EXCLUSIVE: Kentucky Fried Shipwreck? The Real Story of the Discovery of HMS Gloucester, “Norfolk’s Mary Rose”


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By Andy Brockman

Billed by the University of East Anglia as “Norfolk’s Mary Rose”, in June 2022 there was near blanket coverage in the UK broadcast and print media as the University masterminded the announcement that brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell had found the wreck of the famous warship HMS Gloucester which sank of Great Yarmouth in May 1682.  A partner in the high-profile research project focussed on the Gloucester, the University’s media strategy presented the discovery as the human interest tale of a dogged family search by the two brothers and their late father, who followed up a clue in a book and eventually found the remains of the 17th century warship, the loss of which almost changed the course of English history.  However, thePipeLine can reveal that far from being a find made by dedicated amateur enthusiasts, the HMS Gloucester project is the result of an evidence driven search for that specific ship and that it has had commercial aspects, from at least the moment the wreck was found, with a limited company set up in 2008 to handle investment in work on the wreck site.  This was an action which presented challenges when tested against the UK Government policy on maritime archaeology and historic Royal Navy wrecks and which may well have set back archaeological work on the site by as much as a decade. Indeed, HMS Gloucester almost became a Kentucky Fried Shipwreck, part of an ill fated franchise to privatise the management of the Royal Navy’s historic shipwrecks masterminded by Navy Command of the Ministry of Defence.

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Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that in 2012 a letter from the company apparently set up to manage the Gloucester wreck site, Augership320, was sent to the Ministry of Defence Navy Command in Portsmouth, stating that the project wished also to offer a return to its investors based on the sale of artefacts from the wreck.  Something which is not allowed under the Rules of the Annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage which forms the UK’s policy for underwater archaeology. 

For expert bodies in maritime archaeology and long-term observers of the mainstream maritime archaeology community, news of this development is eerily reminiscent of the debacle over the handling of the wreck site of HMS Victory (1744), lost with her entire crew of over one thousand in the western English Channel in October 1744, which was also overseen by the same officials at the Ministry of Defence, Navy Command in Portsmouth at exactly the same time. 

That wreck row ended up in the courts and archaeological work on the wreck site remains stalled to this day, and while it must be emphasised that there is no evidence to date that anyone connected to the HMS Gloucester story has deliberately acted unlawfully, it is the case that the research and recovery of material from Gloucester has involved a number of the same players who appear also in the early years of the HMS Victory 1744 story. 

High on the cast list is Florida based commercial treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration. 

Crucially, the early years of the Gloucester project was also the period when Odyssey, and its allies, were trying to change the UK Government’s policy towards historic shipwrecks, the objective apparently being to allow the commercial exploitations of such wrecks, including wrecks which are the maritime military graves of Royal Navy sailors.  

Royal Treasure, Tragedy, and a Cover Up

Everyone agrees that the story began at approximately 5.30am on the morning of Saturday 6 May 1682 when the Speaker class frigate, HMS Gloucester ran aground on the Lemon and Ower Bank some forty-five kilometres off Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. 

The veteran fifty-gun Royal Navy warship was reported to be crowded at the time she struck the sandbank, carrying not just her regular crew, but also a cross section of the high society of Restoration Britain.

Indeed, at the time she was lost Gloucester was carrying no less a person than James Duke of York, younger brother of King Charles II, and heir to the thrones of England and Scotland.

As befits a person of his rank, James was accompanied by members of his household, including physicians and musicians, as well as senior members of the Scottish Aristocracy.  James was travelling to Scotland where he was to undertake diplomatic duties and return his pregnant wife to England.

Also aboard the frigate was a rising young army officer called John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, and direct ancestor of Britain’s most iconic Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.

As it became apparent the ship could not be saved, the Duke of York and members of his entourage escaped by boat, with one account reporting acidly, the Duke having “taken particular care of his strong-box, his dogs, and his priests.”

The Duke’s friend, Master of Ordnance Colonel George Legge, reportedly kept back other passengers and crew from the Royal lifeboat at sword point.

Thanks to their own efforts and that of other ships in the Royal squadron, John Churchill and around two thirds of Gloucester’s passengers and crew also escaped with their lives, but at around one hundred and twenty passengers and crew, some accounts say many more, were not so fortunate and were lost with the ship as it was blown off the sandbank and sank in relatively shallow water, some dying, it was said, because protocol dictated nobody could abandon ship before the Duke.

With the ship went her battery of fifty cannon and an unknown number of navy issue and personal items from navigation instruments to medical supplies, and personal collections of clothing, coin, and plate, some still contained in the heavy wooden chests which were the carryon baggage trollies of the 17th century.

Having escaped the wreck, the Duke of York succeeded to the throne three years later on the death of his brother, King Charles II, in February 1685.

Meanwhile, in what may be one of the earliest recorded instances of a classic Whitehall cover up, the ships pilot, a well regarded Scot called James Ayre, was court marshalled and spent a year in the Marshalsea prison. 

His advice to steer a different course the night before the grounding was allegedly over-ruled by the Duke after a heated argument among Gloucester’s senior officers.

And there Gloucester remained, a missing footnote of tragedy, and what might have been, in the history books and, most importantly for this story, in the gazetteers of known shipwrecks which are the bibles of the leisure and commercial salvage and wreck diving community.

A Family Business

Brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell run the family business, Barnwell Print Ltd, which draws on a heritage of almost two centuries of operation in Aylsham Norfolk.  Of good standing in the local community the company prides itself in its green credentials. 

Indeed, in 2020 Barnwell Print Ltd was awarded the Norfolk Carbon Charter Gold Award for their efforts to reduce the company’s carbon emissions and championing environmental best practice, including becoming Norfolk’s first carbon balanced printing business.

Barnwell Print Ltd has also supported local and national charities, including raising over ninety thousand pounds for the Multiple Sclerosis Society across a number of initiatives.

The brothers also have a hobby. 

The Barnwell’s are recreational wreck divers of long standing. 

Perhaps like many maritime archaeologists and divers of his generation, Lincoln Barnwell is quoted as saying he was inspired to take an interest in diving historic wrecks after watching TV coverage of the raising of Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose from the bed of the Solent off Portsmouth forty years ago in October 1982.

According to the version of the discovery of HMS Gloucester published by the University of East Anglia on 10 June 2022, having taken the decision to look for the lost frigate specifically, the Barnwells located the wreck site during their fourth season of searching.

Lincoln Barnwell described his feelings on his first descent to the wreck site in 2007 to the project’s academic partner the University of East Anglia,

“It instantly felt like a privilege to be there, it was so exciting.” Mr Barnwell is quoted as saying, continuing,

“We were the only people in the world at that moment in time who knew where the wreck lay. That was special and I’ll never forget it. Our next job was to identify the site as the Gloucester.”

A Matter of Identification

However, it is over that process of identification that the first in a series of unanswered questions about the Gloucester project lies, in particular when and how the new wreck discovered by the Barnwell’s was identified as the lost Royal transport? 

This is important because there are two inescapable truths about marine salvage. 

The first truth is that every wreck belongs to someone, or can be claimed by someone, and it is upon identification that ownership and therefore access to a wreck, and the salvage of artefacts from a wreck, is decided under UK and International maritime law and convention.

The second inescapable truth is that shipwreck recovery projects are expensive.

A case file provided by a professional documentary researcher could cost between five and ten thousand pounds, while at the time the Barnwell’s instigated their project a fully equipped research vessel based on a converted trawler was available for charter at around thirty five thousand dollars per day.

A professional dive team of the kind which is reported to have taken part in the early work on the Gloucester wreck site could be hired for around four thousand pounds per day.  However, perhaps significantly, that figure would have fallen to around two hundred and fifty pounds per day if the divers were also shareholders in the project, with full payment deferred pending the successful completion of the work. 

As far as the search for HMS Gloucester went:

“It all began with a big old traditional book,” Lincoln Barnwell told Sky News Breakfast, referring to a catalogue of known UK shipwrecks and missing ships.   

Later the website Divernet reported the book in question was actually the standard modern resource for wreck divers and salvagers, the Lloyd’s Register Shipwreck Index volumes and the Shipwreck Index of Ireland, compiled by Richard and Bridget Larn and published in six volumes between 1996 and 2002.

Mr Barnwell added that, on discovering the reference to the Gloucester disaster, he had lifted the phone to ask his brother Julian if he would be interested in coming on board with the search for the ship?  The team would also grow to include the Barnwell’s late father, Michael Barnwell, and another diver based in East Anglia, James Little. 

The Barnwell brothers and Mr Little remain connected to the project to this day. 

However, another name is connected to the Gloucester project in its early years, East Anglian fast food franchise holder, and wreck diver, John Vivian Rose.

Kentucky Fried Shipwreck?

While the highlights of his business career has been as a successful franchisee for Kentucky Fried Chicken and MacDonald’s, as a diver Mr Rose has also been involved in a number of high-profile shipwreck recoveries, most notably that of the East India Company vessel Admiral Gardner on the Goodwin Sands and the Dutch East India Company [VOC] vessel, ‘t Vliegend Hart (‘the Flying Deer’), lost with all hands in the Scheldt estuary in 1735.

The salvage of ‘t Vliegend Hart was undertaken by a team led by former solicitor, Rex Cowan. 

In an interview published in the New York Times in 1998 Mr Cowan namechecked Mr Rose’s contribution to the recovery, stating,

“For financing, I’ve always done two things. One was to keep everything on a small scale, and really run on shoestrings, with the exception of the Fleagan Hart [sic], when I joined forces with John Rose who was a diver and who helped substantially with the financing.”

As well as being another East Anglian based diver, it may well be that track record in raising finance for shipwreck projects which led to Mr Rose taking on the role as the fourth founding director of a company called Augership 320 Ltd which was incorporated at the UK Companies House on 27 June 2008.

The precise significance of the name Augership, or the figure 320 is not currently clear.  However, it does resemble the code names often used by commercial shipwreck companies to mask the target and location of their activities.  For example, during the same period as Augership 320 Ltd was founded, the City of London based investment company Robert Fraser Marine was operating eighteen separate shipwreck investment schemes including a project called, appropriately enough, “Enigma”.

The four founding directors of Augership 320, the two Barnwell brothers Julian and Lincoln, their colleague James Little, whose occupation is listed as publican on company documents, and John Rose, held equal shareholdings in the venture.

Mr Rose’s occupation is listed as “Franchise Consultant”, a reference to his primary business activities in the fast food trade.  

In later presentations and information posted later online on behalf of the Oceanus 3 investment vehicle, but now apparently deleted, Mr Rose claimed to have “discovered” HMS Gloucester in 2009, not 2007 as the Barnwell’s suggested. 

In the same material Mr Rose also claimed to have invested “five years and $7 million of his own money” in the HMS Gloucester project.

However, there is no sign of that kind of money being invested in the project in the first published balance sheet for Augership 320 Ltd, made up to 30 June 2009 and published on 19 March 2010.

Stranger still, by the time that balance sheet was published Mr Rose was no longer even a director of the company.

On 17 April 2009, barely eight months after the company was incorporated, the tenure of Mr Rose as a director of Augership 320 Ltd was terminated and notified to Companies House.

As Mr Rose left his active role at the start of the 2009 dive season in the North Sea, the new company carried on its balance sheet potential debts of £44,115 owed to creditors falling within one year, and a figure owed to creditors after one year of £662,000.

However, while no longer a director of Augership 320, Mr Rose retained his shareholding on an equal basis with the remaining directors.

Meanwhile the company has carried six to seven figure debts ever since and as of the most recent accounting period, up to 30 June 2021, £1,203 836 was carried on the books as owed to creditors within one year.

To sum up the story so far.  Around 2004 the Barnwell brothers, their father and James Little, possibly in association with John Rose, had set out deliberately to find HMS Gloucester, known to have sunk off the coast of Norfolk in 1682. 

By 2007 in the Barnwell’s account, or at the latest 2009 by the account of John Rose, a wreck site, which was believed by the team to be almost certainly that of HMS Gloucester, had been discovered in approximately the right location in shallow water by the Leman and Ower Bank off Great Yarmouth and a standard limited company had been registered apparently to handle wreck projects in which the Barnwells, James Little and initially John Rose, had an interest. 

In May 2022, a month ahead of the public reveal of the site masterminded by the University of East Anglia, the company would morph, via a legal change of name, into the more descriptive Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd. 

That is the commercial entity through which the Barnwells and Mr Little still appear to operate and manage their relationships with the University of East Anglia, Norfolk Museum Service and other parties to the current HMS Gloucester project.

However, back in 2010 there was a more fundamental question than how to manage the wreck site of HMS Gloucester. 

The question was who owned the so called Ower Bank wreck, and its contents?

Who Owned the Ower Bank Wreck?

Marine salvage, and its underwater cousin maritime archaeology, is all about ownership and where a wreck lies is also important. 

For example, the wreck now understood to be HMS Gloucester lay some forty five kilometres off Great Yarmouth outside UK territorial waters, but inside the UK’s statutory Marine Area.

This meant that UK heritage protection  laws did not apply, but marine licensing and certain UK environmental policies and international conventions subscribed to by the UK did.

In particular, under UK salvage law, any salvor, diver or company, can make a claim to be “salvor in possession” of an abandoned vessel, including a wrecked vessel on the seabed. 

That entitles the salvor to recover artefacts, up to and including the vessel itself, and seek a salvage reward from the owner, or if that proves impossible, dispose of the vessel and cargo in any way they choose.

The system is well understood and is based on centuries of developing case law around the world.

The exception to this concept relates to military vessels lost on non- commercial  State  duty. 

Under a legal status called “Sovereign Immunity”, these remain the property of the so-called “Flag State” and may not be interfered with by anyone, wreck diver, or commercial salvage company, without the express written permission of the government of the Flag State.

Thus, Sovereign Immune status should prevent any interreference with the wreck site of a Sovereign Immune vessel including the recovery of any personal property which had belonged to the crew of the vessel.

Sovereign Immune status also works alongside the Rules of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which has been the baseline standard for underwater archaeology in UK waters since 2002, when the Rules of the Convention were adopted as policy for marine archaeology by the UK Government. 

Among other things the UNESCO Rules state that, so called, “preservation in situ” with minimal or no recovery of artefacts, is the preferred means of conservation of a historic underwater site.

The Rules also require that an underwater project is fully funded before it starts, and crucially in the context of commercial companies accessing underwater cultural sites like Gloucester, that the totality of an assemblage from a shipwreck site, what archaeologists term the site archive, must be kept together and finds may not be commercially exploited, which prevents them being sold to fund the excavation, recovery, conservation and display of other artefacts.

However, the successful employment of Sovereign Immune status within the framework of the UNESCO Rules, depends on three things:  first that the finder or salvor recognises the vessel is Sovereign Immune in the first place; second, that they respect Sovereign Immunity and the UNESCO Rules, and finally that the Flag State which owns the vessel, and/or the state in whose waters the vessel lies, is prepared to enforce its legal rights.

This latter course of action  is perfectly possible and has precedents.  Both the US and Spanish Governments have used Sovereign Immunity to claim back in the courts artefacts removed from their lost warships without permission.

As we know the Barnwells, Mr Little and Mr Rose had gone looking for HMS Gloucester and by 2009 at the latest they believed they had found her.

It was also explicit from the circumstances of her loss, as a serving warship of the Royal Navy, sailing in convoy with other warships under military command and carrying no less a person than the brother of the King, that she would be classed as Sovereign Immune.

However, from documents released under the Freedom of Information Act it is clear that in 2010, in spite of the fact that legally the wreck of HMS Gloucester could not be disturbed without the permission of the British Government, the relevant authorities in London and at Navy Command in Portsmouth, appear to have known nothing about the find, let alone that work was underway already to recover artefacts from the wreck site in apparent contravention of both Sovereign Immunity and the Government policy under the UNESCO Rules.

That apparent ignorance of the activities off Great Yarmouth was about to change.

“…an unidentified, potentially historic wreck, wreck possibly of Dutch origin…”

On 1 April 2010, as the UK approached a General Election and possible change of Government, and therefore also a possible change of policy towards historic shipwrecks, an officer of the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency [MCGA], the body which polices the UK’s territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ], sent an e-mail to counterparts across Whitehall and to the then regulator and statutory advisory body for matters archaeological, English Heritage (now renamed Historic England). 

Based on a meeting that morning, the e-mail told an interesting tale [our italics].

“Last year [2009],” the author reported, “a recreational diver reported the recovery of a list of items from an unidentified, potentially historic wreck, possibly of Dutch origin, off the East coast.”

The existence of the mysterious wreck was then reported to English Heritage and to the Dutch authorities, but, the author notes, despite their asking, no images or further information about the site was provided to the MCGA, and no further finds were reported.

Under the UK Merchant Shipping Act finds of maritime material recovered from the seabed and landed in the UK must be reported to the government official called the Receiver of Wreck.

Then came the meeting of 1 April 2010.

The author of the e-mail claimed with some surprise that,

“Far from a recreational diver’s discoveries the items were actually recovered during a large ‘pre-disturbance’ survey of the site that they had already identified as HMS Gloucester [1682].”

The author of the e-mail added,

“Footage was shown of a survey vessel with a variety of personnel on board, along with underwater footage of wreckage, including cannon, and a large anchor, surface supply divers and commentary identifying the site as HMS Gloucester [1682].”

Such was the lack of information about the mysterious new site, and the confusion over who in Government was responsible for its administration, that the author was compelled to ask,

“Please could you all confirm that MoD, DCMS, and FCO have not provided OME [or anyone else] with any kind of permission to investigate or recover artefacts from this site?”

OME is the Florida based commercial treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration of whom more shortly.

Summing up the legal situation, as it was perceived at the time by the MCGA, the author concluded [our italics],

“…as this situation appears to infringe Sovereign Immunity as well as the [redacted] perhaps we should discuss a co-ordinated approach as soon as possible.”

Among the replies was one from a senior official at Navy Command who placed Odyssey Marine Exploration at the centre of the developing story. 

On 6 April 2010 the official wrote,


[Name redacted] did refer in passing, when I saw him a couple of months ago to a ‘new find’ that he had described as even more exciting than ”VICTORY’ with “Royalty involved” which presumably is the Gloucester [although he did not mention either the name or [redacted- possibly the position on the Ower Bank?].”

The date and context of the e-mail, taken with the level of knowledge exhibited, suggests that the person providing the information about the “new find” may well have been the then Chief Executive Officer of OME Gregg Stemm, or one of his close associates.

Mr Stemm was then in regular touch with Navy Command because he was leading OME’s attempt to gain access to recover artefacts from the one hundred gun, First Rate warship, HMS Victory lost in the western English Channel, with all hands, in the Autumn of 1744.

Indeed, the author at Navy Command noted that the informant had chosen deliberately not to bring the Gloucester site to Navy Command’s attention at that point, reportedly,

“…so as not to complicate the VICTORY discussions.”

The e-mail concluded with the note that the informant, [Mr Stemm/ a senior officer at OME?] did not indicate there was any agreement in place with the company regarding Gloucester, and that,

“Given the approach we [the UK Government] adopted on VICTORY he must know our position on sovereign immunity of the Gloucester.”

That comment of course offers a more commercial and self-interested reason for OME not identifying the wreck as HMS Gloucester and bringing the wreck to the attention of the UK Government which owned it.

Overall, officials seem to have been sure that, at least as far as HMS Gloucester was concerned, there was a prima facie case that both Sovereign Immunity and the UNESCO Rules might have been compromised because a wreck site believed to be Gloucester had been found by a team searching for Gloucester and instead of pausing to confirm the identity of the wreck and secure the legal framework and permissions to allow access, the team had undertaken significant operations at the site, including the use of a team of professional divers all portrayed on a video openly describing the wreck as the Sovereign Immune HMS Gloucester.

Nonetheless, instead of the Government stepping in to assert its rights on a Sovereign warship of the Royal Navy which was the maritime military grave of Royal Navy personnel and civilians, an email dated 14 June 2010, originating from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, confirmed that the author had held an “open, frank and positive,” meeting with Augership 320 Ltd, that “salvage activities” had been undertaken, and that Odyssey Marine Exploration had produced a site report. 

Other official e-mails confirm that such a report was circulated at around this period.

Yet no action was taken to address the apparent failure to observe Sovereign Immunity, or the UNESCO Rules.

One reason behind this may be that the mood music in Whitehall had changed with the coming to power of the new coalition Government led by David Cameron on May 2010, and with it a new Culture Secretary [now the Chancellor of the Exchequer], Jeremy Hunt.

When the coalition Government took over Government at the beginning of May 2010 it inherited a consultation about the management of the HMS Victory 1744 wreck site which had been set up by the outgoing Labour administration.

The result of the consultation, and of at least one meeting held without officials present between Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Sir Robert Balchin, later Lord Lingfield, who claimed incorrectly to be a direct descendent of Admiral Sir John Balchen who had been lost with HMS Victory, was that Navy Command would pursue a policy of outsourcing the management of HMS Victory 1744 to a charitable trust, founded by Sir Robert Balchin, and called the Maritime Heritage Foundation [MHF].

In August 2010 a blistering memorandum from civil servants at the Department of Culture Media and Sport [now the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] warned Culture Secretary Hunt about Sir Robert Balchin’s links to Odyssey Marine Exploration and the potential that the Government’s policy towards Underwater Cultural Heritage [UCH] might be compromised by that relationship [our italics],

“Given Sir Robert’s close links with the main commercial salvor with an interest in the site (much of the wording of both his letter and submission reflects that salvor’s views), any letter is likely to be shared with them, and create further issues for the handling of both this case and wider policy on the issue of how this Government deals with UCH issues.”

Through the rest of 2010 and the following four years, OME, by now supported by Sir Robert Balchin’s MHF, was trying to steer the UK Government towards a policy of allowing the sale of privately owned artefacts and, so called, mass produced “trade goods” from the Victory wreck site, contrary to the UNESCO Rules. 

This had led Mr Hunt’s DCMS team to add that their belief was,

“OME’s interest in the site [of HMS Victory 1744] centres, despite their protestations to the contrary, on the possibility of recovery of bullion thought by some to have been on board.”

At precisely the same time as Mr Hunt and Navy Command was running into trouble over the suggestion that HMS Victory 1744 might be exploited commercially by OME and the Maritime Heritage Foundation in contravention of the UNESCO Rules, the minutes of a meeting held at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, released under the Freedom of Information Act, show that an identical issue was brewing over the wreck of  HMS Gloucester.

The records also suggests rival parties were engaged in something of a bidding war over the Gloucester wreck site.

Enter Mr Hassan and “a Royal Family from the Middle East”

On 6 December 2010 an official at the Ministry of Defence’s specialist Salvage and Marine Operations Branch e-mailed Fleet 3rd Sector [Simon Routh] who was handling administration of the two wreck sites on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.

Under the specific subject heading “HMS Gloucester” the author wrote [Our Italics],

“I’ve been contacted through our links with the commercial diving world by [name redacted] regarding a wreck he ‘found’.

He initially was very secretive and only gave a few sketchy details of been in[redacted] outside [Redacted, but from the context possibly a reference to the wreck being outside the twelve mile territorial limit] When pushed he did admit to it being Gloucester.”

The author continued, saying of the informant,

“He is keen on carrying out a full archaeological excavation of the wreck and claims to have £4million of funding available for it.  He is aware of Odyssey interest in the wreck, but is looking for a permit to carry out the excavation.  He is keen to avoid the site been [sic] damaged by a free for all.”

The e-mail concluded that the contact had requested a meeting to talk through his plans and asked if Fleet 3rd Secretary would take this on?

In a follow up discussion, which may, or may not be connected with the 10 December 2010 report from Salvage Branch, on 8 June 2011 an official from Navy Command had a telephone discussion with one “Mr Hassan” who made what was effectively a marketing pitch.

Mr Hassan wrote to the MoD stating,

“We are a UK company/group [backed by a Royal Family from the Middle East] who are seeking to obtain exclusive permission to conduct archaeological excavation of the ship wreckage, with a firm eye on conducting this as an archaeological heritage project.”

To avoid any doubt as to which wreck was under discussion Mr Hassan added,

“The wreckage I am referring to is HMS Gloucester, which sank in 1682 in the southern North Sea region.”

Specifically, Mr Hassan then requested on behalf of his company, what would be the cost to obtain an exclusive licence to permit excavation, and was there any additional cost to purchase the ship wreckage, observing [our italics],

“We appreciate there may be other parties interested or enquiring about obtaining the said licence for the same wreckage.  However, we have invested precious time and resources [cost and manpower] in this research project for a period exceeding 10 years.  Therefore we are willing to pay the appropriate fee to secure the licence.”

The tone of whole e-mail can be described as “keen”, with Mr Hassan adding that, while maritime archaeology is famously expensive, money appeared to be no obstacle because,

“Funding the licence would not be an obstacle or limiting factor for us.”

The response to Mr Hassan’s approach was that his group’s claimed investment in time and cash notwithstanding, HMS Gloucester was a Sovereign Immune Royal Navy warship, and a heritage asset, meaning that nothing could be done to the wreck without the consent of the UK Government, and work had to be in accordance with the Annex ‘s Rules to the UNESCO Convention, beginning with preservation in situ as the preferred management option.

The conclusion was frank.                                                                           

“I am afraid therefore that I have to advise you that in the circumstances HMG would not be willing to agree that the wreck be salvaged, or to sell it to you, and in consequence would not be willing to enter into an agreement with your company.”

Of course, by this point the Ministry of Defence and other official bodies were fully aware that artefacts had already been removed from the wreck site by Augership 320 Ltd. 

This fact had been confirmed in a letter sent to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency by Augership 320 Ltd a few weeks after Mr Hassan’s approach, where the company asked for a resolution to the issue of,

“…artefacts we presented in April 2010…”.

Dated 6 July 2011, the letter contains several other interesting points. 

After observing that the company had been monitoring the site, and noting that new areas of the site had been exposed revealing the survival of organic material including wickerwork, as well as a bottle which retained its cork in place, the company claimed to be “salvor in possession of the site”.

As “salvor in possession” the company claimed to be highly concerned that the seabed erosion which it had identified might put at risk objects of both important archaeological “and financial” value.

Asking for a discussion about Augership’s options for recovering the material and the way forward with its project, the letter also pointed up a perceived ambiguity stating,

“…bearing in mind there is still no conclusion on the identity of the site.”

There are several points to be made here.

First the idea that Augership 320 was “salvor in possession” of the HMS Gloucester wreck site was a legal nonsense. 

The term cannot be applied to vessels carrying Sovereign Immunity and, unlike HMS Victory 1744 which was gifted to the Maritime Heritage Foundation, the British Government had never consented to disturbance or recovery.

Second, the letter has several hallmarks of having benefitted from advice offered by Odyssey Marine Exploration, which was already known to be involved with Augership to the extent that the Florida based company had authored a technical report about the site.  

In particular, at the time Augership wrote the letter in July 2011, OME was in the final stages of an ultimately futile legal battle in the Florida courts with the Government of Spain over recoveries from the Sovereign Immune warship Nostre Senora de las Mercedes, lost off the southern coast of Spain in 1804. 

In an attempt to cover up the uncomfortable fact that the salvage of artefacts from the Mercedes, including seventeen and a half tons of silver coins, was without the permission of the Spanish Government, a core element of Odyssey’s legal strategy was to deny the vessel they were salvaging actually was the Mercedes, meaning sovereign immunity could not apply.

A Spanish Government expedition would discover later that Odyssey’s maskirovka extended to leaving on the seabed antique bronze cannon listed on the cargo manifest of the Mercedes as they would have identified the wreck beyond doubt, and proven Odyssey was acting unlawfully at sea, and in bad faith in the US courts.

Finally, on their own admission, the Barnwells and their colleagues, including Mr Rose, had gone looking for the Gloucester, and by 2010 at the latest, everyone involved both at Augership and in Government, seems to have been working on the assumption the wreck found by the Barnwells and worked by Augership 320 Ltd was Gloucester.

The identity of the ship was even mentioned on the mysterious video seen by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, so to pretend the identity of the wreck was unknown, as Augership 320 was now doing, was to insult the intelligence of the officials in the UK Government.

All in all, it might therefore be expected then that, at the very least, the precautionary principle should have been applied, given the likelihood, bordering on certainty, that the wreck site was the resting place of Gloucester and the memorial  to the people lost with her.  Thus, work should have been prohibited at the very least, pending a full assessment of the site, and measures to configure any project to align with UK Government policy under the UNESCO Rules

However, instead of facing a stop order, an investigation, or any form of sanction  for interfering with the wreck of a Royal Navy warship without permission, further meetings took place amid an apparent attempt by the Royal Navy, to outsource its management of historic shipwrecks on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.

As with HMS Victory 1744, the documents record that private parties involved with the Gloucester wreck site played their trump card, claiming they were up against the clock to save a site which was in clear and present danger of damage or destruction.

The suggestion in a report that a site is under threat from erosion/trawlers/illicit diving, often all three, and that a solution had to be found urgently is also a hallmark of OME’s approach to negotiating access to wreck sites. 

Even Lord Lingfield, OME’s partner in the Maritime Heritage Foundation, once referred to Odyssey in an e-mail to the Ministry of Defence as “ever in a tearing hurry”.

Of course, cultivating a sense of chaos and crisis is one way to game a situation, reducing the time other parties to a discussion have to think, to verify the alleged danger, and to scrutinise objectively what the chaotic actor is up to.

It was with these issues in play that a meeting was held at National Museum of the Royal Navy [NMRN] in Portsmouth on Tuesday 27 March 2012, chaired by the civil servant in charge of the Royal Navy’s historic wrecks, then Fleet Third Secretary who at this point was still Simon Routh. 

Attending were three representatives of Augership 320 Ltd, Professor Dominic Tweddle of the NMRN, two representatives of the Government’s advisory body English Heritage and the Receiver of Wreck, the Government official who records artefacts landed from shipwrecks which a diver or salvor is required to declare by the Merchant Shipping Act.

The meeting followed another a few months previously when Ian Oxley of English Heritage expressed surprise that representatives of Augership 320 Ltd were in attendance as well as the senior members of the Maritime Heritage Foundation he expected.

Also present on that occasion was maritime archaeologist Dr Sean Kingsley who, at the time, was advising both OME and the Maritime Heritage Foundation. 

According to an e-mail sent following the meeting Mr Oxley was somewhat disconcerted to discover that he was having to explain to the Maritime Heritage Foundation, what he described as, basic principles of maritime law as applied to archaeology which had been in place and understood for years.

On that occasion the minutes of the meeting suggest that English Heritage was concerned that Navy Command was trying to bounce the body, the Government’s statutory heritage adviser, into accepting an arm’s length management model which would leave both HMS Victory 1744 and HMS Gloucester under the control of the Maritime Heritage Foundation, an organisation over which there were significant concerns, both about its technical and managerial capacity, as well as suspicions about the closeness of senior members of the MHF and their advisor Dr Kingsley, to Gregg Stemm and Odyssey.

In other words, the concern was that what Mr Routh appeared to be trying to engineer was the franchising out of the management of the Royal Navy’s historic wrecks in UK waters to the Maritime Heritage Foundation, with the distinct possibility that behind the scenes pulling the strings would be Odyssey Marine Exploration, which at the time was promising its investors multi-million dollar returns from the HMS Victory project.

These are the same concerns which had been expressed by civil servants at the DCMS to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Heritage professionals and maritime lawyers were also concerned that Navy Command had gifted HMS Victory 1744 to the Maritime Heritage Foundation, with no “sunset clause”, or mechanism to require the return of the wreck site to MoD control if the MHF’s management proved inadequate for any reason.  

This had the effect that, as soon as the deal was agreed, any ability for the Government to reclaim the wreck if the project failed, and, perhaps most importantly, the only legal defences the wreck site and its contents had under international law, had been removed.

Effectively “privatised” as the property of the Maritime Heritage Foundation, HMS Victory 1744 was no longer Sovereign Immune.   

With the possible exception of the representatives of Augership 320 Ltd, all of the principles from English Heritage, the National Museum of the Royal Navy and Navy Command entering the next crucial meeting about HMS Gloucester on 27 March 2012, will have been aware that this behind the scenes power struggle for the legal and ethical soul of UK maritime archaeology was still playing out.

Odyssey Marine Exploration’s ongoing attempt to get the UK Government to change its policy regarding the application of the UNESCO Rules, was being leveraged through the company’s involvement with HMS Victory 1744 and, it now appeared, potentially through the case of HMS Gloucester too.

Investors”…keen to see a financial return

After discussing general principles about assuring the heritage value of the site, training for the Augership team, and potential models for the governance of the project, discussion at the meeting on 27 March 2012 turned to the core issue of money.

Item six of the minutes of the meeting recorded, [our italics],

“All agreed that finding issues were central to the debate [Augership 320] commented that the Augership Group had already expended considerable sums in bringing the project to its current stage and that, while they were willing to provide financial backing the group and its investors were however keen to see a financial return related to the recovery of personal property from the wreck.”

“Personal property” refers to items not demonstrably belonging to the structure of the ship, or having been issued to the ship and its crew by the Government and marked by the famous broad arrow.  This includes mass produced items such as coin, and bottles which were known to have been located by Augership’s divers on the wreck site.

These are the artefacts OME often refer to in documents as “Trade Goods” and it is these artefacts which the company was lobbying the UK Government to allow to be sold, in contravention of the UNESCO Rules and UK archaeological policy.

As an example of the kind of financial rewards potentially available in the salvage of a wreck like HMS Gloucester, a plain empty 17th century wine bottle can sell for around two to four hundred pounds and it is thought provoking to consider that a bulletin on the HMS Gloucester research project published by funder, the Leverhulme Trust, states that by Summer 2022 the wreck of HMS Gloucester had yielded over 150 such wine bottles, including thirty with intact contents.  .

As a measure of the financial stakes in 2012, at around the time a commercial salvage model appears to have been at least under consideration for the wreck, six sealed bottles of wine from the VOC vessel ‘t Vliegend Hart, the same vessel worked on by Rex Cowan’s team including Augership 320’s short lived founding director John Rose, were sold at auction in Belgium for just shy of thirteen thousand dollars. 

However, in 2019 London auctioneer Christies offered sealed wine bottles from the same period as the wreck of the Gloucester, but with none of the cachet of royal associations, their having been recovered from a wreck off the cost of Germany. They went under the hammer with an auctioneer’s estimate of twenty-six to thirty thousand pounds each. 

The price realised appears not to have been made public. 

However, using the 2019 estimate from Christies as a guide, conservatively the sale of those thirty sealed bottles could net a seller a cool three quarters of a million pounds.

Obviously, such a financial return might also be realised via the generosity of a sponsor [although not a grant funder such as a charitable trust or foundation, or the UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund, as these would not normally pay commercial returns to investors, and certainly not costs incurred prior to a grant being made].

Another source of funds might be from a salvage reward offered by the Government regarding the ship and beneficial owners of recovered privately owned artefacts, which might be permissible under the UNESCO Rules.

This assessment of the legal position was made clear to Augership and Navy Command as the meeting progressed. 

The catalyst for the Government attempting to drawing a line in the Ower Bank sand, may have been the moment in the meeting where the minutes record that Augership 320 Ltd confirmed that the company did indeed have a relationship with Odyssey Marine Exploration, but that Augership 320 preferred the details to remain confidential at that point.

Perhaps because of this apparent lack of candour, and knowing how the Victory 1744 project had been allowed to progress by Navy Command only to become mired in similar issues, both the National Museum of the Royal Navy and English Heritage made it clear to Augership 320, and Navy Command, that they could not be associated with any project funded by the sale of recovered objects.

Effectively, the NMRN and English Heritage had mounted a pincer movement to try to restrain Mr Routh and Navy Command through the exercise of an ethical veto on any form of overtly commercial model for the Gloucester Project.

However, the situation was exacerbated a few weeks later in April 2012, when a draft document outlining the Government’s expectations of the HMS Gloucester project, authored by Mr Routh of Navy Command, was circulated to interested parties in Government. 

The draft contained the following line to the effect that, while it would be wrong and inconsistent with the UNESCO Rules, for the project to be funded [Our Italics],

 “…solely or in significant part by the sale of recovered artefacts”

“We [Navy Command is here speaking for the Government] would however have no objection in principle to the proceeds of the disposal of individual items which are not required for retention being used to supplement other funding for the project.”

With the position stated by Mr Routh at best ignorant of the legal implications of the statement and at worst inflammatory, as well as being a clear breach of stated Government Policy, English Heritage responded with forceful politeness, pointing out that the sentence should be removed as being “not consistent with the [UNESCO] Rules,” and pointing out that the Augership team had already been asked to set out its intentions for the disposal of artefacts within its conservation and management plan.

To re-enforce the point Historic England pointed out sharply that UNESCO’s own Scientific and Technical Advisory Body [STAB] monitoring the 2002 Convention, had submitted a recommendation to UNESCO that financing archaeology by deaccessioning artefacts was specifically highlighted as being not consistent with the Rules.

Suggesting he knew exactly what he was doing, Mr Routh pushed back in turn, e-mailing Dominic Tweddle at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, and Historic England, indicating that he wanted to avoid “too absolutist a stance” [presumably over the application of the UNESCO Rules and UK policy] and pointing out that the Government was unlikely to have funds available to manage even a Royal Navy wreck outside territorial waters, hence the plan to set up a charitable body which could call on funding streams closed to Government such as charitable trusts and foundations or commercial entities.

However, in the Summer of 2012, the HMS Victory 1744 project became stalled indefinitely, with the site becoming the subject of a written warning from the Marine Management Organisation [MMO] for breaches of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, of a series of abortive licence applications, of legal challenges and ultimately of two Judicial Reviews which first overturned a decision by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon to allow MHF/Odyssey to raise “at risk” artefacts from the site and the second to upheld the decision of  Secretary of State for Defence not to permit MHF to commence recoveries from HMS Victory 1744.

However, while Augership 320 was apparently in a weaker position than the Maritime Heritage Foundation in that it had not been gifted the HMS Gloucester wreck site and that, as of 30 June 2012, the company accounts show it had exposure to debtors of around £662,000, discussions over the excavation of the wreck appear to have continued in the background, without the close involvement of other interested parties such as Historic England.

Members of the maritime archaeology community, not connected to Augership 320 Ltd, have told thePipeLine that throughout this period they were concerned that the Gloucester project appeared to be proceeding without any formal agreement with the Ministry of Defence to work on the wreck site and with no formally agreed conservation and management plan, although thePipeLine has been told that least one draft plan had been presented by Augership 320 Ltd and was returned with comments by Historic England.

thePipeLine understands that either that management plan [or another unknown], was authored on behalf of Augership 320 by Dr Sean Kingsley of Wreckwatch International, consultant to Odyssey Marine Exploration and archaeological advisor to the Maritime Heritage Foundation.

However, during research for this article it emerged that a testimonial issued in 2014 by Simon Routh’s successor at Navy Command, Mr Giles Ahern, may have the effect of providing just such a management agreement.

It is just that at the time few, if anyone, outside Augership 320, the MoD and Historic England was was aware of it, with those in the dark understood to have included the Ministry of Defence’s own independent expert advisors.

“To whom it may concern…” or When is a contract not a contract?

A copy of the testimonial, which was written by Mr Routh’s successor at Navy Command, Mr Giles Ahern, was freely provided to thePipeLine in the Summer of 2022 by Mr Julian Barnwell on behalf of Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd, the rebranded Augership 320 Ltd.  Mr Barnwell and the project team wished to make it clear that it was proceeding with official knowledge and consent, and with the knowledge that the UNESCO Rules had to be followed.

Dated 8 July 2014 and headed, “To Whom it may concern”, the subject is given as,

“Re: Ministry of Defence & Augurship 320 Ltd Strategic Shipwreck Partnership”

The key element of the text states,

“Through continuous underwater surveys and research between 2007 and 2014, Augurship 320 Ltd has demonstrated professionalism in its role as finder and site manager, conducting a multibeam survey and producing a site plan and multiple scientific reports.   Ongoing management plans have been discussed with the MOD and the Department for Culture Media and Sport and their Advisory Group (English Heritage, National Museum of the Royal Navy, Maritime Management Organisation, and the Receiver of Wreck).”

The letter concludes with a statement of support, telling any would-be partner,

“The MOD supports the Augurship 320 Ltd team in seeking to identify an institution that will share its passion for both the accession of the shipwreck’s physical archive and the public display of the archaeological artefacts. The MOD has encouraged Augurship to enter into a creative working relationship with an institution that adheres to Museum Association Code of Ethics.”

Of course the implication of the MOD encouraging Augership 320 to enter into a working relationship with a body which adheres to the Museum Association Code of Ethics is that up to that date, and until an agreement which was compliant with the Code was concluded, Augership was not a partner in any such relationship.

Neither have the archaeological reports mentioned been published.

Be that as it may, over eight years on from Mr Ahern’s letter, it is  just such a partnership which the company appears to have entered into with the University of East Anglia and Norfolk Museum Service, with artefacts undergoing conservation in the laboratories of York Archaeology.

However, while happy that Navy Command seems to have learned the lesson of HMS Victory 1744 and is not contemplating gifting Gloucester to Augership 320, now Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks, maritime archaeologists and experts in maritime law contacted by thePipeLine expressed astonishment and some concern, at the language used by Mr Ahern in his 2014 testimonial.

In particular, by placing on the record the terms “strategic partnership” and using the terms “finder and site manager” to describe Augership 320, even though there was no formal management structure in place, or a contracted chain of accountability to ensure compliance with the UNESCO Rules, Mr Ahern had made it infinitely more difficult, if not impossible, for the authorities to exert any legal, or processual control over the conduct of the Gloucester project.

As one expert put it to thePipeLine.

“Show that letter to any judge and they would interpret it as permission, or at least bordering upon a promise for a permission.”

As to Mr Ahern’s motive in writing such a testimonial, apparently without the knowledge of other significant players in the management of historic shipwrecks, including the MoD’s own expert advisors, there seem to be two main possibilities.

It may be that Mr Ahern was merely trying to be helpful in moving the project to protect a vulnerable lost warship along?

Of greater concern is the notion that, having been forced into a humiliating U-turn, rescinding permission granted to the MHF to commence the HMS Victory 1744 project, it is possible Navy Command wanted to get things done its own way without undue attention from individuals and organisations outside of the Ministry of Defence who might start asking questions?  Particularly expert archaeological bodies?

In that reading Mr Ahern produced what is effectively a snooker were Historic England, or a similar body, to try to veto the plans of Augership on the grounds of, for example, noncompliance with the UNESCO Rules, or because of possible breaches of Sovereign Immunity and other statutes as the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency had originally suggested was the case in 2010.

What is certain is that to the mainstream professional archaeological community, the issue of effective management of the HMS Gloucester project is critical as it was acknowledged early on that the Barnwell’s lacked high level archaeological experience to manage such a project, to the extent that as early as the first quarter of 2012, the documents record that they were being encouraged by Historic England to take basic archaeological qualifications through the Nautical Archaeology Society’s training programme.

It is also a concern that the advice offered to Augership during the critical period 2010 to 2012 seemed to have come largely from a source, Odyssey Marine Exploration, which lacked credibility in much of the wider archaeological community and which could be argued to have had a fiduciary interest in the particular outcome of allowing the sale of some categories of artefact from the site.

Of course, from the perspective of 2023, in the wake of the public announcement of the discovery of the wreck, with its media friendly branding as “Norfolk’s Mary Rose”, there remains one issue which is central to whether the Gloucester project can be compliant with the UNESCO Rules. 

That is that just two years before Mr Ahern wrote his testimonial “To whom it may concern” Augership 320 Ltd was telling Mr Ahern’s predecessor Mr Routh, and other Government bodies including English Heritage, that it was concerned to offer a return to investors, and declined to state its precise relationship with Odyssey Marine Exploration.

Mr Ahern’s letter does nothing to clarify the status of any commercial aspects of the HMS Gloucester project, however residual they might be, or whether he even knew about them given that Augership had apparently declined to disclose the details of its relationship with Odyssey?

Of course, all involved may have done their due diligence and all will be well with the Gloucester project, but there are a few straws in the wind that questions might still arise.

For example, the University of East Anglia seems to have become so carried away with maximising the impact in the media of its project launch that it forgot to check that one of the “founding partners” in the Gloucester project, the National Museum of the Royal Navy actually was a founding partner as described on the University website.

Asked in June 2022 about the claim on the University of East Anglia website a spokesperson for the NMRN told thePipeLine,

“We are not a partner in the recovery project for HMS Gloucester, but are supporting Norfolk Museum Services with their exhibition including the loan of items from our collection.”

The University of East Anglia declined to answer the question as to why it had appeared to place the NMRN closer to the project than the museum wished to be seen, nor if the website would be amended to make clear that the NMRN was not a “foundational partner”.

Nonetheless, it must be asked that, if the University media team can make a mistake such as mischaracterising the role of a major national museum in such a high-profile launch, what else may lurk in the backstory of the Gloucester project of which the University is also currently unaware?

Meanwhile, at the time of writing [January 2023], the most recently published accounts of, what is now called, Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd show that the company has just £2038 cash in the bank and the sum of £1,203 836 is owed to creditors falling due within one year.

At the time of the press launch of the discovery in June 2022 journalist Liz Coates, writing in the local newspaper the Eastern Daily Press, described the project as, being completely self-funded, with the exception of a donation from a local company Alan Boswell Insurance. 

The article also claimed that the project had cost the Barnwell brothers and Mr Little hundreds of thousands of pounds, including a maritime mortgage for a diver support boat.

However, apart from that possibility that the Barnwell’s may be creditors of their own company, there is no published information as to who those creditors are, or when and how they might be repaid and on what terms.

thePipeLine also asked the Barnwells if Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd had any legal or financial exposure to Mr Rose by dint of his early involvement in the project and shareholding. 

During an e-mail correspondence with thePipeLine Julian Barnwell responded that he was not going to answer specific questions regarding Mr Rose, but stated, 

“With regards to John Rose, and his statements, we have no connection with any of his companies, in fact we first reported John Rose, and his associates to the ROW and the MOD back in 2010, and again in 2012.”

Mr Barnwell added that if thePipeLine provided information about Mr Rose it would be referred to the Barnwell’s solicitors to allow them to assess if it was slanderous or unlawful.

thePipeLine also asked if Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd, had any financial exposure to Odyssey Marine Exploration, or any other major contractor or contractors, for work done on the HMS Gloucester site.

Mr Barnwell has thus far failed to respond to that question.

When the discovery of the wreck site of HMS Gloucester was announced to the public in June 2022 TV Historian and operator of the History Hit website Dan Snow wrote,

“The Barnwell brothers are that classic sort of British enthusiast that makes your heart swell with patriotic pride. Passionate about history and their corner of the country, more at home on the water than on the land, and eccentric enough to spend every spare moment and pound of cash in a hopeless search for a lost ship.”

At one level he is certainly correct. The Barnwells are not professional salvage men, let alone archaeologists and by their account they succeeded in finding the ship they set out to look for which is some achievement.

They may well also have spent a lot of their own money in the search and on subsequent work related to the project.

But the trail of e-mails and other documents show conclusively that the account offered by the University of East Anglia to the world’s media in June 2022 is only part of a story which, particularly in its early days was a lot more complicated, and in places troublesome, than that which the university presented. Particularly so in its commercial aspects as reported at the time to the British Government and its agencies. 

History suggests that commercial shipwreck projects can be accident prone to say the least when it comes to the courts. 

As stated earlier, it is all comes down to proving ownership, and then enforcing that ownership. 

Both situations can be difficult and the more so the further back in history you go. 

For example, in the case of Dutch East India Company, or VOC, vessels, the company itself went bankrupt in 1798 and its assets and debts were transferred to the then Batavian Republic. The modern Netherlands are the Republic’s legal successor, hence the agreements between Mr Cowan, the Riks Museum and the Dutch Government over the recovery work on ‘t Vliegend Hart and another VOC ship, the Rooswijk, lost on the Goodwin Sands and now a protected wreck under UK legislation. 

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, the recovery of artefacts and valuables from the paddle steamer Central America has also been mired in the United States courts on account of the often conflicting interests of the parties with a legal claim on her contents.   

Nicknamed “the Ship of Gold” on account of the wealth she was carrying deriving from the California Gold Rush, these interested parties include the modern successors of the thirty nine insurance companies which insured the cargo and possessions of the original passengers; investors in the latest salvor, once again Odyssey Marine Exploration, in this case acting as a hired gun on commission; and not least the investors who claim they were ripped off by the original salvor of the Central America, Tommy Thompson. 

A Floridian like Gregg Stemm of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Mr Thompson effectively pioneered commercial deep water archaeological salvage in the 1980’s and then went on the run, going into hiding for two years from both his creditors and Federal Agents.

And unless John Churchill sowed a name tag into his military frock coat how does the Receiver of Wreck prove ownership if it is found in the sands of the Lemon and Ower Bank and is such a coat military uniform and Government property, or is it John Churchill’s private purchase?

The University of East Anglia states its historians Professor Claire Jowitt and Dr Benjamin Redding are on the case, funded by a research project grant to the tune of £324,028 from the prestigious Leverhulme Trust.

While at the time of writing the University websites states quite correctly that,

“All artefacts remain the property of the Ministry of Defence; however, where items are positively identified as personal property, ownership will then default to the Crown.”

At the close of his interview with the New York Times Rex Cowan, who had paid tribute to the fundraising skills of John Rose, the Barnwell’s early fellow director at Augership 320 Ltd, was asked what advice he would give to a would-be shipwreck hunter or investor in such an operation? 

Acknowledging the practical and legal risks in the salvage game Mr Cowan replied,

“If your [sic] just an investor stay away. But if you want to invest and work then you must choose your colleagues carefully. They should all be working partners and you should all have the same incentives and if you are work on a historic wreck then the history must be protected from commercial imperatives. The small man in the rubber boat is disappearing.”

As the deeper background of the HMS Gloucester project is revealed it may turn out to be emblematic of the last gasp of the small man, with their working partners in the rubber boat, as the Barnwells and Mr Little tried to facilitate their project by developing relationships, first with Mr Rose who brought his experience of working with Rex Cowan, and later with the commercial salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration.

When that approach proved to be a dead end, like the famous 17th century contemporary of HMS Gloucester the Vicar of Bray who, according to the song at least, changed his mind according to the prevailing religious orthodoxy, understandably the Barnwells turned to the UK Government, and its advisors and facilitators in the professional heritage bodies and expert organisations and then finally to the University of East Anglia and the Norfolk Museum Service.

As this article was being researched in the Summer of 2022 Julian Barnwell e-mailed again expressing the wish that the work on HMS Gloucester could become,

“…an exemplar project for the UK maritime archaeological profession.”

At least fifteen years on from the initial location of the wreck of the Gloucester, and twelve years after the Ministry of Defence, Historic England and the other regulatory bodies became involved, initially at least in an apparent attempt to prevent a commercialised excavation of HMS Gloucester in defiance of the Rules of the UNESCO Convention and the UK’s policy for maritime archaeology, any fair-minded person can only hope that he and his team achieve that ambition.

To that end the Barnwells and Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd are currently understood to be working with the expert charity, the Maritime Archaeology Trust.

What is still far from clear though is how that laudable ambition will be managed, resourced, and funded in future seasons and whether there is an element buried somewhere in the history of the project which might yet delay, or even derail it.

One is the nagging question that, if HMS Gloucester was positively identified in 2012 on the evidence of the raised ship’s bell, why does the University of East Anglia website state that only now, a decade later, is the issue of the “very significant costs for conservation of artefacts”, and the destination of the artefacts from the site, going to be addressed by a “new charity” led by the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk and former head of the British Armed Forces, General Lord Dannatt?

The UNESCO Rules, which the UK Government is meant to follow as a matter of policy announced to Parliament, and which the Ministry of Defence was meant to enforce with regard to historic Royal Navy wrecks like HMS Gloucester, state that those issues should be determined before the recovery of objects from a shipwreck even starts.

And we do not know what happened on site during that lost decade between 2012 and 2022?

Neither has there been even an interim archaeological report about the wreck site. 

Seen against that background the current activity, even the high profile public reveal of the site in the Summer of 2022, appears more of an effort to tidy up the loose ends of what has already been done on the Gloucester wreck site by conserving and displaying artefacts already recovered, rather than managing an excavation project going forward.

And we still do not know who those creditors of the company which is now Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd carries on its books are, and how they will be paid?

That is if they can ever be paid at all without breaching UK Government policy.

Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd, the University of East Anglia, Norfolk Museum Service, and York Archaeology were all contacted for comment on various aspects of this investigation.

A spokesperson for the Leverhulme Trust stated,

“The Leverhulme funding is for historical research on the wreck and does not involve archaeology or conservation. The project is to research the ship’s history in the seventeenth century.”

The spokesperson added,

“We would also note that the Gloucester wreck was declared to the Receiver of Wreck, Historic England, and the Ministry of Defence.”

A spokesperson for the University of East Anglia stated,

“As a centre of world-leading historical research – including in maritime history and culture – the University of East Anglia (UEA) is proud to be the academic partner for this project, which is already shedding new light on a monumental shift in the political history of our nation.” The spokesperson added,

“The Gloucester wreck was declared to the Receiver of Wreck, Historic England, and the Ministry of Defence.”

In its statement the University of East Anglia did not comment on the suggestion that the original framing of the finding of HMS Gloucester as a simple quest by two brothers was misleading. However, the University did confirm that the Leverhulme funded research project does not involve archaeology or conservation.

The University told thePipeLine,

“The work undertaken is purely historical – exploring the history of the ship in the 17th century, from inception to loss.”

That the finding of the ship and artefacts from the ship, were declared to the agencies cited by the University of East Anglia and the Leverhulme Trust is not in question.

What remains in question is the timetable of those declarations and how they relate to Maritime Law and UK Government policy regarding Underwater Cultural Heritage.

An exhibition mounted by the University of East Anglia and the Norfolk Museum Service, in partnership with Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks is due to run at the Castle Museum, Norwich, from 23 February to 10 September 2023.


This article was updated twice on 6 February 2023 to include a comments from the Leverhulme Trust and the University of East Anglia.

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

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