Written by DIVE Magazine Monday, 10 December 2012 11:43
A group of amateur treasure-hunters who discovered the remains of a historic 18th century Dutch merchant vessel lost off the Devon coast during a violent storm in 1721, have uncovered a second wreck - incredibly on the very same spot.
Sunk in very similar circumstances, the two wrecks lie side by-side in the shallow waters of Jennycliff Bay, Plymouth Sound, twin tragedies separated by a time span of seventy-seven years and by further coincidence the same age as one of the four-man team who found her.
Scuba diver Howard Jones, whose recent book, Blind Faith detailed his search for wreck of the Aagtekerke, a 1000-ton Dutch East India Company vessel, now claims to have conclusive evidence of the final resting place of HMS Pallas, a Royal Navy frigate that met its end in treacherous conditions seventy-seven years later.
'We decided to widen our search for the Aagtekerke, and within a matter of only a few yards came across a very small iron swivel gun,' explained Jones, 50, a former Royal Marine and Falklands veteran.
The 176lb, 38 inch-long swivel gun, found lying on the seabed in two pieces, was effectively a small bore cannon, designed specifically for side-mounting on a ship’s rails and was typically engaged during short range combat or to cover the crew during boarding parties.
'We retrieved the gun in its entirety and carefully removed hundreds of years of encrustation expecting to find another relic from the Dutch wreck, but we were amazed.
'Not only did the two pieces match exactly, but to also find a prominent British broad arrow marking on the barrel of the gun was a revelation.'
Originally a heraldic crest, the broad arrow symbol was adopted by Henry VIII to mark goods purchased from the monarchy’s own purse. By the 17th century its use was expanded to signify all government-owned armaments and is still used to this day to mark property belonging to the British Ministry of Defence.
'Further research showed that the gun also had the very distinctive markings of an English Armstrong cannon and that its year of casting also matched the correct era for the sinking of the Pallas,' continued Jones.
The ensuing search also revealed a medium-sized anchor, typical of the type used by the Royal Navy, with its position on the seabed also indicating it had remained stowed onboard unused, matching contemporary descriptions of the sinking.
HMS Pallas was one of a series of three 32 gun, 18 pounder frigates constructed to a design by naval architect John Henslow and was launched on 19th December 1793.
Weighing 776 tons and measuring 135 feet long by 36 feet wide, she carried a crew of 254 under the command of Captain Henry Curzon.
Anchoring in Plymouth Sound on April 3rd 1798 on a return voyage from France, Captain Curzon spent the morning officiating at a Court Martial hearing on the mainland, returning to his vessel later to leave directions for the security of his ship as high winds began to take hold.
Overnight the winds dropped slightly, but come early morning, HMS Pallas became increasingly buffeted by strong southwesterly gales. The crew’s ensuing struggle with Mother Nature however, was doomed to failure as one of her anchors parted and the frigate was forced perilously closer and closer to the treacherous cliffs. Striking the rocky shore stern-first, the Pallas’ crew were unable to hold her in position and the ship, swinging broadside in the face of mountainous seas, became stuck firmly onto the rocks as onlookers watched in vein as the perilous conditions made rescue from the shore an impossibility.
Later in the day, due to the now-ebbing tide and the vessel’s bow offering some respite from the powerful seas, the Pallas managed to launch its cutter and a line was brought ashore to transfer the crew by hawser to safety. Miraculously for such a devastating event the only recorded fatality was that of seaman Peter Charlock who was carried overboard by a falling mast during the height of the storm.
Not so fortunate were the crew of a six-man rescue boat sent by the nearby HMS Canada. Responding to the stricken frigate’s fore gun distress signal, their attempts to reach the floundering ship were aborted due to the perilous conditions and heading back on a reciprocal course they capsized in heavy seas with the loss of four brave men.
Ex-commercial diver and team member Ray Ives, 77 – whose own age mirrors the exact timeline between the two events - believes that it’s very plausible that the two vessels would come to lie side by side, given the similarity of the prevailing weather conditions.
“Their stories are so alike. Seeking safe haven during high winds and high seas, anchoring up and trying to shelter from furious southwesterly gales, it’s no surprise that they would end up in such close proximity.”
Howard Jones however, also believes that the swivel gun may have an even bigger part to play in the incredible story.
“It could just be possible that the gun that we’ve recovered may well have been one of those used to send off the distress signal on that tragic day, but that’s one secret we’ll never be able to uncover.”
The team’s findings have since been reported to the Receiver of Wrecks and the gun itself is currently undergoing conservation treatment before a planned visit to the site by representatives from English Heritage in February of next year.