In the spring of 1965 the Royal Navy commissioned a diving expedition to carry out some wreck survey around the Isles of Scilly, the main purpose of which was to try to locate and report on a number of shipwrecks that we had researched and considered would be of interest.
The expedition was very well organised and provisioned, with the divers living comfortably aboard a 90-foot naval vessel similar to a North Sea Fishing boat which was called by the Navy an MFV, for Motor Fishing Vessel. We also had a 42-foot motor launch to use as a diving tender and two small rowing boats for exploring the various creeks and for landing on the islands. The MFV lacked an air compressor to recharge our cylinders but we did have four huge storage cylinders, lashed down on the fore-deck, which we had arranged to have replaced, as needed, by helicopter from the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose, which was not so very far away, in Cornwall.
Although we had done some research into our dive location, in those days before computers and the internet, any historical maritime information was very hard to come by and seemed to be jealously guarded by the few people who had access to it. However, we chose our first dive site because in our limited research we had discovered a rock that had reputedly claimed two ships.
Smith Sound is a deep water channel between the Island of St. Agnes and the smaller, Annet Island with, right in the centre of the fairway, just below the surface, the Lethegus Rock. Our research had told us that on 14 August 1909, the steam ship Plympton entered Smith Sound in dense fog, struck the rock and became firmly lodged. The sea was calm and the ship did not appear to be in grave danger. There was a hole in the starboard bow that the rock was plugging, and the little water that was entering the ship was being adequately dealt with by the pumps, so local boats from St. Agnes came out to unload the cargo of maize in sacks in the hope of lightening the bow. However, during the night as the tide dropped the Plympton suddenly lurched and slipped off the Lethegus Rock, then quite quickly rolled over on her back and sank, throwing five local men into the sea and drowning two more who were trapped in the after hold.
Eleven years later, and half way around the world in Chile, the German steam ship Hathor started her engines for the first time since 1914, due to having been interned in neutral Chili at the outbreak of the First World War. She now commenced the journey back to her home port, but when she reached the Azores her neglected engines broke down and the Captain was obliged to request a tow. Although a seagoing tug got her in tow and on the way home again, on the 2 December 1920 she was struck by a strong southerly gale and the tow parted just south of the Scillies, allowing her to be blown into Smith Sound where the Captain ordered both anchors dropped. For a while the anchors held but then began to drag, prompting the crew to lower both the lifeboats, with 14 crewmen aboard, leaving the Captain and three others still on board. The Hathor, meanwhile, slowly but inexorably, converged on the Lethegus Rock. When the anchors had started to drag the Captain had ordered distress rockets fired which were eventually seen and responded to by the St. Mary’s Royal National Lifeboats Institute’s lifeboat Elsie, which came out and with great difficulty manoeuvred under the Hathor’s stern to allow the Captain and three other crewmen to jump down into her. The Elsie then left the scene to get the injured men to medical attention, so for that reason no one actually witnessed the Hathor sink, but it was always assumed that she inevitably collided with and foundered, somewhere in the vicinity of the Lethegus Rock.
Although I knew the details of these two wrecks I wasn’t quite prepared for the scene that developed, as I dropped down the sheer face of the Lethegus Rock on my first dive in the crystal clear water. The two ships lay side by side, touching at the bow, with the mast of the Hathor lying across the Plympton in a seemingly friendly embrace. The bridge and upper works of both vessels had long ago collapsed leaving a tangle of twisted and inter-woven metal strewn over both ships and the sea floor from 80 feet on down to 120 feet.
While my diving companion sketched the lay-out of both wrecks and their orientation to the Lethegus Rock, I fossicked amongst the debris to try to locate anything that would tell us which was which ship. Eventually I found a variety of Engine plates and other stuff with German writing, which positively identified both ships, and as our dive time was limited we were soon back on deck examining our treasure trove of marine artefacts.
While we were sitting on the MFVs deck getting warm in the late morning sun, a local crab fisherman came along side, so we invited him to come aboard and share our lunch of hot soup and bread and cheese. Local fishermen are an excellent source of information for divers because they have an uncanny ability to visualize and describe the contours of the sea floor, including any snags or wrecks and this old sea dog was only too pleased to talk about the wrecks beneath our keel.
What he knew about the Hathor was very much the same as us but when he started talking about the Plympton, he seemed to know a lot more than we knew. He claimed that his Father had been one of the men employed to get the bags of maize out of the holds and was on board when the Plympton gave its final lurch off the rock and sank. When the ship slipped beneath the surface, five men were obliged to swim for their lives but two men who were working deep in the after hold were thought to have been trapped by falling sacks of maize and went down with the ship. The search for the two missing men went on all night but by first light only one body had been recovered.
At this point the old fisherman’s story began to stray into the realms of fantasy and the supernatural, when he began to explain that on the afternoon of the wreck of the Plympton, a young Saint Agnes girl had been on the cliff top known as the Great Wingletang, picking wild flowers and looking out in the direction of the sounds coming from the men working the cargo out of the Plympton, when all of a sudden a strange, large steamship came silently in through the fog and almost ran into the cliff. She then heard the very distinct sound of engine room telegraphs jingling, then the ship stopped and went astern, being slowly enveloped once more in the fog. The girl now thoroughly spooked, by the sudden appearance then disappearance of the ghostly apparition, quickly ran home and told her parents, but was not believed. However, next morning when the body that had been recovered was taken into the lighthouse for identification, her story took on a completely different significance.
The old fisherman ended his story right there leaving us divers intrigued and wanting more. The diving officer offered the old boy some more lunch and a handsome tot of navy rum to wash it down. Once our lunch guest had finished eating and had sunk another large rum, we persuaded him to continue his yarn where he had left off in the Saint Agnes lighthouse with the drowned body that had been recovered from the sea after the Plympton foundered, waiting to be identified.
The two men who had been lost were well known local men, one was Charlie Hicks the son of the Saint Agnes Pilot and the other was Charlie Mumford from Saint Mary’s, but the body in the lighthouse turned out to be a complete stranger and the Captain of the Plympton assured them that all his crew and their only passenger were accounted for. The young Saint Agnes girl was questioned again and, according to the fisherman’s yarn it was somehow determined that on that night a Greek steamship, a collier, had been lost in fog and had struck the Great Wingletang Ledges, before being swallowed up by the ever hungry sea, only a mile from location that the Plympton was lost. The local legend of a ghost ship had begun to take on a shape.
The fisherman made indications that he intended to finish the story right there but the diving officer filled his glass and urged him to tell us more. The unaccustomed rum was obviously agreeing with him because his eyes were watering and he was smiling a great deal. Then, he pointed across the water to a certain spot and warned us not to dive there, because that was where the Greek ghost ship lay wrecked and if we did dive there we would surely drown or be sucked down in the many whirlpools that occur in that area. He further added that because of the presence of the ghost wreck no Saint Agnes fishermen ever shot crab or lobster pots there.
With that rather sinister and alarming warning he set off to wend his rather wobbly course home, leaving us to contemplate and discuss what he had told us and there were really three schools of thought on that. The first was that the old fisherman was retelling a confused version of the historic events of that night and just adding a Greek ghost wreck, in order to frighten us away from his fishing area. The second was that there was in fact another quite normal wreck there, that we just didn’t know the existence of yet, but that he wanted us to keep away from, for some reason to do with his crab fishing. The last school of thought was that the old boy was just a bit crazy, but a very good story teller and enjoyed giving the young divers something to think about, while enjoying their hospitality and drinking their rum.
However, we decided that whatever the true story, the area where the ghost wreck was reputed to lie, would be well worth a look and I like to think that the fisherman’s veiled threat that we would be sucked down and drowned in the many whirlpools, was not so much a warning as a challenge to well trained and experienced naval divers. So first dive that afternoon was on the Great Wingletang Ledges.
We knew from the chart that there were very strong currents there about and we had observed some quite spectacular whirlpools formed by the currents that would be extremely dangerous for a surface swimmer or even a small boat, but, we were quite confident that our underwater training and experience would see us through.
We decided to dive in pairs and my partner and I decided, as it was the first whirlpool we’d ever encountered, we would take the bull by the horns, jump in at the edge of a large whirlpool and ride it to the bottom, just for the hell of it. We plunged in and were quickly sucked down and around into the swirling green world beneath the surface. We were carried around in a rapid spiral, but I was alarmed to see that the current was taking us down into a huge sinkhole on the rocky sea floor. The extremely strong current dragged us down into this sinkhole or vertical sea cave, so as I entered I grabbed on to the rocky edge and noticed that my partner did the same. We hung there for a moment against the considerable downwards pressure of the water and as I looked down I saw that the sinkhole went on down a further 20 feet beneath the sea floor and then turned at right angles before disappearing somewhere out of sight.
The rather alarming aspect of our predicament was brought home to me by my exhausted air bubbles that were going down into the sinkhole then disappearing underground. It became obvious that the tidal current had found a cave to rush through and was obviously coming out somewhere else. What occupied my mind was, if I got sucked down any further was there a hole somewhere large enough for me to get out. It dawned on me that it was best not to put that question to the test, so I looked across at my dive companion to see what he was doing. He indicated he was going to try making a supreme effort to swim out, but I considered the current was too strong and shook my head. Undeterred he let go of the rock and swam frantically, pointing upwards, but actually sinking slowly downwards, so he grabbed on to the rocks again. I made a face at him trying to indicate ‘I told you so’ then started to climb the rock face, hand over hand like a mountaineer and my companion followed me.
Eventually, after a super human effort, we extricated ourselves from the whirlpool sinkhole and swam downstream, to see if there was an exit cave, there wasn’t, just a load of cracks in the solid rock with bubbles still coming out. A thought did cross my mind that the old fisherman’s warning hadn’t been quite so silly as I’d thought and I had been just a bit over confident in my own experience and training, after all, the Royal Navy’s Diving Course in those days, didn’t teach ‘extracting your stupid self from out-of-control whirlpools, because you thought you were superaquaman’.
We moved on and almost at once discovered signs of a wreck, pieces of iron and lengths of lead pipes, but because of our protracted struggle in the sinkhole we had used up much of our air supply so had to move up the incline of the sea bed to a shallower depth to decompress and in doing so I found a really nice soup plate and a couple of spoons, a sure sign of a wreck. Once all the divers were back on board and compared notes it was obvious that we had all seen signs of a wreck from 50 feet on down to 150 feet but we had not yet found the main part of the ship. That dive had proved there was an, as yet, unidentified wreck, where the fisherman said there was and for some reason Saint Agnes fishermen did not shoot pots on the Wingletang Ledges, but my humble assessment was that it was not because of some supernatural ghost wreck, but because of the strong tides and the pesky whirlpools.
On inspection my soup-plate bore the crest of the Greenock Steamship Company and had been manufactured for McSymon and Potter of Glasgow, by E F Bodley and Son of Longport Staffordshire, which, to misquote William Shakespeare, ‘All sounded very non Greek to me’ and got us no closer to the ghost wreck. However we hoped to extract more information from the crab fisherman, when as we had arranged, we would next meet him, that very evening, in the Mermaid pub in Saint Marys.
In the convivial surroundings of the Mermaid, the old fisherman was backed up by number of his mates, one of whom was reputed to be 92 years old and claimed to have been one of the men salvaging, or as they say locally ‘wrecking’, on the Plympton when she sank. The group also let us know that if they were going to give us information about shipwrecks, before they could speak their vocal chords would need considerable lubrication with strong drink. It seemed the fishermen held a popular misconception that naval divers are paid vast amounts of money for the work they do and that if we wanted to know more about the ghost wreck, then we would have to start spending that fabled wealth on their beer.
The evening was a great success, even if it did cost the navy heaps, however if we had ever imagined that a few pints of beer with whiskey chasers would get the fishermen drunk enough to spill the beans about the ghost wreck, we were sadly mistaken. The little bit we did learn was somewhat confused next morning by monumental hang-overs.
Generally, all the fishermen had agreed that the Greek ghost ship sank on the Great Wingletang Ledges on the same night as the Plympton had foundered, but the story was further complicated when they added that the wreckage from the ghost ship had been seen, but mistakenly identified as coming from the Lady Charlotte, which had also, because of the fog, collided with a rock and sunk not far away at Porth Hellick, Saint Mary’s, on the very same night. This was too much for us, three major shipwrecks, all on the same night seemed too great a coincident, even for the wreck magnet islands of the Isles of Scilly.
The latest information made us so interested in the ghost wreck that we became determined to find her and try to discover the truth behind the mystery and so next morning, despite hang-overs, we headed for the Great Wingletang and on our very first dive, slightly east of our last position, we found her. She was a large steel ship, in a good state of presentation, at a depth of 150 feet, so we did a careful survey and collected up artefacts to try to establish her identify. On subsequent dives we recovered, using lifting bags, the engine room telegraph pedestal and from the stern, a 40 millimetre deck gun and a number of live rounds of ammunition. This type of gun and its position right at the stern, was reminiscent of guns fitted to merchant ships during both wars to deter following submarines. It should have alerted us right there, that there was something chronologically wrong with the old fisherman’s story, but for the moment we couldn’t see the wood for the trees.
The fact that none of us could see for the moment was that the Plympton certainly had sunk on the 14 August 1909, because we had taken the time to identify the date on the headstone of Charlie Hicks, the man who had drowned and who’s body had later been recovered and was buried in Saint Mary’s churchyard, and that corresponded exactly. So, if, as the ‘drink like fish’ fishermen asserted, the Greek ghost ship sank on the same night, why was she armed with a 40mm stern chaser gun? In 1909 there was no need to be armed against belligerent submarines, because there weren’t any, and there was no world war. The practice of fitting stern chaser guns didn’t start until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The plot thickened.
On our last few dives on the ghost wreck, one of our senior divers, Chief Petty Officer Richard Larn, managed to penetrate into the bridge superstructure and recover the ship’s sextant and the Cherub log line instrument, still in its original box. Richard turned out to be not only a good diver but also a first class historical detective, because by tracing the log line serial number back to its maker, he established beyond doubt that the Log was originally sold to the Steam Ship Gulf of Florida during her fitting out and also that this ship later had a name change.
The SS Gulf of Florida had had an eventful career, having been built in 1891 for the British Greenock Steamship Company, by Hawthorn Leslie and Company of Newcastle. (This information fitted in nicely with the details on my soup plate.) Later she had been sold to the Dall Orso Co. of Genoa, transferred to Italian ownership and registered with a new name, Italia. On the night she was lost, she was registered in Spezia, weighed 2,792 gross tons and was on passage from Cardiff to Taranto with a cargo of Welsh steam coal. The details of her sinking are recorded as mid-afternoon, on 11 may 1917 and her sinking was most unusual, which may have given rise to, or at least contributed to, the ghost ship theory. She was completely lost in dense fog and, unbeknown to her Master, Captain Acaroi, she had drifted in amongst the rocks of the Great Wingletang Ledges of Saint Agnes. The Captain, sensing danger, stopped engines and drifted silently, listening for the sound of a fog horn or of breaking waves, suddenly the fog parted and he spotted the cliffs of Saint Agnes ahead and, one must presume if we are to believe the local folk story, was simultaneously spotted by the young girl on the cliff top who ran home to tell her parents.
Captain Acaroi ordered ‘full astern’ on the engines to get his ship away from danger, but unfortunately because he was probably drifting sideways, he backed into a rock, losing the propeller and causing underwater damage. When it was realised the ship was sinking, all the crew got safely away in the boats, but because of the fog they were obliged to stay away from the land and could not row for shore until the fog had lifted and they could see the dangers. Eventually they landed, not in Saint Agnes, but at Hugh Town on Saint Mary’s, but had no idea where their ship had gone down, this was the first anyone in the Scilly’s (apart from the young girl on Saint Agnes) knew of the wreck of the Italia and as none of the crew spoke English, it is not surprising that the location of the wreck remained, forever, a mystery. Some floating wreckage had been reported by Saint Agnes fishermen, but this was thought to have come from the wreck of the admiralty collier Lady Charlotte, which had also sunk that night. This vessel had also come from Cardiff and was also loaded with Welsh steam coal, so there is little wonder there was confusion and similarities which, along with most seafarers love of a supernatural explanation, helped to perpetrate the ghost wreck story.
However, Richard Larn and some of us other navy divers who had recovered identifiable artefacts, such as my soup plate, finally established that the wreck lying where the Saint Agnes fishermen claim the ghost wreck lies, is definitely the SS Italia, which did sink on the same night as the Lady Charlotte, but eight years after the Plympton, not as they claim on the same night
However, those old fishermen are quite adamant there is a ghost wreck down there somewhere that came in out of the fog on the same night as the Plympton sank and left an unidentified body in the water and who really knows for sure. Perhaps there is another, as yet, undiscovered wreck down there, just waiting to be discovered by some adventure seeking divers who are deluded enough to think they’re Superaquamen and are prepared to chance the whirlpools and the sinkholes of the Great Wingletang Ledges.
Most historians, including Richard Larn who now lives in the Scillies and knows those waters better than anyone, say that a Greek ghost wreck is ‘probably unlikely’, although drop in to the Mermaid pub some night and try telling the Saint Agnes fishermen that.