SMS Grosser Kurfurst (1875)


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Location Description:
Off Folkestone, Kent.


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

Location Description:
Off Folkestone, Kent.
National Grid Reference:


The Grosser Kurfürst (or Großer Kurfürst, meaning 'Great Elector', referring to the Brandenburg Prince who was the founder of the kingdom of Prussia) was an ironclad turret warship built for the German Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial Navy). It was laid down at the Imperial Dockyard in Wilhelmshaven in 1870, launched in 1875 and completed in May 1878. The warship sank during its maiden voyage in an accidental collision with the ironclad SMS König Wilhelm off Folkestone, Kent, in May 1878.

Reasons for Designation

The remains of SMS Grosser Kurfürst are scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Period: as an ‘ironclad’, the ship was built during a revolutionary period in naval warfare in which navies moved from reliance upon wooden to armoured ships and which saw the emergence of the forerunners of the great Dreadnought battleships of the First World War. The Grosser Kurfürst is representative of this highly experimental period which briefly saw the return of the ancient ram, but ended with the dominance of armour plate and large-calibre heavy guns;

* Potential: The Grosser Kurfürst is a large wreck and much survives. Further and more detailed archaeological recording will contribute substantially to the understanding of its construction, machinery, material culture and its sinking;

* Survival: diver surveys and remote sensing investigations in 2019 have shown that the wreck is complete, though inverted. The bow ram survives intact along with armour plating. Despite the substantial loss of life, no evidence of human remains has been discovered. The presence and condition of upper deck and external features is unknown but is expected to be good owing to the discovery of the inverted hull.

* Rarity: The Grosser Kurfürst represents the remains of the only known ironclad turret warship wreck in north European waters and is the also the only non-Royal Navy warship recorded in English waters for the period 1860-1913, and;

* Group value: the remains of the Grosser Kurfürst are associated with the memorial to the tragedy and drowned crew in Cheriton Road Cemetery, Folkestone, National Heritage List for England (NHLE) entry 1468684.


The SMS Grosser Kurfürst was one of only three Preussen-class ironclads authorized under the naval programme of 1867, which had been approved by the Reichstag to strengthen the North German Federal Navy in the wake of the Second Schleswig War, when the weak, then-Prussian Navy had been unable to break the blockade imposed by the Danish Navy. Initially ordered as casemate ships, the vessels were re-designed as turret ships and they were the first uniform class of ironclads built for the German fleet. The two other vessels in the class were the Preussen (scrapped 1919) and the Friedrich der Grosse (scrapped 1920).

Elsewhere the 1870s mark the start of an increase in German shipping such as in the transatlantic emigrant trade, as evidenced by the wreck of the Deutschland off Kent (1875) and the wrecks of the Rickmers line. The Grosser Kurfürst, besides its naval significance, also therefore represents an era of increasing German presence in the English Channel region.

Originally designed to carry traditional casemate broadside armament, the Grosser Kurfürst was modified to mount a pair of revolving twin-gun turrets following the same pattern as the British ironclad HMS Monarch (launched 1868, broken-up 1905).

The German navy regarded the Preussen-class as good sea boats combining power from a single coal-fired single-expansion steam engine, driving a single four-bladed screw propeller, with a full ship sailing rig. Built with transverse and longitudinal iron frames, the ships' armour was made of wrought iron and backed with teak and at 96.59m long, the warships had a complement of 46 officers and 454 enlisted men.

In May 1878, all three Preussen-class ships were preparing for the annual summer manoeuvers of the armoured squadron. The three ships were to be joined by the large armoured frigate König Wilhelm, and operate under the command of Rear Admiral Batsch. Friedrich der Grosse missed the manoeuvers after running aground off Nyborg, leaving Batsch just three vessels. While steaming in the English Channel on 31 May, König Wilhelm accidentally rammed Grosser Kurfürst while turning to avoid colliding with a pair of sailing vessels. Its specially strengthened ram bow ripped away armour plate and gouged a huge hole in the side of the Grosser Kurfürst.

A failure to adequately seal watertight bulkheads caused the Grosser Kurfürst to sink rapidly in about eight minutes with the loss of up to 284 men. Many of the recovered bodies were interred in Cheriton Road Cemetery, Folkestone, where there is a substantial memorial (NHLE 1468684).


In September 2019, using survey data supplied by the UK Hydrographic Office, a team of divers confirmed that although partially collapsed, the Grosser Kurfürst lies on the seabed upside-down, just as the historical records suggested the ship sank.

Investigations (comprising remote sensing and diver survey) commissioned by Historic England in 2019 showed that the wreck is complete, though inverted. The bow ram, a significant feature of this class of vessel, survives intact along with armour plating. The rudder and propeller are missing and documentary evidence suggests that they are likely to have been salvaged prior to the 1980s. The aft part of the hull is intact though the gun turrets are likely to have become detached as the ship sank and most likely lie under the hull – no ordnance has yet been reported on site. Despite the substantial loss of life, no evidence of human remains has been discovered. The presence and condition of upper deck and external features is unknown but their survival is expected to be good owing to the inverted hull.

An area of 55m around 51.0138, 1.1490 forms the area of protection.


Crew of the German Warship Grosser Kurfurst, accessed 12 Sept 19 from
Investigating the wreck of the Grosser Kurfürst, accessed 12 Sept 19 from
The Illustrated London News June 8, 1878, accessed 17 Sept 2019 from


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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