Mystery of the Iron Duke
WHEN I’M ASKED TO NAME MY FAVOURITE wreck dive, I’m always ready with my answer – it’s the Duke of Buccleugh.
This declaration is usually followed by an awkward pause, then a bewildered “What The Duke of Buccleugh That old steamer in the Channel”
Having explored numerous famous shipwrecks such as the Britannic and Lusitania, Nazi ships, U-boats and bullion vessels the world over, as well as discovering some noted wrecks, I have often asked myself why the Duke tops my list.
I wonder if it’s because of the classic and somewhat romantic seafaring story of her loss, or perhaps the detective work divers have invested in the wreck, in an effort to reverse history.
Perhaps it’s because every time I dive the wreck and return to the dive-boat, I sit back and enjoy a beehive of activity as one diver after another surfaces, delving eagerly into goodie bags to examine their treasure. Maybe it’s the continuous excited chatter on our way back to Littlehampton.
Clichéd as it may be, this story really does start on a stormy night.
It’s just after midnight on 7 March 1889, and two ships collide. One is the Duke of Buccleugh, a steamship loaded with general cargo bound for Calcutta. This includes 2500 tons of machinery and iron rails loaded at Middlesbrough, and 600 tons of china and glassware picked up from Antwerp in Belgium.
The other vessel is a sailing ship, the Vandalia, heading for London from New York with a cargo of petroleum barrels. The Duke sinks immediately, taking with her Captain Langlois and her entire crew of 47.
The Vandalia is damaged, but survives. How could an iron-hulled steamship be sunk by a wooden-hulled sailing ship two-thirds her size Why should these two ships collide in the first place, 19 miles into the English Channel from the Sussex seaport of Littlehampton
The Duke of Buccleugh was launched in Barrow-in-Furness in 1874. She was 115m long, weighed in at 3000 tons and had a top speed of 11 knots.
In her day she was a Lloyds of London Class A vessel – the best. Like most early iron steamships, she and her sister-ship were equipped with auxiliary sail power.
She was named after an English aristocrat who was a friend of the Duke of Devonshire, and a fellow-investor in the shipbuilding company that owned the vessels that formed part of the Ducal Line; the Duke of Devonshire and Duke of Buccleugh.
Ducal Line steamers were built to carry passengers and freight to the Far East during the British Empire’s boom years. Such vessels were gradually displacing wooden ships, making the cause of the Duke of Buccleugh’s sinking all the more ironic.
Vandalia was a Canadian-built barque capable of carrying more than 1000 tons of cargo. With the land well-forested, Canadian ships were still timber-built and wind-powered. It was a golden age of shipbuilding in Canada.
THE VANDALIA’S CAPTAIN COONAN, and his son, the second mate, convinced a Board of Trade enquiry that the blame for the collision rested on the Duke of Buccleugh and her captain.
Coonan said that they had seen the steamer’s masthead light, as well as her green light. His son had just checked their own lights, he said, and all were burning brightly. Coonan had ordered the man at the wheel to keep the ship to the wind and not let her fall.
He had watched as the distant steamer kept the same course, expecting to see its red light at any moment.
Regulations make clear that no one in command of a vessel may assume a “right of way” to the point of collision.
If two ships are on a course to intersect, the rule is that the ship on the left gives way. The “stand-on vessel” sees the green light on the starboard side of the ship to port. The “give-way vessel” sees the red light on the port side of the stand-on vessel.
Coonan claimed that he never saw the Duke of Buccleugh’s red light. He said that when the steamer was within one or two lengths of Vandalia she began to turn to port – right towards him.
Coonan told the board that at that point he ordered his man at the wheel to put the helm hard down, but too late.
He claimed that the Duke struck his vessel on the port bow, where the port anchor beam was fastened to the bow tip. And he said that the steamer then backed out, dealing her starboard side another blow before disappearing into the darkness to the north.
Coonan said that he had seen a white light soon after on his port beam, and believed it to be the steamer coming back to help in response to his distress signals. He said that the light soon disappeared – perhaps he had seen the masthead light slowly going down as the Duke of Buccleugh sank
Coonan claimed that the steamer had sailed on, leaving Vandalia to sink. At no point did he hear any calls for distress. The fact that another crewmate had reported hearing whistling noises for some time after the collision was ruled irrelevant, and Coonan was cleared of all blame.
The noise was probably either the Duke of Buccleugh’s steam whistle blasting in distress, or the vessel being sucked beneath the waves. As there were no survivors, the latter xplanation is more than likely.
Vandalia was taking on water herself, though the barrels of petroleum banging on the undersides of the decking helped to keep her afloat.
Once 10ft of water had been taken on, Coonan gave the order to abandon ship.
Despite the heavy seas, both of Vandalia’s lifeboats made it safely to land, one to the east and one to the west of Bognor. The vessel was found at first light the following day in shallow water off Brighton by two tugs, and deemed a complete wreck, with the sea washing in and out of her breaking hull.
A classic photograph of the huge hole in the bow was taken by investigators, and shown to the board.
A hundred years later, in 1989, the Duke was discovered by a group of divers and Littlehampton skippers who had teamed up to investigate a newly found seabed obstruction.
THE DIVERS’ FIRST IMPRESSION was of a four-masted iron sailing ship, upright and with many wooden rigging blocks and standing rigging deadeyes scattered over her decks.
Nigel Chilton brought up a china plate with the shipping crest Ducal Line stamped on it, which led to the identification of the wreck.
If the Duke had rammed the Vandalia, the divers would expect to see major cracking of the cant frames near the vessel’s bow, the whole stem buckled or ripped off completely, or even the entire bow missing.
But the bow was “ship-shape”, and the divers discovered damage not on the port side, as stated by Coonan, but on the starboard side, some way back from the bow. How could the Duke have rammed Vandalia without succumbing to any significant bow damage herself
It was now obvious that Captain Coonan’s evidence at the enquiry had been fabricated, and the crew must have known the truth all along.
It seemed it was Vandalia that had caused the collision.
One of the Duke’s lifeboats was washed ashore in a smashed-up condition, reinforcing the evidence of impact. A quick glance at a photograph of the ship shows that she carried her lifeboats amidships.
The wreck lies upright in sand at 58m and is largely intact, apart from the damage to its starboard side. Light levels are low, but conditions can often be very clear.
Rigging blocks and deadeyes and machinery lie the length of the wreck, but much is indistinguishable after more than a century of marine growth.
The masts lie across the wreck, and swimming down either side you can see the teak decking collapsed inwards at an angle from the gunwales.
The glass and china in the holds of the Duke of Buccleugh is an incredible sight, and perhaps another reason why I love this dive so much.
At first sight those 1989 divers must have thought they had discovered another Nanking treasure trove.
Light permitting, it’s easy to swim into the holds. But the bulkheads must have broken when the Duke hit the seabed, and the china plates were loosely stacked, so much of the fragile cargo was broken.
HOWEVER, AMONG THE PLATES were blue Victorian lampshades and interesting china-glazed bowls, some of which survived the seabed impact.
And attractive hand-painted plates found by the 1989 divers were identified by Sothebys as having been painted in Belgium around 1800, and worth about £10 each.
The forward hold is full of glassware, from various-sized glazed bowls to Victorian blue glasses, goblets and ashtrays.
If Vandalia was responsible for the loss of the Duke of Buccleugh, what had caused her to be on that collision course I called my good friends John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, presenters of the popular US TV show Deep Sea Detectives, and soon found myself writing a treatment about my favourite wreck, to be pitched to the History Channel bosses.
The channel snapped it up, and John and Richie headed for London. With American cameraman Evan Kovacs, my late friend Carl Spencer and Duke wreck expert Mark Bullen, we geared up to dive and film the wreck.
We discovered that the rudder was hard to port – a strange position for a vessel that was said to have ended its career in a head-on position. Had the Vandalia, perhaps in haste to reach port and offload her cargo, held her course
Had the Duke, for some inexplicable reason, made a suicidal last-minute turn to port, only to be rammed on the starboard side by Vandalia
WE DISCOVERED A JAGGED FRACTURE aft of the bow, extending from the rail to the seabed on both port and starboard sides – not the sort of damage you would expect from a collision.
It also looked as if salvage may have taken place at some stage. Stories of a French operation and subsequent recovery of £1.3 million in silver began to emerge, backed by evidence of activity when the original divers discovered a lost ROV on the wreck, soon after their discovery appeared in national newspapers.
This muddied our own investigation, and left us wondering which was recent damage and which collision damage.
We met Ray Lee and Bernie Attwood, two of the divers who discovered the wreck in 1989, in the Arun View Hotel, a classic watering hole for Littlehampton divers. They gave us valuable insights into the find, and showed us artefacts that had helped identify the wreck.
Like us, they were keen to understand exactly what had happened 100 years before their discovery.
THE SALVAGE DAMAGE meant that the wreck itself would not reveal the final point of collision.
However, in the photograph of the Vandalia’s damaged bow, a man can clearly be seen standing inside it, just below the waterline.
The Duke had a 1.5m freeboard from the waterline, but in photos the forepart is much higher, possibly 2.4m.
The bridge was raised some 2.4m as well, leaving a section of vessel between the well-deck and bridge with a height above the waterline of about 1.5m.
This matches exactly the size of the damage to Vandalia’s bow above the waterline, as seen in the photograph, suggesting that the point of impact was between the well-deck and the point of the bridge – exactly where the damage can be found on the starboard side of the wreck.
But it was a long-forgotten case heard by the House of Lords that provided the break-through. At the Southampton Library maritime archives, John and Richie met marine investigator John L David, who had discovered that the original enquiry had gone right through the judicial system up to the Lords.
The case pivoted on the Vandalia’s lights, which the court had found were improperly mounted at the stern.
Being a masted sailing vessel, in strong winds she could well have sailed down the Channel swaying from port to starboard, her lights appearing intermittent to any approaching vessel.
With the strong sea movement and her lights disappearing beneath the fully rigged sails at various angles, the Duke of Buccleugh may not have seen them at all.
The four judges had been unable to reach a majority verdict, so the Duke remained responsible and the case against the Vandalia was dismissed. Yet in hindsight, both captains were more than likely confused, and equally at fault.
TESTIMONY FROM VANDALIA’S HELMSMAN William Barnet suggests just that. As he took his eye off the wheel in a lapse of concentration, the ship rose on the waves, and suddenly the Duke of Buccleugh crew would have seen a green light, revealed at this point with the sails on the opposite side.
The Duke’s crew would be thinking starboard-to-starboard passage, the crew of the Vandalia port to port, and that’s when the two vessels collided.
Not seeing the lights of the Vandalia until the very last moment cost the Duke of Buccleugh’s crew their lives.
The Duke is one of the best dives in British waters for advanced-level wreck-divers.
With hundreds of tons of cargo still deep inside the wreck, however, be advised that any artefacts recovered must be declared to the Receiver of Wreck.