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The UK's most fascinating shipwrecks
How many shipwrecks are scattered around the shores of the British Isles? Chances are it’s significantly more than you might guess. According to the public body Historic England, more than 37,000 shipwrecks are strewn around our islands, though only a fraction have been seen first-hand by divers. Here are some of the most remarkable wrecks out there right now.
The Lizard Peninsula is a beautiful yet treacherous outcrop of Cornwall which was once known as the “Graveyard of Ships”. Countless vessels have fallen foul of the rugged coastline here, with a set of rocks known as the Manacles being a particularly treacherous ship trap. One of the most famous wrecks here is the SS Mohegan, a luxury steamer that had been en route to New York in October 1898 when it was utterly destroyed by the Manacles.
Exactly why the Mohegan's journey was disastrously cut short is an enduring maritime mystery. There was no conceivable reason for the ship to be sailing so close to the coastline, maintaining her doomed course even as a horrified coastguard fired off warning rockets.
Ripped open by the rocks as the passengers were sitting down to dinner, the Mohegan sank with the loss of 106 lives, including the captain. The wreck is a sought-after location for divers who are drawn by both the poignant backstory and the visible remains of the ship. It includes the shattered hull and looming boilers, which are shrouded with coral and are a haven for conger eels and other sea life.
A few miles off Bolt Head on the south coast of Devon lies the wreck of the SS Maine, a steamship that sits proudly upright on the seabed. Originally called the Sierra Blanca, it was renamed the Maine just before World War One. This was the conflict that brought about the violent end of the ship. The fateful moment came in March 1917. The Maine was sailing from London to Philadelphia while laden with cargo including goatskins, spices, and hundreds of tons of chalk. But, before she was even out of British waters, she was targeted by a German U-boat.
The ensuing torpedo attack smashed the bridge and left a gaping hole in the hull. Fortunately, there were no casualties and the U-boat didn’t fire again. The Maine’s crew members were rescued by a Royal Navy torpedo boat, while the ship itself sank “gracefully upright and on an even keel”.
The wreck is in remarkably good condition, with divers able to explore the boilers, engine, anchors, cave-like holds, and even see the damage done by the German torpedo.
The German High Seas Fleet
The sheltered waters of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands witnessed the greatest loss of ships ever recorded in a single day. The date was 21st June 1919, and the ships belonged to the German High Seas Fleet, which had been interned by Allied forces after the end of World War One. German sailors had languished on the vessels for months in a state of grinding boredom and shame, until that day in June when a German admiral decided to scuttle the fleet rather than let it be seized by the British.
The majority of German sailors were taken to safety as prisoners of war, though some were shot and killed during the scuttling. In total, 52 ships sank beneath the waves, though most would be removed from the sea bed in the decades that followed.
Seven German warships remain, including the vast battleship Kronprinz Wilhelm, whose guns can still be seen by divers, and the cruiser Karlsruhe, with its exposed boiler rooms and toppled control tower. In an unlikely twist, four of the dead warships – including the Kronprinz and the Karlsruhe – were sold on eBay in 2019, though there’s no real risk of the iconic wrecks ever being moved from Scapa Flow.\
The London was launched in Kent in 1656, seven years after the execution of Charles I, when England was still a republic ruled over by Oliver Cromwell. However, this warship of Cromwell’s Commonwealth would only find fame thanks to the restoration of the monarchy, when it became part of the fleet that brought Charles II back from exile in Europe. Charles himself travelled on a different ship during this seminal voyage, though the London did carry his younger brother, the future James II.
The London came to a calamitous end in March 1665, when gunpowder stored onboard accidentally ignited. According to the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, the explosion, which took place in the Thames Estuary, killed around 300 crew members.
It wasn’t until 2005 that the tragic ship was rediscovered in the murky depths off Southend-on-Sea. Though it’s in very fragile condition, the wreckage has yielded remarkable relics of a bygone Britain, including leather shoes, naval instruments, and even a gun carriage, complete with a length of rope attached.
SS Richard Montgomery
The Richard Montgomery is no ordinary, inert wreck. Lurking in the Thames Estuary near Sheerness, the one-time cargo ship is actually one of the most dangerous spots in British waters. That’s because it’s packed with 1,500 tons of unexploded bombs, leading to it being described as “the doomsday wreck”.
The Richard Montgomery was set to join a convoy en route for war-torn Europe when she ran aground in August 1944. Today, the ship’s rusty masts remain visible above the water, ominous markers of the dangers below. A government study carried out in the 1970s found that if the bombs were to detonate – perhaps due to the natural disintegration of the wreck – it would result in one of the biggest ever non-nuclear explosions and send a tsunami through the Thames.
Experts continue to debate just what to do about the troubling wreck. As one member of the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction told the New Scientist in 2022, “Sooner or later they have to do something. The question is will they do it too late.”