"Had these artefacts been correctly reported, the finder would have been entitled to a substantial salvage award... Instead, he is facing a custodial sentence."
After a two-year investigation by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA), Vincent Woolsgrove of Ramsgate, Kent was jailed for two years and ordered to pay £35,000 in costs. In addition, a Proceeds Of Crime Act confiscation order will be made at a future date.
Woolsgrove pleaded guilty at Southampton Crown Court on 15 June 2015 to an offence under Section 2 of the Fraud Act 2006. The fraud offence was in excess of £46,000.
In 2007, Woolsgrove, a commercial diver, reported to the Receiver of Wreck that he had found and recovered five historic bronze cannons from two different shipwreck sites.
Two of the bronze cannons were English and had been recovered from a wreck site identified as that of the Warship London.
The other three cannons were also bronze, but were Dutch and were reported as having been recovered from an unidentified wreck site outside of UK territorial waters.
The cannons recovered from the Warship London were both very rare bronze cannons, one by gunfounder Peter Gill, thought to be the only surviving example of his work and the other bearing the Commonwealth crest and thought to be the only surviving example of a bronze gun of the Commonwealth.
The London was a second rate warship originally built in Chatham dockyard in 1654 for the Commonwealth Navy, later it became part of Charles II’s Restoration Navy. In 1665 the Warship London accidentally blew up and sank off Southend, probably due to an explosion in the powder magazine.
All three of the Dutch bronze cannons that were reported as being found outside of UK territorial waters were 24lb guns which clearly showed the crest of the City of Amsterdam and were dated between 1600 and 1617.
In 2009, Woolsgrove was awarded title to all three Dutch cannons. At that time, the MCA had been unable to identify the current legal owner or the identity of the wreck site, and Woolsgrove maintained that they had been recovered from an unidentified wreck site outside of territorial waters.
The Dutch cannons were eventually sold at auction to a private collector for a sum in excess of £50,000.
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In 2011, fresh information was received regarding heritage crime in the Kent and Essex area involving divers recovering cultural objects of great historic value from wrecks off the coast.
A joint operation was undertaken by the MCA, Kent & Essex Police and Historic England (formerly English Heritage) and a search warrant was obtained for Woolsgrove’s house in Ramsgate.
As part of the search, three more bronze cannons of the 16th century were found, along with a considerable amount of other wreck items including copper, lead, tin and glass ingots, ship’s bells and portholes.
Following this search, extensive research was carried out on behalf of the MCA by Charles Trollope, a world authority on muzzle loading cannons, Frank Fox, an American Author of 16th-17th century British Naval History and the Dutch Police and heritage agencies.
From this research, it was shown that the Dutch cannons were from the city defences of Amsterdam and were part of a battery of 36 bronze cannons. It was also shown that the cannons were loaned by the City of Amsterdam for use on the Dutch vessels Groote Liefde and St. Mattheus during the first Anglo-Dutch War in (1652-54).
Both vessels were then captured in battle by the English Navy and taken as prizes, their armament being distributed to English warships. These three cannons were allocated to the Warship London until the fateful day in 1665 when the London blew up and sank in the Thames Estuary with the loss of over 200 lives.
The Warship London is now designated as a historic wreck under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and Historic England are currently funding excavation work on the wreck.
Had Woolsgrove reported these cannons correctly as is required by the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, he would have been entitled to a substantial salvage award.
In passing sentence, His Honour Judge Ralls said: ‘Mr Woolsgrove persistently misled officers of the crown and these items have now been lost to the nation. It is to great credit that the MCA and those they instructed, have been able to identify these canons and show without any doubt where they came from.’
Alison Kentuck, receiver of wreck, Maritime & Coastguard Agency said: ‘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’, the rightful owner is always entitled to have their property back and this case shows that even where wreck artefacts are nearly 400 years old, there is still likely to be a legal owner.
‘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. Instead, he is facing a custodial sentence.’
Mark Harrison, Historic England’s national policing and crime advisor, said: ‘This case sets an important precedent in the fight against uncontrolled salvage by a small criminal minority who have no appreciation for England’s maritime heritage.
‘Woolsgrove used sophisticated techniques and equipment to remove these valuable artefacts from the seabed.’
Alison James, Historic England’s Maritime Archaeologist said: ‘Since 2014, Historic England have been working with Cotswold Archaeology and the local volunteer licensed dive team led by Steve Ellis to investigate and record finds from the wreck of the London, which was rediscovered in 2005 and designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act in 2008.
”Historic England takes very seriously all cases of heritage crime which robs us of our shared history.
‘However, we recognise that the majority of divers do act responsibly and comply with the laws and regulations relating to historic wreck sites and salvage.
‘We are keen to build on our existing work with the diving community and would urge anyone who finds something of potential historic interest to talk to us as we can help provide advice and guidance.’