Pair Charged With Plunder From WWI War Grave

Case number T20170137 continues on this fourth day at Canterbury Crown Court, where defendants John Blight (aged 58) and Nigel Ingram (aged 57) deny charges related to failing to declare items taken from HMS Hermes in contravention of the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. Ingram from the Kent village of Teynham and Blight from Winchelsea, East Sussex, have each denied four fraud charges. Ingram has also denied a fifth charge of possessing £16,000 in criminal property.

HMS Hermes
HMS Hermes at anchor, Dar es Salaam, German East Africa

The Basis Of The Case

The remains of the ship, a converted protected cruiser launched in 1898, lie upside down in approximately 32m of water in the area of the Ruylingen Bank in the Dover Straits, within French territorial waters. The arrests in 2015 were reported to be the result of a combined operation involving the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Marine Management Organisation, the UK Receiver of Wreck, Sussex Police, Historic England and the French authorities.

While HMS Hermes is a Sovereign Immune warship under International Law, what is unclear is whether the vessel is protected under the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage? This will be a factor in the prosecutions. As she was sunk more than one hundred years ago, HMS Hermes is automatically protected under the terms of the Convention.

Look, But Don’t Touch

In the Millenium year 2000, there was widespread concern amongst survivor associations (and amongst the majority of divers) about the behaviour of a minority of scuba divers who were disturbing wrecks. Most people thought the wrecks should be treated with respect. In that year, diving associations including the British Sub Aqua Club and the Sub Aqua Association, together with the support of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Ministry of Defence, Nautical Archaeology Society, and Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee, launched a code of conduct for divers entitled “Respect our Wrecks“, with the central message of “Look, But Don’t Touch.”

The Jury Heard

The Court was told the pair were involved in “commercial exploitation of shipwrecks” by selling items as scrap metal. Including about £16,000 in cash, some 100 artefacts were seized from Mr Ingram’s home, including ships’ bells, a torpedo hatch, launch panel, metal ingots and chinaware, all which had not been declared, the jury heard.

Prosecutor Ian Hope told the jury how boat owner John Blight and diver Nigel Ingram had hauled “huge” pieces of wrecks from the seabed using winching equipment on Mr Blight’s boat ‘De Bounty’. He said they had “deliberately and dishonestly” failed to declare them to the authorities as they were legally obliged to do. The prosecutor said a “recovery book” was later discovered outlining details of items taken and money received. Further, police officers also examined Ingram’s computer revealed photos of him posing with large items of wreck.

About HMS Hermes [+1914]

On 31st October 1914, HMS Hermes left Dunkirk with one load of seaplanes. She was then recalled because a German submarine was known to be in the area. However, before the order could be obeyed (under the command of Bernd Wegener) she was sunk by a German submarine U-Boat SM U27 in the English Channel, torpedoed some 8 miles WNW of Calais at the start of the war off the Ruylingen Bank. The warship was designed to carry sea planes and was Britain’s first prototype aircraft carrier. She was sunk with the light loss of 22 crew, the majority having no known grave.

HMS Hermes
HMS Hermes was lost to U-Boat SM U27 on 31st October 1914.

Police Investigation

Kent Police officers launched an investigation in August 2015 after being informed that a number of historical artefacts “had been reported missing from the wreck” in the Dover Straits.

Not From The Wreck

Both defendants deny all charges in that Ingram told police he had taken a condenser unit from the “vicinity” of HMS Hermes, but did not think it had come from the wreck itself. Blight told officers he took Ingram diving at the site but nothing had been taken.

Receiver Of Wreck

Mr Hope told the Court that people finding items from sunken ships had a lawful duty to report them to the UK Receiver of Wreck. He alleged the French Authorities had caught the two men in Blight’s boat ‘De Bounty’ in the vicinity of the wreck of HMS Hermes. He told the jury that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency spoke with Ingram, who was given a warning about not declaring salvage to the Receiver of Wreck.

If you recover wreck material within UK territorial waters, or bring wreck material into UK territorial waters, you must report it to the Receiver of Wreck.

Diving The Wreck

Today HMS Hermes lays completely turtle at 32 metres of water at coordinates 51°06′18″N 1°50′18″E. Entry is possible from the seabed. According to rumours, two planes are still in the wreck. You can enter very deep into the wreck. However do not forget to bring a line. Visibility is usually good.