Wreck of HMT Arfon


Heritage Category:
Maritime Wreck
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Location Description:
50' 32.5N 002' 03.5W ~ 3.74km south of St Alban's Head, Dorset


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
50' 32.5N 002' 03.5W ~ 3.74km south of St Alban's Head, Dorset
Marine Location Name:
National Grid Reference:


The wreck comprises the well-preserved remains of HMT Arfon, a trawler requisitioned by the Royal Navy on the outbreak of war that struck a mine and sank on 30th April 1917 with the loss of ten lives. The wreck lies at a depth of some 35m, south of St Alban’s Head, Dorset.

Reasons for Designation

The wreck of HMT Arfon is designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 for the following principal reasons:

* Survival: despite the effects of natural decay, the majority of the vessel survives and it retains a number of key characteristic features and fittings, including its un-documented mine-sweeping equipment, deck gun, engine dials and engine room telegraph;
* Rarity: the well-preserved remains of trawlers from the early 20th century are rare as there are no steam trawlers in the National Historic Ships Register. The Arfon is the only known archaeologically recorded and accessible wreck of this once-common type that otherwise survives only partially through documentary records;
* Potential: the vessel has considerable potential for providing insight into early 20th century construction materials and techniques and for fishing, fishermen and minesweeping during this period;
* Vulnerability: the wreck remains vulnerable to souvenir hunters and uncontrolled salvage;
* Documentation: the importance of this vessel is considerably enhanced by the information obtained from archaeological survey and surviving contruction and Admiralty records, and;
* Historic: the trawler has representative qualities related to the early 20th fishing fleets of Northern Europe and the role of fishermen in the Royal Naval Reserve, shedding particular light on to the role of RNR crews called-up from trade in coastal defence and mine-sweeping duties, which are an under-appreciated element of the national narrative of the First World War. The site is also the war grave of the ten crewmen lost in the vessel's sinking.


The wreck of the Arfon (most likely named from the Welsh for ‘facing Anglesey’ – a reference to the southern shore of the Menai Strait) was discovered in 2014. It was built in 1908 in Goole (Yard Number 113), East Riding of Yorkshire, for the Peter Steam Trawling Company of Milford in South Wales as a 227-ton steel trawler. The Arfon was requisitioned by the Royal Navy in 1914 and fitted with a 6 pounder gun and mine-sweeping apparatus. The Arfon worked out of Portland Harbour naval base sweeping mines laid by the UC-class of mine laying U-boats along the inshore shipping lanes off Dorset. The Arfon swept mines for nearly three years until it sank in under 2 minutes on 30 April 1917 after striking a mine laid by UC-61: the Arfon is one of eleven vessel losses credited to the UC-61 before her own loss in July 1917. Ten of the Arfon’s crew perished in the loss, including the vessel's captain, John Abrams, RNR, with only three survivors who were blown overboard by the mine's explosion. The loss occurred during the period of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany which, from February 1917, saw an increasing number of shipping casualties. In April 1917 a record 881,027 tons of shipping were sunk by the U-boats.

Trawling was by far the most predominant method by which deep sea fish were caught in European waters. The 1890s saw the advent of steel-hulled vessels with steam engines and the introduction of the otter trawl. By the early twentieth century, steam trawlers had almost completely replaced their sailing counterparts. Coal was cheap and abundant, and by the outbreak of the First World War, steam trawlers were the norm in most offshore fishing fleets in Northern Europe and along the coast of North America. Trawlers were particularly suited for many naval requirements because they were robust boats designed to work heavy trawls in all types of weather and had large clear working decks: a minesweeper was easily created by replacing the trawl with a mine sweep.

In 1907, Vice-Admiral Lord Charles Beresford (at that time Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy's Channel Fleet) recommended that steam trawlers be used in the role of minesweepers in the event of war thus freeing up warships for other duties. His recommendation led to the formation of the Royal Naval Reserve (Trawler Section) in 1910, with approval to mobilize 100 trawlers during any crisis period and enroll 1,000 men to man them. The Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) was the ‘territorial’ service for professional seafarers during the First World War (as opposed to the RNVR which tended to be people without a professional seafaring background, but included people who had amateur seafaring experience).

In August 1914 the Royal Navy began to requisition more trawlers and adapt them for mine-sweeping duties, fitting them out with 6-pounder guns, machine guns and depth charges. By the end of 1916 the Navy had requisitioned so many trawlers, and the war had such an impact on shipping, that the supply of fish to the UK was limited. New trawlers were also built in this period: between 1914 and 1918 for example, 371 trawlers were built in the Humber shipyards and almost all of them were taken up by the Royal Navy and used as minesweepers, submarine spotters and coastal patrol boats. By the end of the war, over 300 British trawlers had been lost in this mine-sweeping and coastal defence role along with 50% of their crews, a much higher rate of loss than that experienced by troops serving in the Western Front trenches, where the loss rate was approximately 11.5%. The surviving ex-navy trawlers were offered for sale and refitted for a return to fishing.

It is worth noting that those killed on the Arfon were from the RNR. Their next-of-kin addresses (Grimsby, Hull, South Shields, Lowestoft) suggest that most of the men were fishermen themselves in peacetime: as an example, the Arfon's captain, John Abrams, RNR was a fisherman from Grimsby who was called up into active service in the Trawler Section of the RNR in November 1914 and saw service on minesweepers in the Mediterranean, including during the Dardanelles Campaign, before returning to the UK. Accordingly, the wreck of the Arfon is representative of the important role of the Humber shipyards in building robust fishing vessels in the early part of the twentieth century and has value in representing the heritage both of fishing and of fishermen in wartime, especially amongst minesweepers, an often overlooked element of the First World War that was nonetheless crucial to the war effort, ensuring the steady supply of personnel and materials to the Western Front across the English Channel.

There are no steam trawlers in preservation listed as Registered Historic Vessels by National Historic Ships UK (although the remains of the former requisitioned 1906 steam trawler Viola have been identified at Grytviken in South Georgia), and so this class of vessels of this period are represented entirely by seabed remains and by documentary records: the latter include records associated to the vessel's initial construction, but not to its later adaption to a naval mine-sweeping role (e.g. removal of the trawl equipment and replacement with mine-sweeping apparatus and defensive weapons), which was likely undertaken rapidly on an ad-hoc basis in a local shipyard. While these vessels were built in large numbers during the early twentieth century, they were also wrecked in large numbers – 236 steam trawlers are recorded in the NRHE for the years of the First World War, of which only 71 (30%) are identified sites. However, none of these identified sites are known to be as complete as the Arfon, and none have been systematically assessed to determine their identification and special interest.

Fishing vessels of this date are rarely, if ever, archaeologically investigated. Though much information exists relating to the industry in the form of historical documentation and oral histories, archaeology has so far contributed little to this national story. On this basis the Arfon offers a rare source of information and should be regarded as being of special interest on the basis of both its rarity and representative qualities. This is enhanced through its representation of measures undertaken by the Admiralty to supplement the military vessels in operation during the period.


Designation History: Designation Order: No 2016/841 Made: 10th August 2016 Laid before Parliament: 16th August 2016 Coming into force: 17th August 2016 Protected area: 50 metres within 50' 32.5N 002' 03.5W

No part of the restricted area lies above the high-water mark of ordinary spring tides.

Documentary History: A file of letters, dated 1914-15, related to the Pater Steam Trawling Co is held by Pembrokeshire Archives and Local Studies Centre while Admiralty records for the loss of the Arfon can be found in the National Archives (ref. ADM 137/3255).

Archaeological History: Until recently, the Arfon had been misidentified on the seabed. A diver logbook entry dated May 1998 and published online records that the ‘hull [of the wreck believed to be the Arfon is] well broken down and two boilers standing 6m high…Lots of pipework around engine…recovered a shell poss 18 pounder from near stern. Big prop and helm still in place’. This brief description is consistent with a wreck charted without qualification by the UK Hydrographic Office as the Arfon, located 1km south-west of the position provided by the applicant and published as a wreck tour by Diver Magazine in 2006. Identification of the Arfon is, in the absence of a builder’s plate or other distinguishing features, presently dependant on comparison of the boilers. The wreck initially identified as the Arfon has two boilers, while that now believed to be the Arfon has one. Records of the sister ship of the Arfon, the Ardent (which had a consecutive yard number and was launched on the same day for the same Milford owner. Broken-up 1937), shows that it had one single ended boiler: it would be very unlikely that the engines of the two would differ. Unfortunately, records of the Arfon are not yet known.

This list entry was subject to a Minor Amendment on 18/08/2016


Books and journals
Lloyd's War Losses. The First World War. Casualties to shipping through enemy causes 1914-1918, (1990 - facsimilie reprint), 127
Colledge, J. J. , Ships of the Royal Navy, volume 2: navy-built trawlers, drifters, tugs and requisitioned ships from the fifteenth century to the present, (1989), 24
Toghill, G, Royal Navy Trawlers: Pt.2: Requisitioned Trawlers, (2004)
ARFON M223, accessed 08/01/2016 from http://www.llangibby.eclipse.co.uk/milfordtrawlers/accidents%20&%20incidents/arfon.htm
Archaeological Desk-based Assessment of Ships and Boats 1914 to 1938. Wessex Archaeology (2010)


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.

Statutory Instrument

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.

Statutory Instruments: 2016/841

End of official listing

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