The Isles of Scilly comprise a beautiful and enchanting archipelago, but alongside their attractions lurk menace and danger. This is attested to by the many hundreds of vessels that have foundered on the reefs and rocks over many centuries,. There are 530 registered wrecks at the Isles of Scilly, possibly the most for any group of isles in the world.
The stories of Scillonian shipwrecks are peppered with bizarre and tragic coincidences and loaded with superlatives: the greatest, the first, the most deadly, the largest.
The longest wooden ship ever built, 'Wyoming', met her end here. Wrecked on 24th March 1924, this sail collier, a schooner, sank in a north-eastern gale with the loss of all 13 hands including the captain. 15 years previously the world's largest ever, pure sailing ship, the 395 feet in length 'Thomas W. Lawson' had been driven on to the Hellweather's Reef off the uninhabited island of Annet in a severe winter gale. She had set sail from Philadelphia for London on November 27th 1907, with 2.5 million gallons of paraffin oil. Just a 2 weeks later, with the ship broken in two, 15 of the 17 crewmen had perished along with the Scillonian pilot, William Hicks. Despite wearing their lifebelts, the seamen had been swamped by the thick oil layer, the smashing seas, and the schooner's rigging. The only survivors were the Captain, George W Dow and engineer, Edward Rowe from Boston. In 1969, the wreck was relocated when it was found that the two sections were almost a quarter mile apart.
With regard to loss of life, several of the worst maritime disasters in British history occurred on Scilly; one, known as the Victorian Titanic, was the wrecking of S.S. 'Schiller' in fog in May 1875. This German ocean liner was one of the largest vessels of her time at 3,421 tonnes. She plied her trade across the Atlantic Ocean, carrying passengers between New York and Hamburg for the German Transatlantic Steam Navigation Line. She became notorious on 7th May 1875, when she hit the Retarrier Ledges, causing her to sink with the loss of most of her crew and passengers, in all, 335 fatalities. Many of her lifeboats were unserviceable, and most of those that weren't were crushed when the ship's funnel broke off. As a mark of gratitude to the great assistance that the islanders gave to the mostly German people on-board, orders were given in both World Wars to spare the The Isles of Scilly from being attacked.
There was similarly huge loss of life on 13th June 1743. The entire ship's company of 276 - crew, soldiers and passengers - all perished when 'Hollandia', a ship of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), was wrecked on Annet on her maiden voyage. The wreck was discovered in 1971 by a London attorney, Rex Cowan.
The worst catastrophic event, which impelled the Board of the Admiralty to institute a competition for a more precise method to determine longitude, has its 300th anniversary this year. It was in October 1707 that HMS 'Association', the flagship of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, sank on Gilstone Reef, with the loss of her entire crew of about 800 men, along with three other ships of the 21 strong fleet: HMS 'Firebrand', 'Eagle' and 'Romney'. In all, approximately 2,000 men died that night.
There was another 'Eagle' lost on 18th January, 1848, a Glasgow schooner which struck first on the Crim in fog, then several other rocks and finally the Bishop before sinking. There have also been two ships called 'Minnehaha' wrecked on Scilly. The first was a cargo barque of 845 tonnes, bringing guano from the Peruvian port of Callao to Dublin, which was wrecked off Peninnis Head, St. Mary's on 18th January, 1874, having been at sea for 14 months. The second 'Minnehaha', which went aground on the eastern side of Scilly Rock in April 1910, was an altogether grander affair, being a 13,443-ton first class ocean liner built by Harland and Wolff, launched in 1900. This liner was re-floated in May, after its cargo of cars, pianos and steers had been jettisoned, only to succumb to a torpedo in 1917.
On at least three occasions there have been multiple wrecks on the same day - as if further proof were required of just how treacherous these islands can be. The first recorded happened on Christmas Eve 1786, when the Chester Brig 'Betsy' sank between Perconger and Bartholomew, and the Penzance Brigantine 'Duke of Cornwall' had to be run ashore on St. Agnes. Another such time was the 27th July 1879, when the cargo sailing ship 'River Lune' was lost on the coast of Annet after a faulty chronometer put her off course. She sank in 10 minutes, but the crew escaped. A few hours later, the sailing barque 'Maipu' was wrecked in Hell Bay, Bryher in heavy fog. Again, the crew were saved. The third time this happened was 11th May 1917, when two steam colliers were wrecked during heavy fog. The S.S. 'Italia' out of Cardiff was wrecked on the Wingletang Rock off St. Agnes with just one witness, a young girl whose story was not believed at first, and the S.S. 'Lady Charlotte' was lost on Porth Hellick on St. Mary's, less than 4 miles to the east.
Other curious coincidences have been when ships have foundered in the same places. S.S. 'Zelda' was sunk on the Maiden Bower Rock in fog in April 1874. Her crew and passengers were saved, and some cargo was salvaged by divers. When the wreck was inspected in 1966, it was found that not only had the S.S. 'Brinkburn' sunk on top of the 'Zelda' in 1898, but that there was evidence of an unknown wooden warship underneath them. Also, in December 1920, the big German steamer 'Hathor' of 7,000 tonnes had sunk at the base of the Lethegus Rocks, right across the wreck of the 300 foot 'Plympton' which had gone ashore in thick fog on 14th August 1909. On 22nd December 1939, S.S. 'Longships', a British cargo ship, foundered on the Seven Stones Reef, the same one that later claimed the 'Torrey Canyon' in 1967. The crew were rescued.
Two American vessels have made their mark on history in the islands. The 'Gulflight', a 5,189-ton tanker, was the first American ship to be torpedoed during the First World War, despite American neutrality at the time. The German government apologised for the error, but refused to change their strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare. This incident, along with the sinking of RMS 'Lusitania', caused the American government to increase spending on the US Navy. Two years later, on 6th December 1917, the USS 'Jacob Jones', became the first US destroyer ever to be lost to enemy action. Returning to the American base at Queenstown, a high-speed torpedo struck her starboard side, rupturing her fuel oil tank. The crew worked courageously to save the ship; but as the stern sank, her depth charges exploded. Realising the situation was hopeless, Commander David W Bagley reluctantly ordered the ship be abandoned. Eight minutes after being torpedoed, the 'Jacob Jones' sank with 64 men still on board.
Another warship lost on Scilly, though several wars and 100 years earlier, was HMS 'Colossus'. Although barely seaworthy, having been heavily 'cannibalised', with much of the ship's equipment used to repair other ships damaged during the Battle of the Nile, Colossus was obliged to quit Naples ahead of Napoleon's approaching army. Aboard were many works of art belonging to the British ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, including his priceless collection of antique ceramics. On December 12th 1798, while HMS 'Colossus' was anchored at St. Mary's in the Isles of Scilly, a strong gale blew up, her anchor cable parted and the ship ran aground and was wrecked on Southward Well to the south of Samson. One sailor was drowned out of a crew of 600, and all of Sir William's treasure was lost. Lost until 1974, that is, when Colossus was discovered by local diver, Roland Morris. Many thousands of pottery fragments were recovered from the seabed, reconstructed and are now on display at the British Museum in London. An area covering the stern section of the wreck was designated a protected wreck site, on 4th July 2001, under the Protection of Wrecks Act. Diving or other interference with the site is not permitted without a licence.
The demise of the Irish steamer, S.S. 'Thames', the first steamship to be lost on Scilly, makes a particularly poignant story. Commanded by Captain Gray, she was wrecked on the Cribewidden Rock in the early morning of 4th January 1841, on her way from Dublin to London. According to The Times, the weather was 'exceedingly boisterous, with showers of hail and snow' and she 'shipped a heavy sea, which extinguished her fires'. Then, mistaking St. Agnes Lighthouse for Longships Lighthouse, she ran on to the Cribewidden Rock at around 5am. Of the 65 on board, there were only 3 women survivors and one man. The 3 women all died in the lifeboat. A 4th woman, who survived the initial sinking, refused to leave with the rescuers because she could not find her child. Her body was one of the 10 found later and buried on St. Mary's.
Described as Scilly's own Whisky Galore, the 'Antiguan' registered 3,000 ton 'Cita' was a dry cargo vessel built in 1976, owned and operated by Reederei Gerd A Gorke of Germany. The Cita's cargo, in 200 containers, consisted of items such as computer mice, car tyres, tobacco, house doors, plywood, plastic bags and women's summer shorts. Quinsworth bags, bound for Ireland, were used in shops for months following the wreck of the vessel in March 1997. Most locals assisted in the clear-up operation, removing the items from the coastline. People removing items from the shoreline for their own use could have been faced with prosecution, according to police at the time. Eight extra police were brought over to Scilly from the mainland to assist, taking notes of who was removing goods. There is no known case of police taking up criminal proceedings for the removal of the flotsam, however. According to David Martin-Clark, the reason behind the wrecking of the Cita was because 'the watch-keeping officer had fallen asleep and the watch alarm had been switched off'.
Unsurprising as these wrecks must be - given that the islands stretch out along the entrance to the British Channel, one of the world's busiest waterways - it is also easy to understand that the service now provided by the Scillonian III to Penzance, by virtue of its sheer frequency, has run into difficulties on a number of occasions. In 1872, communications with the mainland were severely hampered when not just one but two of the packets were lost within three months of each other. The first of these, passenger steamer S.S. 'Earl of Arran', was wrecked on Nornour in St. Martin's Neck and sank soon afterwards when a passenger offered to steer the ship. The first Scillonian packet steamer had the misfortune to run aground three times in its career, first in 1932 and then again in 1942 and 1951. On all occasions, she was re-floated and continued in service.
The heroic rescue of the survivors of the S.S. 'Delaware' in December 1871 serves to highlight the difference between perception and reality of wrecks. Not only did the Bryher men take the gig, Albion, out in mountainous seas, but they had to carry it half a mile first. They had to go overland again, crossing between East and West Par before finally arriving, exhausted, at White Island to a barrage of stones from the two survivors; apparently their captain had described the islanders as 'little better than savages' and that 'they could expect short shrift if they were ever wrecked there'.
Undoubtedly, wrecks and their cargoes have often provided a welcome boost to the islands' material well-being but the burden on Scillonians must not be underestimated. From the risks encountered in life saving, to the emotional and material demands of clothing and sheltering the survivors, many of whom would be traumatised, and most upsetting, the burial of victims of drowning, it is a burden that has never been shirked. Indeed, the Islanders have always risen to the occasion. It is a fitting testament to their bravery and hospitality that a crew member of the S.V. 'Thornliebank', wrecked in 1913, departed saying 'Scilly is a wonderful place to be shipwrecked'.
The Isles of Scilly Cornwall's Shipwrecks Cornish Lifeboat Stations