Vessel History

The Saxmundham was an iron hulled screw steamer built in 1883 in Sunderland by the North of England Shipbuilding Co Ltd. The hull was 91.44m long and 11.88m wide and 7.77m high, and the tonnage was 2,486 gross. It was fitted with two boilers and a 300hp two cylinder compound engine. The Saxmundham was registered in London at the time of loss and owned by Hunting & Pattison, a shipping company.

On Friday 2nd November 1888, the Saxmundham left Newcastle for Ancona, Italy with a cargo of coal and coke. The ship had a crew of 29 men and was commanded by Captain Milne. The voyage proceeded well until the following day when, as the vessel passed to the south of the Isle of Wight, the weather “became exceedingly bad with heavy rain” (The Times, 5th November 1888). The vessel was struck at about 2am on Sunday 4th November by the Norwegian barque Nor en-route from New York to Stettin in Poland with a cargo of oil and paraffin. On board the Saxmundham, Harry Saderberg, reported that he had been steering west by south before he was relieved at 0200. Approximately 10 minutes later a light was seen and shortly afterwards the Nor struck them by the Number 3 hatch on the starboard side with such force that the ship filled with water almost instantly. The crew, many of whom had been asleep below decks, began to lower the jolly boat and lifeboat on the starboard side. Several crew members, including Captain Milne, boarded; however, the ship was listing heavily as the remaining men tried to launch the port boats and these had to be abandoned. The Saxmundham sank around ten minutes later and the two lifeboats were able to pick up five more men from the water (Morning Post, 8th November 1888).

Hails to the Nor went unanswered and the two drifted apart in the night. Onboard the lifeboat the eight members of the crew had to bail out water with their boots. Just before daybreak they sighted a steamer but it failed to notice them; instead they were picked up by the Waterbird which took them to Portland (The Times, 5th November 1888). Shortly after, the jolly boat was sighted by the barque St Nichele (North-Eastern Daily Gazette, 7th November 1888) or St Michaele which took them to Millwall (The Morning Post, 8th November 1888). In all, 12 crew were lost (North-Eastern Daily Gazette, 7th November 1888).  One of the Saxmundham lifeboats was later found drifting in Totland Bay (Isle of Wight County Press, 10th November 1888).

The crew of the Nor remained with their vessel, which drifted as it took on water. It was sighted near Ventnor at about 9.30am on Sunday morning, by which time its decks were then level with the water and every wave broke over them (Isle of Wight County Press, 10th November 1888). The crew were eventually taken off by the steamer Shagrock. HMS Monarch later identified the Nor south west of St Catherine’s Point and, after signalling to shore, they took the vessel in tow.  They passed it to the tug Malta shortly afterwards, but this ship had to release the the vessel as it proved impossible to manage (Isle of Wight County Press, 10th November 1888). The following day it was seen drifting near the Needles and grounded on the shingle bank near the Passage. The coastguard were able to salvage the sails and several tugs attempted to provide assistance, but it soon broke up and much of the cargo of oil and paraffin washed up on the Isle of Wight (Isle of Wight County Press, 10th November 1888). The captain of the Nor later denied any responsibility for the accident and claimed that the Saxmundham rammed the Nor in fine weather (Hudson Register, 5th November 1888).

Site Overview

The exact position of Saxmundham was not known until August 2010. Prior to this, the wreck at this position was believed to be the South Western. The Saxmundham was recorded to have sunk 30 miles west-south-west of St Catherine’s point; the actual position is now known to be 11 miles south west of St Catherine’s point. The wreck is in a good condition, owing to the sandy sediment that frequently covers and preserves the the site.

The large iron wreck lies on its side on the seafloor at a depth of about 40 metres. The hull is approximately 90m long from bow to stern and is often partly or entirely buried in sandy sediment. This site information has been provided by Mr David Wendes, a local maritime historian who has carried out extensive archival research on the vessel. During the 2010 survey season the wreck was largely uncovered, which assisted the archaeological assessment of the site.

No previous archaeological survey has been made of the wreck site, but it is a popular dive site and has frequently been visited by sports divers. A series of artefacts have been retrieved from the site at these co-ordinates and reported to the Receiver of Wreck. These include a brass compass stand/binnacle, comprising three cast brass legs of serpent design, lead soldered, with the compass bowl and gimbals missing, corroded and de-zincified in places. Its height is 636mm, and weight 16.5kg.

Latest Investigations

Archaeological assessments were conducted on the Saxmundham site in 2010 as part of the Archaeological Atlas of the 2 Seas project. Divers accessed the wreck from the dive boat Wight Spirit in the window of slack or near slack water. The main purpose of the dives were to confirm the position, extent, stability and character of the site. The visibility was around 7-10m, sufficient to allow a video record to be made of the site. This footage shows there is great amount of scattered material covering the site and that large parts of the stern section are still covered in sand.

An accurate survey was made in order to confirm the extent of the wreckage. The length of the wreck site was measured as about 90m from bow to stern, which provesa the wreck was not the South Western. The Saxmundham was 91m in length; combined with the position of the wreck (which matches one of three differing accounts of her loss), indicates that the site is probably the Saxmundham. Further historical research and archaeological survey of the site would contribute to a deeper understanding of the wreck and confirm the identity as the Saxmundham or another of the wrecks in the area.

The wreck is dominated by the two large boilers amidships which lie forward of the triple expansion engines clearly visible on the seabed. The bow section also has a pronounced vertical expression, with large coils of chain lying on top of the forecastle. The stern disappears under sand, but during August the prop shaft tunnel was exposed, possibly for the first time since it was first enveloped, judging by the pristine appearance of the metal. On the port side, large sand waves move over and recede from this wreck, which may provide potentially dramatic images derived from side scan survey.

Vessel Significance

The Saxmundham took part in the large scale export of coal from Britain at the end of the 19th century. Most British ships at the time went to European ports, with the export of coal contributing to the success of British shipping at that time. Up until 1860, steamships had proved to be less economical than sailing vessels, owing to their hungry consumption of coal and the subsequent limited capacity for cargo. After the 1860s, more efficient compound engines started to become standard equipment onboard steamships, lowering the running costs and  thus leading to a decrease in freight rates. This made British coal more competitive in foreign markets.

The coal export from England to Italy in the 19th century was at its peak at the end of the 1880s, at which point it grew rapidly owing to the increasingly industrialised state of Italy at this point in time. Europe received around 80% of all British coal exports, but large amounts were also sent to Africa, especially Egypt during the building of the Suez Canal, Turkey, Australia and North America.