From Start to Netley Abbey 

Wreck Site - Possible Sinkings


About 4 miles West South West of St. Alban’s Head lie the remains of a large iron steamship. She has been ‘identified’ as a number of vessels including the ‘Start’ and the ‘Hartburn’, but these have proved not to be her true identity.   Extensive research over 10 years both diving the site and searching original documentation identified a number of other candidates, the evidence was examined, and most were eliminated, before coming to the conclusion that she is the ‘ SS Netley Abbey’.


Using information gathered from both the current day wreck site and referring back to original documentation numerous other possible candidates were identified and eliminated.   There are in the region of 1700 shipwrecks off the Dorset coast, however, positions for many shipwrecks are often only known to an approximate location. The exact sinking position may never have been known and even when records do exist, whilst giving due respect to mariners, in a shipwreck situation getting an accurate position of the ship is unlikely to be their first priority. Prior to modern GPS techniques the position of a ship was based on dead reckoning and reliant on seeing the sun or landmarks at given times. The last recorded position from the log, an estimate from memory or a bearing from land, while still being an approximation is an unusual luxury when researching the position of a shipwreck. It was therefore necessary to also consider ships recorded to have sunk outside the Dorset area.


Not all publications contain accurate information or are based on complete research therefore where possible information was traced back to source documentation. All the data collected on each shipwreck is stored in a personal database allowing for easy retrieval and future cross reference.


The wreck was obviously a steamship, having an engine and boilers, was constructed of metal and from early dives estimated to be between 1,000 & 3,000 tons. This allowed the elimination of wooden wrecks, iron built sailing vessels and diesel powered ships. The research focussed on vessels between 1,000 tons and 5,000 tons (these tonnages could be modified if necessary). Deadeyes had been seen on early dives and confirmed later, which made it likely that the ship was equipped for sail.


A shortlist of eight potential vessels [Table 1] was established for further in depth research. Lloyds Register provided the basic dimensions on all except SS Hartley which sank before her first entry into the Register. Lloyds Lists provides data as to cargo, and contemporary reports of the vessels’ fates. Board of Trade Wreck Returns were consulted, if a report survives these are very helpful but often all that now exists is an entry in a table. It is interesting to note that the surviving accident report for SS Netley Abbey is not for her sinking, but for a previous collision. For some ships newspapers were very helpful, but editorial decisions of the day often meant that wreck details were eclipsed by something considered of more importance on the day, for example, a visit to the area by the Prince of Wales. 


Table 1: List of possible vessels 

Dallas City

  Diesel not a steam ship

Empire Crusader

  Steam ship but not rigged

Eugene Schneider

  Sailing ship


  Steam ship but not rigged


  Size and cargo


  Position and believed located elsewhere


  Boiler size and engine configuration

Netley Abbey

  Fits all criteria


One early possibility for the identity of this ship was the SS Hartley. Although not on her maiden voyage she in service for less than one year when she sank and her details had not been printed in Lloyds Register. There is, however, a Board of Trade Wreck report with gives details of her build and first-hand accounts of how she sank. On her seventh voyage she was loaded with coal at Barry (South wales) to being “half an inch light of her winter Plimsoll mark”. A force eight gale was blowing as she neared Anvil Point and the tarpaulins had ripped on number three hatch. Despite attempts to re-cover them water got into the hold and increased the weight sufficient to sink her and the captain gave the order to abandon ship. There were two other vessels in the area, Machaon and Alberta. Machaon managed to save 2 lives, but the lifeboat had capsized and only bodies were found floating in the water. Both captains deemed it too dangerous to ask their own crew members to launch a boat and investigate. SS Hartley was eliminated on boiler size and engine configuration.


SS Saxmundham is a vessel considered as a possibility; Lloyds register tells us that she was of a correct size, the Board of Trade Wreck Returns tell us that she had a cargo of coal and was sunk in a collision with SS Nor on the 4th November 1888. Ten men drowned and the rest were rescued from the lifeboat or the jolly boat and were taken to Weymouth or London respectively. Her given position was 30 miles West-South-West of St. Catherine’s Point. A shipwreck 11 miles South-West of St. Catherine’s Point is thought to be this vessel and is currently being researched as such.


SS Ohio was another early contender; she was on a voyage from Le Havre to Glasgow in ballast when on the 12th October 1918 she was involved in a collision with SS Lady Plymouth. Fortunately all 18 crew were saved, but somewhere off St. Alban’s head are the remains of this well decked Swedish cargo vessel. Board of trade Wreck returns gave us the information of her cargo and Lloyds register gave us her dimensions. SS Ohio was considered unlikely due to her size and eliminated due to cargo.


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