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Working on the Edge

Our changing perceptions of the wreck of HMS Colossus.

HMS Colossus was a 74-gun warship built in 1787 and wrecked 11 years later on the Isles of Scilly. She was the first Royal Navy ship of that name; five more were built over the years, culminating in an aircraft carrier launched in 1943. The ‘74’ was one of the most successful design-types of its period, and ships of this class formed the backbone of the naval battle fleet during the Napoleonic wars.

Roland Morris' investigations

Investigation of the Colossus has a long and varied history, from the search for the wreck, begun in 1967 by the Penzance salvor, restaurateur, and museum proprietor Roland Morris; to the work undertaken exactly fifty years later by the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Maritime Archaeology Society (CISMAS).

During that time perceptions of the wrecking  process have changed significantly, as is demonstrated by the fact that, between 1974 – when Morris finally found the wreck – and the present day, three completely different designated areas have existed around this protected wreck site. The final understanding has only been reached in the last year, thanks to Historic England-funded fieldwork by CISMAS.

Roland Morris spent nine years investigating the site. Most notably, he discovered over 30,000 shards of ancient Greek pottery – part of Sir William Hamilton’s collection, which Colossus was transporting to England (it is now in the British Museum). The plan published by Morris shows a site which is widely dispersed, being over 250 metres long from east to west.

It is worth describing how Morris understood the distribution of the material he spent so long excavating. He was convinced the hull lay with its stern to the west (where he found four rudder pintels) while the galley area (with its ‘smoke blackened marble slabs’) was over 200 metres to the east. By 1984 he was convinced there was nothing left to find on the site, and it was de-designated and then largely forgotten.

Today, although the general area where Morris worked is clear, it is difficult to establish the exact location of his investigations. That said, in harmony with our theme, much of the area he examined was located at (and beyond) the edge of the site’s then-designated area. At this point, then, our perception was of a dispersed site, situated to the east of the Southard Well reef, where the Colossus had foundered.

A map showing how the designated areas forthe  Colossus wreck have changed
The three different designated areas for Colossus: in black the area in force 1975-84; in red 2001-2017. The blue rectangle is the current designated area enacted in 2017. © CISMAS

A second part to the site discovered

This all changed in 2001, when several iron guns and an area of ship structure were discovered about 400 metres to the east of the Morris site.

‘Incredibly, the cannons were still within the gun-ports of the hull’

The remains were spectacular, consisting of the port side of the ship from mainmast to stern. The timbers looked flawless when first exposed. Five iron cannon stood upright on the seabed, their muzzles buried in the sand – incredibly, they were still within the gun-ports of the hull.

A carved human figure, part of the stern decoration, lay on the seabed. A new designation was enacted, this time centred on the newly discovered remains, and positioned over 700 metres to the north-west of the previous designation.

Clearly this was now a site of two parts. Subsequent survey work established that the two sites were in fact connected by a motley scatter of wreck debris. It was still thought that the wreck itself occurred on the Morris site, which now became known as the bow site, and we assumed that the stern had travelled to its present location some time after the ship had been wrecked.

A representation of the stern of the Colossus shipwreck.
A 3D representation of the stern site plan for HMS Colossus. Note how the upper deck guns sit upright in their gunports. © CISMAS


Our changing perceptions of the site created a number of misconceptions. It has been written variously that the Colossus was demoted to a stores ship; was badly damaged at the battle of Cape St Vincent; and that it participated in the Battle of the Nile, and had over 200 wounded from that battle on board- hapless individuals who were saved as the ship foundered by being lashed into the rigging. None of these assertions is true, and yet they continue to surface in diverse publications  and inevitably colour our perceptions of the wreck.

Perhaps the most irksome perception is rooted in the fact that Colossus was one of four ships in her class  said to have been a direct copy of the captured French 74 Courageux. It is often opined that French 74s were superior sailors to British-built 74s, the design of which they  influenced. This is a complex issue, which would require far more space than we have here for my hobby horse to canter in. However, the fact that Courageux was captured by the British 74 Bellona in 1761 after a long stern chase perhaps illustrates that all is not quite as it seems. (Bellona was designed by Sir Thomas Slade, most famous for being the architect of HMS Victory of Trafalgar fame).

schematic drawing of a ship's gunport with a cannon.
The guns on 18th century warships were lashed with their muzzles up against the upper gun-port sill when not in use. It is easy to see how they would end up falling through the gun-ports when the ship fell over onto her beam ends. © CISMAS

Work since 2001

Over the fifteen years from 2001, the stern of Colossus was the subject of a number of research projects.

These included a detailed baseline survey, trials of different methods of stabilising the wreck, a long-term artefact reburial assessment and two small scale excavations, aimed at answering specific questions about the site. In addition, a dive trail around the visible remains was installed in 2009 along with a waterproof printed visitor’s guide. A web-based virtual dive trail allows non-divers a degree of access to the site. As  this work progressed, it became clear that our view of the wrecking process the ship underwent still did not accord with the observed disposition of artefacts on and around the site.

One of the abiding enigmas of the stern site was how the five upper deck cannons came to rest in their unusual positions. In the conventional wrecking scenario, the ship foundered at Southard Well and a section of the stern then drifted east to its current position.

The problem with this is that we know the ship fell onto her beam-ends (side)  within hours of her abandonment. It is hard to see how the upper deck guns could have stayed in place throughout such a process. As she rolled over onto her beam-ends, the ship’s guns and ballast would have shifted and she would be likely to remain on her side.

The stern section would then need to have travelled east, lying on its side, for 300 to 400 metres, making the present disposition of the guns even more incredible. In addition, during 2015 it became clear that there were other anomalies in the distribution of the material on the seabed, and that a different wrecking scenario was required to explain them.

A cross section through the hull of Colussus showing position of cannon.
With the ship on her beam ends it is clear that the upper hull tumblehome allows the upper gun-deck guns to protrude through the gun-ports – but held upright by the gun-port. From here it is easy to imagine how they became buried muzzle down in the seabed. However, it is difficult to see how the hull could travel over 300m along the seabed without shedding the guns. © CISMAS

Latest findings

Accordingly, in 2017, CISMAS was commissioned by Historic England to investigate the edges of the site. The aim was to come to a better understanding of the wrecking of Colossus. The project involved 25 detailed searches of the area beyond the known site, covering over 34,000 square metres of seabed. The process was strenuous and often monotonous, particularly in areas where there were few artefacts. But the absence of wreckage in certain areas proved as informative as the locations where some numbers of items could be found.

The conclusion of this survey was that Colossus foundered a short distance from the location of the stern remains, rather than at the Morris (bow) site near Southard Well reef. Thus our perceptions of this wreck have shifted once again, this time not by a careful study of the known and familiar, but by looking beyond the edges.

A diver next to an upstanding cannon barrel buried in the seabed.
One of Colossus' upper gun-deck ‘upstanding’ guns on the stern site. These are 18lb guns which are 9 feet (2.75 metres) long; roughly half the length of the gun is buried in the seabed. © CISMAS

The Author

Kevin Camidge

Kevin Camidge, MCIfA

Kevin is a freelance maritime archaeologist and Archaeological Director of Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Maritime Archaeology Society (CISMAS).

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