List Entry Summary
This site is designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 as it is or may prove to be the site of a vessel lying wrecked on or in the sea bed and, on account of the historical, archaeological or artistic importance of the vessel, or of any objects contained or formerly contained in it which may be lying on the sea bed in or near the wreck, it ought to be protected from unauthorised interference. Protected wreck sites are designated by Statutory Instrument. The following information has been extracted from the relevant Statutory Instrument.
Name: HMS COLOSSUS
List Entry Number: 1000078
Southward Wells, off Samson Island, Isles of Scilly
The site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
National Grid Reference: SV 88490 11743
Date first designated: 26-Jul-1975
Date of most recent amendment: Not applicable to this List entry.
Legacy System Information
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
Legacy System: AMIE - Wrecks
This list entry does not comprise part of an Asset Grouping. Asset Groupings are not part of the official record but are added later for information.
List entry Description
Information provided under the Statutory Instrument heading below forms part of the official record of a protected wreck site. Information provided under other headings does not form part of the official record of the designation. It has been compiled by Historic England to aid understanding of the protected wreck site.
Summary of Site
Stern section of the 1798 wreck of the British Third Rate Ship of the Line HMS Colossus, which stranded on Southward Wells on her voyage from Naples to Portsmouth with Etruscan pottery for Sir William Hamilton, and wounded soldiers. This wooden sailing warship was built in 1787 and the area of this site, comprising the hull and stern, has been designated as a protected wreck site since 2001.
Reason for Designation
HMS Colossus was a 74-gun third rate ship-of-the-line built at Gravesend, and launched in 1787. Her last naval engagement was at the Battle of Cape St Vincent (1797), during the course of which she was badly damaged. The Colossus was stripped of her stores to repair the serving ships, and ordered to return to England, carrying wounded from the battle, along with prize items and part of a collection of Greek antiquities amassed by Sir William Hamilton.
The Colossus approached the Channel in December 1798, and Captain Murray decided to take anchorage in St Mary's Road in the Isles of Scilly to await favourable winds. On the 10 December the main anchor cable parted in the gale, and the ship dragged her remaining anchors to come aground on Southward Well Rocks. The Colossus was subject to extensive salvage in the year following her wrecking, before she finally broke up.
The bow section of the Colossus was located in 1972 and the site was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1975. Investigation took place under licence funded by the British Museum. More than 30,000 shards of Greek pottery had been recovered by the time the site was de-designated in 1984. Most of this pottery is now in the British Museum. Individual vases were painstakingly reconstructed, using detailed drawings of the vases prepared by artists before the collection left Italy.
Fifteen years later, part of the stern section of HMS Colossus was discovered. This includes a large section of ship structure, cannon, and among other items, muskets, mizzen chains and a rudder gudgeon. A carved figure from the portside of the stern of the vessel was also identified, excavated and recovered. This new site was designated in 2001 and the designated area includes a substantial 'debris' area of other material, such as shot, timbers, cannon and small artefacts.
Designation Order: (No 2), No 2403, 2001
Made: 4th July 2001
Laid before Parliament: 4th July 2001
Coming into force: 5th July 2001
Protected area: 300 metres within 49 55.471 N 006 20.505 W
No part of the restricted area lies above the high-water mark of ordinary spring tides.
Documentary History: HMS Colossus was a 74-gun warship built in 1787, and wrecked off Samson in the Isles of Scilly in 1798. These 74-gun ships were one of the most successful types of the period. They were typically about 51m (170 feet) in length and had a crew of approximately 600. During her relatively short working life (11 yrs) she saw action at Toulon, Groix and Cape St Vincent.
In December 1798 she was on her way home to England with wounded from the battle of the Nile and a cargo including Sir William Hamilton's collection of Etruscan pottery. She arrived off the Scilly Isles on 7th December and anchored off St. Mary's. During 10th December the wind steadily increased until it was blowing a full gale. Topgallant-masts were struck and spare anchors provided and she rode safely until at 4 o'clock in the afternoon the anchor cable parted. The small bower was let go and brought her up after she had drifted a little way. Captain Murray became worried at the position of the ship, and planned to set sail, but the pilot doubted if they could weather the rocks, so they prepared to ride out the storm. The sheet anchor was let go, topmasts struck and yards trimmed, but she soon found that she was dragging her anchors. At about 6 o'clock she struck the ground, although quite gently at first. Thoughts of lightening the ship had to be abandoned because of the shoal of water surrounding them, it being feared that if the guns were heaved overboard, the ship would strike them. They hauled taut the anchor cable, which initially freed them, but dragging in the ebbing tide she struck the ground again, this time very hard. Pumps were manned, but the water gained, and by midnight the rudder had come away with the constant pounding on the ledge of rocks near the island of Sampson, called the Southern Wells. By daybreak the water was up to the sills of the upper deck ports and the ship was beginning to break up. Local boats attended them to take off the crew, which was accomplished by 3pm that afternoon (8). All the brave crew were saved excepting one quarter-master, who fell overboard in heaving the lead.' Archaeological History: The forward part of the Colossus was originally designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1975. Following recovery of a large number of pottery shards from Sir William Hamilton's collection and other artefacts, this designation was revoked in 1984.
In 2001, the current (stern) site was discovered some 350m to the east of the bow site. Considerable amounts of timber were exposed on the seabed along with a row of five iron guns, standing upright, their muzzles buried in the sand - still within their gunports. Most striking of all was a twice life-size carved wooden figure; part of the stern decoration of Colossus, lying face upwards on the sand. The Archaeological Diving Unit (ADU) undertook an excavation in September 2001 to recover the stern decoration. This, however, proved to be too extensive to recover with the equipment available; it was therefore reburied for the winter. The area around the stern of the vessel was surveyed prior to the excavation by means of a photomosaic.
Following geophysical survey, the stern carving was excavated and eventually lifted in June 2002. The ADU carried out further geophysical survey in 2002, sponsored by the Time Team.
The site is both fragile and vulnerable; the sediments that once covered the site appear to have moved and exposed all classes of organic material. The site lies in a depth of about 10 metres of seawater, with the seabed in the vicinity consisting of coarse, white, sand and fine crushed shell. Timber elements of the wreck are currently exposed on the seabed, and this exposure appears to be recent, due to ongoing sand erosion from the site.
The fabric of the vessel is remarkably well preserved; however, once it is exposed it is subject to fairly rapid deterioration due to biological decay. The timbers are exposed owing to erosion of the sand on the seabed. The deterioration of exposed timbers between discovery in June 2001 and final survey in June 2002 was marked, visibly gribbled and decayed. Once timbers are weakened by biological attack they will be subject to detachment and dispersal by the tide and wave surge during winter storms.
The rear half of the port side of the vessel lies flat, preserved in the sand. The wreck includes the six aftermost gun ports on the main gun deck, five of which still have 32-pounder guns pointing through them, with their breech ends uppermost. The ship's structure appears to be complete from the top of the gun ports on the upper gun deck to the turn of the bilge well below the waterline.
Today, the site consists of a bow site, debris trail and stern. The debris trail so far consists of timber, metalwork, lead scuppers, cannon balls, cannon and other small finds. A large proportion of the port side stern is believed to survive on the seabed and there are various outlying artefacts. Framing and deck timbers, brass gunlocks, pulley block cheeks and sheaves, spoons, scissors, wine bottles, medical flasks, pottery shards and leather shoes have all been recovered from the site . These items are now on display at the Isles of Scilly Museum.
Books and journals
Colledge, J J, Ships of the Royal Navy: Volume 1, (1989)
Grocott, T, Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, (1997), 64-65
Hepper, D J , British Warship Losses in the Age of Sail, 1650-1859, (1994)
Lyon, D, The Sailing Navy List: All the Ships of the Royal Navy Built, Purchased and Captured 1688-1860, (1993)
Morris, R, HMS Colossus: The Story of the Salvage of the Hamilton Treasures, (1979)
'Sherborne Mercury' in Sherborne Mercury, (1798)
The above chart is for quick reference purposes only and may not be to scale. For a copy of the full scale chart, please see the attached PDF - 1000078 .pdf
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End of official listing