Discovering the many shipwrecks lying around the Kent coast
PUBLISHED: 11:50 11 August 2020
The vast amount of shipping around Kent over the centuries has led to the discovery of a dozen listed shipwrecks, with more to come | Words: Jack Watkins - Photos: Historic England
In spring 1878, German warship the SMS Grosser Kurfurst sailed up the English Channel, passing by the coast at Folkestone. One of a new class of armoured frigates, it was on a navy training exercise at a time of peace between the European nations.
The waters were calm, but the Strait of Dover was busy with many vessels and, to avoid a collision, the captain ordered an abrupt turn, only to steer the Kurfurst into the path of another German boat on the same exercise.
This was the older Konig Wilhelm, which had recently served as the German flagship in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. With a huge hole gouged out of the side and water pouring in, the Kurfurst sunk in a matter of minutes, with the loss of 284 lives.
This spring, the Kurfurst was scheduled by Historic England, while a Grade II listing has been given to a memorial to those who died in Folkestone’s Cheriton Road cemetery, where the bodies were interred.
Hefin Meara, Historic England’s maritime archaeologist, hopes the scheduling, which parallels the protection given to an archaeological site on land, will draw attention to the ship’s historical interest.
The Kurfurst was one of the early iron clads, so called because it was built at a time when the major navies were experimenting with the use of iron hulls instead of the traditional wood in the drive to construct faster, more powerful ships. “Recreational divers are free to look at the site, in fact we encourage them to do so, explains Hefin.
“We want people to see it and appreciate it, as long as they don’t take anything, or damage the site in any way.”
The only other scheduled shipwreck lying in Kent waters is the Tankerton, near Whitstable, the only known surviving medieval shipwreck in south east England.
It was discovered in 2017 when a local history and archaeology group, Timescapes, searching for evidence of demolished pillboxes, found mysteriously exposed remains on the mudflats at low tide.
Historic England and Wessex Archaeology joined Timescapes in a survey which uncovered the ship’s well-preserved hull timbers.
Dendrochronological dating revealed the oak planks to be of southern British woodland origin from AD 1531, and further sampling suggested the vessel was a 16th to early 17th century single-masted merchant ship.
Its proximity to the Whitstable former copperas works has led experts to surmise the boat was used to transport copperas, used as a dye fixative and in the manufacture of ink, before being abandoned on the marshes.
Beyond these two scheduled shipwrecks, according to Hefin, 10 other vessels off the Kent coast are listed under the Protected Wrecks Act of 1973.
“They range from the very earliest, a series of artifacts found at Langdon Bay, near Dover, which are thought to be linked to a Middle Bronze Age vessel, which is about as old as you could possibly get, to British warships and Dutch East Indiamen from the great age of sail which went down on the Goodwin Sands, and a German U-boat from the First World War.
“This variety of wreck sites reflects the vast amount of shipping there has been around Kent over the centuries,” he adds.
The U-8 submarine, originally launched in 1911, was the earliest U boat to be sunk in English territorial waters, and the first victim of the defensive barrage nets of the Dover Patrol when it was sunk east of Lydd-on-Sea in 1915.
It was an event notable enough to be marked by the production of postcards, one of which depicted the ‘pirate crew’ appealing for help.
It is not classified as a war grave as there was no loss of life. The U-8 is a rare example of a German submarine predating the First World War. Surveys of the site have shown its conning tower, radio mast and periscope are still intact as it lies on the seabed.
Like many wrecks, the U-8 has been subject to illegal salvage by rogue divers, despite access to protected wrecks requiring a licence. In fact, licensed volunteer divers play a key role in safeguarding wrecks and furthering understanding of the sites, says Hefin.
“Wessex Archaeology is Historic England’s current contractual partner for professional diving services, but alongside them we’ve always had a really strong relationship with licensees and volunteer groups.
“They’re often locally based people with a lot of knowledge of the area and when it’s safe to dive. Obviously, ships sink in places that are dangerous to shipping, so by that very nature it’s dangerous work and it takes a hardy breed of diver to do it.
“We’re always on the lookout for more people who are keen to get involved. For some sites, we’ve just got one or two people who dive regularly and who’d be really pleased to be able to call on other volunteers.”
Of course diving is not an option for everyone, especially given the treacherous nature of many of the Kent coastal areas.
So Historic England has created educational virtual diver trails for both the U-8 and the Rooswijk, a Dutch East Indiaman which foundered on the Goodwin Sands in 1740 en route from Amsterdam to Jakarta with a heavy cargo.
The site was part of a big excavation project in 2016-2017 carried out by Historic England in conjunction with the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency.
Sadly, such is the deteriorating condition of the Rooswijk that it features on the Heritage at Risk Register. As does an old gunship, the Northumberland, which went down at Goodwin Sands in the Great Storm of 1703. It was discovered by local divers in 1979.
Hefin says there are likely to be many more wreck sites out there awaiting discovery. “Our work is ongoing. There are always new sites being brought to our attention and that’s what makes the work so exciting.”
He adds: “I don’t think we’ll ever come a point when we can say ‘we are done’.”
Find out more
The virtual dive trails for the U-8 submarine and the Rooswijk can be found at: historicengland.org.uk/get-involved/visit/protected-wrecks/virtual-dive-trails
A new monograph on the Stirling Castle, a 70-gun ship that sunk on Goodwin Sands in the Great Storm of 1703, has just been released by Bar Publishing: barpublishing.com/british-series
For more information, including about local dive volunteering, or to sign up for Historic England’s Marine & Coastal e-Newsletter, contact firstname.lastname@example.org