The Search for the Nancy Packet, Rosevear Ledge, Scilly - Todd Stevens

In the book Ghosts of Rosevear by myself & Ed Cumming we never really covered in too much detail the day the wreck of the packet ship Nancy was found; this was because we never felt the need to write about who did what and when, as we felt that might belittle each team members individual involvement. Here for the first time is our account of, what was to the Islands Maritime Archaeological Group (IMAG), a very exciting moment. 

Left: Photograph Ed Cumming

In all previous local shipwreck books there has always been, very scant, reports that the ship Nancy Packet was lost on the island of Rosevear, but research performed by IMAG team member Ed Cumming proved this to be completely wrong. Ed’s hard work uncovered many previously unknown facts about this disaster including the type of ship, the actual correct date of loss, who was actually on board and the fascinating lives of  a few of those lost in the disaster. But most importantly his hard work uncovered evidence that showed that a search for this wreck needed to be much further out to sea and well away from the island of Rosevear. After looking at all the records that Ed had uncovered, the team choose our primary search area, which was close to the Rosevear Ledges. 

The many hours spent searching, using a Proton Magnetometer, all around the Rosevear Ledges in an inflatable punt, eventually proved fruitful.

(A punt being used due to the numerous shallow reefs being far too dangerous to perform such a survey of the sea bed using our main boat Buccaneer.)

The survey identified numerous hits; most of which were on the north and east sides of the Ledges. These were all close against the reef and we dived the ones that gave the largest readings first. On the sea bed, we very soon, located an uncharted wreck site. Present were iron rudder gudgeons, iron hanging knees, stretchers and lots of lead work and other small artefact material. A few visits later we found some Willow Pattern pottery and other datable material on the site that proved to be from the early to mid 1800’s. This was clearly not the Nancy, which had sank in 1784, but some other ship. On later dives around this wreck we found many lumps of coal littering the seabed between the rocks, this was found to be more concentrated closer to the reef. A little research soon indicated this wreck was most likely to be that of the Ocean, which was recorded to have been lost in the area in 1829 and heavily salvaged at the time. The site certainly fitted the profile. 

Whilst diving the Ocean, we could not anchor our main boat over a wreck that was so close to the rocks of the reef. Instead we placed the boat a safe distance away and let out a very lengthy anchor cable. The divers then swam by compass, from the boat, the short distance over to the site and then descended to the wreck. Once we were convinced the wreck was not that of the Nancy we decided to move on with the search elsewhere. However, the last time we dived the site of the Ocean, instead of surfacing near the rocks and surface swimming back to the boat as normal, with air left in our cylinders Carmen and I returned to where the Buccaneer’s anchor was positioned.  We followed the long cable as it stretched out across the sea bed before going back up to the boat. As we reached the position where the cable started to rise, we could see the seabed fall away into the deeper water away from the reef. By now we were a good distance from the wreck of the Ocean and directly under the dive boat in about 50ft of water. As we began to rise towards the boat, I could just make out a man made object down on the sea floor. The object was about 20ft below me in about 70ft of water. With very little air left with which to continue the dive, I briefly left Carmen to continue her ascent to the boat, whilst I dropped to quickly investigate. The object turned out to be a large anchor, and whilst we did not know it then, we had accidentally located the wreck site of the Nancy.  

On later dives the team found a large spread of wreckage, including, six anchors, some small guns, more rudder gudgeons and more iron hanging knees. Smaller artefact material positively dated this new find to the late 1700’s; and these we firmly believe prove this site was the one we had been looking for. We were ecstatic. Between us we had performed an awful lot of hard work and our reward was not only the uncovering of a fantastic local story, it was also the additional satisfaction of then being able to physically touch that history before bringing it to the public’s attention. This was achieved by way of the book, written, formatted, illustrated, and published by ourselves.  Furthermore we submitted a detailed site plan of the area and the two wreck sites to the National Monuments Record Office.

(The original plan has been viewable to the public in the Isles of Scilly Museum since 2008)

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The Nancy had struck the Gilstone (Western Rocks); drifted away in an easterly direction in currents that pass to one side of the Rosevear Ledges. She may well have hit the Ledges as well whilst on this fateful passage during the storm. She sank in deeper water near the reef in a position we now know, and can only describe as, ‘a tidal wallow’. This is basically a position where either there is no tide, or as in this case, a position where conflicting currents interact, where at certain states of the tide the water merely circulates to create a sort of dead zone.

Left: Photograph Todd Stevens

 (At times, being merely anchored in this dead zone moved our own dive vessel, Buccaneer, in very mysterious and disconcerting ways!)

Once the Nancy had reached this dead zone, some of the ship’s company had then taken to the ships small boat which was then later dashed on the island of Rosevear killing them all. Here is where most of the bodies were found, including that of the infamous actress Ann Cargill with her young child.

Forty years later the Ocean sank over on the nearby reef, and its wreckage, including its cargo of coal, contaminated the whole area. Material from the two wrecks having been well spread by the action of the rough Atlantic seas, and over a relatively large area towards the south east. We have now dived and mapped a vast area of the reef around these two sites and have witnessed no other evidence of wreckage from any other ships.

I am very happy to report that our story caused so much local and international interest that a publisher has now produced a second edition of the book with a minor correction, a few edits and a little additional information gathered since 2008.

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Where was Ann Cargill buried?

As previously reported in the Scillonian Magazine, the death of a very famous 18th century actress and opera singer, Ann Cargill, occurred on Rosevear island amidst the wreck of the mail packet ship Nancy. Records show that she, along with her lover Captain John Haldane and their illegitimate son of about 18 months old, were lost with 45 other people in this disaster among the Western Rocks in 1784. 17 of these people are known to have been buried on Rosevear Island; including Ann Cargill, John Haldane and their son. Those who buried them on Rosevear island, had no idea of their identity at the time of burial, thus they were given paupers graves on this tiny desolate island.  When it was later ascertained who these victims of the shipwreck actually were, their bodies were dug up to be reburied on St Mary’s island. This is fact and the reasons behind it are clear: Ann Cargill was a very famous, even infamous, and beautiful celebrity of her time and extremely popular with the masses. Her lover, Captain John Haldane, was of the Haldanes of Gleneagles, no more needs to be said of him, as his great lineage is clear. In a recent pamphlet published about St Mary’s island, the author, Glynis Cooper, states that when these people were re-buried on St Mary’s, it was more likely to be in a paupers graveyard at Carn Thomas, rather than at Old Town Churchyard. Notwithstanding all of the above evidence of who they were, it was also known that a possible total stranger to Mrs Cargill, someone merely described in the archives as: “a Gentleman” took it upon himself to have a “neat monument” made at his own expense to mark her final resting place. Another record shows that her actual burial was paid for by way of: “jewels that were found upon her”. Whilst, indeed, there are no records yet found that state that these three people from the Nancy packet were actually re-interred at Old Town, I think the evidence above speaks for itself and this alone points towards Old Town. Otherwise, what was the reason for removing them from a paupers grave in the first place, if only to repeat the same mistake again at Carn Thomas?

Not long after the wreck, John Haldane’s executors, added a dedication to a memorial that Captain John Haldane had willed should be built, at his expense, to the memory of his Grandfather, Patrick Haldane, at Duddingston Parish churchyard in Scotland. But where is the “Neat Monument” to Ann Cargill to be found today? This is a question I would love to answer but personally, I do not think it will be found at Carn Thomas. When the church at Old Town was restored following its 18th century dereliction, works done in the 19th century under the orders of Augustus Smith, Lord Proprietor of the Islands, had many of its earliest grave markers removed. Evidence of this can be found by a tree at the western gable end of the church, where three old stones currently lay together, no longer marking their original positions. These three stones are dated 1779, 1780 & 1800 respectively. I am still looking for the one that will be dated 1784 the year when the Nancy Packet was wrecked. This stone will probably now form part of a rebuilt boundary wall or laying face down in the bracken somewhere around the church. Have you ever seen it? Until such time as it is found, we, the Islands Maritime Archaeological Group, have already placed a modern “neat monument” to Ann Cargill and the other victims of the Nancy Packet disaster in the churchyard. (See picture)

Please contact me with any information you may have that may throw further light on this story-scillydiver@googlemail.com

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Page Update - 29/04/12


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