UK Grants Protection to Wreck of 19th Century Emigrant Ship

19th century emigrant shipwreck
Among the wreck divers found rare examples of Victorian export ceramics (© Stefan Panis courtesy of Historic England)

Published Feb 10, 2023 7:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

The wreck of a 19th-century wooden sailing ship that represents the emigration and trade between the United Kingdom and New Zealand is set for long-term preservation after being listed for protection, some 167 years after it sank off the Kent coast. Historic England announced that the wreck Josephine Willis, which sank in 1856 killing 70 people including its captain, has been granted protection by scheduling by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in part because it has a cargo of exceptionally rare ceramics on board.

The British packet boat foundered approximately four miles south of Folkestone Harbour in Kent following a collision with the steamer Mangerton on February 3, 1856. Today the ship lies in two parts on the seabed approximately 75 feet below the surface. The wreck was identified by divers from Folkestone 501 diving club in 2018 and reported to Historic England via Wessex Archaeology.

Historic England explains that medium-sized packet ships were commonly used in the 18th and 19th centuries for transporting people, mail, and freight to Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

Accounts by the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand show that Josephine Willis, a new 1,000-ton vessel, met its tragic fate during its second voyage to Auckland. Its first trip was also eventful, characterized by a mutiny by the crew, before the second trip ended in tragedy colliding with the Mangerton.

Protection of the wreck and its large cargo of ceramics, many of which are unknown in current museum collections, now means that recreational divers can dive to the wreck but its contents cannot be touched or disturbed.


The Josephine Willis featured in Illustrated London News 1856 - courtesy of Historic England


“The sinking of this passenger ship is a sad story of ordinary people being lost to the sea while taking the risk of a long journey to New Zealand in the search for a better life,” said Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England. “The other side to this story is of the rare cargo on board which gives us clues to help improve our knowledge of the Victorian export ceramics industry in the mid-19th century. The Josephine Willis fully deserves protection by scheduling.” 

Despite sitting at the bottom of the sea for more than a century and a half, some of the ship’s cargo of ceramics are still in their crates and several unknown patterns have been discovered on cups, plates, and bowls which have no equivalents within museum collections. There are also examples on the seabed of other patterns which were previously only known from ceramics that had been discarded at the kiln after becoming damaged or deformed during the firing process. The ceramics are all close in date and can be traced to three Staffordshire-based potteries namely Mexborough, Charles Meigh, and Davenport.

Although no plans of the ship have been found to date, documentation relating to the role of the vessel as an emigrant packet is known to survive within the National Library of New Zealand.

James Canney, a great, great, great, grandson of Captain Canney who died in the sinking, has been carrying out research into the construction of the ship and the people who chartered it. “I’m pleased the story of the loss of the Josephine Willis is being told and that the shipwreck is being protected,” he said.

According to Graham Scott, a Marine Archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology, most of the ceramics being carried by ship were ordinary, affordable, mass-produced goods that most European settlers in New Zealand could at least aspire to own. However, by being relatively plain they tended to be of little interest to collectors and are often absent from museum collections.


 (© Stefan Panis courtesy of Historic England)


“So, these ceramics are both ordinary and special. Not only do they help shine a light on Victorian industry and trade and the lives of emigrants, but they also help fill important gaps in the collections that those museums preserve and display for us,” he noted.

Historic England said that only one other record for a ship of this type is held on the National Record of the Historic Environment, the 1877 wreck of the iron-hulled sailing vessel Avalanche, which is located outside territorial waters off the coast of Dorset.

The wreck of the Josephine Willis together with the scheduled wreck of the clipper ship South Australian, located in the Bristol Channel off Lundy, hold the potential to add to the knowledge of emigration to Australia and New Zealand during the second half of the 19th century.