1917 had not been a good year for England. The Great War was well into it’s third year, and the carnage on the battlefields of France was at it’s highest. At sea, ships were being torpedoed and sunk in ever increasing numbers, yet still the cargo steamers plied their trade. Even the war could not disguise the fact that the sea itself was still their greatest enemy. Storms, however ferocious can often be weathered, but fog, especially around some-where as treacherous as the Scilly Isles often leaves a skipper with nothing better to do than pray.
Unfortunately prayers are not always answered, and it was on one such foggy day on 11 May 1917 that two cargo steamers, the, Lady Charlotte and the Italia, both became total wrecks within hours of each other on the rocky coasts of the Scillies. The Lady Charlotte formerly called the Aphrodite, was a steamer of some 3593 tons and had been built by the Tyne Iron Steamboat Company in 1905. On the afternoon of 11 May, the Lady Charlotte, outward bound from Cardiff to France carrying a cargo of coal, encountered dense fog. After becoming hopelessly lost she finally ran aground at Porth Hellick Point. Fortunately, the sea was fairly calm and all the crew managed to escape before the vessel sank and became a total loss.
A few hours later, at about half past three in the afternoon whilst all the commotion and excitement of the Lady Charlotte’s wrecking was enthralling the locals, the steamer Italia smashed onto the Wingletang Rock less than four miles to the west of Porth Hellic Point. Like the Lady Charlotte, the Italia was carrying a cargo of coal on a voyage from Cardiff to Taranto when she too encountered dense fog. The Italia was a vessel of 2792 tons and had been built by Hawthorn Leslie and Company of Newcastle. She was rigged as a two masted schooner, and besides her cargo she carried six passengers and sixty-three crew, a very large number for such a small ship.
When at long last the crew of the 1talia finally reached the main island of St Mary’s, the Scillonians assumed that they were the victims of a torpedo attack further offshore. Since none of the crew spoke any English, they could not tell the islanders about the loss of their ship, and soon the whole incident just became a memory. The 1talia lay undisturbed until 1964 when Richard Larn, a prominent wreck historian located and subsequently purchased her. Still not completely sure of her identification, he sifted very carefully through the wreckage until he found the ships patent log. Being a very through man, Larn cleaned up the log, which revealed a serial number. When checked against the builder’s records, the serial number positively identified the wreck as the Italia, and put paid to a forty seven year old mystery.
All though both vessels sunk under similar circumstances, their wreck sites are completely different, and are both well worth a visit. Today the Lady Charlotte rests close inshore, about midway between Porth Hellick. Point and Newfoundland Rocks. Although most people dive her from a boat, it is possible to get at the wreck from the shore. The remains of the Lady Charlotte now lie on a rocky bottom covered with fairly thick kelp. She is well broken up, and her depth ranges from about 30 feet to 110 feet. The main mass of the wreck however, is in the 50 to 70 feet range, so this allows plenty of time to have a good look around. From 3O feet, where there are small pieces of wreckage and iron girders, the bottom slopes gently down, leading you to larger and larger pieces of wreckage which are scattered amongst the rocks. Soon you come to a great jumble of steel plates and girders, which are scattered over a very wide area. Towering above all this twisted metal, are the Lady Charlotte’s two huge boilers. These make a very impressive site, and their memory lingers on long after the dive is over. Although not as impressive as the Plymton – Hathor , this wreck site has a lot to offer visually, and is a very good wreck for those who just want to take it easy and have a jolly good poke around.
Although I dived and wrote about this wreck in the 1980’s, this video was shot by peter Rowlands in 2013.
Four miles to the west of Porth Hellick Point lay the Wingletang Rock and the wreck site of the 1talia. Stuck down one side of a reef, most of the 1talia now lies well broken up in over 120 feet of water. The very rocky bottom is completely strewn with wreckage, and if you swim over to the other side of’ the reef there is still more of the wreck to be seen lying in very large and deep gullies. Most of the wreckage starts at about 85 feet, but very quickly the depth drops to well over 120 feet, and it is very easy to get carried away and forget all about your original dive plan. There is an awful lot of wreckage to explore, and the bottom is extremely rugged with huge rocks and gullies all filled with interesting pieces of wreckage. The most fascinating part of the wreck is the iron propeller. This is still fixed to the shaft. complete with a smashed up ‘A’ bracket. All this lies on top of the other wreckage, and it is quite an experience to swim all along the shaft to the Italia’s propeller. Whilst the Italia is very exciting to dive on, the Lady Charlotte is visually much more pleasing. So in a way the two wrecks complement each other in a way they never did while on the surface. Like every thing left in the sea, these wrecks are slowly being pounded to pieces. So if you get the chance to dive on them, take it with both hands you wont be disappointed.