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Wreck Tour 65: The Ashford

The Ashford
The Ashford

The steamer Ashford out of Brighton is more than 120 years old – which means that it has some interesting features for divers to enjoy, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS

THIS MONTH I’M EXPANDING ON THE WRECK OF THE ASHFORD, which figured briefly in a recent article on diving from Brighton (Skippers’ Selection, May).

The Ashford was built in 1881, and I find wrecks of that generation particularly interesting because the engineering was nowhere near as standardised as it became later.

Besides, the members of the Ashford Diving Club with whom I shared the Girl Gray when we visited the site thought it was pretty cool to have a wreck named after their club. At least, that’s how they like to think of it.

Our tour begins at 35m on the port side of the stern, simply because that’s where the shot landed (1).
Crossing the stern, the deck has dropped inside the wreck (2). To either side, pairs of bollards on their iron bases look out of place suspended above the debris from the deck half a metre below.

The first sign of unusual engineering is the steering (3), a simple T at the top of the rudder-post rather than the curved quadrant that became the standard. Cables or chains from the ship’s wheel would have pulled on either side of the T to turn the rudder.

Dropping over the stern, the rudder is hard to starboard (4). The panels have rotted through to leave just the frame of the rudder covered in hydroids, with the occasional dead men’s finger.

Behind the rudder, the four-bladed iron propeller is still on the shaft, the blades looking a little long and thin compared to the norm, just touching the seabed at 41m.

From the rudder and propeller, swimming forward below the starboard side of the stern (5), then into the aft hold (6), will avoid the high zigzag that would have been encountered by ascending over the stern.

The Ashford was carrying a cargo of coal, and scraps of it can still be found at the bottom of the hold.

On a ship of this age, the deck would have consisted of wooden boards laid over traverse iron ribs. The ribs are mostly still in place, but nearly all traces of the deck have long since rotted away.

Exceptions to this construction are the areas where greater strength was required to mount items such as bollards, masts and winches. Between the aft holds, the central area of the deck is a solid iron construction mounting a winch and the mast-foot (7).

The mast-foot is an empty iron ring in the deck. The mast itself is another part of the Ashford’s construction that would have been made of timber. To starboard of the mast foot, a small anchor (8) is a later addition to the wreck.

Forward of the mast-foot, the deck supporting a second winch-foot has collapsed into the next hold (9). The sides of the hull along both sides of this hold are an open cage of upright ribs, where the plates of the hull have rotted away.

Reaching the engine-room, the engine itself (10) is a two-cylinder compound unit, forerunner of the three-cylinder triple-expansion design that became the standard for steamships.

There are plenty of odds and ends of machinery littered about the engine-room floor, though it’s also worth looking higher up. I almost swam under the bathtub, suspended by its pipes from the starboard side of the hull behind a tubular water-tank (11).

Continuing past or through the skeleton of the forward bulkhead to the stoke-hold, the two boilers (12) are an unusual upright design rather than the Scotch-type boilers that became pretty much the standard for later steamships.

Forward of the boilers on the port side, an open hatch in the deck above sits over a coal-bunker and would have been used for loading coal for the ship’s boilers (13). There is a similar hatch on the starboard side, and on the deck between them is a small steam engine that is the steering engine (14).

The wheelhouse would have been built of wood above this part of the ship, with the steering engine providing power to enable the ship’s wheel to pull the rudder from side to side. Mike Snelling, skipper of Girl Gray, tells me that a revolver was found in the debris below this area.

A steam-pipe from the boilers leads forward above the next hold (15), along the port side of where the hatch-coaming would have been before it fell into the hold.

This would have provided steam to power the winches between the forward holds (16) and the anchor-winch further forward.

The winch aft of the mast-foot is still in place, though the winch forward has collapsed into the forward hold (17). When I dived the Ashford this hold was almost solid with a shoal of bib (or pout – I'm not sure which common name is preferred in Sussex).

On the bow deck, the anchor-winch (18) is still in place on a sturdy iron area of deck that spans the hull from one side to the other.

Between the winch and the bow the deck becomes a skeleton again, lighter and cheaper wooden construction having rotted away to leave the hawse-pipes visible inside.

Looking over the vertical bow, neither anchor is still in place, though depending on visibility the top of the starboard anchor can be seen protruding from the seabed below at 41m (20).

Returning along the starboard side of the bow to the hold, the hull is broken by a hole that extends almost to the seabed (21). Perhaps this is damage from the collision with the Pirat, which sank the Ashford in 1906.

On the other hand, a trawl-net is jammed half-in and half-out of this gash, with the trawl-beam actually inside the wreck, so it could have been damage subsequent to the sinking.

The Ashford is only a small ship at 1,211 tons. Despite the depth, ranging between 35 and 41m, it is small enough to be easily seen without getting into too much decompression.

A BARQUE IN THE BACK

The wind from the west was nearly force 5, and building. It brought the German barque Pirat romping up the Channel with most sails set, homeward bound for Hamburg, writes Kendall McDonald.

Coming the other way from Seaham and cutting across the Channel to work along the French coast and then down to St Nazaire was the 1,211-ton British steamer Ashford, a collier built in Sunderland in 1881.

The collision,15 miles south-west of Beachy Head, was colossal. Only a minute made all the difference between a near-miss and the Pirat ploughing into the Ashford’s stern near her propeller, on 25 June, 1906.

It wasn’t a miss; the impact holed her stern, sending seawater flooding into her two aft coal-filled holds.

The Pirat drifted clear with buckled bow plates, but was taking in little water and in the end made it safely to Hamburg, where 40 plates needed to be replaced and the bow almost completely rebuilt.

The 82m-long Ashford was less fortunate. Though she was taken in tow by the steam tug Dominion, she was filling rapidly and in two hours, before they reached water shallow enough to beach her, the tow had to be cast off.

Captain Tom Smith and his crew were taken off just before she rolled right over and sank. One of the Ashford’s crew of 18 was later found to be missing.

TOUR GUIDE

GETTING THERE: Brighton marina is east of the town-centre, off the A259 to Newhaven and Eastbourne. Check with skippers for loading directions within the marina.

DIVING: Girl Gray.

ACCOMMODATION: Anything from camping to the Grand Hotel. Tourist information can be found on the website.

AIR: Wittering Divers Hove, Newhaven Scuba Centre, The Yacht Harbour, West Quay, Newhaven.

TIDES: High water slack is just after high water Dover. Low water slack is 5 hours 30 minutes before high water Dover. At springs, the slack lasts 40 minutes and at neaps 90 minutes.

HOW TO FIND IT: The Ashford lies a few miles off Beachy Head. The GPS co-ordinates are 50 39.12N 0 07.82E (degrees, minutes and decimals, OSGB). The bow lies to the south-west.

LAUNCHING: The closest slipway is at Newhaven.

QUALIFICATIONS: Divers need to be experienced at diving beyond 35m and of managing decompression stops.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1652, Selsey Bill To Beachy Head. Admiralty Chart 536, Beachy Head To Dungeness. Ordnance Survey Map 198, Brighton & Lewis, Worthing, Horsham & Haywards Heath. Dive Sussex, by Kendall McDonald. Shipwreck Index Of The British Isles Vol 2, by Richard & Bridget Larn.

PROS: A ship from the period just before engineering became too standardised.

CONS: A little too deep for divers without advanced qualifications.

Thanks to Mike Snelling, Helen George, Simon Powell & members of Ashford Diving Club.

Appeared in Diver, July 2004

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