Vessel History

The Smyrna was an iron hulled clipper sailing ship built in Aberdeen by Walter Hood in 1876. She had three masts and two decks and a tonnage of 1372 gross. It measured 232ft 3in in length, 38ft 5in in breadth and 22ft 2in in depth. Smyrna was used as a wool clipper operating between Britain and Australia. The vessel made the voyage numerous times; on one occasion in 1887 it sailed from Sydney to Aberdeen in only 96 days. In 1888 the ship was owned by G Thompson and Company of the Aberdeen White Star Line.

On Tuesday April 24th 1888, the Smryna left London bound for Sydney with a general cargo including crockery and glass bottles. She had a total crew of 30, including Captain Thomas Taylor and a pilot. The vessel was passing south of the Isle of Wight on the 28th, with a good sailing breeze and under full sail (although a survivor stated that the ship was actually under easy sail). Then, mid-morning, it entered a fog bank. At the same time, the steamship Moto also entered the same fog bank. The Moto was an iron screw steamer of 1449 tons gross built in 1887 by Messr. Palmer and Company, and had left Bilboa on the 26th, carrying a cargo of iron ore to Newcastle. The 18 man crew was commanded by Captain Henry Digman.

At approximately 10.30am, Captain Digman was at the wheel when the Symrna was spotted on the port bow. The Moto reversed engines and over the next few minutes very nearly stopped, but inevitably collided with the Smyrna, slicing into the rigging and leaving a giant hole in her side. The vessel quickly took on water and the crew gathered on deck. A survivor recounted that one man managed to jump onto the Moto’s deck as the vessels passed, and that Captain Taylor could also have done so, but elected to remain on the Smyrna. He calmly ordered the lifeboats to be lowered and the crew to jump as the water rapidly rose to deck level. Only one boat had been launched when the vessel suddenly heeled over and sank stern first. Several men who had still been on deck resurfaced, although some drowned as they struggled amongst the floating wreckage.

The Moto had moved some way since the crash but quickly lowered its boats and returned to the scene. The survivors were picked up after twenty minutes and taken on board the Moto, but by then 12 men had drowned, including the captain and the coastal pilot. The Moto had suffered severe damage to its bows in the accident and entered Southampton the following morning where the Smyrna’s crew were landed.

The Smyrna was not insured but the owners sought damages from the owners of the Moto. The defendants claimed that the Smyrna was going too fast and neglected to shorten sail and attempted to counter claim for the damage to the Moto. However, the crew of the Moto had already acknowledged that they were responsible for the accident and the courts didn’t attribute any blame to the Smyrna. As a result no official enquiry was felt necessary. Several crew members received compensation and others brought private actions against the owners of the Moto including the relatives of the drowned men.

Site Overview

The Smyrna lies in 55m on a hard gravel substrate in good condition with parts of the stern 6 metres high and the cutwater (the forward part of the ship’s prow) clearly visible. The wreck is partially broken up, but still exhibits a substantial vertical expression. The 70 metre long hull is twisted with the bows lying over to the port side. Masts, spars and other debris are dispersed along this side of the ship across the seabed. Part of the bowsprit is still in place, located above the elegantly defined cutaway bow that is the signature of the clipper type, with other sections of bowsprit leading away from the wreck, now lying on the bottom. This site information has been provided by Mr David Wendes, a local maritime historian who has also carried out extensive archival research on the vessel. The results of this research can be viewed in: Wendes, D. 2006. South Coast Shipwrecks off East Dorset and Wight: 1870-1979.

The wreck is full of cargo including glassware, crockery, bottled goods and grindstones. In visibility of 30m in the mid 1990s both sides of the wreck and the seabed were visible showing the Smyrna to lie in a huge depression, presumably caused by scour from the wreck.

No previous archaeological survey has been made of the wreck site, but it is a popular dive site and has been frequently visited by sports divers. The vessel’s identity was confirmed by crockery and the builder’s nameplate recovered from the site during diving activity. Over 150 artefacts have been retrieved from the site and reported to the Receiver of Wreck. These include a number of glass bottles, crockery, a grinding stone, a chamber pot, a navigation light, a brass alarm clock, candlesticks, a ship’s bell inscribed “Mears and Co.”, a soda siphon, a large empty, “Poison” bottle and the builder’s nameplate inscribed “Smyrna 1876, Walter Hood and Co. Shipbuilders Aberdeen”.

Latest Investigations

Diving on the Smyrna site took place in 2010 as part of the Archaeological Atlas of the 2 Seas project. The main objective was to confirm the position, extent, stability and character of the site. Taped measurements of observed archaeological features were recorded. The visibility was around 10m allowing a video record to be made of the site.

The remains of the Smyrna are in good condition considering her age, with relatively vulnerable features, such as the deadeyes, still remaining. Parts of the stern still stand approximately 5m above the seabed. At the bow the cutwater is still clearly discernible. Despite the amount of artefacts reported as recovered to the Receiver of Wrecks, smaller artefacts are still numerous with bottles and crockery scattered around the wreck site.