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Look After a Historic Ship Wreck

If you fancy diving into the past to explore our incredibly rich maritime heritage, why not consider volunteering to help care for a historic wreck site.

By becoming a voluntary Licensee or joining an existing licensed team you could be involved in monitoring, surveying or excavating a wreck site or installing diver trails. Or you could help with research, educational projects or outreach work.

Licensees can also help to provide access to a wreck site, with local boat skippers being encouraged to take on the role.

Being a Licensee is hugely rewarding and essential to the system that helps manage the most significant historic wrecks in our territorial sea.

There are currently 49 wrecks protected through the listing system in English waters, from 16th century warships to 17th century cargo vessels to submarines dating from the First and Second World Wars.

Volunteer Steve Ellis shares his experience

As someone who both lives by the sea and makes his living from it (he's a fishmonger), Steve Ellis seems the ideal candidate to look after a historic wreck.

For the last five years he has been surveying the 'London', a 90-cannon warship built in Chatham in 1654, which blew up and sank off the coast of Southend in Essex in 1665.

As the voluntary Licensee for the site, he now dives up to three or four times a month, depending on the tides and is accompanied by up to three other divers who help him to look after the wreck.

Commenting on his role, Steve says:

"The 'London' is one of the most important post-medieval wrecks in our waters and it's a great privilege to be able to dive on it. It's exciting, and totally absorbing. My team and I dive throughout the year despite the extremely challenging conditions of very poor visibility and strong currents, as well as being on the edge of a busy shipping lane.

"Surveying the wreck and discovering what is left of it has been a fantastic journey and has given me a new purpose to diving. The experience has given us the chance to meet so many specialists who have offered their expertise to help us with our interest in maritime archaeology. As a voluntary Licensee you can put as much time and energy into the role as your commitments allow."

Steve Ellis, voluntary Licensee of the 'London' (right) with fellow divers
Steve Ellis, voluntary Licensee of the 'London' (right) with fellow divers who help him to look after the wreck.

How do I become a Licensee?

Although the backgrounds of Licensees vary, potential Licensees will need to fulfill a number of criteria.

For some roles you will need a diving qualification, but of course not all wrecks are underwater and there are other opportunities to get involved which are ideal for landlubbers, for example carrying out research or archiving finds.

You will however be expected to:

  • Have a technical knowledge of archaeological principles and practice
  • Be able to prepare reports and
  • Create archive material

For full details see our guidance on Accessing England's Protected Wreck Sites

Accessing England's Protected Wreck Sites

Accessing England's Protected Wreck Sites

Published 30 October 2015

These guidelines are intended to support individuals or groups wishing to access and/or develop projects on wreck sites designated under Section 1 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 in the English Territorial Sea.

For those wishing to become more deeply involved, guidance is available from a number of organisations involved in promoting nautical archaeology and training courses can also provide a good insight into the subject and help equip you with the necessary skills.

If you are interested in volunteering and would like to discuss the role with a member of our Programmes and Maritime Team, please contact Alison James via the email address at the foot of this page.

Planning a visit to a wreck

Once you are a Licensee and want to visit a wreck site, you will need to apply for a licence by completing the online form.

Apply for a licence

Once submitted, your application will then be considered by Historic England and we will recommend to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport whether or not a licence should be granted. 

If you need help with this application or if you would like to receive a hard copy of the application form by post, please contact the Programmes and Maritime Team via the email address below.

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