top of page
  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas


A short review of the Shipwreck Museum collection in Charlestown Cornwall. This is my favourite sort of museum with very home made looking displays and signs and glass cases full of exhibits. There are so many exhibits and stories that you could never take it all in on one visit, so this is just a toe in the water, the things that caught my eye. I'll explain these shoes later, let's get to the juicy gold and treasure first.

The museum is housed on the quayside in Charlestown, a unique former small port, where coal was delivered and china clay exported. In its heyday there were two main sides to the port, the west quay where coal was unloaded and the east quay where china clay was loaded. Notoriously, the harbour workers went home after work completely black with dust or completely white with dust. This tunnel below was part of a storage and delivery system to large chutes which were used to load ships with dried blocks of china clay.

This gun was retrieved from the SS Eastfield an armed merchant ship carrying coal to Dieppe, sunk by a German U Boat in 1917 off Mevagissey in Cornwall. The UB-57 sank 47 ships in her short 13 months of service.

Real treasure, from what is believed to be the only intact barrel of coins ever recovered from a shipwreck anywhere in the world from any period. Admiral Gardner was launched in 1797 for the British East India Company and made five voyages. On her sixth voyage on 24th January 1809 on sailing from the Downs on the south coast bound for Madras in India she was lost on the deadly Goodwin Sands when a gale tore her from her moorings. The wreck was found in 1984 and some coins brought to the surface but she has since been designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1985.

Bell's Weekly Messenger - Sunday 29 January 1809

Shipwrecks and Naval Disasters

The effects of the gales of Tuesday night have been severely felt among the shipping. Two very valuable outward bound East Indiamen have been totally lost on the Goodwin Sands, besides other vessels. Various accounts of these events have reached town.

We have reason to believe that the following particulars will be found to be accurate. On the evening of Tuesday great apprehensions were entertained for the fate of the Indiamen proceeding through the Downs but nothing was known of their situation until Wednesday morning when a most distressing scene presented itself to the spectators from Deal. Three large ships were seen on the Goodwin Sands with only their foremasts standing, hoisting signals of distress, and the sea was dashing over them mountainous high. The crews were all collected on the poops, waiting for that relief which the Deal boatmen seemed anxious to afford them.

These men, by their indefatigable exertions, and at the imminent hazard of their lives, reached the wrecks of the Indiamen, and took out of the Admiral Gardner the whole of her crew. The boatmen from Ramsgate and Broadstairs joined those from Deal, and removed into their boats the people from the Britannia, previous to which this last ship had lost of her crew three Lascars and twenty four seamen, and one died in one of the Deal boats from fatigue.

Of the crew of the Admiral Gardner, it is feared that four have been lost; for in the night one of the seamen having been washed overboard, the third mate and three seamen volunteered their services to endeavour to pick him up in the ship's boat, which was never after heard of.

A concretion of gun flints.

The remains of an elephant tusk from a wreck of 1490.

More ivory in the form of scrimshaw. Traditional ivory from elephants and walrus as well as whales teeth were used by sailors for making objects during long ships voyages when there was a lot of time spare. From complex carvings to etched and inked patterns and pictures, they are now highly collectible. The carved walrus tooth in the foreground features fish, beaver and seal decorations.

This small statuette of a "Tobacco Boy" is carrying a roll of tobacco and smoking a very long "churchwarden" style of clay pipe. These statues were commonly used in shop windows or in counter displays to indicate the products on sale.

Not gold, but treasure none the less in this piece of anchor cable more than 450 years old and perfectly preserved. It is part of the wreck of the Mary Rose.

On July 19th 1545 the Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII's fleet sank at Spithead. She was en route to engage the French navy carrying more than her normal complement of armed infantrymen. During a manoeuvre in sight of land and watched by the King himself she attempted to turn to starboard, causing water to pour through her open gun ports. Of some 700 sailors and soldiers on board only about 30 survived.

Reading Evening Post - Monday 11 October 1982

9.03 am, October 11, 1982 and the first sighting of the Mary Rose since summer 1545.

THE Tudor warship Mary Rose was successfully raised from her seabed grave in the Solent this morning. A cannon fired from the ramparts of Southsea Castle to signal the historic and dramatic moment her timbers broke the surface, 437 years after she sank.

Sirens from boats watching the operation at the Mary Rose site sounded a welcome as the wreck of the warship broke the waves at three minutes past nine. Exultant cheers rang out from the recovery team as the warship finally came to the surface after all the delays and setbacks to the £4 million project to raise her. The Mary Rose is a time capsule of Tudor life......thousands of items have already been recovered from her by divers.

The 500 ton Geldermalsen was built in 1747 in Middleburg, Netherlands. On her maiden voyage she spent two and a half years zig-zagging around the far east trading between ports before heading home to Europe. During that two and a half years the crew assembled in warehouses a great stock of cargo to bring back on the return journey.

The ship left Canton on 18th December 1751 with a crew of 111 and one English passenger Richard Bagge. The cargo was valued at 700 guilders and included 54Kg of gold ingots, tea which was 60% of the value of the cargo, raw silk, and the balance in porcelain.

It was common at this time for returning shpis to carry 100 to 200 tons of porcelain at a time, maybe 1 to 2 million pieces.

On the 3rd January 1752 the ship struck a reef at night and after capsizing sank in 25 fathoms with the loss of 80 men and the entire cargo worth an estimated 1,000,000 guilders.

To avoid breakages the porcelain had been packed in the equally valuable tea leaves in small boxes. Due to the weight, these had been the first items loaded and were placed in the lowest parts of the ship above the keel. This of course meant that they were soon buried by silt in the most preserved part of the wreck.

The ship was located in 1984 by Captain Michael Hatcher an English salvage diver resident in Singapore. Due to the tea protecting the porcelain it was possible to retrieve 150,000 pieces which were auctioned in 1986, 233 years after the ship sank. It is still one of the largest porcelain finds from a shipwreck.

Known as the Nanking Cargo it was originally potted in Jingdezhen, Jiangzi province then shipped to Nanking for delivery to the VOC vessel Geldermalsen for final transportation to the Netherlands. 127 gold bars were also recovered from the captain's cabin. The porcelain alone fetched $2,000,000 at the auction.

More than 20,000 people attended the auction, many harboring a desperate desire to own a memento from this romantic treasure trove. An anonymous bidder paid $332,786 for a 144-place dinner setting, while a Swiss banker bought a pair of butter tubs for $15,275. A small stoneware jug went for $5,251.

Later, my own mother bought a small cup and saucer from a shop in London, which was her prized possession. She was a history buff and had followed the story with fascination never dreaming that one day a small piece would be affordable enough for her to own.

While on the subject of porcelain it is worth noting the coincidence in the display being in Charlestown one of the main historic ports for china clay. William Cookworthy of Kingsbridge in Devon discovered deposits of kaolin in Cornwall, and his factory at Plymouth, established in 1768, used kaolin and china stone to make hard-paste porcelain with a body composition similar to that of the Chinese porcelains of the early 18th century. Cookworthy had spent many years researching the porcelain-making process and searching for a material that resembled the kaolin that had been used for so long in China. In 1745 he eventually found it, at Tregonning Hill, near Germoe, in Cornwall, where a rare type of decomposed granite, finer than most talcum powders, arises naturally.

At the time of the Geldermalsen wreck, porcelain was still widely unavailable in Europe and fetched a high premium.


In October 1707, Association, commanded by Captain Edmund Loades and with Admiral Shovell on board, was returning from the Mediterranean after the Toulon campaign. The 21 ships in the squadron entered the mouth of the English Channel on the night of 22 October 1707. At 8 pm, Association struck the Outer Gilstone Rock off the Isles of Scilly, and was wrecked with the loss of her entire crew of about 800 men. As a result of navigational errors, the ships were not where they were reckoned to be. Association was seen by those on board HMS St George to go down in three or four minutes' time.

Parts of the wreck are in 30 feet, while others can be found at between 90 and 120 feet as the sea floor falls away from the reef.The divers first discovered a cannon, and on the third dive, silver and gold coins were spotted underneath that cannon.The Ministry of Defence initially suppressed news of the discovery for fear of attracting treasure hunters, but word was soon out and excited huge national interest. More than 2,000 coins and other artefacts were finally recovered from the wreck site and auctioned by Sotheby's in July 1969

Liverpool Daily Post - Tuesday 07 January 1975

THE submerged wreck of HMS Colossus an eighteenth-century British warship has been found in the Isles of Scilly by the Penzance-based Roland Morris diving team. It may well contain valuable treasure lost when the gale-tossed vessel smashed on to rocks off the Island of Sampson in darkness on December 10 1798. The wreck was located last August after 171 hours of diving time had been logged but secrecy had to be maintained until now to prevent “pirate divers” interfering with the project.

In the famous novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island, the pirate Long John Silver has a parrot called Captain Flint which screams "pieces of eight" on a regular basis. So pieces of eight became treasure folklore.

Pieces of eight were quite literally what they claim. When money was made of precious metal it didn't have a perceived value like today, it had an actual value. You could therefore cut it into smaller pieces for smaller value exchanges. Commonly, coins were cut into eight pieces or bits and in the United States they still refer to a quarter of a dollar as two bits.

Because the Spanish dollar was widely used in Europe, America, and the Far East, it became the first world currency by the 16th century. The Spanish dollar was the coin upon which the original United States dollar was based, and it remained legal tender in the United States until the Coinage Act of 1857. Many other currencies around the world, such as the Japanese yen and the Chinese yuan, were initially based on the Spanish dollar and other 8-real coins.

't Vliegent Hart ("the Flying Heart") was an 18th-century East Indiaman of the Dutch East India Company. 't Vliegend Hart was built in 1729 in Middelburg for the Chamber of Zeeland.

On 3 February 1735 't Vliegend Hart left from Rammekens for Batavia, commanded by captain Cornelis van der Horst. She was accompanied by the smaller ship Anna Catherina, under command of Jacob de Prinse and carried a cargo of wood, building materials, iron, gunpowder and wine, as well as several chests with gold and silver coins. Shortly after departure both ships ran aground in the Scheldt estuary on the sandbanks around Duerloo Channel and were lost with all cargo and crew.

It was not until 1981 that the wreck site would be discovered. Many artifacts, including wine bottles, bullets and an intact coffer with 2000 gold ducats and 5000 silver reales were retrieved.

In 1991 a second chest filled with gold ducats and Spanish reales was discovered, as well as several cases of silver ducatoons. As these ducatoons (riders) were not listed on the official cargo document it is likely they were smuggled on board by members of the crew to be sold for higher prices in the East Indies.

These are gold Riders below, so called because of the horse and rider that they feature.

HMS Primrose was a Royal Navy Cruizer-class brig-sloop built by Thomas Nickells (or Nicholls), at Fowey and launched in 1807.

In January 1809 Primrose sailed for Spain with a convoy. During a snowstorm she ran aground at 5 am on 22 January on Minstrel Rock, The Manacles, a mile offshore, and was wrecked. (The Manacles are a set of treacherous rocks off The Lizard, close to the shipping lane into Falmouth, Cornwall.) The sole survivor was a drummer boy. Lieut. J. Withers of the Manacles Signal Post prevailed on six local men to try to rescue survivors. For their efforts, albeit unsuccessful, the Admiralty directed that the volunteers each receive an award of 10 guineas from the Naval authorities at Falmouth.

London Courier and Evening Gazette - Thursday 26 January 1809

Helston, Jan 22 (Extract of a letter)

It is with extreme regret I inform you of the sorrowful tidings of the loss of the Dispatch transport, and the Primrose sloop of war, the former from Corunna and the latter outward bound. The Dispatch had on board a detachment of the 7th Light Dragoons amounting in all , with the crew, to 100 people. Out of this number, only seven have been saved from a watery grave. These brave fellows, I am told, are the same, who distinguished themselves so eminently under Lord Paget!

The loss of the Primrose, of 18 guns, is not less to be regretted than that of the Dispatch. She was driven by the tempestuous weather upon the Manacle Rocks, about a mile from the spot where the transport foundered. On this occasion every soul on board perished, except a little boy. Both these melancholy events happened this morning at about six o'clock.

The Adgillus was carrying a general cargo including salt, gunpowder, and pottery under the command of Captain Thompson from Liverpool to Brass River, Old Calabar. She was towed out to the open sea from Liverpool by a steam tug with a pilot, Mr. Parry, remaining onboard to guide her to Point Lynas.

After midnight the wind increased and she encountered a severe storm in the Irish Sea. At 3 am, a heavy squall split some of her sails and caused the water butts on deck to shift, damaging her and causing her to leak. The crew had to throw overboard some of her cargo to keep her afloat, but by 2 pm, she was so low in the water that her longboat floated off and the command was given to abandon ship.

One seaman, a native of Malacca, became entangled in the rigging and went down with the ship. The remainder of the crew of 17 and the pilot reached the Morecambe Bay Lightship and were then taken ashore by the Fleetwood smack Prince Charles. The Court of Inquiry found that the one year old barque was in good condition and the loss was due to the exceptional weather. Cosmodiver 01/03/2010

This china is from Staffordshire.

RMS Medina was an ocean liner built by Caird and Company, Greenock, Scotland, in 1911, for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. She was a Royal Mail Ship intended for use on the London to Australia route and was the last of the ten ships in P&O's M-Class. Between November 1911 and February 1912 Medina took King George V and Queen Mary to India for the Delhi Durbar. Medina was lost when she was torpedoed on 28 April 1917 off Start Point, Devon on 28 April 1917.

Today, Medina's wreck is upright with a 15 degree list to port. She is reasonably intact despite salvage of copper and passengers' baggage from forward holds. Her stern is most damaged and she is sinking into the mud of the seabed. Her bulkheads are collapsing and her compartments are folding down.

This display is of various wrecks.

A model of The Titanic. A framed invite to the launch at Belfast 31st May 1911.

A collection of Indian bronzes, below, part of the collection of Lord Carmichael, which were originally lost on the Medina. Only a month earlier Lord and Lady Carmichael were preparing to leave India for the last time.

Englishman's Overland Mail - Friday 23 March 1917


Last Thursday evening a very successful "At Home" given by Messrs. Martin and Co., was held at the Victoria Memorial Hall now under construction.........Over two hundred invitations were issued for the purpose of allowing as many as possible to see what excellent progress has been made on this great work during the past two and a half to three years, and also as a farewell function to Lord and Lady Carmichael. As is generally known Lord Carmichael has always taken the keenest interest in the progress of this great Memorial, and as Chairman of the Executive Committee his assistance has been most valuable. The work is now more than half completed, the large Central Hall having reached the upper colonnade which is about one hundred feet above ground level. Over this will be constructed the great dome rising to a height of two hundred feet.

A copy of the Sotheby’s catalogue reveals details of the objects auctioned in Billingshurst in 1988.The introduction to the catalogue states “There was, as expected, a large Oriental art collection: Indian brassware and an elaborate wooden chair; Japanese porcelain; netsuke; Chinese carving. An Assyrian cuneiform seal and bright Ancient Egyptian beads, striped in gold, emerged from the deep, as did Lord Carmichael’s masonic jewels and his KCMG order.

There was also a good deal of jewellery; amethyst and diamond cufflinks; fiery Australian opals, which were just beginning to be mined in the first decade of this century, when Lord Carmichael was Governor of Victoria”It is not possible to gain an accurate total of the number of artefacts from the Medina sold at the auction as a number of the lots were labelled as ‘Collection of…..’. However, it is estimated there were over 3,500 artefacts within the sale. 80 cases that had belonged to Lord Carmichael were salvaged along with other items, and much of the material at auction had belonged to Lord Carmichael and were part of his personal collection of antiques and local crafts. Maritime Archeology Trust

Gold and silver pocket watches recovered from RMS Lusitania 1915.

RMS Lusitania was an ocean liner that was launched by the Cunard Line in 1906 and held the Blue Riband appellation for the fastest Atlantic crossing in 1908. It was briefly the world's largest passenger ship until the completion of the Mauretania three months later. She was sunk on her 202nd trans-Atlantic crossing, on 7 May 1915, by a German U-boat 11 miles (18 km) off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, killing 1,199 passengers and crew.

Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser - Wednesday 02 June 1915

Mr A VANDERBILT LEAVES £10,000,000 ( 2017 value £590 million)

Lusitania victims' gifts to his wife. The will of Mr Alfred Vanderbilt, who was lost in the sinking of the Lusitania, has been filed. It bequeaths property amounting to $50,000,000. Mrs Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt his wife, receives £3,000,000. In addition Mrs Vanderbilt receives her husbands American estates and the real estate in England. The family trust fund is left to his son William H Vanderbilt. The bulk of the estate is left in trust to his two infant sons by his second wife.

HMS Edinburgh was the ultimate treasure shipwreck. Edinburgh was a Royal Navy cruiser built in 1938. In April 1942 she escorted a Russian bound convoy carrying war supplies to Murmansk at a time when Russia was our ally. On arrival Edinburgh was ordered to load 5 tonnes of gold bullion, worth £5 million at the time, (About £200 million today).

The cruiser was torpedoed and crippled on her return journey and with her steering gear and propellers damaged she returned towards Murmansk. Ultimately she had to be abandoned and due to her cargo value she was sunk by HM Destroyer Foresight to prevent her falling into enemy hands.

The wreck remained untouched in 800 feet of water in the Barents Sea, her position recorded. Her contents were kept a closely guarded secret until 1982 when a salvage consortium was set up to find her. She was quickly located and filmed and on the 16th September the first gold bar worth £100,000 was found amongst the debris on the seabed.

The gold had been stored in the bomb store, making recovery very dangerous due to the unstable nature of the explosives. 431 ingots were salvaged out of the total of 465 and work stopped on the 3rd October. At the time it was the most valuable haul of treasure from a shipwreck in history.

Now to the curious photo of these sports shoes. The following photos all relate to a more recent wreck, that of the MV Cita container ship.

On 26 March 1997, the 300-ft merchant vessel MV Cita pierced its hull when running aground on rocks off the south coast of the Isles of Scilly in gale-force winds en route from Southampton to Belfast. The incident happened just after 3 am when the German-owned, Antiguan-registered 3,000 tonne vessel hit Newfoundland Point, St Mary's. The mainly Polish crew of the stricken vessel were rescued a few hours after the incident by St Mary's Lifeboat, RNLB Robert Edgar (ON 1073) with the support of a Westland Sea King rescue helicopter from RNAS Culdrose. They sailed to the UK mainland on board the Scillonian III later that afternoon.

Many containers were washed up on the rocks and beaches of the Isles of Scilly, and many were found in the Celtic Sea, travelling as far as Cornwall.

Locals were thankful that the wreck was mostly cargo, so the risk of pollution was much less than it could have been, such as in the aftermath of the Torrey Canyon oil spill. The specialist salvage vessel Salvage Chief removed 90 tonnes (98%) of fuel from the Cita before she sank, leaving only a minor oil slick.

Aberdeen Press and Journal - Thursday 27 March 1997

All hands on wreck in Scillies

CARGO washed ashore from a container ship wrecked on the Isles of Scilly disappeared yesterday as the traditional pastime of "wrecking” broke out on the beaches. Cars, vans and prams were used to carry off the contents of containers from the 3,000-ton Cita, including action men toys, computer parts, car tyres, clothes, T-shirts and textiles. "People are going berserk,” said Scillies maritime officer Steve Watt. “It is gradually disappearing in all directions. It is just like Whisky Galore.” He understood that a container full of tobacco was being guarded by the police. It was estimated around l00 of the vessel’s 200 containers broke free from the vessel and floated off. Around 15 came ashore. Scillies police officer Sgt Russ Mogridge said people removing items washed up were not necessarily breaking the law, as long they later reported what they had taken to the Receiver of Wreck.

Daily Mirror - Wednesday 02 April 1997


ISLANDERS stung by accusations of being looters and scavengers are gathering thousands of shipwrecked baby clothes to send to Africa and Romania. They have collected and washed a container-load of children's clothes washed up from the wrecked 3,000-ton Cita on the Isles of Scilly last week. The islanders were criticised after a "Whisky Galore" scramble for £1 million worth of goods, including hardwood doors and computer accessories. But Jane Chiverton, 53, said: "We want the world to see that we are not all just after something for ourselves."

This following report of a published police statement is difficult to read without seeing some sense of sarcasm and ambiguous threat from the "Boys in Blue".

Aberdeen Press and Journal - Friday 28 March 1997

A Devon and Cornwall Police spokesman said; “The police are confident that the islanders have been displaying their usual helpfulness to the emergency services by removing property for safekeeping to avoid it being swept back into the sea at the turn of the tide.” People will be asked to return property to its rightful owner once arrangements have been made for storage. “In the unexpected circumstances that someone does not return property which police know they have removed, then criminal proceedings will be considered,” the police spokesman added.

If you have ever depended on the efficacy of lucky charms or are otherwise of a superstitious nature, then please be advised that even a container load of tens of thousands of lucky Irish keyrings did not alter the future of this unfortunate ship.

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page