There have been two recorded attempts to find the lost sheet anchor from the HMS Colossus disaster in 1798. The first was self funded by salvor Roland Morris; the second, by CISMAS who, were awarded Ł25,000 of funding. It is easy to see how they were unsuccessful as both these teams searched the sea bed to the southeast of the wreck site This seemed perfectly logical, as when the ship was lost on the 10th December, 1798, it was as result of a gale blowing east southeast.   Everyone, including ourselves, also believed that this sheet anchor may well have been salvaged just after the wreck. This was because it was standard practice for Navy vessels to deploy their anchors with a 'nun' buoy. This nun buoy was attached to the crown of the anchor to aid its retrieval when being weighed or salvaged after loss. As a consequence of this, Captain George Murray, believed his ships lost anchors would all be found when he wrote:- “I fear that few stores will be saved from the Colossus except her anchors and cables”.  There are no records yet found that prove this was actually the case, especially as it does not account for the bad weather that continued long after the wrecking. As a result, a large niggle about this last piece in the HMS Colossus jig saw puzzle continued to remain unsolved. Where did Murray anchor his ship? Only one piece of evidence exists to my knowledge, a statement he made at his court martial: ‘in eleven fathoms’


Note: Before the 19th century ships carried 'bower' anchors on their port sides and a larger 'sheet' anchor to starboard. The sheet anchor was also referred to as the 'best bower' anchor. Its true term though, being the sheet anchor and it was generally used in emergencies. Royal Navy anchors of this period were of a certain distinctive shape and style called - Angle Crown. Those on HMS Colossus were recorded as being about 18feet, 1 inch long and weighed about 3˝ tons each. This information can be found in 'The Established Sizes and Weights of Anchors for the Royal Navy, c.1763 [1]', where its states that for a 74 gun ship the sheet or best bower anchor should be 18 feet 1 inch long.


It is an historical fact from the court martial of Captain Murray that he had deployed his “best bower anchor” but unbeknown to anyone aboard, a rotten cable had been tied to it. This cable parted and the sheet anchor was lost. Murray is recorded to have given his spare bower anchor to Captain Horatio Nelson, so Murray did not have a sufficient replacement anchor to deploy.


Despite all the previous worthy efforts by other dive teams to put this story to bed, i.e. where is the sheet anchor now? Robin Burrows and myself took up the challenge, knowing that our efforts may end in failure too. There was no guarantee that the anchor still remained on the seabed. However, we were already in the process of surveying all of St. Mary’s Roads and the HMS Colossus anchor was just one of our main targets. After giving the story some thought and knowing that searches to the southeast of the wreck had been well performed by others, and using local knowledge of weather and tides in that area, this encouraged us to rethink where the anchor could be. Yes, the Colossus was lost during a east south easterly gale, but had anyone considered the fact that she had rode at anchor in safety for 3 days previous to the disaster? To us, this fact was crucial as we had come to believe that Colossus may not have been anchored to the southeast of Southard Well ‘in 11 fathoms’ as everyone had previously thought. Imagine Captain Murray bringing his ship into Scilly, with a local pilot that we know was recorded to have been on board, he being employed to aid in the ship coming to a place to rest in relative safety and out of the wind and weather as possible. On this day, 7th December, the wind was blowing from the southeast, so might the local pilot naturally have placed the Colossus under the lee of what we now call Telegraph Hill, closer to the northern most islands, i.e. between Nut Rock and St. Mary's?  Would this not be perfectly logical under the then prevailing weather? Surely the position in which the pilot would have naturally chosen to place the Colossus would be exactly where nearly all cruise ships are positioned in the anchorage of St. Mary's Roads to this day. It made no sense to place her “in 11 fathoms” as stated by Murray in his court martial, as that would have placed the warship further out in Broad Sound and exposed to the wind then blowing directly up through St. Mary's Sound from the south east; and thus placing Colossus directly in harms way on day one. To any local sea user that would seem totally illogical, as indeed it must surely have done back in 1798 to the local pilot; and this is why I believe Colossus was placed more to the north of the anchorage. Yes, this makes Captain Murrays statement spurious, but then he was only human and can make mistakes like the rest of us. His evidence at court martial was merely from memory of events preceding the disaster; a full 6 weeks before it.


With the above in mind it is easy to imagine the ship sitting more to the north end of the anchorage under the relative protection of Telegraph Hill, between there and Nut Rock, out of the worst of the weather, from the 7th of December to the 10th. However, although relatively calmer there at this time, this particular position is where a strong ebb tide flows west from Crow Rock towards and around the ‘Southward Well’ reef. This was not such a problem in the then south easterly wind but as we now know from the records, on the 10th of December, 1798, the wind then veered and blew even harder still from a more easterly direction. Now the warship was placed in trouble by being all but totally exposed to that new wind direction. This fresher wind would have hit her more fiercely from the east as it now funnelled around the north of St. Mary’s Island towards the ship. Not such a problem on a flooding tide but as soon as the tide turned to a full ebb, then the circumstances would have changed dramatically. The ebbing tide in that position flows strongly from the north easterly direction of the Crow rock. Now add into the mix the sheet anchor cable being rotten as described in the archives, and you have the perfect recipe for a disaster. The rest was indeed history. Pushed by wind and this strong ebb tide the ship dragged over to Southward Well to be lost, leaving her sheet anchor on the sea bed with its nun buoy still attached and marking its position on the sea bed.




During mid July this summer we did indeed discover on the sea bed, between Nut Rock and St, Mary's, a very large Angle Crown Admiralty Pattern sheet anchor. (see Figure 1) We measured our anchor, including the accrued sea bed concretion which is quite thick, at 18ft, 3inches in length, (from crown tip to its far end not including the ring which is a further 2ft 10in in diameter) From bill to bill the artifact is 11ft wide. Its arms are 7ft long each and its individual flukes, including the bill, are each 4ft long. The bills of the anchor are 10 inches long. The position of this anchor is perfect for the circumstances speculated above, even the way the shaft points today is towards the northwest; perhaps as a result of the then opposing wind direction. What is very significant about this discovery is the fact that we have also found evidence of the nun buoy lying directly by the side of the anchor. (Figure 3) This may indicate that it either fouled the anchor, in the strong tides of that area, to then be gradually pulled under; or that it simply sank in the bad weather that we know continued for many a day after the Colossus was lost. This may well have been the case given the buoy’s construction. Using 18th century technology, it was made of wooden staves, much like a cask or a barrel. It had copper ends keeping these staves together and the whole construction was encased in a rope netting.


Figure 3
Remains of the Nun Buoy?

Figure 4
Is this a fastening from the anchor's stock?
The stock would not have have been present
if this was the anchor placed here by the Navy divers.



There is no archival evidence of another mid to late 18th century Naval vessel having lost a sheet anchor in St. Mary's Road, only HMS Colossus. So could this therefore be from the now famous warship? As stated, the shape, the size, the presence of the nun buoy and the location certainly lead us to think that it could be.


-- There is another view and this has been put forward by a local maritime historian, Mr. R. Larn.  Royal Navy divers lifted an anchor from the seabed, 6 miles west of our current find, somewhere in the Western Rocks of Scilly. It is recorded to have come from the HMS Association lost in 1707. It must be accepted that there was such an event in c.1968:


The Scillonian Magazine

(Issue 173 Page 11.)

Scilly Can’t Have Sea-Bed Shovell Anchor

Decision Awaited


“Fleet Air Arm Divers and Naval Auxillarymen who raised a huge anchor weighing well over four tons from where Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s ship, HMS Association, is supposed to have gone down 260 years ago, cannot give it to the people of Scilly – at least not at the moment.  The Board of Trade has told the council that the anchor is now in the custody of the Official Receiver of Wrecks awaiting a decision on its ownership and the Service men are not in a position to give it to the council as has been suggested.


The wrought-iron anchor, which has a 19ft shank and is 14ft across the flukes, is technically in custody because it has been declared by the finders, but in actual fact it lies in about 30ft. of water close to Nut Rock in St. Mary’s roads. The anchor was brought there and carefully deposited on a sandy seabed last August after divers in X.S.V. Shipham, led by Lieut. – Com. Ted  Barter, of Stithians, had raised it from the wreck-site, 90ft. down among huge boulders. The anchor has not been brought into the open air for fear it will disintegrate. There is difference of opinion as to how much treatment the anchor will need to be safely preserved.”


In another edition of the same magazine of that same year, this was also recorded of the same anchor lifting event:

‘The Fleet Air Arm men, operating in the same area, raised a huge anchor, 19ft tall, and weighing almost four tons. It was thought to be a bower anchor, the type used by men of war of the Association period.’


The following was recorded in the 1976, August edition of Triton magazine by Mike Ross a diver on the scene at the time: ‘Regular diving on the site has brought in two giant bower anchors one measuring 19ft, 6 inches’


This from the pen of Jack Gayton whom, along with Roy Graham, were the Royal Navy divers who first found the HMS Association wreck site. It is another article from an old copy of Triton Magazine, October, 1967 edition. This edition is from the time of the discovery of the wreck, i.e. before the Roland Morris or Blue Sea divers teams had arrived on site.  The article details those very early days and even gives us a couple of quotes about the anchor the Navy team had then found. It announces that their first discovery was a single gun after which Gayton wrote: 'A systematic search was organised around that cannon and soon many others were discovered, together with an enormous anchor (shaft 19ft long and 12ft across the flukes).' .........'the size of the anchor indicates a ship of the tonnage of Association'. Roy Graham was one of the most archaeologically minded among the Navy team, therefore, Gayton and Graham, must have physically measured the anchor as they tried to identify the wreck. This is also the earliest quote I have seen giving it to be 19ft long etc. (Our anchor is measured at 18ft, 3ins long and 11ft wide and this includes the thick sandy concretion) 

So, where exactly did the Navy team put their salvaged find?  This information is crucial if the Navy teams anchor is to be even considered as the same as the one we recently discovered.  The following information was written some 30 years after the event:

Sir Clowdisley Shovell's Disaster in the Isles of Scilly, October 1707.  By Richard Larn & Peter McBride (Historical Maritime Series – No. 1)


‘On the 19th August [1967?], the NAC-SAC where back again this time diving from (XSV) Shipham, with her sister ship Odiham remaining alongside the quay at St. Mary’s as an accommodation vessel for eighteen divers with the same leadership.  Most of available underwater time on the Gilstone was spent searching the gullies and crevices for artefacts and coin, the largest item raised being a stockless anchor weighing some 3 tons, which was placed on the seabed close to Nut Rock, and is still there to this day.’


For the anchor to have been the HMS Association's sheet anchor it would have been, according to reference [1] below, 7 inches longer than our anchor and according to reference [B], 5 inches longer.  The records in Scillonian Magazine above, which were written at the actual time of the raising of the HMS Association anchor, states it as being 3ft wider and 1ft longer than our one on the sea bed today.


We believe our anchor to be a William Sutherland design which came into being in 1717 [D] which was fully adopted by the Royal Navy after that year. This is because we have measured the bills of our anchor at 10 inches long and this matches the William Sutherland design; so too the considerably larger size of our flukes. HMS Association was lost earlier in 1707 thus the bills of her anchors should be short. (See image of the Morris anchor Figure 2 and below, and compare it with ours taken from a similar angle Figure1).



After an extensive search of the area with magnetometer and side scan sonar, among many other anchors, we finally found one that fit the bill; (pardon the pun) it was almost totally buried in sand with little more than the tops of its flukes protruding. This made a very small target on the side scan sonar; so that when we dived and located this particular anomaly on the sea bed it was a shock to find such a large item laying there. As soon as we started to uncover the 'Angle Crown' shape we immediately identified it as being from a Royal naval warship. It was measured filmed and its position properly recorded.  It must be noted that our anchor has a very thick covering of sea bed concretion from being totally immersed in sand for over 200 years; whereas any anchor that spent over 300 years on the rocks of the Gilstone would not have this present. In fact it would be very worn with a much thinner covering, possibly lacking any concretion at all. (again see Morris anchor above) The concretion on our anchor could not have grown since 1968 as the iron in the anchor would no longer be migrating iron oxide in order to attract very much more sea bed material to it.



More possible evidence.


With half the convoy, including the Colossus, escorted into Scilly, present in the roadstead during the disaster, this may well have been the reason why this war ship couldn’t set sail in order to manoeuvre in time to get herself out of trouble as stated by the local pilot at the Court Martial. She could not go north due to the islands and rocks on that side. She could not go east as that was directly into the wind and tide, and she could not go south as the other ships barred her way out of the anchorage. Is this why she dragged over to southward unable to escape disaster?  I feel it is doubtful that she would have been placed anywhere near Broad Sound as, with a strong south easterly wind being present when she came in, that would have placed her right out in the weather. Not only that but the ebb tide out there runs strongly from Bartholomew Ledge out towards the northwest where it joins the tide, coming from the direction of Crow Rock, out at Spencer's Ledge. Surely this would mean she'd more than likely have hit rocks more to the west, like the Minalto or at Spencer's Ledge? and not the Southard Well where she actually ended up! No pilot would place a ship in the weather? Ships never anchor in Broad Sound at Scilly except in the calmest of conditions and even this is a very rare occurrence indeed.

Lastly on her position of anchoring. If the ship had been placed in 11 fathoms, i.e. in Broad Sound, then surely she could have set sail, turned west and sailed before the ESE wind up Broad Sound and avoided disaster by escaping out through the Northwest passage? 

During our searches we have now found over 30 anchors. Some even closer to Nut Rock than this one is. Three of these lost anchors have their shafts pointing in roughly in the same direction as the one in Figure 1. One of those is an older angle crown. I am sure we will find others in the vicinity of this strong tidal area too.


It must also be remembered that, curiously, Captain Murray failed to retrieve the ships log; it was lost in the disaster. Therefore any testimony, weeks later, at a court martial, can easily be inaccurate or even wrong. Faded memory of the incident or the events just previous to it, and the likely possibility of a cover up are also a factors to be considered here.


All the circumstances in which the HMS Colossus originally anchored at Scilly above are merely my theory, but taken from a stand point of living in the islands and knowing the local tidal streams around St. Mary's through diving in them constantly; especially in the area of the anchorage. All other theories are based solely on Murrays Court Martial statement of anchoring his ship 'in 11 fathoms', without any ships log to back up the statement. 


One last piece of evidence needs to be considered: In an updated version of the book mentioned above (Sir Clowdisley Shovells Disaster in the Isles of Scilly, October 1707.  By Richard Larn & Peter McBride) which was given a new title of: Admiral Shovell’s Treasure and Shipwreck in the Isles of Scilly - A different statement into what happened to the recovered anchor appears:


‘Just over a month after the initial discovery of the site on the 19th August [1967?], the Navy divers where back again under the same leadership, having put a strong case to their Lordships to continue the project.  This time the principle diving platform was the naval minesweeper (XSV) Shipham, with her sister ship Odiham remaining alongside the quay at St. Mary’s as an accommodation vessel for eighteen divers. In competition with other groups, every minute of available underwater time was spent surveying the Gilstone, searching the gullies and crevices for artefacts and coins.  The largest item located was a stockless anchor eighteen feet in the shank, weighing some three tons, which was placed on the seabed close to Nut Rock, later salvaged and taken to the mainland

[Note:  The Customs Officer was Bill Saunby who was also the Receiver of Wreck.]


Given all this evidence, can our anchor really be the one deposited in St. Mary's Roads by the Navy? I do not see how.  If one looks objectively at the artifact and takes away the history of HMS Colossus and navy activity with HMS Association, one must come to the conclusion that the artifact we have is a mid to late 18th century naval anchor that fits well with a 74 gun ship of that period. 


Todd Stevens.




[1] - The Established Sizes and Weights of Anchors for the Royal Navy, c.1763.


Other References & Notes:


A - In 1627 Captain John Smith published “A Sea Grammer2 which provided a list of the different types of anchors carried by ships at that time. It listed:

• The kedger anchor - the smallest of the anchors used in calm weather.

• The stream anchor – only a little larger used in an easy tide/stream.

• The bow anchor – larger - 4 in total.

• The sheet anchor – the largest and heaviest of all used in emergencies.

 Anchor weight was in proportion to the size of the ship. A ship of 500 tons would have a sheet anchor weight 2000 pounds of 907 kg’s.

B - William Sutherland’s “Britain’s Glory or Shipbuilding Unveiled” published in 1717.

C - Another crucial document from this time that tells us about the rules surrounding the use of the anchor was “A Treatise on Anchors”, which was published by Richard Pering in 1819.

D -  Treatise on English Anchors 1550 to 1850.

E - Anchors. 'An Illustrated History' by Betty Nelson Curryer.

F - Triton Magazine. October 1967 & August 1976.