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Archaeology of the First World War at Sea: Steam Drifter John Mitchell

Approximately 15 miles from Swanage, Christchurch and Milford on Sea, a historic site has been slowly and silently falling apart for nearly 100 years. Visits are infrequent (not many people know it is there) and relatively short (people rarely stay more than half an hour). It is nearly always dark and, while it is not much longer than a tennis court, you cannot see one end from the other and people never walk across, over or around it. The site has a name (in fact it has two) and the story behind how it came to be there provides a small window on to a little known aspect of our past.

The reason not many people visit the site of the John Mitchell, is because it is on the seabed at a depth of approximately 40m. SCUBA divers would typically have about 40 minutes on site and would need a half hour decompression stop on the way back up to the dive boat. 

    HMD John Mitchell (1917), Armed Drifter     by maritimearchaeology     on Sketchfab

The John Mitchell was a steam drifter: an 85 foot (25m) long, wooden, steam powered fishing boat. When launched from Lowestoft in 1913, it was intended for a career of fishing in the North Sea with drift nets but the following year saw the start of what we now call the First World War and everything changed.

Commercial fishing drifters like the John Mitchell were built to withstand heavy weather. While designed to deploy and retrieve drift nets, they were readily adapted to a range of war duties and more than 1,300 of them were hired by the Admiralty during the First World War. Steam drifters were mainly engaged in minesweeping duties, escort, supply, repair and transport. A few were employed as hospital vessels and even Q-ships (heavily armed vessels disguised as merchant ships that aimed to lure U-boats into making a surface attack). More unusual roles for hired steam drifters included a hydrophone training ship, aircraft tender, submarine depot vessel and a chaplain’s tender.

The John Mitchell was hired by the Admiralty in February 1915 and, armed with a single 3-pounder gun, began work as a net vessel, maintaining and patrolling anti-submarine nets. Historic documents relating to the John Mitchell are difficult to find but small clues about the ship’s war service can be found through incidental material. For example, a young deck hand from the drifter, Charles Frederick Turrell, tragically fell between moored boats and died in February 1915 and a newspaper report into the coroner’s enquiry states that the vessel was moored at the time at Wellington Docks, Dover, suggesting that, at this time, the John Mitchell was serving with the Dover Auxiliary Patrol. Two years later, in April 1917 another crew member, 24 year old George Black McGregor from Banff, Scotland, died due to heart disease at Poole, Dorset while serving on the John Mitchell, which it would seem was now operating out of Poole.
As well as providing glimpses into the whereabouts of the vessel they were serving on, these cases serve to remind us that as the war raged around them, people were living ordinary lives and facing the usual challenges and tragedies that life presents.

Research into the loss of ships during the First World War also shows that the raging international conflict did not put a stop to mundane bureaucracy. Government departments, the armed forces and associated bodies continued to record and file information in staggering quantities. Amazingly, much of this day-to-day paperwork has been saved at The National Archives where it is available for any interested individual to access.

In the case of the John Mitchell, Form 19 (Transcript of Register for Transmission to Registrar-General of Shipping and Seamen) can be found[1] amongst the archive’s Board of Trade documents. This provides details about the vessel, when and where it was built and registered, its size and layout as well as when and why the register was closed.

A telegram, catalogued under ‘Home Waters Telegrams, 14-16 November 1917’[2] provides brief details about the sinking:

“Regret to inform you loss of Drifter 1065 John Mitchell by collision 0145 14/11 in latitude 50 32 north, 001 42 west, with SS Bjerka bound Newport from London. All saved and brought into harbour. Steamer proceeded. SE by E 10 miles from Anvil Point.”

But unlike other similar cases, there is no survivors’ report or enquiry in to the loss. The fact that there was no loss of life, or that it was the result of an accident rather than war may have been contributing factors, though these documents do exist for other vessels lost in similar circumstances. The date of loss could be relevant, with 1917 seeing significantly higher south coast losses than any other year of the conflict.   

What does survive, as with many of the c.1,000 First World War losses along the south coast, are the remains of the vessel itself, which have been lying on the seabed since the 14th November 1917. Like many wrecks, it was identified by sport divers following a report by a local fisherman whose fishing gear had snagged on something on the seabed. Dive boat skipper and historian Dave Wendes investigated with a first dive in 2009 and it is thought that fewer than a dozen people have visited it to date. It is hard to imagine what might survive of an 85ft wooden steam drifter after nearly 100 years on the seabed off the south coast of England.

John Mitchell. Image courtesy of the Port of Lowestoft Research Society Collection

John Mitchell. Image courtesy of the Port of Lowestoft Research Society Collection

The dynamic environment and living organisms that are found in UK waters at a depth of 40m have taken their toll on the John Mitchell, parts of the ship not buried in the seabed have been eaten or have corroded, fallen away and disappeared. A non-observant diver could miss the site completely but certain parts of the vessel and its equipment are still visible on the seabed. With the John Mitchell, as with many other First World War shipwreck sites, the large boiler and triple expansion steam engine that powered the ship are most prominent. The general outline of the ship’s hull can just be made out, with the spare propeller indicating the stern of the ship and the windlass, used for raising and lowering the main anchor, towards the bow. A number of anchors are apparent and closer examination shows that some of the wooden hull structure is still present in the sand and gravel that make up the seabed. In the forward area of the vessel the ship’s gun lies on its mounting.

Rum container
C
ourtesy of Dave Wendes.
Signal lamp
Courtesy of Dave Robbins

Artefacts from the John Mitchell, recovered in the past by Sport Divers and recorded by project volunteers

All of these surviving elements help with the identification of the ship. The general dimensions, the number of boilers, the engine and gun type can all help to confirm or disprove a shipwreck’s suspected identity.

The John Mitchell is one of approximately 40 hired steam drifters that were lost along the south coast during the First World War. Of these, more than half were lost off Dover as a result of collisions, mines or due to group attacks by German Destroyers in the Dover Strait. Of the rest, many with whimsical names such as Golden Sunset, Ocean Star and Silvery Harvest, the majority were lost due to mines or collision. Some are listed simply as having disappeared, their fates unclear. A very small number of steam drifters survive today, one being the Feasible, built in Aberdeen in 1912. Feasible was requisitioned by the Admiralty in both World Wars and assisted in the destruction of U-48 on 24th November 1917 after the U-boat had become trapped on Goodwin Sands. This steam drifter, one of the few remaining vessels of its type, is listed on the National Register of Historic Vessels. More commonly, the remains of such vessels survive on the seabed around our coasts, in various states of preservation. They are hidden and unknown to most: silent memorials to those who served and died in them.

Thanks to generous funding by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Maritime Archaeology Trust has been able to work with volunteers to research and explore the John Mitchell, and other First World War wrecks, through the Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War project.

Volunteer divers have helped survey the vessel’s remains and collect information, video and images from the site to help improve access and interpretation for non-divers. Volunteer researchers have been looking at the historic records associated with the site and researching diagnostic features such as the 3-pounder gun it was equipped with when it sank. Volunteers have also been recording artefacts that have been recovered from the John Mitchell over the years by SCUBA divers. These items are held in private collections but by photographing them and making the images available online, we can enable virtual public access while helping to ‘virtually re-unite’ the artefacts with the ship they came from.

Diver on SS Eleanor

A diver examining mines on the remains of SS Eleanor,
torpedoed 12th February 1918.
Image courtesy of Mike Pitts

Under water, photography, combined with the innovative use of software and image processing techniques, is enabling the Maritime Archaeology Trust to examine and present underwater sites like the John Mitchell in exciting new ways. For those unfamiliar with a south coast diving environment, it is generally quite dark. The diver’s view, already restricted by their face mask, is often limited to a few metres in any direction. Hand-held underwater torches are generally essential, providing a cone of light within which features and structure are revealed as diver and torch move over the seabed. 

In June 2015, volunteer and staff divers from the Maritime Archaeology Trust benefited from exceptional diving conditions, with underwater visibility in excess of 30m. Combined with the new methodology for rapidly recording and presenting underwater sites, this has resulted in a number of 3D models of First World War shipwrecks that can be explored online (see above), enabling members of the public to study the sites in detail from the comfort of their own home.

The remains of the John MitchellThe remains of the John Mitchell at 40m depth, stern to the left and bow to the right

Divers swam over and around the wrecks, taking hundreds of overlapping photos with a digital underwater camera. These photos are then loaded into imaging software that, given enough processing power and time, produces a 3D model from the 2D images. In the case of the John Mitchell, the wreck of which covers an area of seabed approximately 30m by 10m, the 3D model is derived from 684 photographs and offers the hitherto unparalleled opportunity to virtually-swim over and around the wreck, viewing the whole site or zooming in for a closer look at any of the individual elements.

For the first time, people can explore the wreck of the John Mitchell online, navigating their way around the wreckage and seeing for themselves how it survives on the seabed today. The 3D model (see below) has enabled one of the project’s non-diving volunteers to examine the seabed remJohn Mitchell 3D modelains of the John Mitchell’s gun from all angles, comparing it with historic plans and photographs to confirm the type and model.

The information on the John Mitchell, its wreck and artefacts, and many other First World War wrecks along the south coast, will soon be publicly available via the project’s website. For those who prefer to see things first-hand, exhibitions are touring the south coast counties from Kent to Cornwall, telling the stories behind some of the forgotten wrecks and displaying artefacts recovered from them. You can also meet project staff and handle some First World War shipwreck artefacts on the MAT’s Discovery Bus and event-tent and hear about the project and its findings via public talks.

With approximately 1,000 wrecks to research, the task is enormous and the Maritime Archaeology Trust would like to hear from anybody who would like to get involved, whether researching from the comfort of your own home, searching public archives, or getting wet and recording sites on the seabed.

Forgotten Wrecks volunteer Rob Hale has been looking into the John Mitchell’s gun and his findings will soon be available on the Forgotten Wrecks website.

 

Volunteer Crew List

The Maritime Archaeology Trust would like to thank the following for their contribution to the research and recording of the John Mitchell:

Volunteer Name

Contribution

Dave Wendes

Site location, historic research, making artefacts available for recording

Dave Robbins

Making artefacts available for recording

Julian Hale

Making artefacts available for recording

Rob Hale

Research into John Mitchell gun

Peter Crick

Recording of John Mitchell artefacts

Jane Maddocks, Keith Clark, Martin Davies

Diving - site survey & recording

 

[1] http://www.naval-history.net/WW1NavyBritishShips-Dittmar4AP.htm#312a

[2] The Dover Express. Friday 12th February 1915 on Sussex History Forum

[3] BT 110/338/33 (TNA)

[4] ADM137/578 (TNA)