Shipwreck divers jailed for failing to disclose artefacts

Shipwreck divers who looted a Royal Navy vessel at the bottom of the English Channel have been jailed for failing to disclose the items they took.

The Kent Police writes:

HMS Hermes was a protected cruiser built in the late 19th century and converted into an aircraft ferry and depot ship ready for the start of the First World War. It was sunk by a German submarine in the Dover Strait in October 1914, causing the loss of 44 British lives. Kent Police was notified in early 2015 that a number of historical artefacts had been reported missing from the wreck, and were given the names of the two men believed to be responsible. They were Nigel Ingram (pictured left), 57, of London Road, Teynham, and John Blight (right), 58, of Old River Way in Winchelsea, East Sussex. On Friday 22 June 2018 both men were found guilty of fraud relating to their failure to disclose recovered items in order to make a financial gain, following a two-week trial at Canterbury Crown Court. Ingram was subsequently jailed for four years and Blight for three-and-a-half years

The jury heard how the men had been found at the location of the Hermes by French maritime surveillance officers on Tuesday 30 September 2014. Ingram was in the water at the time, having dived from Blight’s boat called De Bounty. No offences were identified but the officers were suspicious of the lifting equipment present on the vessel, resulting in an underwater exploration of the Hermes three days later. This revealed the ship’s condenser had been removed and that some of the equipment spotted on De Bounty had been left behind. A criminal investigation was launched by the French authorities and later referred to Kent Police, resulting in the arrests of Ingram and Blight on Monday 19 October 2015.

More than 100 items of unreported wreck were recovered at Ingram’s home along with approximately £16,000 cash. A number of photographs were also located on his computer, one of which showed the condenser of the Hermes on the back of De Bounty approximately four hours after it had been boarded by the French surveillance officers. Police established through subsequent enquiries that Ingram had cashed a cheque from a scrap merchant for £5,029 the day after, on Wednesday 1 October 2014. Also seized from Ingram’s home was a notebook entitled ‘De Bounty, Diver Recovery’ that contained details of what dives were undertaken and the items recovered, including the condenser. The total value of the wreck collected was estimated at being more than £150,000. None of the items listed were reported to the Receiver of Wreck as they should have been.

Investigating officer PC Anne Aylett of Kent Police said: ‘The HMS Hermes and other shipwrecks of its kind are legally protected for a reason, and that is because they form an important part of the history of this country. Nigel Ingram and John Blight have demonstrated a complete disregard for the law by helping themselves to artefacts that should have remained beneath the sea instead of being brought to the surface and sold for scrap metal. We are proud of our close working relationship with our partner agencies, which in this case included the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Marine Management Organisation, the Receiver of Wreck, Sussex Police, Historic England, Crown Prosecution Service and the French authorities, and take a robust approach to ensuring important historical items do not end up in the hands of people who are not entitled to them. We will continue to investigate anyone suspected of stealing items from sunken wrecks and seek to prosecute them when appropriate.’

Mark Harrison, head of heritage crime and policing advice for Historic England, said: ‘All archaeological sites underwater comprise a finite, irreplaceable and fragile resource, vulnerable to damage and destruction through human activity. Like nighthawking on land, the illicit removal of objects from underwater archaeological contexts does much more damage beyond just the loss of an item. All archaeological sites can give us clues and evidence about past events and it is this history that is disturbed and lost when items are removed. This removal means that part of our national story is lost and can never be replaced, particularly where historic artefacts have been sold for scrap, as in this case. We know that the majority of the diving community complies with the laws and regulations regarding the discovery and recovery of wreck from the sea. We will continue to work with the police and other organisations to identify the small criminal minority who are intent on causing loss and damage to our shared cultural heritage.’

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