WRECK DIVERS JAILED FOR THEFT FROM PROTECTED WRECK OF WWI HMS HERMES

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Nigel Ingram (left)and John Blight (right), have been jailed by Canterbury Crown Court for fraud connected to the salvage of artifacts from the wreck of HMS Hermes in the English Channel.
[Kent Police]

 

Two UK based divers have been jailed for failing to declare artifacts lifted illicitly from the wreck of HMS Hermes in the English Channel.

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Following a two week trial at Canterbury Crown Court, Nigel Ingram [57], of London Road, Teynham, and John Blight, [58], of Old River Way in Winchelsea, East Sussex were jailed for four years and three and a half years respectively for the crime of failing to report items recovered from the wreck of the Cruiser for financial gain.

Built as a cruiser, HMS Hermes was converted into an aircraft transport just before war broke out in August 1914, but her wartime career lasted barely three months and she was sunk off the coast of France by a German U-boat on 31 October 1914.  Forty four of her crew were lost in the sinking rendering the vessel a maritime military grave in the eyes of the UK Government.  A factor which led to the site being designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act.

Mr Blight’s boat, De Bounty, was spotted over the wreck of HMS Hermes by French maritime surveillance officers on 30 September 2014.  A subsequent investigation of the wreck showed that a condenser had been removed and equipment previously seen aboard the De Bounty had been left on the wreck.  Ship’s condensers are a common target for salvage on account of the scrap value of the large amounts of valuable copper which they contain.

An investigation by the French authorities was then referred to their counterparts in the UK including the Kent Police and Historic England and Ingram and Blight were arrested in October 2015.

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A statement from Kent Police indicates not just the international cooperation which lies behind the successful prosecution, but also the scale of the fraud,

“More than 100 items of unreported wreck were recovered at Ingram’s home along with approximately £16,000 cash. A number of photographs were also located on his computer, one of which showed the condenser of the Hermes on the back of De Bounty approximately four hours after it had been boarded by the French surveillance officers.

Police established through subsequent enquiries that Ingram had cashed a cheque from a scrap merchant for £5,029 the day after, on Wednesday 1 October 2014.”

The total value of items of undeclared wreck recovered by the pair is estimated at £150,000.

Mr Blight’s boat De Bounty in operation
[Kent Police]

 

 

In the Police Statement the Investigating officer PC Anne Aylett of Kent Police said:

“The HMS Hermes and other shipwrecks of its kind are legally protected for a reason, and that is because they form an important part of the history of this country.

‘Nigel Ingram and John Blight have demonstrated a complete disregard for the law by helping themselves to artefacts that should have remained beneath the sea instead of being brought to the surface and sold for scrap metal.

‘We are proud of our close working relationship with our partner agencies, which in this case included the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Marine Management Organisation, the Receiver of Wreck, Sussex Police, Historic England, Crown Prosecution Service and the French authorities, and take a robust approach to ensuring important historical items do not end up in the hands of people who are not entitled to them.”

PC Aylett added,

‘We will continue to investigate anyone suspected of stealing items from sunken wrecks and seek to prosecute them when appropriate.’

Speaking on behalf of Historic England, the heritage organisation’s Head of Heritage Crime and Police Advice, Mark Harrison, told the media,

“Like nighthawking on land, the illicit removal of objects from underwater archaeological contexts does much more damage beyond just the loss of an item. All archaeological sites can give us clues and evidence about past events and it is this history that is disturbed and lost when items are removed.

‘This removal means that part of our national story is lost and can never be replaced, particularly where historic artefacts have been sold for scrap, as in this case.

Mr Harrison, who is himself a former senior officer with Kent Police, added,
 
‘We know that the majority of the diving community complies with the laws and regulations regarding the discovery and recovery of wreck from the sea. We will continue to work with the police and other organisations to identify the small criminal minority who are intent on causing loss and damage to our shared cultural heritage.”

The use of fraud charges, in particular, rather than charges related to specifically heritage aspects of the crime such as the Protection of Military Remains Act, marks an increasingly common approach to such crimes on the part of the Police, Historic England and other heritage bodies working with the Crown Prosecution Service.  The penalties for crimes such as fraud and criminal damage are often more severe than for specific heritage crimes.  In particular, the use of fraud charges also enables the authorities to seek not just a jail sentence, but also a confiscation order under the Proceeds of Crime Act to force the offender to repay any profits from the crime.  This approach was used in a previous case relating to the illicit recovery of artifacts, the successful prosecution of another Kent based diver, Vincent Woolsgrove, for the fraudulent recovery of cannon from the protected wreck of HMS London in the Thames Estuary.

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thePipeLine
thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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