Where are East Anglia's best (and least) known shipwrecks?
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
With a history as rich and fascinating as East Anglia’s, it’s no surprise that a number of shipwrecks can be traced back to our coasts.
And over the years, a handful of sunken ships from years gone by have been discovered – with many still peacefully resting on the seafloor.
And one man who knows his shipwrecks is Stuart Bacon.
Now retired, Stuart spent 40 years working as a marine biologist in Suffolk, finding wrecks and helping bring some of them to light.
The former marine biologist was based at Suffolk Underwater Studies for a number of years, and was instrumental in helping discover a number of wrecks.
The Suffolk Underwater Studies unit was key in covering erosion, deposition, and archeological discoveries off our coasts, and kept a vast record of its findings throughout the years. It also housed a small museum which showcased its discoveries.
And while the museum and unit are now defunct following Stuart’s retirement, his memories will always remain.
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But what were some of his most memorable finds?
“I worked on the medieval Dunwich site for about 20 years, and during that time I found clues on an area opposite the coastguard cottage in Minsmere. We did a magnetic survey of the area where we picked up some readings off the coast, and in 1994 we decided to dive on the site.”
Stuart chartered a dive support vessel with four divers before heading down into the murky depths of the North Sea.
“Bearing in mind it’s completely black and you can’t see. But on the second day I went down and my hands felt what I thought was a pipe – but it was actually a 16th century cannon.”
The bronze cannon – which measured around eight foot long – is believed to have belonged to a warship that was part of the Spanish Armada’s failed invasion in 1588. It now lives in Dunwich Museum.
“We surveyed the site which was incredibly difficult, and all of the divers had to work by touch and sound. Visibility is so poor, you can’t even use lanterns,” adds Stuart.
“There are other guns down there, and it’s now a protected site – hopefully more of the materials will be lifted in due course in the coming years.”
Unfortunately just a few years ago, the above site was targeted by thieves who stole one of its bronze guns in 2015.
Speaking to the East Anglian Daily Times in 2016, Stuart said: “The ship’s guns should really be brought ashore so they can be cared for – not left to degrade in the sea and at risk of being stolen. I asked eight or ten times for an excavation license and was refused.”
Following this, the shipwreck site – which is marked on sea charts – was later added to Historic England’s Heritage At Risk Register in 2016.
Other projects Stuart has worked on include looking for the HMS Royal James, a 102-gun ship that launched in March 1671. The ship fought in 1672’s Battle of Solebay before it sadly met its demise off the Suffolk coast.
“We’ve spent a great deal of money looking for the Royal James. It had over 100 guns onboard but in spite of doing lots of surveys and searches, we haven’t found it yet – but it’s still out there somewhere.”
According to documents from Suffolk Heritage Explorer, in 1993 fishermen snagged nets and brought up cannon balls entangled in them. And in 2008, a fisherman pulled up a ceramic artefact which is thought to have come from the ship.
And in more recent years, a number of wrecks have since been made public elsewhere in Suffolk, including wooden ship remains that washed ashore in Thorpeness earlier this year.
While the origins of this boat fragment are unknown, according to Suffolk Heritage Explorer, it potentially dates back to the post-Medieval period, so anywhere between 1540 and 1900. However, Stuart Bacon suggests it could be around 150 years old.
The construction of the recovered piece also suggests it was either a collier ship or warship due to curve of the wood, and the trenails in the wood which were used in ship construction during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Shortly after this, a similar large wooden ship fragment showed up on the beach in Covehithe just near Beccles.
In Norfolk there are a number of wrecks off the coast too.
Close to the village of Cley is the SS Vera is. Situated roughly 120 metres from shore, she was built at the end of the 19th century for T Marwood and Sons. However, on November 15, 1914, while en route with a coal cargo from Tyne to Livorno, the boat collided with the minesweeper HMS Parthian and was sadly beached.
Due to shallowness of the water where it currently rests, it is a popular spot for divers when the conditions are right. Trained divers can be sure to see the ship’s engines, a boiler and a mass of collapsed ribs and plates.
Another ship beached not too far off the Norfolk coast is the SS Rosalie, which met its fate in 1915 after it was struck by a torpedo from a German submarine just off the shores of Weybourne.
Speaking to the Eastern Daily Press in 2019, local scuba diver Chris Wake said the SS Rosalie is one of the most popular dive sites that can be reached by wading into the water directly from the shore.
At low tide, its mast still pokes out of the water, and it has since been colonised with a variety of sealife.
A much older ship that can similarly be found off the coast of Norfolk is The New Leeds – a wooden sailing ship that sank in February 1852 just north of Wells-next-the-Sea.
The ship was on a voyage to London from Sunderland when a fire broke out on board. Unfortunately burning down, it sank and now rests at a depth of 14 metres. Luckily however, a Dutch vessel, the Lydia, managed to rescue the crew.
Divers who head out to the ship’s site will be able to see bits of burned wood, glass, bottles, salt cellars, and more.
Another fascinating wreck off the of the coast of north Norfolk is HMS Umpire, a Royal Navy U-Class submarine which sadly sank just nine days after it was commissioned.
The submarine was on its way to join a flotilla when it suffered engine failure before it was shortly struck by an armed escort trawler.
Twenty-two of the crew onboard died – but 16 survived due in part to the quick-thinking and heroic actions of a handful of crew, including one who locked himself in a flooding torpedo room. While sealing his own fate, his actions gave others the chance to escape to safety.
The sub’s remains are around 22km north of Blakeney, and sit at about 18m below sea level. The submarine lies on its starboard side, with its port side facing upwards, and in good visibility, it is another popular site for divers.
The HMS Umpire is also protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.
Perhaps one of the most famous wrecks off the Norfolk coast is HMS Invincible, a Royal Navy ship which first launched in 1765. The ship fought in a number of battles over the years, including the battles of Cape St Vincent in 1780, the Battles of the Chesapeake in 1781, and was present at the Glorious First of June in 1794.
Under the flag of Rear-Admiral Thomas Totty, it sailed out of Great Yarmouth in 1801, with the intention of joining the Admiral Sir Hyde Parker's Baltic Fleet.
Unfortunately, strong winds forced the ship off course before it got stuck in Hammond Knoll near Haisborough Sands – a 10-mile long sandbank that lies parallel to the northeast coast of Norfolk.
The crew worked tirelessly throughout the night to save it from sinking – but their efforts were futile as it eventually met its end the following day.
Around 400 men perished, and their bodies were placed in a mass grave once they washed ashore. A memorial stone was later erected in 1998 in the village's St. Mary's church, honouring those who sadly lost their lives on that fateful night.