Mysterious shipwreck on English beach could have Nova Scotia connection
Researchers believe the wreck could be a ship called the Avon, reportedly built in Nova Scotia in 1843
One day almost two years ago, the phone rang in the office of a British history organization.
A woman in southeast England had been walking on her local beach when she spotted some curious pieces of wood poking up out of the sand. She thought researchers might be interested.
"'I've lived here for about 60 years and I've always seen bits of timbers, but it suddenly really looks like a ship's coming up,'" the woman said, according to Joseph Flatman of Historic England, a government-funded body that protects historic places.
That phone call was the beginning of a mystery that could have its origins across the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia.
Flatman and others from Historic England travelled to the site at Camber Sands, a popular tourist beach southeast of London, to see it for themselves.
"There was a really substantial ship just sitting there," he said. "You could see the bow very clearly, with its timbers kind of in that nice arching classic shape and you could see the flat stern ... it's really exciting."
Researchers immediately got to work scouring records to find out more.
But the lack of documents about the wreck stumped Mark Dunkley, a marine archeologist with Historic England.
"It's a massive ship that's left. You know, it's almost 50 metres long by something like 10 metres wide ... So one of the most peculiar things is, why is this ship not recorded both on air photos and local records?"
Even though the coast of England is routinely surveyed and documented in aerial photographs, Dunkley said the wreck probably didn't show up in photos because it was likely covered over with sand very quickly after it was wrecked and wasn't exposed again, possibly until 2016.
But even a search of Lloyd's Register, an invaluable tool for marine researchers that lists ship losses in detail, came up empty.
The team then turned to analyzing the wood to find clues.
The upper part of the vessel was built with oak and larch for the frame, and the analysis showed that the timbers were likely felled between 1684 and 1863 — quite a broad range, admits Dunkley.
The search narrowed when the analysis suggested some of the oak originated in North America, from the Eastern Seaboard.
The design was notable too, since it was double-planked and had diagonal outer planking, presumably to withstand the pressure of ice, Dunkley said.
Then, a ship archivist found a record about a two-masted, square-rigged brig called the Avon, reported to have become stranded on the east side of nearby Rye Harbour in August 1852. The ship had been en route from Le Havre, France, with a cargo of timber.
"So that gave us a pretty good potential identity," Dunkley said. "And further research showed that the Avon was built in Nova Scotia ... in 1843."
Ship directories held by the Avon River Heritage Society show that a ship called the Avon was built in Windsor, N.S., in 1846 and was sold to Liverpool, England, but that ship was a barque, which has more than two masts. Other records match either the name Avon or the year 1843, but the archive doesn't provide an exact match.
CBC's request to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic for any records about a ship called the Avon built in 1843 didn't immediately turn up any answers either.
Dunkley said it's possible that one of the Nova Scotia records is for ship in question, even if the details differ.
"Whatever the sources were that my colleague looked at, that would have been handwritten, I suppose, at the time. So as time goes by, the more people that get involved in recording these events, the more chance there is for an error to creep in," he said.
"It's entirely possible that we're talking about the same ships, it's just the date mismatch could be just an error."
'Yearning for stories'
Dunkley estimates the ship extends about two metres deep into the sand.
He decided not to excavate the site out of concern for his crew. Several people have drowned on the beach in recent years due to the fast incoming tides.
A full excavation would also be expensive and time-consuming, said Flatman.
As of last week, the shipwreck is legally protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act, so anyone wishing to conduct work at the site would need to ask permission.
Flatman said about a dozen similar shipwreck sites have received protection in the last 10 years.
"Some of them are really famous and people like to visit them, as you can imagine, because they're quite exciting things to walk down to the beach and actually see a shipwreck," Flatman said.
For Dunkley, the thrill also lies in the pure mystery of those time-worn wooden planks.
"What we really wanted to learn from it is that fascination that all historians and we all have — that yearning for stories. What's the story of this ship that's waiting to be unlocked?"