From Start to Netley Abbey 

The Research Trail Identifying the Wreck


About 4 miles West South West of St. Alban’s Head lie the remains of a large iron steamship recently identified as Netley Abbey.  There are many places where information of historical events may lie, generated over the decades by the UK beaurocracy that sits in various record offices throughout the country; added to that the newspapers which were not turned into fish & chip wrappers but preserved by the British Library.  Taking a starting point of the Dorset Sites & Monuments Record and following the trail, it becomes easy to eliminate many ships which sank off the Dorset coast and gather enough information about the Netley Abbey to investigate underwater to confirm her identity.


The Maritime Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) compiled by Gordon Le Pard of Dorset County Council lists records of shipwrecks along the Dorset coast. A comprehensive search through this database provided a list of potential wrecked ships which, which at the time, appeared not to have been positively located. These included Ajax, Coquetdale, Dallas City, Empire Crusader, Eugene Schneider, Hartley, Hazelwood, Ioannis Fafalios, Ohio, Netley Abbey and Saxmundham.


Published in 2006, South Coast Shipwrecks off East Dorset and Wight 1870-1979 provides research information and an up to date identification of wrecks dived in the area adjacent to the wreck in question. Ajax, Empire Crusader and Coquetdale were part of the same convoy when sunk in 1940 and their locations are described within a reasonable distance of their reported sinking positions. Ajax and Ioannis Fafalios are reported to have been identified by the recovery of the ships’ bells.


To further resolve some of the questions of wreck identity contained in the popular dive guides, it was necessary to locate, where possible, original documentation.  Details from Lloyd’s Register of Shipping eliminated the following for the various stated reasons: -


Dallas City – diesel not steam engine.

Empire Crusader – steam ship but not rigged.

Eugene Schneider – sailing ship.

Hazelwood – steam ship but not rigged.


Lloyds Register provides overall dimensional details for Netley Abbey and Ohio which, although inconclusive, suggest that the latter is an unlikely candidate. The wreck has collapsed substantially making it difficult to determine exact dimensions; however the overall length of the wreckage was measured to be approximately 85 metres. Allowing for some wreckage collapsing outwards and the tape inevitably not being completely straight and taut, the original ship would be slightly shorter; Netley Abbey was 260 feet (79.2 metres) and Ohio was 241 feet (73.4 metres); the original ship is unlikely to be over 10 metres shorter than the measured wreckage but conceivably could have been 79 metres.


Board of Trade Wreck Returns have a report of the inquiry that includes a comprehensive description of Hartley. Dimensions for many parts of the ship are provided, including the size of the boilers ‘14.5 feet diameter by 10.5 feet long’ that do agree with measurements made on the wreck. The size and cargo of the Saxmundham are similar to the wreck and it was not positively eliminated but thought unlikely because the reported sinking position is much closer to the Isle of Wight.


Research of Netley Abbey Sinking

A telegram from Portsmouth to the Admiralty provided the first positive link between the position of the wreck and reports of the collision between Netley Abbey and HMS Surprise. The telegram reads: -


At 4:25pm yesterday Surprise being then about 3 miles south of St. Albans Head collided in fog with collier Netley Abbey from Cardiff. Collier sank crew of 24 all saved. Surprise arrived Spithead 0:30 this morning and has just gone into dock. Water in ships forward to 16 station but apparently ship not as badly damaged as might be expected. Further particulars damage later. Hope send report on collision tonight post. Owners of Netley Abbey Pyman Watson & Co Cardiff. [1]


There is reference to the wreck in the Board of Trade Wreck Returns [2] however there is no record of an investigation into this collision ever being published. There is an investigation report [3] from some 5 years earlier when the Netley Abbey struck the eastern edge of the Ower Bank, North Sea, in October 1894, due to navigation error. This provides some additional constructional and dimensional details but does contain an error, stating she was fitted with two engines of 180 horse-power combined, rather than a single 2 cylinder, compound engine detailed in Lloyds Register.


The actual record of a subsequent Court Martial of Commander F.W. Fane-Hervey and Navigating Lieutenant G.P. Ross, of the Surprise has been ‘weeded’ from The National Archives. There were however various reports of both the collision and subsequent Court Martial in the civilian and military press of the time. The description of the incident and events leading to it, have been compiled from these published accounts [4]. Unless specifically stated, there has been no attempt to verify the statements reported or determine whether either vessel was fault.


[1] The National Archives of England & Wales, Kew, (Hereafter, NA), NA ADM 116/574.

[2] Board of Trade, Wreck and Casualty Returns 1899 to 1900, Section 3 Collisions, Page 151, Appendix C Table 1

[3] Board of Trade, Wreck Report for 'Netley Abbey', Unique ID 16631, 1894

[4] Naval & Military Record, 10 Aug. 1899, United Service Gazette and Naval & Military Chronicle, 12 Aug. 1899, 26 Aug. 1899, Army & Navy Gazette, 12 Aug. 1899, 26 Aug. 1899, Western Gazette, 11 Aug. 1899, Hampshire Post, 11 Aug. 1899, The Times, 23 Aug 1899.


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