Diver Jailed for Taking Historic Artifacts


Published Sep 5, 2015 5:48 PM by The Maritime Executive

After a two year investigation by the U.K. Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA), a commercial diver has been jailed for two years and ordered to pay £35,000 ($53,000) after recovering historic cannons off the U.K. coast. 

Vincent Woolsgrove of Ramsgate, Kent, pleaded guilty to fraud at Southampton Crown Court after he 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 the wreck 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 U.K. 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 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 U.K. 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 ($75,000).

In 2011, fresh information was received and a joint operation was undertaken by the MCA, Kent & Essex Police & Historic England. A search warrant was obtained for Woolsgrove’s house in Ramsgate and three further 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.

Had Woolsgrove reported the cannons correctly, as is required by the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, he would have been entitled to a substantial salvage award.

In passing sentence, 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 U.K. 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.”