The townsfolk of Lyme were woken by the loud sound of canon fire reverberating across the bay. Quickly they rushed down to the Cobb, as they knew that a ship was in trouble for the date was 1852 and this was a distress signal. Undeterred by the raging storm that lashed the walls of the Cobb the watching crowd could just make out the distinct shape of a ship that was now beginning to sink; it was the Heroine, a wooden sailing barque on its way from London to Australia.
Her captain had originally sought shelter in Torbay the day before, but when her anchors had failed to hold in the rough seas, she was driven across the bay to the opposite headland shore where she grounded. Still not finished with the ailing ship the raging storm whipped the turbulent sea into such a frenzy that the towering waves managed to lift the Heroine off the rocks pushing her round the headland and dawn of the next day saw her drifting helplessly in Lyme Bay.
Working frantically the crew had continued to try and pump the constant flow of water from the bilges that had also been badly damaged. Finally admitting defeat the Captain had turned to the two small carronades that she was armed with and gave the order for them to be fired repeatedly. It was these that the townsfolk of Lyme had heard while rushing from their homes to see if anything could be done.
With no lifeboat in Lyme a heroic attempt was made by four watching seamen to go to the aid of those aboard the swiftly sinking ship. To no avail, for on leaving the protection of the harbour their small boat was lifted by the violent waves and hurled up against the outside walls of the Cobb, killing three and injuring the fourth. Ironically the crew of the Heroine had managed to launch its longboats successfully, and all the passengers who had originally been bound for the Melbourne in Australia were saved, but with the Heroine sinking to a watery grave beneath the raging sea. Despite the recovery of valuable items from the wreck the following year, she was then left forgotten to rot at the bottom of the sea. Occasionally fishermen reported snagged nets or dredgers in the area but it was thought to be merely a small isolated reef.
It was not until 1991 that she was rediscovered by a couple of divers finding rivets and bits and pieces scattered around whilst on a drift dive. Then finally the following year the two canon were discovered along with the pile of firebricks. Originally one of her holds had been stacked full of these but now all that remains is a pile approx 60m long and 1.5m high, many being somewhat scattered due to the action of the sea and scallop dredgers. Most of the work was done in 1995 and involved clearing a lot of sand and gravel that had come to cover the slowly rotting wreckage. One of the divers who had discovered the wreckage had been Richard Greenaway. He then enlisted the help of Jeff Bryant who had been involved with the Mary Rose Project. With the help of John Walker, the owner and skipper of Miss Pattie, they provided the core team members for their archaeological group, which was aptly named Lyme Bay Heritage. The large quantity of artefacts they recovered from the site were then presented to the Town museum. Whilst a few rotting timbers and copper nails can still be seen this wreck is really no more than a pile of bricks now. Some of these were removed during the excavations and presented to the RNLI who used them in a commemorative panel built into the interior of the lifeboat house at the Cobb as a reminder of the men that died trying to go to the aid of the sinking Heroine.
The site is in a fairly sheltered position and only about four miles from Lyme harbour. It can be dived at any time but due to its size it is not easy to find. Generally it is only dived by two skippers John Walker, who was involved with the original excavation and Doug Lanfear, owner of Blue Turtle.
Having heard ‘there are some pieces of wreckage but its just a pile of bricks really’ I wasn’t sure what to expect, but dropping down the shot to the sea bed at around 25m that is exactly what I saw, loads of bricks. Moving away and looking around the gravelly seabed I noticed some big copper nails and several pieces of well rotted wood. There appeared to be some more of these in amongst the bricks. Whilst the site was not going to be memorable in terms of wreckage Doug the skipper had mentioned that there were several large congers living here and it was generally good for photography, however except for bricks I could see very little. Perhaps there were lots of things hiding deep down in between them?
Slowly I started finning over the top shining my torch in all the little cracks and crevices that might hide some interesting sea creature. Sadly this revealed nothing more exciting than a velvet swimming crab with a missing claw. The gaps in between the bricks were certainly much too small for congers. Having swum over to the opposite side I was just casting my gaze across the pile once more when I noticed a movement below the edge of the pile. Moving nearer I suddenly realised I was looking at the head of the conger poking out from underneath the pile of bricks and looking a little further along there was another one and after that another one again! I then realised that these large congers frequented the labyrinth of holes that were actually underneath the pile of bricks. They entered and exited by the larger gaps that occurred around the edge of the pile. Going in for a closer look I was fascinated to see large shrimps not only strolling around right in front of the congers but also crawling right over their heads. I also counted at least five leopard spotted gobies lying on the rocks right in front of the ‘liar’. With heads that probably measured around eight inches across they were large congers. Gradually gaining a little more courage I slowly inched my way towards them holding out my camera well in front of me. However every time one of them started to emerge from its liar my nerve failed and I backed off.
EXPLORING A LITTLE FURTHER
Having spent a large amount of time taking pictures of the congers around the edge of the bricks I decided to explore the top of the pile and surrounding area a little. The area on one side of the pile seemed to reveal more life than the others and I found scallops laying prone on the seabed, ross coral, empty egg cases and the white bumpy solitary ascidians phallusia mammillata that always looks so gelatinous. A few common sea stars lay draped over some of the bricks and a single pink sea fan bravely stood upright catching the gentle currents. Returning finally to the shot line I picked up the dive knife that I had found and left there in the hopes that the owner would notice it and made my way back up to the surface.
Although there appear to be a large amount of bricks still left on the seabed the local skippers request that you do not bring up bricks or any other memento of the dive. Obviously this pile has become a natural reef and provides shelter and homes to much marine life, including what can only be described as a ‘colony of congers’ but this would soon disappear once divers started taking a brick or two home! Although it had been a second choice due to weather conditions, even the confirmed ‘wreckies’ enjoyed it.
Note: There does seem to be some uncertainty in the information available whether the Heroine sank in 1851 or 1852. Both dates are attributed to her sinking from different sources.