, 1916.

The sales particulars noted that the premises were partially in the occupation of the Ministry of Munitions for the purposes of ‘the present war’, with the Canadian Red Cross, and the Allan Line, which would soon be subsumed into the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, also tenants.

The particulars had a form of declaration at the back for the buyer to confirm on purchase that they were not purchasing on the behalf on any nation ‘at war with Great Britain’. The cover of the auction catalogue is annotated with the name of the corporate buyer, the unexceptionably British P&O.

Together a wreck and a building tell a tale of socio-economic disruption and atmosphere of suspicion wrought by war, which overshadowed the remarkable rescue of all on board the Sibiria under unimaginably difficult conditions. The former Hamburg-Amerika House at 14-16 Cockspur Street still stands today and is Grade II listed. Despite their relatively recent date, the remains of Val Salice and Sibiria have not been located, but the Francis Forbes Barton still survives as a witness to that dreadful night a century ago.

Front cover of auction catalogue for the sale of commercial premises, with b&w photograph of doorway to the premises in the centre.
Sales particulars for the Hamburg-Amerika Line premises, built 1906-8. The annotation at top right reveals the price realised at auction and the name of the buyer: P&O. SC00686. Source: Historic England Archive

(1) Thanet Advertiser, 23 December 1916, No.2,995, p5

(2) Dover Express, 24 November 1916, No.3,045, p2. A ‘Jonah’ is a person who brings ill-luck to a ship, from the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale (Jonah 1-2)

(3) New York Times, 22 November 1916

(4) Ibid.

(5) Dover Express, 24 November 1916, No.3,045, p2; see also comment left below, which establishes the identity of the lifeboat involved. The confusion of that night is reflected in the contemporary sources.

(6) The Times, 25 November 1916, No.41,334, p9

(7) New York Times, 26 November 1916

(8) London Gazette, 29 October 1915, No.29,343, p.10,697

(9) Yorkshire Post, 12 December 1916, No.21,678, p4

No.70 Wreck on the Goodwin Sands

The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Bequest of Miss Alice Tully, 1996.67. Photography by Steven A. Crossot, 2014.
Wreck on the Goodwin Sands, J M W Turner. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Bequest of Miss Alice Tully, 1996.67. Photography by Steven A. Crossot, 2014.

This week’s wreck is a work of art and today I’d like to invite ‘audience participation’ focusing on wreck processes.

Wreck on the Goodwin Sands is currently on view at Tate Britain’s Late Turner exhibition as an excellent example of Turner’s late style, loose and impressionistic, yet amazingly precise in every detail. We see the skeleton of a wreck sitting upon the sands at low tide, with part of the sands exposed in streaks of yellow. Economical brushstrokes suggest the ribs of a vessel bowing out towards port and starboard, substantially more intact on both sides towards the middle and left of the painting, less so on the right, where one side is missing. A long downward stroke suggests a partially detached stem-post, with the ribs behind somewhat embedded in the exposed sand. Turner has pencilled some of his bleak poetry in lines only partially legible on the fallacy of hope, clearly identifying the wreck as one on the Goodwins. The view is from seaward of the Sands looking towards the white streak representing the famous cliffs of the Dover area.

My question this week is – what do you think happened to the ship Turner has shown here? Is it potential evidence for a wreck event?

Here are some potential clues: 

The Goodwin Sands were named as the ‘Great Ship Swallower’ as early as the 16th century, which has historically been characteristic of many of our designated wrecks in the vicinity, the Stirling Castle perhaps being the most dramatic of all, being found in a remarkably intact state, despite striking the sands in the ‘Great Storm’ of 1703.

There are other recorded wrecks, such as the Ogle Castle, an East Indiaman lost in 1825, where the ship disintegrated so comprehensively that much of her cargo was picked up in succeeding days as far afield as the Netherlands and Belgium.

Even those ships which floated off were often so badly damaged that they sank in deep water nearby, as happened with the Shepherdess in 1844.

Turner obsessively sketched what he saw and reused many sketches as details in paintings several years or decades later.

We have 24 wrecks recorded on the Goodwin Sands for the period 1840-1849, none for 1845 – the paper being characteristic of Turner’s sketchbooks for 1845. There is the possibility of some under-reporting, of course. Could it represent a wreck event we have not yet recorded?

Note the vertical brushstrokes suggesting ribs, but little in the way of horizontal brushstrokes to suggest the sides of the ship.

Responses will be collated and examined in a post in the New Year.

No.52: The Fortschritt

Pouring oil on troubled waters

As the Fortschritt, of and from Szczecin for Dublin, with a general cargo, struck on the Goodwin Sands in 1848, her crew signalled for assistance, but none was forthcoming. As the tide ebbed, the ship, if not exactly “high and dry”, was not in immediate danger, and the crew remained on her overnight, suggesting that she was not being pounded to pieces on the sands.

By the morning’s flood tide, it was a different story, and too dangerous to abandon ship with breakers on the sands which would have overwhelmed the ship’s boat immediately. The crew, however, were resourceful – they had, after all, had all night to think about it. They used what was to hand, and broke into the barrel cargo, but not, as you might think, to use as floats.

Instead they staved them in.

It was not wanton destruction of a cargo not belonging to them. They were after the oil inside, for a purpose: they poured it overboard, which, it was noted, permitted them to cross the Goodwin Sands in safety. They had literally poured oil on troubled waters.

Stories of this kind are rare, but are certainly not unknown, with at least two other wrecks in English waters being recorded as saved by oil cargoes in this fashion, in 1637 and 1922. That this does not occur more frequently is intriguing, given 188 shipwrecks on the database recorded as carrying cargoes of oil, and as far back as Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) the effects of oil on troubled waters were known.

There could be many reasons for this. Some may have been ignorant or incredulous of the effects (although according to Benjamin Franklin, who investigated the matter, herring fishermen and whalers noted the same effect with oily water discharged from on-board processing) (1); it may be that in many cases time was not on their side; in others the risk of fire might have been too great; or seamen knew it only worked in certain circumstances.

Franklin noted the varied success of his experiments in pouring oil on water at a pond on Clapham Common and at sea off Portsmouth, suggesting that the calming effect was most likely on the windward side. So what happened next? The wind was reported easterly at London and ESE at Lowestoft on that day (2) suggesting that the vessel was blown onto the Goodwins from the east. Did the crew then pour the oil on the windward side, where deep water rather than breakers across the sands lay beneath? What did they know that so many other seamen either failed to know or feared to use?

(1) Benjamin Franklin, “Of the Stilling of Waves by Means of Oil, Extracted from sundry Letters between Benjamin Franklin, LLD, FRS, William Brownrigg, MD, FRS, and the Reverend Mr Farish”, Philosphical Transactions, 1774, 64  http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/64/445

(2) Times, 23 December 1848; Standard, 23 December 1848

No.40: Mahratta I

Jute, Jam and Journalism

Following my call in a recent edition for ‘challenges’ I was asked to investigate what wrecks we might have in the jute trade for Dundee. So here’s the answer: Dundee was famous not only for jute, but for jam (well, marmalade!) and journalism, including those august publications, the Beano and the Dandy. So here are some jute ships which got into a jam, and I shall quote some journalism!

We have seven wrecks that were bound from Calcutta to Dundee with a cargo explicitly described as jute, or including jute, exactly half of our jute wrecks, as other consignments were bound for London and Liverpool. Some may have discharged their other cargoes from the East Indies in London, before sailing on to Dundee with the jute, as the Mahratta was intended to do (I shall talk more about her in a minute). Our earliest jute wreck, the clipper James Baines, was being unloaded in the Huskisson Dock in Liverpool in 1858 when she caught fire, a fate echoed by our last known jute wreck, the Falcon, in 1926. There was a certain inevitability about it: her cargo was jute and matches, a combustible combination if ever there was one.

The time span of the wrecks bound for Dundee with jute parallels that of the heyday of the jute trade, from the late 19th century to the early 1920s, by which time the industry was already in decline. The earliest Dundee-bound wreck was in 1884 on the coast of Northumberland, followed by the Bay of Panama, driven ashore in a snowstorm in 1891 along with three other ships nearby.

The most famous was the Mahratta I, which struck the Goodwin Sands in 1909, her fame heightened by the fact that her namesake, the Mahratta II, struck a mile to the north-east in 1939. Mahratta I shows a wide range of human response to shipwreck: she had a number of passengers on board, some of whom were phlegmatic, and some not. One woman refused to leave the ship until she absolutely had to, when the ship was beginning to break up, objecting to the Customs intending to enforce the quarantining of her pet dog even under the circumstances.

Sadly, after going aground on the Goodwins, the chief engineer committed suicide in his cabin, the sole casualty of this wreck, in which a 90-strong crew, the majority lascar sailors from India, and all the passengers, were saved. Likewise all the salvors, about 100 local boatmen pressed into saving as much of the cargo as possible, were themselves saved. As the salvage proceeded, the ship began to break up, and only 289 bales of jute were taken out of the wreck, out of a cargo of 10,000 tons that also included tea, coffee, rice, iron, gum, and rubber. Much of the jute is said to remain on board what is now a well scattered wreck.

One of the engineers provided a rational but vivid description of the ship’s disintegration, as reported in the Times of 12 April 1909:

‘The vessel was in charge of a Trinity pilot when she struck. Efforts were made to get her off under her own steam, but these failed, and tug services were accepted. Within a short time of the stranding water entered the liner and the main shaft was badly bent. The ship strained severely, and there was a continual grinding and snapping as plates sheered and buckled and heavy iron rivets broke away by dozens. The crew were put to work assisting the boatmen in salving the tea and throwing the jute overboard in order to lighten the vessel, but only about 200 tons had been got out when the Mahratta broke in two. Before this we had been working over our knees in water in the engine room. The ship parted with great suddenness at about 8 o’clock. The noise was like a cannon shot, followed by rending and tearing. The liner broke amidships, across the bunkers and the saloon. There was a great rush for the boats immediately by the labourers who had been assisting to jettison the cargo. One man was so scared that he caught hold of me round the body, and I had a difficulty to get clear from him.’

I hope that’s a good answer to the question, and please do keep coming with more!

No.39 Late 18th century wrecks on the Goodwin Sands

The Great Ship-Swallower

I recently decided to run a quick little experiment for a presentation to demonstrate the ebb and flow of wrecks on the Goodwin Sands. I chose the years 1760-1780 since every issue of Lloyd’s List survives for this period, giving me reasonable confidence that every major wreck on the Sands will have been recorded and that all the wrecks therein will have come from the same source.

Undoubtedly, as I have observed before, in the 18th century wreck reports in the press were biased towards major ships with losses of little fishing vessels and other minor craft not usually being recorded unless the circumstances were exceptional. 1767, 1770 and 1778 happily saw no losses on the Sands but at least two or three wrecks a year were usual.

There is a significant spike in 1775 with 9 losses. The weather was, naturally, often to blame: the Cranbrook in 1775 was ‘very deeply laden’ and the Kentish Gazette reported that it was ‘blowing hard at NW’ when she was lost. Sometimes, however, other factors were at play. A little salvage vessel was lost in November while going out to a recent wreck – which would clearly not have been out had it not been for other vessels lost a few days earlier, the Charming Sally, the Elizabeth, and an unknown vessel.

Sometimes, the dynamism of the sands was a notable factor. The Nederlandsche Jahrboeken for 1761 prints the inquiry into the loss of the Meermin Dutch warship on the Sands in some detail. The currents were blamed, and the depths as plumbed by the line ‘appearing to be in the fairway’ were found to be misleading. How many of the wrecks on the Goodwin Sands were lost not to the weather, per se, but changes brought about by previous storms, leading to the alteration of safe channels and encroachment of the sands?

Goodwin Sands Table I

A more sophisticated and long-term historical study might produce some interesting results! Any thoughts and ideas very welcome!

26. Totes Meer

There can only be one wreck of the week this week, as everyone is talking about the Do17 Flying Pencil recovered from the Goodwin Sands on Monday. Rather than commenting directly on the wreck, I would just like to set it into some sort of historical and cultural context.

We know from our records that the Do17 was one of 12 aeroplanes which were shot down or crashed on the shore on the same day, as the Battle of Britain raged: three in the Humber area, the remainder over Kent and Sussex.

As far as I am aware all the aircraft lost on that day came down into the sea: none crashed on land. Three German aircraft, a He111, a Me109 and our Do17, were lost as against 9 British: two Defiants from the same squadron which attacked the Do17, two Hurricanes, two Spitfires and three Hampdens.

Overall Historic England’s records show that some 433 German aircraft were lost during WWII, of which approximately 364 are known to have been shot down in or near the sea. Undoubtedly there is some under-reporting of both terrestrial and maritime losses of aircraft, an issue not confined to the German side. It is therefore impossible to say definitively from the data available that more German aircraft were shot down over the sea than they were over English territory, but this looks largely to be the case.

It seems apt then, to look at Paul Nash’s painting, Totes Meer. It was actually inspired by a dump at Cowley in Oxfordshire of crashed German aircraft seen in a terrestrial context, but reworked by Nash into a ‘dead sea’ of twisted wreckage, waves upon waves of German aircraft crashing upon an English shore.

It is virtually contemporary with our Do17, being painted in 1940-1 as part of Nash’s work as an official war artist. Hindsight colours our view of the painting, since we know the outcome: it is easy to forget that, at the time it was made, the war hung in the balance. Did contemporary viewers see each crashed German aircraft as one less to rain bombs on Britain, or do they represent a force as unending and as unyielding as the sea? Or are both views tangled up in the wreckage?

A very visible wheel, not unlike the still inflated wheel seen on the Do17, lends the mangled heap the appearance of the eye of a beached whale or school of whales, reinforced by exposed wing struts suggesting baleen plates. A beached whale is an animal out of context: so, too, are these aeroplanes, lying in the sea instead of flying through the air.

5. Our Four-Legged Friends

Dogs in Shipwrecks [Post updated August 2020]

Today’s records are in a slightly lighter vein . . . dogs associated with wrecks.

Dogs may not be able to talk, but sometimes they can bear witness to a wreck, as in this case when a dog arrived home at St. Ives, the first indication that anything was amiss with the Charles, lost off Portreath in November 1807, the sole survivor and the sole witness. If only they could talk . . .

For a dog to be a sole survivor of a wreck event was not uncommon. Unsurprisingly Newfoundlands featured quite regularly in such accounts, such as those who swam ashore from the wrecks of the Cameleon transport on the Manacles in 1811, while bringing home soldiers from the Peninsular War, or the Edouard in 1842 off Kimmeridge in Dorset.

Another dog also became the sole survivor of the steamer Prince, wrecked in 1876 off the Tyne.

Thomas Bewick, in his 1790 General History of Quadrupeds, illustrated the Newfoundland not only with one of his celebrated woodcuts but also with an anecdote which seems to relate to the story of the Shields collier brig John, lost in 1789 near Great Yarmouth. From that ship, lost with all hands, a log book came ashore. How it came ashore was evidently part of a tale circulating in Shields and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where Bewick lived and worked and had his books published:

‘ . . . a Newfoundland dog alone escaped to shore, bringing in his mouth the captain’s pocket-book . . .’ According to Bewick, the ‘sagacious animal’ refused to drop his ‘charge, which in all probability was delivered to him by his perishing master’ until he saw a man whom he liked the look of, and he gave him the book before returning to the shore. He then ‘watched with great attention for everything that came from the wrecked vessel, seizing them, and endeavouring to bring them to land.’ (1)

Black and white engraving of a large dog against a rural landscape
‘The drawing for this dog was taken from a very fine one, at Eslington in the county of Northumberland’ Thomas Bewick, A General History of Quadrupeds (1790) Wikimedia Commons: public domain

Though several other records also report the sole survivor as being canine, more happily, there were other accounts where some or all of the members of the crew, human and canine, were rescued. In 1869 a two-year old Newfoundland was rescued from the Highland Chief barque on the Goodwin Sands, having stayed behind on the wreck with 12 humans, waiting for the Deal boatmen to come to them (the five men who trusted to the ship’s boat were never seen again).

The crew of the Reaper of Guernsey were taken off by breeches buoy in 1881, in another rescue off the Tyne, including a somewhat vocal animal: ‘Above the shouts of the men could be distinctly heard the yells of a fine terrier dog’ reported a local newspaper. When the Wandsworth  also struck off the Tyne in 1897 another dog, also rescued by breeches buoy, ‘gave token of being exceedingly thankful for its rescue’.

We wonder if the rescuers were licked to death!

In 1868 a ‘very fine retriever dog’ kept calm in an emergency and doggy-paddled off to save itself from a wreck. It knew where to go, and, ‘no doubt attracted by the brilliant Gull light’ swam up to the Gull lightvessel off the Goodwin Sands after the collision between the Lena and Superior, which sank the latter. The dog had swum for nearly a mile before reaching the lightvessel, and seems to have been made quite a fuss of, being called a ‘sagacious animal’ and ‘noble creature’.

In 1858, a ‘much exhausted’ black Newfoundland was picked up at sea ‘half a league from the pier head’ at Mullion the morning after two ships in harbour were driven out to sea and smashed onto the shore west of Mullion.

Somewhat more famous was Monte, the St. Bernard plucked to safety by the greatest lifeboatman of all time, Cox’n Henry Blogg, from the Monte Nevoso aground on Haisbro’ Sand in 1932. Monte is the star of the RNLI Henry Blogg museum where a photograph of Monte can be seen with his rescuer and owner (shown in the link). A pet dog also made the news when rescued from the wreck of the Terukuni Maru, mined in the Thames in 1939.

Dogs could also be the rescuer rather than the rescued and it is no surprise that a Newfoundland was involved in the following incident in 1815. The breed became famous for its lifesaving capabilities and instincts, a reputation which persists to this day.  The ‘sagacious canine perseverance’ of one Newfoundland who doggedly (sorry . . . ) swam ashore with a lead line resulted in a successful rescue operation from the Durham Packet off Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.

From this we have learnt not only of the part that dogs, especially Newfoundlands, have played in our wreck heritage, but also that the word of choice was ‘sagacious’!

Oil painting of a dog lying on a quayside against an evening sky, with seagulls wheeling in the air to the right.
A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, exhibited 1838, Sir Edwin Landseer, bequeathed by Newman Smith, 1887. Photo © Tate. In this painting another dog stood in for the elusive ‘Bob’, who was said to have survived a shipwreck off the east coast of England, and subsequently famous for his rescues, and an honorary member of the Humane Society. The tale may have grown in the telling but Landseer depicted several Newfoundlands associated with shipwreck and lifesaving, particularly black and white Newfoundlands, which have since become known as the ‘Landseer’ type.


(1) Bewick, T. 1790 A General History of Quadrupeds (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Hodgson, Beilby & Bewick)