More than a century after its sinking, divers never know what ‘trinkets’ they might across on the ‘ship made of brass’ off Swanage, as STUART PHILPOTT explains
When I began diving in the late 1980s, my instructors would often reminisce about the “treasures” they had found on the ss Kyarra wreck off the Dorset coast. Ornate perfume bottles were quite common, whereas the silver pocket watches were much harder to find – and infinitely more valuable.
I always felt this was some kind of initiation and, once I had delved inside the cargo-holds up to my armpits in sludge and scooped out my first piece, only then would I be recognised as a true wreck-diver. Today, some 30 years on, divers are still digging deep inside her cargo-holds searching for treasure.
The massive 126m, 6,953-ton luxury passenger/cargo liner was built in 1903 by William Denny & Bros, Dumbarton. She was nicknamed the “ship made of brass” because of the large quantity of solid brass fittings and portholes used throughout.
At the beginning of World War One, the liner was requisitioned by the War Office and converted into a hospital ship, transporting Australian medical units to Egypt. The entire hull was painted white, with a huge red cross emblazoned amidships.
In 1915, Kyarra was reassigned (and repainted) as a troop-carrying vessel. On 26 May, 1918, while sailing towards Devonport in Plymouth, the ship was torpedoed portside amidships by German submarine UB-57, captained by the infamous Johann Lohs, just one mile off Anvil Point.
The explosion tore her apart, killing six of the 126 crew. Seven minutes later, the ship disappeared beneath the waves forever.
“There’s always a souvenir to be had,” says Bryan Jones, owner of Swanage Boat Charters. The ship was laden with a full 2,600 tons of mixed cargo, and trinkets such as false teeth, glass perfume bottles, pocket watches, crockery, ceramic tiles and fabrics have been retrieved, along with champagne bottles, silverware, brass pen torches, pipes and cut-glass tumblers.
No one has seen the original Kyarra manifest, so who knows what treasures are still down there waiting to be discovered? “I would love to get my hands on a copy if one actually existed,” says Bryan.
The Kyarra Salvage Association (in association with Kingston & Elmbridge BSAC) purchased the wreck for the princely sum of £120 back in 1967, and Bryan has shown me a copy of the original bill of sale. “The scrap value of the two bronze propellers alone would have been enough to buy a house,” he says.
In the early years, divers could pass through passageways and explore each deck-level, but these days, after some heavy salvage work, most of the upper superstructure has collapsed.
There are still plenty of distinguishable features, including deck-railings, chains, winches, bollards, boilers and the propshaft, but there is no obvious hull shape anymore. Typical marine-life sightings include congers, lobster, sea bass, cuttlefish and huge 1m-long pollack. I have even seen a sunfish circling the bow area.
The wreck lies on its starboard side at a maximum depth of 30m. “At low water the top of the wreck is at 21m and it sits 9m proud of the seabed – it’s a nice easy dive,” sums up Bryan. There are four cargo-holds, though most of the interesting finds have come out of number one hold, near the bow. But the foredeck-winch has now fallen inside, making life much more difficult for rummaging divers.
Exploring the wreck
Number two hold is full of copper sheets, pipes and printing blocks. Number three and four holds, on the other side of the boilers, are full of medical supplies, including glass baby feeding bottles and mercury (for thermometers). “The wreck is constantly changing,” says Bryan, and indeeed while some areas have collapsed and become inaccessible, others have opened up, revealing startling new finds.
Since the wreck’s discovery discovery thousands of divers have delved inside these holds searching for “treasure”. I wondered how much cargo had been pilfered, and whether there was anything left to find? “I wouldn’t worry,” says Bryan. “The amount salvaged probably only equates to several tons, so there is definitely plenty more to find down there”. Most of these items simply lie buried in the silt.
Bryan’s personal Kyarra dive-tally is well over the 100 mark. One of his most memorable dives was deep inside number two hold, when a huge conger eel bashed him on the head. It had made the hole its home, and the confrontation was just a warning, but coming face to face with an angry conger in a confined space would certainly have been a bowel-loosening moment.
“The comic books were my best find,” says Bryan of the time he pulled a big lump of black rotting paper out of the silt. Peeling away the outer layers, he found the pages of old comic books inside, some even in colour.
A number of charter-boat operators in Swanage offer regular Kyarra dives, but times have changed. “These days most recreational divers are wearing twin-sets and stage cylinders as the norm,” observes Bryan. “We rarely get single-cylinder divers below the 30m depth range”.
The Kyarra wreck-site is about two miles out from Swanage Pier: “Door to door, it’s an eight-minute boat journey”.
I booked a full day’s Kyarra diving with Swanage Boat Charters and even persuaded Bryan to model for my pictures. The two neap slack tides worked in my favour, because I was able to dive at 9am and then again six hours later. We looked at an exploded drawing of the wreck layout before our first dive, making a mental note of where to find all the best features, and this would save me valuable underwater time.
We dropped onto the bow area and began searching inside one of the cargo-holds. I found a number of empty perfume bottles lying on top of the silt, and could see hundreds of plain-coloured ceramic tiles. Bryan poked around and pulled out an unusual pink-patterned tile from the stack.
We drifted over the massive boilers, stopping briefly at a part of the hull covered in white anemones, dead man‘s fingers and orange cup corals. Bryan posed for a picture and, because he was hoodless, the shot could easily have passed as a Mediterranean vista.
We passed through a shoal of 100 or more stripy coloured pouting on our way to the stern. I stopped again to assess another picture possibility beside two bollards and some deck-railings.
We followed the propshaft until I saw a huge metal plate with hinges that must have been the rudder. The current was just starting to pick up and, with my computer reading 45 minutes, we decided to finish the dive.
I had been able to see the entire 126m wreck on my first dive – not in any detail, but enough to work out where I wanted to take pictures. This really is a huge site, and requires at least three or four dives for a reasonable exploration.
I have probably done 70 dives on the Kyarra in the past 20 years and still find areas with which I’m unfamiliar. Underwater visibility was an acceptable 5-6m. On rare occasions I have experienced more than 10m, but I wasn’t complaining. This was still enough for me to get a reasonable wide-angle image.
On some days the visibility has been so poor that I have unknowingly descended through an opening and ended up inside the wreck, which can be quite disconcerting.
When we returned to the wreck in the afternoon, I retraced our earlier route from number one hold, but this time stopping at five or six pre-selected spots along the way to take pictures. There are plenty of areas to penetrate, but I’m not sure how stable the wreck is these days, so it’s better to be cautious.
It’s impossible to go deeper than 30m, making this is a textbook nitrox dive. Average dive-times are around the hour mark, with the addition of a few minutes for safety stops and deco. The tidal currents can pick up really quickly, so carrying a delayed SMB is mandatory for all divers. Coming back up the shotline is not usually an option.
During the evening, Bryan arranged for me to visit local BSAC diver and Kyarra regular Gordon Grant, whose first dive on the wreck was in 1989, since which time he had been back more than 300 times. Gordon is undoubtedly a huge Kyarra fan, and his favourite finds are the perfume bottles.
He showed me a huge glass cabinet in his dining room crammed full of treasures (all of it declared to the Receiver of Wreck, I hasten to add). The pocket-watches were my favourites – Gordon said that on one memorable dive he had found 18 watches. Each one had taken him around 90 minutes to clean up, but the result was well worth the effort. Gordon had even made one of the smaller watches into a wedding ring.
There were no sticky labels back in the early 1900s, so all the bottles had the company name and logo smelted into the glass, which made them that much more collectable.
Most of the perfume bottles were still full. Gordon opened a bottle and, to my surprise, the vintage scent still smelt OK. Gordon explained that in order to find the treasure, he had put his whole forearm deep into the silt and then delved about until his fingers touched something solid. Most of the artefacts came out in tip-top condition, because the silt layer had acted as a preservative.
Gordon’s friend Graham Brown said that a night-dive on the wreck had ranked as one of his most memorable. He had found a stack of books and, bizarrely, started to read one. “It was a thriller called Way of the Eagle,” he says.
Graham’s mum had even made him a shirt from some fabric salvaged from the Kyarra. I would have thought the material would smell awful after spending so long under water, but Graham said that after going through a few cycles in the washing machine, it seemed fine.
He had even made himself a tie for every occasion from the silk he had found, although he did say that for some reason the yellow silk still smelt a bit rough!
Graham had also found a potty, a ceramic jug, sealing wax, a tape-measure and a hockey stick. “Divers shouldn’t bring stuff up and just chuck it away,” he says. “Even a piece of newspaper used to wrap up the perfume bottles is worth keeping”. Graham showed me a vintage newspaper he had found on the wreck – the headline story was about the Zeebrugge raid of 23 April, 1918.
To my mind, the Kyarra is a national treasure. The items recovered from her cargo-holds should be put on display for everyone to see. Bryan has approached Swanage council, but it was not interested in his proposal for a museum. It’s a shame that so many historical artefacts are hidden away in lofts and garages just gathering dust – I wonder how many other Gordons are out there with an entire display-cabinet full of valuable trinkets.
As the wreck continues to break up, I have no doubt that more and more items will be discovered. “There are still hundreds of portholes buried in the silt on the starboard side,” says Bryan. I’m sure that divers will still be bringing up treasure from the “ship of brass” for many years to come.
RECEIVER OF WRECK: It should go without saying that any item, however small, recovered from the Kyarra – or any other wreck, for that matter – needs to be declared to the Receiver of Wreck. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 3817 2575.
Photographs by Stuart Philpott
Also on Divernet: Wreck Tour 47: The Kyarra, Kyarra Diver Requires Airlift