9th July 2021

Conservation Support for Protected Wrecks

Saturday 10th July is the 48th anniversary of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. For the last 48 years, volunteer divers have worked tirelessly to record and monitor the sites of nationally important shipwrecks to ensure they are understood and enjoyed by all, often funding the work themselves. Historic England, MSDS Marine and the Nautical Archaeology Society are today (9 July 2021) announcing a grant of £13,000 from The Aurelius Trust and The Headley Trust, as well as additional support from Historic England, to help fund the conservation of artefacts exposed on the seabed at protected wreck sites that are recovered by these volunteers because they are at risk of being lost for ever.

Above: A hair slide saved from the wreck of the London, a Protected Wreck on the Heritage At Risk Register (Photo: Steve Ellis)

To enable the conservation of material recovered from sites designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 this pilot project is providing conservation capacity to licensees in 2021 and 2022.

There are currently 54 wreck sites protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. Recovery of material from these sites is only allowed by licence issued by Historic England on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Additionally, in line with the Rules to the Annex of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, material can only be recovered where funding is in place for conservation and a receiving museum has been secured. The pilot will ensure volunteer divers are able to recover exposed, high risk material on the seabed and that these significant finds will be conserved for future generations to enjoy.

Conserving the material and donating it to museums for curation and display means that the visitors and researchers have access to an important part of our material culture. In 2018 to 2019, 50.2% of people aged 16 and over visited a museum or gallery (1) at least once in the past year. In 2018, Southend Museum welcomed 14,000 visitors to an exhibition dedicated to artefacts recovered from the London (2) protected wreck which accidently blew up in 1665 in the Thames Estuary. The excavation by Cotswold Archaeology, which incorporated the licensee team, was funded by Historic England, followed by an extensive post-excavation analysis program (3) undertaken by Historic England. This visitor interest in seeing the artefacts, which ranged from leather shoes to glass bottles and navigation instruments shows the potential of maritime archaeology to reach new audiences at museums around the country.

Above: Excavated material from the wreck of the London on display as part of the the "London Shipwreck Story"

exhibition in Southend-on-Sea

Funding from these grants will be used to increase capacity at the Historic England Maritime Conservation Facility in Portsmouth.

Gill Campbell, Head of Fort Cumberland Laboratories at Historic England said, “With this generous funding from the Aurelius Charitable Trust and the Headley Trust and working in collaboration with MSDS Marine and the Nautical Archaeology Society we will be able conserve the wonderful objects recovered by volunteer divers from protected wreck sites round the country. This means that these finds will no longer be at risk of loss even after they have been saved from the seabed but will be conserved for everyone to enjoy now and in the future.”

Hefin Meara, Maritime Archaeologist at Historic England said, “This partnership will help the volunteer protected wreck licensees to save the most vulnerable at risk finds from our protected wrecks. This can be expensive and is an ongoing challenge. Together, thanks to the generous support of the Aurelius Charitable Trust and the Headley Trust, we can ensure that these finds are saved, conserved and available to the public through museums.”

Alison James at MSDS Marine said, “We are absolutely delighted to be able to launch this pilot service thanks to the Aurelius Charitable Trust, the Headley Trust and Historic England. It will support the volunteers who work on protected wreck sites and ensure that important archaeological material is conserved for the public to enjoy.”

Mark Beattie-Edwards, CEO of the Nautical Archaeology Society commented, “For many years now budgets have been so tight that sometimes delicate wreck material at risk of loss has had to be left on the seabed. However, now with the funding from the Aurelius Charitable Trust, the Headley Trust and Historic England it means that groups trying to save our heritage will not need to raise the funds themselves.”

The conservation service that is being set up will not apply to material recovered during planned excavation projects or where funding has been secured elsewhere and where a receiving museum remains to be identified. All recoveries must be agreed in advance with Historic England through the existing licensing arrangements (4).


1 https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/culture-and-community/culture-and-heritage/adults-visiting-museums-and-galleries/latest

2 https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000088

3 The London Wreck: A Kaleidoscope of Specialists, Materials and Artefacts | Historic England

4 https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/accessing-englands-protected-wreck-sites-guidance-notes/