Her wheels had already been turning through 43 years and two world wars when this Victorian paddle-steamer was bombed off Norfolk. JOHN LIDDIARD recommends a visit. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
On a trip to Norfolk last year (Diver, October 2001) I was spoilt for choice of interesting wrecks. Depths were so shallow that I was able to sketch every wreck I dived, but which one should I single out for this month’s Wreck Tour?
In the end, it came down to one of two: HMS Umpire, a World War Two British U-class submarine, and the 1897-vintage paddle-steamer Kylemore.
Wreck Tours have already featured a number of submarines, but so far never a paddle-steamer. So here it is, this month’s tour is of one that was bombed by a German aircraft and sunk off the north Norfolk coast on 21 August, 1940.
My dive began on the starboard side (1), just forward of amidships and within sight of the single boiler (2), for which Dave King had been aiming with the shot. The general level of the wreck is less than a half-metre above the 23m seabed. With this in mind, the level of debris and silt burying the lower third of the boiler indicates the extent to which the hull has sunk into the seabed.
Staying on the starboard side, the inner frame of the paddle-wheel (3) is upright, but the outer frame and skeleton of the paddles have peeled out, now at an angle not quite level with the seabed but only a few degrees above it. The usual shoal of pouting mingles in and out among the debris.
Just inside the wheel, a structure that looks a little like a winch and runs longitudinally with the boat (4) is the paddle-brake. This would be used to lock the drive-shaft and so prevent the paddles free-wheeling.
Further back, most of the aft part of the Kylemore is just a grid of metal ribs that supported the open wooden deck. There are still some traces of the railings that used to run along the side of the deck (5).
A pair of large curved boat-derricks spanned the stern of the ship. The starboard derrick (6) has broken from its base and now lies propped up from the seabed. The port derrick (7) is intact and angled over the deck.
Another, slightly smaller, pair of boat-derricks lie further forward on the port side (8), again, by coincidence, one upright and one lying broken on the remains of the deck. I could find no trace of corresponding derricks on the starboard side.
Just forward of the derrick, a gun-platform lies fallen across the seabed (9). Clear of the wreck, it makes me wonder how it got there from its original location above the centreline of the ship.
Did it fall onto a wooden upper deck, which subsequently collapsed and fell clear of the wreck with it? Could it have been dragged clear by an anchor? Or was it perhaps washed clear in a storm?
At the top of the platform, the turntable and trunnions of the gun-mount are still there, but the anti-aircraft machine-guns are gone. I didn’t think to look closely at the time, but a flanged steel plate lying just clear of the top of the platform might have been a gun-shield.
On each side of the hull, a platform of deck extended out forward and aft of the paddle-wheels. On the starboard side, this area of the deck was lost among debris. On the port side, it is decorated with a small and neat chequered pattern of tiles and the remains of toilet-bowls.
By the base of the gun-platform, a section has been bent down by the collapsing platform (10). This toilet cubicle must have doubled as a magazine, because a crate of machine-gun ammunition sits benignly on the sloping tiles, wood rotted away to leave a cluster of bullets packed tightly together, with odd loose bullets strewn across the floor.
The framework for the port paddle-wheel is substantially intact. The wooden blades have rotted away, but everything else is in place and covered in plumose anemones (11).
The paddle-wheels are joined across the ship by the driveshaft, which in the centre of the ship becomes the crankshaft of the transverse steam engine (12). The remains of the pistons are laid out horizontally to the deck pointing aft from the crankshaft – which brings me to an engineering question.
Was the Kylemore’s engine horizontal, the pistons now being pretty much in their original locations? Or would it originally have been upright, with the pistons fallen back to the current horizontal position?
The Kylemore’s was certainly an unusual design. Records and a photograph indicate that the wheelhouse was above the engine, with the funnel forwards of it at the front end of the boiler.
Immediately in front of the paddle-wheel are the remains of more toilets on their neatly chequered floor (13) and a pair of mooring bollards, indicating that this must have been a fairly strong part of the ship’s structure.
Forward past the boiler, a winch is upright at its original position on the centreline of the ship (14). Immediately forward of this are two rows of posts that once supported the wooden upper deck, now long since eroded and rotted away.
Returning to the port side of the wreck, a single derrick (15) hangs over the deck, with little sign of a partner.
Like the machine-gun platform aft, the forward gun-platform (16) has also fallen to port. The structure here is much stronger and cross-braced to support the weight and recoil of the 3in anti-aircraft gun it carried. As with the machine-gun platform, the turntable and trunnions are intact, but the gun itself is missing. Perhaps it was salvaged soon after the sinking, to be cleaned and re-used on another ship.
At the bow (17), there is no sign of either anchor, though the anchor-winch is in place and chains stretch to the hawse-pipes. It is hard to tell just how high the bow used to be.
The port side is relatively clean, appearing as if it didn’t extend far above the deck with the anchor-winch. The starboard side suggests that it might have been built a fair bit higher, with steel plate bent out and over, back towards the seabed.
Now heading back on the starboard side, another single small derrick (18) corresponds to the solitary derrick on the port side, again with no sign of a partner. It leads me to wonder whether perhaps these never were boat-derricks. Could they have been used for light cargo, or even simply for pulling the passenger gangplank on board?
THE FINAL SWEEP
The veteran of minesweeping duties in both world wars, the 319-ton paddle-steamer Kylemore was built at Port Glasgow by Russell & Co in 1897 and worked as a passenger steamer on the Clyde. Her owner then was Captain Alex Williamson, writes Kendall Mcdonald.
The 60m-long steamer had twin paddles, which increased her beam to 7m and gave her a top speed of 18 knots, but that speed was never checked by her captains, and remained in her log as an estimate.
Early in her long working life, Kylemore was sold to the Glasgow & South-West Railway Company, renamed Vulcan and became the ferry running between Fairlie and Millport. Another change of owners found her renamed again, this time as Britannia.
She was taken over by the Navy at the start of World War One, fitted with a six-pounder gun and used as a minesweeper until February 1920. On her return to civilian life, she was sold to Captain John Williamson, son of the original owner, who renamed her Kylemore. She was the ferry from Glasgow to Rothesay on the island of Bute until 1935, when she was brought by the LMS railway.
The Navy stepped in again at the start of World War Two and took Kylemore back. This time it put a 12-pounder gun on her and mounted AA machine-guns aft. She became Netlayer J101 with the 12th Minesweeping Flotilla, based at Harwich.
A solitary German Heinekel 111K bomber surprised Kylemore while she was laying anti-submarine nets at the mouth of the Wash on 21 August, 1940. The Battle of Britain was in full spate and the German might have been a straggler from a group of bombers broken up by British fighters. However, what remained of the Heinkel’s bomb-load was quite sufficient to sink the Kylemore.
GETTING THERE: Head for Cambridge or King’s Lynn, then Fakenham, and follow the B1105 to Wells-next-the-Sea. The charter boat Mayflower berths at the main harbour wall. For the Desert Moon, follow the A149 from Wells towards Blakeney. Two miles before Blakeney, turn left at Morston at the sign for Morston Marina. Watch out for the vicious speed-bumps. The tender runs from the first row of old wooden jetties.
DIVING AND AIR: Norfolk Dive Charters, skipper James Holt, boat Mayflower. Dive Norfolk, skipper John Martin, boat Desert Moon. Mayflower has an on-board compressor and nitrox-mixing. Both skippers have compressors ashore.
ACCOMMODATION: Norfolk Dive Charters and Dive Norfolk provide B&B or check Visit Norfolk.
TIDES: Slack water is essential for diving, and occurs three hours after high water at Blakeney.
LAUNCHING: Slip or beach-launching close to high water at Cromer, Blakeney, Morston and Wells. After diving you will have to stay out for the rest of the tide.
HOW TO FIND IT: The approximate co-ordinates are 53 08.3N 1 14.8E (degrees, minutes and decimals).
QUALIFICATIONS: At only 23m, this is a wreck pretty much for everyone.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 108, Approaches To The Wash. Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 132, North-West Norfolk, Kings Lynn And Fakenham. The Shipwrecks Of Norfolk, by Stephen Holt.
PROS: A beautiful example of a paddle-steamer, at a depth at which almost everyone can enjoy it.
CONS: Harbours are tidal. Visibility can be unpredictable.
Thanks to James Holt, Stephen Holt, John Martin & Dave King.
Appeared in Diver, July 2002