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Shipwrecks of Plymouth: Sunk but not forgotten.

Plymouth’s coastline is full of shipwrecks and the history that goes with them. What do you know of the stories they tell?

The SHIPS Project, a local history project based in Plymouth, specialising in maritime and underwater heritage recently successfully raised £33,915 to launch the 1000 Tyres Project after they located many tyres and other junk while searching for shipwrecks in Plymouth Sound. They found the tyres while doing sonar surveys with Sonardyne’s Solstice sonar and working with the Plymouth University’s hydrographic department.

The SHIPS Project is a volunteer non-profit organisation that undertakes research and exploration of maritime historical sites and events, both on land and underwater and exploring their website is a real eyeopener to the vast number of Plymouth ship and aircraft wrecks.

Plymouth’s wonderful maritime heritage stretches from the Bronze age to the present day and includes maritime and shipping, military and aircraft, fishing, industrial and transport, piers, docks and harbours as well as Roman and prehistoric sites.

It is incredible to think of the number of ships and volume of trade that came and went from Sutton Pool, The Cattewater and the Tamar (not to mention the surrounding smaller harbours) over a thousand years of history. Indeed, without the shelter provided by nature and enhanced by the ingenuity of man, Plymouth would not be what it is…and the history of the world could have been somewhat different! After all, ‘Britain’s Ocean City’ is so-called because its ships reached out around the globe to every ocean and sea.

But many old trading vessels foundered, usually in the violence of Sou’ Westerly storms in the days before the ‘great national undertaking’ of the Breakwater in Plymouth Sound was completed to protect the anchorage.

When so much of the world’s history and trade stemmed from these quays and anchorages, it is hardly surprising that the rocks and mud of Plymouth Sound are littered with the remains of these once-proud merchant and warships. 

Here we take a look at some of the events and wrecks, from which of course ‘Deadman’s Bay’ outside Sutton Pool got its grim name…

Roll the years back to the era when the Hamoaze was just a muddy ooze outside the village (which is it’s literal meaning!), the dockyard was not even a dream, and the victualling of the navy was achieved from many small warehouses in and around Sutton Harbour and The Barbican. 

Trading ships (‘cattes’ and ‘cogs’) of one or two hundred tons would make their way up the Cattewater, Laira (a place where ships were ‘laid up’ – ‘Lairage’) and the River Plym to the then-important port at Plympton. Tin was a vital commodity exported from here, hard-won from the granite of Dartmoor. 

Sutton itself was a tidal pool, quite sheltered, protected physically by larger and larger forts, and indeed the ‘Castle Quadrate’ (whose four towers exist today on Plymouth’s Coat of Arms) and – importantly – spiritually by the Church of St Andrew (whose Saltire cross divides the towers on those arms). 

Small ships, often overloaded (‘to the gunnels’ in fact), and not always very ‘ship-shape’, plied their trade along the coast and across the channel, reaching down into Biscay. 

As the years rolled by, the Plym became silted from Dartmoor tin mining and agriculture, trade grew, and Sutton Pool became the dominant port. Ships did not always berth alongside quaysides however – because there weren’t many quaysides yet built. Instead they anchored in the relative shelter of the Cattewater or Drake’s Island, or over toward Cawsand Bay. This was all plain sailing – until a storm blew in. 

Plymouth is a superb natural anchorage but has a great weakness when the blow is from the South to South West; it still suffers today (remember the storm that so badly damaged the Hoe’s waterfront?) and without the Breakwater a storm meant a catastrophe for shipping.  

Even after the mile-long granite and limestone wall against the sea was built, storms could still be a problem. Much wrecking was also caused by the hand of man – in wartime the enemy left many more fine ships on the bottom, as well as altering the city itself forever.

Later, some more well-intentioned wrecking took place, with the deliberate sinking of ships such as the Glen Strathallan off Heybrook Bay and the Scylla in Whitsand, to create artificial reefs and dive training sites.

Meanwhile here are a few tasters of wrecks around our shores. You’ll find many, many more on the SHIPS Project website!

Cattewater Wreck

Much featured in the media, this 500 year old trading vessel probably sank in a storm and settled in the mud – which means great preservation! In the 1970’s it was discovered when dredging brought up some remains. Particularly exciting was the discovery of a dog skeleton found aboard which has undergone DNA tested to seek further information; items recovered indicate links with France and the Netherlands.

Frau Metta Catharina

Also known as the ‘Reindeer Hide Wreck’ she is preserved in mud across the sound a little; a Baltic trader, she had a cargo including reindeer leather which is so well preserved that it is occasionally recovered! 

In December 1786 the Catharina was carrying a cargo of hemp and reindeer hide to Genoa from Saint Petersburg when worsening weather compelled her to seek shelter in Plymouth Sound. Unfortunately, on the night of 10th at about 10pm a south-westerly gale tore the Catharina from her anchorage towards Drakes Island, luckily it was high spring tide and the vessel was thrown over the rocks that lie between Drake’s Island and the Cornish shore. The wreck lay forgotten for nearly 200 years before the chance discovery of a bronze bell on the seabed in the Barnpool by members of Plymouth Sound BSAC in October 1973. 

The Coronation

The Royal Navy suffered one of its worst disasters when Admiral Sir Cloudesly Shovells fleet was caught in a terrible storm and smashed ashore toward Penlee. Sheltering in a gale off Plymouth in September 1691, Coronation’s anchor cables parted and there is a view that she was dismasted, capsized and driven aground. The loss of life was enormous and the event led to the building of the Breakwater. Cannon and small remains exist amongst the rocks. The site is protected by law from unauthorised diving. However, The Coronation Wreck Project are working closely with Historic England to help increase and promote licensed access to the site so that everyone can understand and enjoy this nationally important and protected shipwreck.

Lancaster Bomber

In 1943, a Lancaster Bomber, returning from a raid on the U-boat pens at Lorient crashed into Plymouth Breakwater. All the crew were killed. the remains of the plane is still visible but slowly being covered by the huge blocks that keep the breakwater intact. The late Ron Bendall took a look in a documentary featured on ITV Westcountry.

Nepaul and Glen Strathallan

This P&O liner suffered a navigational error one dark and foggy night and ploughed straight into the rocks by the Shagstone near Bovisand! Tiles and coals are still to be found in the gullies. On a wreck like the Nepaul often the most interesting finds are the small items of everyday use; a fork or spoon, a brass door handle, ink pots, and of course pottery. This site is littered with broken pottery, and if you are very lucky, and have a keen eye, you might be able to pick up a shard with the P&O crest on it.

Almost in the same spot are the sparse remains of an old steam yacht, Glen Strathallan. She was deliberately sunk as a dive site but quickly smashed by winter weather. Trinity House placed a buoy on the wreck site. However a wrangle blew up about who was responsible for paying for the maintenance of the buoy, and in the end Fort Bovisand was ordered to render the wreck safe to navigation. In due course the Glen Strathallan was dispersed and its value as an underwater classroom destroyed. Her steam engine however survives in the Science Museum in London.

James Eagan Layne and HMS Scylla

The only known photograph of the SS James Eagan Layne, at her launch in 1944 [Wally Layne]

While not exactly near Sutton Harbour, these two incredible wrecks are visited by hundreds of divers each year in Whitsand Bay, most of the dive boats operating from the city to which the ‘Layne’ (a WW2 Amercan ‘liberty’ cargo ship was headed when torpedoed) and the Scylla was built in the 60’s in Devonport. The life around these fine ships has to be seen to be believed.

The Liberty ship SS James Eagan Layne is one of the most famous shipwrecks in the UK.

Only 500 metres from the Liberty Ship James Eagen Layne is one of the last warships to be built at Plymouth. The HMS Scylla was laid down at Devonport Dockyard in 1967, and launched in August 1968. After serving the Royal Navy from 1970 to 2003, the Leander-class frigate was set for a future underwater after her decommissioning. Bought by the National Marine Aquarium for £200,000, she was sunk on March 27, 2004, off the coast of Whitsand Bay to form the first artificial reef in Europe. Within three months of being underwater, the wreck was colonised by sea anemone, mussels and scallops, joined after six months by sea urchin and starfish in large numbers. The colonisation has continued to be one of Scylla’s great successes.

‘The Pier’

Finally here is an oddity of a wreck! Most people know that Plymouth once had a fine Victorian pier below the Hoe. It was lost to fire after a WW2 bombing raid, and later demolished below the water line. End of story? Not quite; when it burned, the timber floors fell through, and so all the old amusement machines and their coin contents dropped to the seabed! Many a winter shore-diver has come home with an old penny or two from this silty site when the weather has ruled out anything more interesting!

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If you don’t fancy getting wet, you can explore wrecks and the history of our Port of Plymouth and its relationship with the sea in collections of archaeology, oil paintings, ship models and social history through film, animation and sound at The Box

You can take up scuba diving and see for yourself the incredible variety of the remains and the life that lives around them; Plymouth is a world-class centre for diving and Aquanauts beside Sutton Harbour, Plymouth Diving Centre at Queen Anne’s Battery, or InDeep Dive Centre at Mountbatten are good places to start. 

You can find some excellent books about the wrecks in and around Plymouth Sound, and of these the great authority is of course Pete Mitchell, local historian and diver, who tells the tales in a most entertaining way – look for www.submerged.co.uk publications. The SHIPS Project also has a vast collection of guides and publications. Check out their social media or website for more information.  

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