In the latest in a series of high-profile prosecutions of various types of “Heritage Crime” by Historic England in cooperation with other law enforcement and regulatory agencies, professional diver and now convicted fraudster Vincent Woolsgrove  of Ramsgate in Kent was jailed for two years on Friday [4 Sept 2015], for the theft of three bronze cannon from the wreck of the 17th century warship HMS London. HMS London blew up in the Thames Estuary on 7 March 1665 with the loss of around 300 lives and is currently the subject of archaeological work. Having recovered five cannon from the wreck site Mr Woolsgrove declared two to the Receiver of Wreck as the Law demands, but sold the remaining three cannon to a US based collector for £50,000.
In sentencing Mr Woolsgrove in Southampton Judge Peter Ralls QC told the Court
“It’s great credit to the MCA [Maritime and Coastguard Agency] that they have been able to piece together historical records that show without doubt the origin and identity of these ancient weapons. The work that has gone into this by the MCA is frankly enormous.”
Mr Woolsgrove had fraudulently pretended to the authorities that the three cannon from the London were in fact from another wreck outside of UK territorial waters. A fraud which was possible because the weapons were originally made as fortress cannon for the City of Amsterdam and were captured by the Royal Navy having been issued to Dutch warships during the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th Century. As a result of searches at his premises and further investigations by the MCA and Historic England, which uncovered an “Aladdin’s cave” of material taken from other wrecks, he asked for a further 61 offences to be taken into consideration.
In addition to the jail sentence Mr Woolsgrove was ordered to pay £35,000 in costs and is now subject to action under the Proceeds of Crime Act, which, if successful, will see him forced to pay back to the authorities any proceeds from the sale of the cannon to a collector in Florida.
Ian Lawrie QC prosecuting said that the American collector who purchased the cannon from Mr Woolsgrove was “disinclined to return them to England”. adding “As far as the MCA is concerned, they are gone, which considering their rarity value, that is a considerable shame.”
While the collector may be content to sit in Florida and enjoy the stolen property sitting on his lawn, many will ask why only the supplier and not the receiver of stolen goods has been prosecuted, with the MCA and the other agencies involved apparently given up on the quest to return three important pieces of the historical record of HMS London to the UK?
Meanwhile Alison Kentuck, the Receiver of Wreck stated that “Our message is clear: all wreck material found within or brought within UK territorial waters must be reported within 28 days to the receiver of wreck.
“It is not a case of ‘finders keepers’. Had these artefacts been correctly reported, the finder would have been entitled to a substantial salvage award and important information could have been added to the historical record.”
Members of the maritime archaeology community will now hope that other known cases of theft from legally protected wreck sites of all types , including some known to be under investigation, are prosecuted with equal vigor and success.