The wreck of the Association off Scilly in 1707 was among the biggest peacetime maritime disasters in British history and led to the offer of a prize for an instrument to measure longitude. Now the Navy diver who found the wreck gives us the inside story about how it was discovered - and debunks some of the myths and legends about what really happened to its famous Admiral.
Shipwrecks have always been an important part of Scillonian history. Although the Islands cover an area of only ten miles square, they have claimed more than a thousand ships of all kinds and nationalities.
One of the most famous wreck occurred on 22 October 1707. A large proportion of the British Navy fleet was returning from Gibraltar when its longitude was misjudged in poor visibility, and the flagship Association along with other ships in the fleet were wrecked on the western approaches. An estimated 1600 men were lost.
Legend states that Sir Cloudisley Shovell, the fleet’s commander and the most respected officer of the time, was washed up on Porth Hellick beach on St Mary’s, where he survived until a local woman killed him to steal his ring. He was buried in a simple grave at Porth Hellick, but later exhumed and buried in Westminster abbey.
THE INSIDE STORY Engineer-Lieutenant Roy H Graham, 68, who describes himself as a ‘raconteur, wit and well-known villain,’ was in charge of the Naval expedition which found the wreck in 1967.
Graham began his diving career when he was introduced to pot-holing in Gibraltar whilst an Engineer-Lieutenant on HMS Victorious. Whilst pot-holing in the Mendips, he came across a wet cave with a waterfall of 600ft and realised he would have to dive to make further progress. Eventually, by asking - and being refused permission - to borrow a colleagues’ diving equipment, he was put in charge of diving training on the ship and found himself on a shallow water diving course.
Diving course “There were 24 of us. It was the coldest, most savage January for many years, and we were in an old torpedo range. Some mornings we had to break through ice to get in. The people conducting the course delighted in making sure our suits leaked. They didn’t want too many of us wimps to pass, as they knew one day they might be relying on us for their lives.
24 men started, three got to the last day. One of the men went down with pneumonia - not surprising considering his suit always leaked. That left two - me and a R.A.F. medical officer. I said, “What kept you going?” “Benzedrine,” he replied, “what about you?” “Pure stubborn pride.” I was now the only shore-based Fleet Air Arm officer with a diving qualification.
Sub-aqua club At this time a group of Chief Petty Officers had an ambition to form a Naval Air Command Sub-aqua Club and put together annual diving expeditions from all clubs which we were hoping to form and amalgamate. I was asked to be the Club’s first chairman and greatly flattered, I accepted. Within a few years we had the finest amateur sub-aqua club the world had ever seen.
1966 The Association - attempt 1 The annual expedition in 1966 was announced as a search for the wreck of the Association in the Isles of Scilly. The fact that it carried lots of treasure was no dampener on our enthusiasm. Little did we know that we didn’t count as private individuals so couldn’t keep the treasure even if we found it. The British Navy doesn’t take kindly to the use of its time and resources in treasure-seeking.
The weather was so bad, all we achieved was the sight of a blur of seaweed, seals and white water as we were swept through the Gilstone Reef and fortunately out the other side.
1967 The Association - attempt 2 The second attempt duly found the remains of the Association on the Gilstone Ledge. The weather was fine. The Royal Navy Auxiliary Services had an in-shore Minesweeper we could use and it rolled through the water like a pig. We had sent the first pair of divers down onto the main Gilstone Rock and they reported nothing. The second pair, closer to the ledge, reported seeing cannon. The third pair reported gold and silver coins underneath the cannon.
So I called them all together. It was hard not to grasp the implications of this. I said: “For god’s sake keep this under your hat, men, because once the paper gets hold of the navy finding a treasure wreck in the Isles of Scilly, all hell will break loose.” I said the same to the crew of the Minesweeper.
So we carried on and raised a bronze cannon, causing a lot of interest. All the newspapers came to photograph it. But no-one had as yet said anything about the gold coins.
The Prime Minister then awarded us an extra week, but a Lieutenant we had with us went to ITV and blew the whole story, including the fact that we had found gold coins. After that, every unemployed salvage diver in the seven seas invaded the Isles of Scilly and we got the blame for it. But it put the islands on the map as the sports diving mecca without any peer at all. Word went around that he water is crystal clear, visibility good, temperature 55?c all year round.
Aftermath The Association was then plundered for a year or two. Few had much understanding of Marine Archeology or efficient salvage methods, so when the going got technical and difficult, they didn’t bother, because they weren’t professionals. Some were just in it for the fame and glory. Many stories and legends have built up around the Association and were circulated by people who wanted to keep the story going in the newspapers.
Debunking the myths One story was that the Admiral, with his secretary, nephew and dog, launched the Admiral’s barge in awful conditions to Porth Hellick where he was wrecked on a bar and his body washed ashore and buried in a shallow grave. The truth is that his body was most likely recovered with many of the others who were washed up on St Agnes. But as he was a very famous Admiral, a well-known embalmer was called upon to embalm his body with a view to entombing it in Westminster Abbey.
The body was buried on Porth Hellick because there was no refrigeration in those days and the best place to keep it cool was between high and low water. They couldn’t have buried it on Town Beach because the dogs would have dug it up.
Another part of this legend is that an old lady found his body and cut off his fingers for the sake of his emerald ring. This is a lie. When the embalmer found the body and entombed it, he reported that it was the body of a comely, portly man in full health without any blemishes - hardly likely if he’d had his finger cut off!
There is another persistent legend that when the fleet was within a few leagues of Scilly, a Scillonian cabin boy informed the Admiral that he knew from some sort of sixth sense that they were running into danger, whereupon the Admiral said, “hang him!” This is ridiculous - firstly, Scillonians went to sea as mates or cooks or captains, not cabin boys. And a cabin boy wouldn’t get within three yards of the Admiral, nor would the Admiral behave in such a way in response. All these legends are recorded and displayed in pubs and fed to tourists as if they are gospel.
The truth, which is much more interesting, is barely even mentioned.”
Roy Graham and his wife Joyce now run Carnwethers Country House Holiday Flats on St Mary’s.