Meet Marie: Plymouth’s new wreck-diving attraction

Diver aft of the Marie’s engine (Rick Ayrton)
Diver aft of the Marie’s engine (Rick Ayrton)

The first new shipwreck attraction within Plymouth’s recreational diving depths since the Scylla was sunk in 2004 has been revealed – it’s the Victorian steamship Marie, lost for 128 years but recently discovered by a local team from In Deep Dive Centre.

The 58m Marie was found lying upright in Bigbury Bay at a depth of 40m, although In Deep, while keen to share the discovery with its customers this summer, is equally keen to protect it – so is keeping the exact location to itself. 

The Marie’s engine (Rick Ayrton)
The Marie’s engine (Rick Ayrton)
Wreckage (Rick Ayrton)
Wreckage (Rick Ayrton)

“This is not just an exciting dive because it’s a new discovery, it’s also a great wreck-dive by anyone’s standards,” says In Deep. “It’s fantastic to find something new that has been sat undisturbed under the waves for years – especially in an area where so much diving has taken place over the decades.”

History of the Marie

The 511-ton gross three-masted iron steamship was built in 1863 in Danzig (then part of Germany but now Poland), with the 92hp steam engine, boilers and single screw also made at the Klawitter shipyard. 

Initially registered to Bremer, Bennett & Bremer of London the following year, in 1880 she was transferred to Charles James Bennett, and at some point W Esplen Jr & Co of Liverpool acquired the ship. 

Engine-room flange made home by a brown crab (Rick Ayrton)
Engine-room flange made home by a brown crab (Rick Ayrton)
A possible coal-bunker (Rick Ayrton)
A possible coal-bunker (Rick Ayrton)

In February 1895 the newly formed Steamship Marie Company Ltd of London arranged to buy the vessel. It is not known whether ownership had already been transferred when the Marie was lost two months later.

Captain Matthew Cowper, having sailed the ship from Liverpool to Dunkirk with a cargo of coal, started back across the Channel from Saint-Valery-en-Caux on 21 April, carrying round flint for pottery-making to Runcorn in Cheshire.  

Marie ran into fog, strong south-westerlies and heavy rain, and it’s thought that Captain Cowper decided to get out of the rough seas by making for the safety of Plymouth Sound – but his ship disappeared in the early hours of 23 April.

Rear of the engine (Rick Ayrton)
Rear of the engine (Rick Ayrton)
Wreckage (Rick Ayrton)
Wreckage (Rick Ayrton)

A contemporary newspaper report, concluding from the prevailing winds that the tragedy must have occurred south of the Mewstone rock at the sound’s entrance, reported that six bodies and a lifeboat marked ss Marie had been washed ashore or picked up. Captain Cowper and his nine crew are all assumed to have died but, because of confusion over the ship’s name, she was not officially posted as missing until mid-May.

Diving the Marie

Following extensive research by the In Deep team, including hydrographic surveys and a variety of other sources, In Deep partner James Balouza became the first diver to find himself on the upright wreck. “We weren’t specifically looking for the Marie – we knew it was out there but we were just looking for new wrecks,” he told Divernet.

“I’ve spent a bit of time diving on marks, coming down shotlines and not finding what I was hoping to find at the bottom. So then to be coming down the shotline and seeing the top of a compound steam engine lying there in front of me was rather exciting!

Pair of anchors with chain (Rick Ayrton)
Pair of anchors with chain (Rick Ayrton)
Steam gauge covered in anemones (Rick Ayrton)
Steam gauge covered in anemones (Rick Ayrton)

“It’s just nice to see a preserved wreck in recreational depths that hasn’t been seen before,” said Balouza. “For that reason there are lots of things most sports divers who have been diving over the past 10 years or even longer won’t have seen on a wreck, like steam gauges – because they would all have gone missing.

“It’s a slackwater-dependent dive, which for us here in Plymouth is unusual because most of our sports-diving sites are not tidal-dependent. There’s nothing too challenging about it from my perspective as a technical diver but it’s on the limits of the sports-diving range.”

Fire bricks (Rick Ayrton)
Fire bricks (Rick Ayrton)
A small shoal of pouting swim through the wreck (Rick Ayrton)
A small shoal of pouting swim through the wreck (Rick Ayrton)

The In Deep divers found that the ship’s boiler had exploded. This could have been down to the rapid cooling as it was submerged in cold sea water, or might have run dry as the crew abandoned ship. Other theories remain as to exactly what caused the loss of the Marie, and it is hoped that further investigation of the wreck will provide more clues.

Underwater photographer Rick Ayrton visited the wreck recently and was able to capture many of its features. For qualified divers wishing to visit the Marie for themselves In Deep Dive Centre is based in Plymouth’s Mount Batten Water Sports Complex.  

Also on Divernet: 5 best of the South-west, Plymouth gun could be 400 years old, Wreck Tour 96: The Rosehill

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David Page
David Page
8 months ago

Congratulations on finding this wreck. Let’s hope that the world has turned enough that her valves, portholes, guages, and any other “pretty bits” stay with her, and not create a “brass frenzy” as it would do when I started back in the 70’s.

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