Thursday December 07, 2017

Irish fishermen say treasure hunters are raiding a 1915 shipwreck that once set sail for Montreal

Steamship RMS Hesperian of the Allan Line from Glasgow.

Steamship RMS Hesperian of the Allan Line from Glasgow. (Library and Archives Canada)

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Story transcript

They were fishing for hake and pollock, but what came up in their net was even fishier.

Over the past couple of weeks, deep sea fishermen off the coast of Ireland have caught bloodied canvas hammocks and a brass faucet assembly complete with plumbing.

All of it was recovered at their preferred fishing spot, near the known wreckage of RMS Hesperian.

Kevin Flannery, director of the Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium in Dingle, Ireland, said the fishermen suspect scuba-diving scavengers have been blowing up the ship in search of treasure, causing the artifacts to come loose and turn up in their nets. 

Hesperian, which carried wounded soldiers from Europe to Canada during the First World War, was torpedoed in September 1915. When it sank, it had been at sea for a day and was carrying 800 passengers bound for Montreal.

"Maybe somebody found out that this ship contained quite a lot of treasure," Flannery told As It Happens guest host Jim Brown.

Suspect vessel

What's more, the fishermen who found the artifacts weren't alone on the water, Flannery said.

"The most interesting fact was in the last month or so, when the fishermen went down to shoot their nets in the vicinity again, a very large ship was hovering and working over the wreck of the Hesperian," he said.

Fishers with RMS Hesperian Tap

Two Irish fishermen hold a faucet believed to be from the 1915 wreckage of RMS Hesperian. (Kevin Flannery)

The ship was unidentified and provided no automated identification system signal.

"She was extremely large," he said. "She was virtually anchored over the wreckage of the Hesperian."

Flannery said the boat stayed in the area for five to 10 days. Around this time, he said the fishermen "found quite a lot of other bits of [ship] debris, especially this canvas."

Finders keepers

The lawfulness of pirating a shipwreck is not totally clear. 

In the case of Ireland, anything within 19 kilometres of the coast is off limits without a government-approved license. Outside that boundary, Flannery explains, is under the jurisdiction of the European Union.

It's "open season" on those waters, Flannery said.

It could be that someone was authorized to examine the wreckage. Shipping companies sell off the right to underwater wreckage of their ships. In other cases, government may be responsible for the remains.

RMS Hesperian Taps

This hot water faucet was found near the wreckage of RMS Hesperian by local fishermen. (Kevin Flannery)

"Whether [that] took place or not, or whether the British government owns it, or whether the Canadian government owns it, I don't know," Flannery said. "We're not aware."

Flannery hopes that whoever is salvaging the boat is doing so legally, if only out of respect for those who died at sea.

"Thirty-two people drowned after the ship was torpedoed as life boats and people attempted to abandon ship," he said.

"As far as I'm concerned, and most people in the fishing industry and anybody who goes to sea, people who have drowned at sea, it's sacrosanct that they be left there."

Died and buried at sea

According to the National Post, 32 people died when the Hesperian sank, including Canadian soldier, Pte. Charles Kingsley.

Also among those buried with the Hesperian is Frances Stephens, a Montreal socialite.

She died on board Lusitania, which had been torpedoed — by the same German U-boat that attacked the Hesperian — just weeks before.

Steamship Lusitania

The British steamship Lusitania, circa 1914 (Getty Images)

When her body was recovered and returned to the United Kingdom, Stephens' husband requested her remains be returned to Montreal and interred there.

She was embalmed at Liverpool and, "for some strange reason, God forbid, the poor woman was on board [the Hesperian]."

Stephens' body was never recovered.

"She's still buried at sea."

Preserving history

Flannery says that he's preserving the artifacts in "pristine condition" at his aquarium.

"We hold them in an underwater tank in the aquarium until they are designated to be transferred to the museum in Dublin or wherever else the government requires us to send them," he said.