Any mention of a shipwreck being found immediately conjures up the wildest possible imaginings in most people’s minds – treasure chests full of gold, pearl necklaces, stone studded jewels and other magnificent objects. Alongside the treasure, our imaginations are also filled with scenes of uninhabited islands in the Caribbean with white sand, turquoise water and dreamy blue skies, and of course pirates, rum and treasure maps where X marks the spot. However, back in 2018 a very different type of wreck containing a very different type of treasure was identified.
The wreck of the Josephine Willis was first found in 2018 and in August 2022 it was designated a Scheduled Monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. And early this year it was granted Protected Wreck Status by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. It lies 23 metres deep in the English Channel 6.4km south of Folkestone Harbour in Kent. The Josephine Willis was a British “packet” boat which sunk on its second voyage on 3 February 1856. A “packet” boat was a medium-sized wooden sailing ship used throughout the 18th and 19th centuries for transporting people, mail and freight to Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. This was the second journey of the Josephine Willis: it was on its way to Auckland, New Zealand with a crew of 44 and 66 passengers and a large amount of cargo including numerous crates of ceramics. It sank at about 8pm in the evening having mistaken the light of the SS Mangerton for that of Dungeness lighthouse and the subsequent adjusted course resulted in it being cut in two during the collision. Approximately 70 lives were lost including that of the Captain, Edward Canney.
Now, understandably many of you may be wondering why this ship has been both scheduled and given protected wreck status? Part of the answer lies in its cargo. Much of this cargo was ordinary objects, specifically ceramics as crockery sets, everyday plates destined for the new world. Ceramics have been found to have come from the Mexborough, Charles Meigh and Davenport potteries and include several unknown patterns and designs. The reason for this is that these were considered utilitarian items and so not of great merit and therefore few examples exist in collections or museums. This cargo, the wreck and its passengers (both the deceased and those that survived) can provide further information on the Victorian export ceramics industry and immigration to Australia and New Zealand at this time. Only one other example of a similar wreck in English waters exists and that is the clipper ship South Australian located in the Bristol Channel off Lundy.
You may also be wondering why this wreck is both scheduled and protected? A scheduled monument is anything that has been deemed to be of national archaeological importance, and the definition of Monument includes buildings, structures or work, cave or excavation, vehicle, vessel, aircraft or movable structure. Scheduling is done by the Secretary of State and the purpose of scheduling is to protect the monument from change and development, though some necessary works are permitted following the granting of Scheduled Monument Consent. The area scheduled can be the structure (or monument to use the correct terminology) as well as a defined area around it if the precise size of the monument is not known.
A Protected Wreck on the other hand is the designation of a restricted area around a wreck to prevent uncontrolled interference either from natural elements or commercial exploitation of the seabed. Being a protected wreck offers further protection as it prevents a variety of work without a licence. Such works include removing any part of the vessel, carrying out diving or salvage operations or depositing anchors or fishing gear which could cause damage to the site. In both instances, scheduling and protecting is done following advice provided by Historic England and both types of designations can be viewed on the National Heritage List for England.
The protected wreck status works very differently from how land treasures are protected. While the Treasure Act has recently been amended to allow for a wider scope of object to be declared as treasure, specifically allowing objects not made of precious metals to be considered treasure, it is still the single object that is protected following a monetary valuation (as a reward for the finder). This can allow the object to be retained in the public domain, such as in a museum, if the object is bought by said museum. Protected wrecks on the other hand are so designated because of their historical, archaeological or artistic value, and preservation and management in situ are the ultimate aim. As such, this method is very similar to that offered by scheduled monument protection or listed building status – the designation is granted based on the values and is there to prevent loss or harm in order to ensure its survival for future generations.
Both the designations offer protection from unwanted activity and salvaging, while still permitting controlled research activities. As the designation reasons state, this wreck offers a rare example of everyday 19th century ceramics and can provide opportunities for studying ceramic export and immigration. How this future research will unfold, only time will tell.
Collision between the Josephine Willis and the SS Mangerton, The Illustrated Times via Wikimedia Commons – public domain
The South Australian clipper ship, State Library of South Australia via Wikimedia Commons – public domain