A commercial diver has pleaded guilty at Southampton Crown Court to a fraud offence in excess of £46,000 following a two year investigation by the U.K. Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA).
The diver, Vincent Woolsgrove of Ramsgate, Kent, reported finding five cannons during the summer 2007, two from the wreck of the warship, London, and three in international waters off the coast of Kent. The cannons recovered from the warship were both very rare bronze Peter Gill and commonwealth cannons.
The London was a second rate warship built in Chatham dockyard in 1654 and became part of Charles II restoration navy. In 1665 the London blew up accidentally off Southend when a powder magazine exploded.
The three that he had reported finding off North Foreland, were 24lb bronze cannons originally from the City of Amsterdam.
The cannons were part of a battery of 36 cannons produced in Amsterdam to protect the city in the early part of the 16th century, and were assigned to Dutch ships during the first Anglo Dutch war.
Woolsgrove was subsequently awarded the title of three Dutch cannons, as the MCA were unable to prove at that time that the cannons were property of the Crown.
The Dutch cannons were then sold at auction to an American buyer for a sum in excess of £50,000 and are now resident in a private collection in Florida.
In 2011 a joint operation was undertaken by the MCA, Kent & Essex Police & Historic England (formerly English Heritage),after fresh information was received regarding heritage crime in the Kent & Essex force area involving divers stealing cultural objects of great historic value from wrecks off the coast.
A search warrant was obtained and Woolsgrove’s house in Ramsgate was searched. In his garden the MCA found a bronze 16 century Zeirikzee cannon in a desalinization tank along with a considerable amount of other wreck items including copper, lead, tin and glass ingots, ships bells etc.
Woolsgrove was then interviewed and disclosed that he had a further two unreported bronze armada cannons stored at his girlfriend’s house. When he was questioned regarding the previous Dutch cannons he stated that they were recovered from North Foreland but were towed to the Thames Estuary. During the investigation photographs were found on his computer showing the cannons being recovered off Southend.
Extensive research was then untaken by the MCA, Charles Trollope, a world authority on muzzle loading cannons, Frank Fox, an American Author of 16th-17th British Naval History and the Dutch heritage authorities.
From the research it was proven that the three Dutch cannons had been issued to Dutch vessels, Groote Liefde and St. Mattheus to attack the English fleet during the first Anglo-Dutch War in 1653. The vessels were then captured by the English and the cannons taken as prizes. These cannons were subsequently placed on board the warship London until its fatefully day in 1665 when it blew up with the loss of over 200 souls.
This evidence disproved Woolsgrove’s claim that he had found the cannons outside territorial waters and they were in fact property of the Crown. If he had reported them correctly he would have been entitled to a substantial salvage award.
Woolsgrove will be sentenced on September 4 at Southampton Crown Court.
During the protracted investigation David Knight & Edward Huzzey, who dived with Woolsgrove were convicted of several offences in relation to unreported wreck material including further bronze cannons.
Sir Alan Massey, Chief Executive of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency said, “This is an important case and should serve as a deterrent to others. The laws on salvage are very clear and they work well when properly applied. Those tempted to circumvent those rules can expect our close attention.”
Historic England has provided expert advice in relation to uncontrolled salvage on submerged archaeological remains and on the handling of the seized artifacts.
Mark Harrison, Historic England's National Policing and Crime Advisor, said, "This case sets an important precedent in the fight against uncontrolled salvage by a small criminal minority who have no appreciation for England's maritime heritage.
"Woolsgrove used sophisticated techniques and equipment to remove these valuable artifacts from the seabed."
Alison James, Historic England's Maritime Archaeologist said, “Since 2014, Historic England have been working with Cotswold Archaeology and the local volunteer licensed dive team led by Steve Ellis to investigate and record finds from the wreck of the London, which was rediscovered in 2005 and designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act in 2008.
“Historic England takes very seriously all cases of heritage crime which robs us of our shared history. However, we recognize that the majority of divers do act responsibly and comply with the laws and regulations relating to historic wreck sites and salvage. We are keen to build on our existing work with the diving community and would urge anyone who finds something of potential historic interest to talk to us as we can help provide advice and guidance.”