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What is Deadmans Island, near Queenborough, Sheppey, and can I visit?

It is not an unusual occurrence to find human remains washing up on part of the Kent coast.

Deadmans Island, near Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey, is a place neglected by man where hundreds are buried beneath (for the most part) its boggy marshland.

A jaw with teeth still visible hundreds of years after the remains were buried off Deadmans Island, near Queenborough, Sheppey. Picture: BBC
A jaw with teeth still visible hundreds of years after the remains were buried off Deadmans Island, near Queenborough, Sheppey. Picture: BBC

Centuries ago people were laid to rest there after dying on large boats, known as hulks, where they were housed and punished for what the state deemed were their misdeeds.

Daf Charman has studied the place and has recently penned a book on the subject.

She believes the burials could have taken place anywhere between the 1600s and the end of the 1800s.

"Convicts came from London, Newcastle, everywhere around the country and they were kept on hulks in Sheerness until merchant ships big enough arrived to take them to places like Tasmania," she said.

"I had a friend who used to live there and she said a section of their museum is dedicated to Sheerness and the people who travelled from here.

Deadmans Island is near Queenborough, off the coast of Sheppey
Deadmans Island is near Queenborough, off the coast of Sheppey

"We don't really know what crimes they committed but I don't think they were major crimes.

"It was a very, very cruel society. There are reports of children trying their best to break their arms to get transferred to a hospital ship where there wasn't the same level of bullying and cruelty.

"It wasn't pleasant and there were all sorts of different deaths happening onboard.

"Life on the hulks was cruel with one in four people dying and there could have been anywhere between 400 to 600 people on each one."

One of the ships housing convicts was HMS Bellerophon.

One of the hulks that used to bury its dead at Deadmans Island, off Queenborough, Sheppey. Picture: National Maritime Museum
One of the hulks that used to bury its dead at Deadmans Island, off Queenborough, Sheppey. Picture: National Maritime Museum

Launched in 1786, it was used as a 74-gun ship in the Royal Navy until it was taken to Sheerness Dockyard in December 1815 and fitted out as a prison ship, which also housed child criminals.

The work took nine months and is thought to have cost about £12,000, the equivalent of more than £1 million in today's money.

A prison hulk was a current or former seagoing vessel modified to become a place of detention for convicts, prisoners of war or civilian internees.

"Sheerness was good at recycling old warships," added Mrs Charman.

"The masts were removed along with everything else apart from the hulk of the ship which was used to house the convicts and prisoners of war.

"It was cheaper to take another country's boat it had seized in a war and get its crew to sail it back to our shore."

But life onboard the ships was tough and illness spread quickly, so anyone who died was given a burial at Deadmans Island.

Regular merchant and naval ships also had to be quarantined during those times, meaning civilians may also have been buried at the site.

There is even concern those with the plague could have been laid to rest there following outbreaks on the ships.

"Working ships were put into quarantine because travelling by sea was the only way to get to this country, therefore if ships from other countries wanted to get here they had to go through 40 days in quarantine first," she added.

Hulk ships would have been stationed near Sheerness with convicts on board. Picture: National Maritime Museum
Hulk ships would have been stationed near Sheerness with convicts on board. Picture: National Maritime Museum

"It was a way of what we would call nowadays self-isolating and making sure they weren't bringing any diseases here.

"This was done off the coast of Sheppey so, again, if anyone died on quarantined ships they were buried on Deadmans Island.

"They were put in among the graves of the prisoners of war and the adult and child convicts."

Ships carrying prisoners of war from around the world also arrived back in Kent. Some of those onboard never went home.

Talking about the island as it appears now, Mrs Charman explained how it has been left abandoned.

Bones are scattered along the landscape. Picture: BBC
Bones are scattered along the landscape. Picture: BBC

"Deadmans Island is a forbidden island. You're not allowed on it because it's owned by Natural England and you have to have special permission from them in order to visit it," she said.

"I did get permission and went there with the BBC. It's a place of scientific interest and a bird reserve.

"The area around it, where bodies were buried, has eroded over time and has been taking the land away exposing coffins and the bones within them.

"The bodies are of people who would have been on the hulks which used to go from Sheerness to Rochester. If they died on the hulks in Sheerness they would be buried on Deadmans Island."

It is unknown exactly how many people were buried there, as there have never been any official documents found.

"There are no marked graves and no records of when people were buried there," said Mrs Charman.

"I'm 100% sure burials were still happening there in 1845 having started perhaps a couple of hundred years earlier from 1600.

"The coffins we have found are not marked with personal information either.

"It seems odd but it's certainly a mystery as to why there are no records of these people.

"Sheerness was used as a quarantine station for all ships, not just hulks, coming into the country.

"It's certainly a mystery... why there are no records of these people..."

"We might also see deaths resulting from the plague.

"We've found whole coffins and before Natural England took it over we were allowed to go over there and many times we saw coffins which had been exposed by erosion.

"Nearer to the shore they had children's coffins all of them have been given the correct traditional crest and design of the day so they were buried correctly."

Despite fears about the exposure of remains, she added things looked like they were done properly: "They were well-made coffins but sometimes you could see evidence of two lots of bodies.

"It's a historical site, it's a very sad site but it's part of our history.

"There's no memorial to the remains buried on Deadmans Island, no tribute, absolutely nothing.

"Although they may not have a memorial, it has only been disturbed by nature. I'd say leave it alone and do nothing.

"Those at Deadmans Island have got the desolate beauty of a deserted island, the sound of water lapping and the call of birds covered with a carpet of samphire and sea lavender."

Remains discovered by Daf Charman on one of her last visits to Deadmans Island. Picture: Daf Charman
Remains discovered by Daf Charman on one of her last visits to Deadmans Island. Picture: Daf Charman

Can I visit Deadmans Island?

Deadmans Island is now owned by Natural England and is part of a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

That means the area is off limits to everyone unless special permission is granted by the public authority.

Officially, the site belongs to the wider area of Medway Estuary and Marshes.

Scientists are interested in the area because species of wetland birds often visit.

According to Natural England's website, the reason for the SSSI being in place includes its value for nature conservation.

A report on the site said: "The Medway Estuary and Marshes form the largest area of intertidal habitats which have been identified as of value for nature conservation.

"The area holds internationally important populations of wintering and passage birds and is also of importance for its breeding birds."

Plant species, described as "an outstanding assemblage" is also known to be there.

Rising tides and continual coastal erosion is leading to the exposure of human remains at Deadmans Island. Picture: BBC
Rising tides and continual coastal erosion is leading to the exposure of human remains at Deadmans Island. Picture: BBC

Is it popular with people?

Creators have braved the journey over to the island and posted the footage to YouTube.

One channel, Hovercraft History Hunters, posted footage of a visit to Deadmans Island in June 2019 by hovercraft, attracting almost 480,000 views.

Simon Bourne, who helps runs the channel, said in the video's description: "Forget the rest, this is the best video of Deadmans Island and is gruesome history you will ever see.

"We accessed it by hovercraft and therefore landed on the mud, therefore not stepping on to the island itself."

Exploring with Fighters, a channel with 255,000 subscribers, also made the trip over to the site.

That video brought in 52,604 views after it was posted in July 2018.

Simon agreed to speak to KentOnline about his thoughts on the area.

Simon Bourne on Deadmans Island in his video. Picture: Simon Bourne
Simon Bourne on Deadmans Island in his video. Picture: Simon Bourne

How did you hear about Deadmans Island?

"Local folklore, lots of books and articles have been written about the Victorian prison hulks down the years, and it's the history that attracts us."

Why did you decide to visit?

"We have the means to search the mud around the island in our hovercraft, we saw some poor attempts to document the erosion, because most people can only visit at high-tide.

"We wanted to see if we could add to our knowledge first hand, and document the bones in situ."

What exactly did you find?

"Lots of human bones, ribs, vertebrae, leg and arms bones and, oddly, jaw bones complete with teeth. I say oddly because we didn't find any top halves of the skulls."

Has the experience stayed with you?

"Yes, I came away thinking about the suffering these people were subjected to before they died.

"Criminals back in the 19th century were sent there, sometimes for petty crimes such as stealing a loaf of bread.

"The lucky ones got transported to Australia and America, the unfortunate ones were subjected to appalling conditions and when a disease struck it would wipe out large numbers of people."

What was the most striking thing about being there?

"Well we aren't used to seeing that many human bones - who is?

"So when we found skulls, some quite small, possibly from juveniles, then that was quite upsetting.

"Young and old people were sent to the prison hulks, and most didn't make it out again."

What was the response like from people who watched the video?

"Lots of mixed reaction. Most were saddened the remains were being eroded and nothing was being done about it.

"So it's rare to find as many as we did. People thought we were respectful and we left everything we found there and only picked bones up to document them, then put them back as we found them."

What was so fascinating about the site?

"The erosion is quite bad, large chunks of land have disappeared in just 50 years, so we try and visit lots of sites on our hovercraft to record and save what we can - this was on our list for obvious reasons."

Why do you think people are so interested about Deadmans Island?

"Morbid curiosity, the name evokes ghost stories and spirits and people enjoy being freaked out.

"There are all sorts of folklore stories, including a wild animal with red eyes that eats brains of the dead but in the real world people have a morbid fascination with death, which is why there are so many crime thrillers on TV."

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