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History of shipwrecks in Kent

By Chris Britcher

Over the centuries, hundreds of ships have succumbed to the waves around our coastline - their lifeless remains dotting our shores, rivers and seas.

From the ones we all know about - like the US war time ammunitions ship the SS Richard Montgomery which sits, still laden with explosives off the coast of Sheppey - to the recently discovered Tudor timbers found in the mud close to Whitstable, they all have a story to tell of an era long since gone.

Yet the fact they remain in some form, all these years later, ensure they are never truly forgotten. Their legacy - albeit as an historic relic - survives. We take a look at some of the stories behind some of the most prominent wrecks...

A shipwreck excavation taking place in Tankerton
A shipwreck excavation taking place in Tankerton

HMS Bulwark

At Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham lay the graves of some of the nigh on 750 men killed when a battleship exploded with such force debris is said to have fallen up to four miles away.

The HMS Bulwark had been moored at Kethole Reach on the Medway estuary, taking on coal from Kingsnorth on the Isle of Grain.

At around 7.50am on November 26, 1914, the 15,000-tonne ship, with a crew of just over 750, exploded.

It would claim the lives of 745 – with the handful of survivors all suffering serious injuries.

Debris from the ship was reported to have rained down on nearby Sheerness, while bodies of the victims would continue to wash up on the county’s shores for weeks after the tragedy.

The cause, initially thought to have been sabotage, was actually believed to have been cordite charges stored too close to a boiler room.

The remains of the vessel – and few parts of it remain on the river bed – are today protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act.

A diver makes drawings of the wreck of the Rooswijk off the Goodwin Sands in 2016
A diver makes drawings of the wreck of the Rooswijk off the Goodwin Sands in 2016

The Valkyr

As crowds regularly flock to the picturesque sands of Minnis Bay at Birchington, near Margate, there are two wrecks still visible today for those keeping an eye out at low tide.

The Hero came a cropper to the east of the bay in 1895, while to the west is the Valkyr whose demise did, at least, bring some joy to many locals.

The Swedish schooner had been sailing from Portugal to Sweden laden with a cargo of sardines, cork and salt when, to avoid storms, she took refuge in the Thames Estuary.

But the move was to backfire when gale force winds ripped her anchor chains and she was blown off course, hitting the beach at Margate where her captain and crew were rescued.

With her rudder damaged, she would eventually end up further down the coast in her final resting place.

As the phrase an 'ill win that blows no one any good' testifies, some locals benefited as they reached the wreck and helped themselves to its cargo – many spotted carrying the sardines off home.

U-boat UB122

Lying in the mud in Humble Bee Creek on the Isle of Grain’s marshes, the U-boat pokes out of the water and, several years ago, following a sea surge was almost totally exposed for the first time in almost 100 years.

Masts of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery bomb ship off Sheerness
Masts of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery bomb ship off Sheerness

Believed to be UB122, it was one of more than 100 German submarines seized following the end of the First World War and taken to Medway.

As was the practice, it was being towed to be scrapped and useful parts extracted – possible at a cement works in Halling.

But its tow broke and it found itself up the proverbial creek without the prerequisite paddle.

SS Castor

Now this is a classic shipwreck tale…

Back in 1894 a steamship was making a journey from Algeria to Amsterdam.

Among its cargo were a host of marble statues and relics, dating back to the second century, which had been illegally removed from Izmir, in Turkey.

However, it would never reach its final destination. After colliding with a German ship off Dungeness in thick fog, it sank and today sits on the bottom of the English Channel.

Rare German bomber plane the Dornier 17 is lifted from the seabed off Goodwin Sands
Rare German bomber plane the Dornier 17 is lifted from the seabed off Goodwin Sands

No lives were lost and the wreck was only discovered in the 1970s.

More than 100 years later, in 1997, divers from a Folkestone diving club went down to visit the wreck and discovered some of its remarkable cargo still intact with one of two crates recovered.

After the Canterbury Archaeological Trust helped identify it, the Receiver of the Wreck, which administers the salvage of ships and wrecks, decided the rightful owner of the pieces found was Turkey and the items handed over, the finders pocketing a healthy reward for their efforts.

But what of that second crate?

A foreign-registered boat was seen in the area in 1999, and when divers revisited the wreck they found the remains of a crate shattered on the sea bed.

It seems unlikely we’ll ever know quite what it contained or what became of it.

Tudor ship

Never think that because it’s not visible today, the most remarkable finds will not one day emerge.

AGEN wrecked on the Goodwin Sands in 1952
AGEN wrecked on the Goodwin Sands in 1952

First spotted as an ‘oval feature’ in 1996 on inter-tidal mudflats on Tankerton beach, close to Whitstable, by local archaeology group Timescapes, it was only in April 2017 the timbers of what is now believed to be a 16th or early 17th century merchant ship were discovered.

Remarkably, the timbers were preserved by the London clay in which it settled and the site has now been given special protection status by Historic England.

It is thought to be the only known surviving medieval shipwreck in the South East.

HMHS Anglia

The steamship started life ferrying passengers between Wales and Ireland.

But when the First World War broke out it, along with so many other vessels, were requisitioned as part of the war effort.

It became a hospital ship, taking wounded soldiers from France back to England.

But as she sailed from Calais on November 17, 1915, carrying a load of nearly 400 injured troops, she struck a German mine just outside Folkestone harbour.

Despite a desperate rescue effort from nearby crafts, 134 people died as she sank within just 15 minutes.

More than 100 years later, in 2017, the wreck was declared an official war grave.

SS Richard Montgomery

If you’ve lived in Kent for any period of time, the chances are you’ve heard about the SS Richard Montgomery.

And lots of scare stories too. So what are the good old facts of the matter?

The US munitions ship sank in August 1944, after becoming stranded on a sandbank about a mile off Sheerness.

At the time it was carrying a cargo of explosives.

Remains of U-boat abandoned on the Kentish marshes, at Humble Bee Creek, Stoke Saltings, after being stripped and partially broken up in 1921 following surrender. Picture: English Heritage
Remains of U-boat abandoned on the Kentish marshes, at Humble Bee Creek, Stoke Saltings, after being stripped and partially broken up in 1921 following surrender. Picture: English Heritage

Despite a salvage operation in the days that followed, the ship broke apart and so it has remained, with around 1,400 tonnes of explosives still on board.

As the years past, so the ship’s infrastructure has weakened and while often discussed, the general view is that it is safe where it is and salvage missions would be both hugely expensive and highly dangerous.

Much has been made of the size of the blast were it to detonate, but with much of the munitions buried increasingly deeply in sand, it is thought that it would soften much of any explosion.

The worst case scenario is of everything going up in one almighty blast sparking a tsunami and damaging buildings along the Kent coast.

Yet it remains a site which needs careful monitoring.

The ship’s masts are still visible as a lasting reminder of its presence and a warning to any vessel veering too close.

And there is an 800-metre exclusion zone which is monitored around the clock.

Goodwin Sands

Five years ago, the almost intact remains of a German fighter plane, the Dornier 17, was gently lifted from the sandbank it crashed into during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

And it was far from the only wreck to have made the Goodwin Sands its final resting place.

The 10-mile long sandbank lies six miles of the Deal coast and is said to have claimed 2,000 vessels – as well as wartime aircraft – over the centuries, such was its ability to catch out those unaware of its low-water presence.

While annual cricket matches still take place on the ever shifting sands, there continue to be remarkable finds.

The summer of 2017 saw extensive work take place on Dutch ship the Rooswijk.

It had been on its way to the East Indies with valuable cargo including silver ingots and coinage when it sank on the sandbank on January 8, 1740.

The HMS Stirling Castle is frequently revealed and then covered again by the ever moving sands.

Built in Chatham, it sank in the great storm of 1703, but the wreck only discovered in 1979, with artefacts recovered on show at museums in Ramsgate and Deal.

Other remains include that of the South Goodwin Lightship.

Effectively a floating lighthouse, a force 12 storm saw its anchors ripped and ruined in 1954, and it floated until it hit the sands in horrendous conditions.

One crew members was rescued by helicopter, but the other seven crew died.

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