Wreck Tour 76: The Shadwan

The Shadwan Wreck Tour
The Shadwan Wreck Tour

This shallow steamer wreck sank in Berwick Bay in Victorian times but still holds mysteries for divers to solve, as JOHN LIDDIARD explains. Illustration by MAX ELLIS

WORKING OUT HOW THE WRECK of the Shadwan fitted together was a real challenge, although because it is easily dived at just 18m deep, it was the sort of challenge over which I could take my time.

The only bit of wreckage that sticks up well enough to show on an echo-sounder is the boiler, so that is where our tour begins (1). Even then, the boiler rises only just above the seabed, about three-quarters of it being buried, and the rest of it well bashed-about.

The front of the boiler with the fire-holes points away from the centre of the wreck to the east side. Just to the outside of this, big chunks of coal are littered on the seabed and a square hatch-coaming shows where one of the Shadwan’s coal-bunkers was located (2). A pair of boat-derricks span this area forward and aft.

Turning forwards, next to the most forward of the boat-derricks is the steering engine (3). The general wreckage of hull-plates and ribs starts to disappear beneath the sand here. Continuing forward and along the edge of the main wreckage, the end of a cargo-winch (4) projects from below a hull-plate.

steering engine
Steering engine

With general orientation now established, to see all the bow-fittings our route leaves the main area of wreckage, following scraps of metal on the sand and gravel seabed out to the left, where a pair of mooring bollards and the anchor-winch can be found next to each other (5).

The forward extent of this side of the wreckage is marked by a set of three small bollards (6).

Turning across the wreck, off the other end of the anchor-winch a curved beam was actually the port side of the bow (7). Then, near the forward tip of this, an angled joint between three beams marks the tip of the bow.

Continuing across the wreck, a small pile of chain is located next to the remains of the anchor hawse-pipes (8). This marks the extent of the wreckage at the other side of the bow, so now our route turns aft again, following another curved beam (9) from the starboard side of the bow back to the main part of the wreck.

The line of the keel is now easy to follow aft (10). Moving a little further in towards the centre of the wreck, the condenser is an array of pipes (11), some standing upright while others lie across the wreck.
Back towards the keel, the engine-mount is a pair of much heavier box-sections running along the line of the wreck (12).

The Shadwan was fitted with a two-cylinder compound engine, of which there is no trace. All that remains in the area of the engine-mount is a small auxiliary engine, possibly a pump (13), lying between the engine-mount and the boiler.

Next to the pump, a deck-plate with two bollards and then an upright section of tube leads aft. The Shadwan’s spare propeller lies next to this (14), the tip of one blade beneath the plate.

The line of the propeller-shaft is marked by two supports and bearings (15) and (16), although there is no sign of the shaft itself, or the thrust-bearing that would have linked it to the engine.

Following the line of the shaft aft leads off the wreck to an area of rocky reef, though there is no sign of further wreckage in this direction.

To continue aft on the wreck, our route turns back across the wreck from the aft-most propshaft bearing (16) to a pair of bollards and a cargo-winch (17). Aft from the winch, a large section of curved hull-plate (18) looks as if it might have been part of the stern.

Continuing out from this, across a gap of 10m or so, brings us to the last part of the stern, the propeller and its cut-out from the keel (19).

The interesting point about the prop is that it is on the opposite side of the wreck to the shaft-bearings, and points the wrong way!

Back on the main body of the wreck, forward from the cargo-winch (17) is a section of plate with a flanged round hole in it (20), possibly from a ventilator. Then we find another coal-bunker hatch-coaming and the remains of the donkey boiler (21).

cargo winch

Which completes our tour of the Shadwan, though it does leave some unanswered questions. Where are the remains of the engine, the thrust-bearing and propeller-shaft? And how did the wreckage end up in this confused state?

 I will speculate about the second question first. The Shadwan was working northwards along the coast when it ran into a force 10 storm from the north-east.

I contacted Dr Steven Barstow of the environmental monitoring company Fugro OCEANOR for advice on the wave heights likely in such conditions. He ran its WorldWaves database and modelling package, which uses data from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading to calibrate a WAM wave model.

This predicted that waves further offshore would be up to 8m high, but approaching the coast in water shallowing to 20m they would break to give a height of 6m – about that of an average house. The distance between waves would have been 10-11m.

Caught between the storm and a lee shore, the captain would have turned his ship into the sea as the only chance of survival. I suspect that, taking on water, the steep breaking waves and the shallow sea would then have caused the stern of the Shadwan to ground and gouge along the seabed, breaking off the rudder and a section of the keel, complete with the propeller and the tail-section of the shaft.

Out of control, the doomed ship would have been pushed round broadside to the waves and rolled before it hit the seabed, to be laid flat almost immediately.

With such speculation in mind, I searched the rocks east of the wreck (22). Ridges with dead men’s fingers raised frequent hopes of finding the propeller-shaft, but I had no sighting of it. Perhaps the Shadwan was salvaged and forgotten. Or perhaps, if you search hard enough, the remains of the engine and shaft are still waiting to be found.


Captain John Willis was master of the British steamer Shadwan for many years. He was not her first captain after she was built in 1877 by CS Swan & Co for the London shipping firm of Nelson, Donkin & Co, but he was certainly her longest-serving. He would also be her last, writes Kendall McDonald.

The Shadwan proved profitable for her owners. An iron cargo steamer of 1538 tons, 78m long with a beam of 10m, and drawing a little over 7m, she produced 150hp from her compound engines. She was not fast, but she was reliable.

During the next 10 years this London-registered ship visited most European and Mediterranean ports. In mid-November, 1888, she was in Fiume (later Rijeka, Yugoslavia’s biggest port), taking on a full cargo of wheat, barley and flour to take to Leith, Edinburgh.

Good weather stayed with her until she was in the North Sea only four miles off Berwick. Violent north-easterly gales raised such huge breaking seas that Captain Willis must have known he wasn’t going to make it into the shelter of the Firth of Forth.

He didn’t. On 28 November, 1888, Shadwan foundered with the loss of all aboard.


GETTING THERE: From the south, follow the A1M and A1 north, then take the B3140 to Seahouses. From the north, turn off the A1 on the B3142 to Bamburgh and continue along the coast to Seahouses. Once in Seahouses, follow your nose to the harbour.

TIDES: Slack water is essential and occurs about 1 hour 45 minutes after high water and low water Seahouses.

HOW TO FIND IT: Having taken the time and trouble to locate the Shadwan, Andrew Douglas is keeping the exact position to himself for a while. Approximate location is 2 miles north of Holy Island in Berwick Bay.

DIVING & AIR: Sovereign Diving, 01665 720158, 07761 980818.

LAUNCHING : Slips are available at Seahouses and Berwick-upon-Tweed.

ACCOMMODATION: B&B with Sovereign Diving.

QUALIFICATIONS: An easy dive at slack water.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 160, St Abbs Head to the Farne Islands. Ordnance Survey Map 75, Berwick-upon-Tweed & Surrounding Area. Northumbria Tourist Board 0191 3753000.

PROS: A nice wreck shallow enough for the most basic diving qualification.

CONS: Long boat ride. Difficult to find.

Thanks to Andrew Douglas, Tim Walsh, Steven Barstow.

Appeared in Diver June 2005


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