A century ago today (April 30th, 2017), a rare steam fishing trawler – HMT Arfon - fitted out as a mine sweeper for the Royal Navy during the First World War, rapidly sank off the Dorset coast after striking a mine with the loss of 10 of the crew of 13. To commemorate this event, the Swanage-based dive boat ‘Viper II’ will take the descendants of three of the crew of HMT Arfon from Yorkshire to the site of her sinking to lay wreaths in the sea above the wreck site.
Last summer, HMT Arfon was given special protection by the Department for Culture Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England. HMT Arfon was built in 1908 in Goole, East Riding of Yorkshire and worked out of Portland Harbour Naval Base during the First World War, sweeping mines laid by German U-boats along the inshore shipping lanes off the Dorset coast for three years before it sank. It is exceptionally well preserved with the trawler’s key features such as its mine-sweeping gear, deck gun, portholes and engine room still intact on the seabed off St Adhelm’s Head.
The commemoration ceremony will involve the beautifully-restored steam whistle recovered from the protected wreck of HMT Arfon being sounded for the first time since the sinking in 1917, when it was used to signal the code for ‘MINE.’ The names of the 10 crew that perished will also be read out in addition to the names of the three survivors. After the ceremony, the descendants will visit St. Aldhelm’s Head near Swanage where an information board about HMT Arfon, funded by Historic England, will be unveiled.
Martin Jones, the Historic England appointed licensee of the wreck, relates how he and his son Bryan Jones discovered this important wreck site: “In 2013, by pure luck, whilst on a diving trip to another wreck, I spotted an anomaly on the sea bed. I marked the position on the GPS, but it was not until 2014 that my son, Bryan Jones, dived the site for the first time.”
Following ongoing research by Bryan Jones and local maritime historian Dave Wendes, which included visits to the National Archives at Kew, they proved it to be the lost wreck of the Arfon. The wreck lay undiscovered for 97 years in remarkably good condition, largely due to the fact that it now lies in a depression in the seabed at 43 metres.
The Maritime Archaeological Trust are today launching an online dive trail which has been funded by Historic England. Derived from more than 10,000 images collected by the Trust’s divers over 2016 and early 2017, the commemorative dive features a guided 3D tour of Arfon as she lies on seabed today. It tells the story of the crew and their vessel through interactive information points, audio and videos, images, animations and 360 underwater panoramas of the wreck (see http://3d-tours.uk/arfon).
Alison James, maritime archaeologist for Historic England said: “The new interpretation panel and virtual dive trail to commemorate the sinking of the Arfon will allow non-divers to find out much more about this fascinating wreck site.”
The steam whistle and other artefacts raised from HMT Arfon will be taken to Southampton where The Maritime Archaeological Trust plans to scan them so they can be examined in detail and virtually restored to the wreck as part of the commemorative website. The Trust are also planning further dives in 2017 that will keep adding to the virtual tour as part of their Heritage Lottery Funded Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War project (http://forgottenwrecks.org).
In relation to working with the relatives of the crew lost on HMT Arfon 100 years ago, Martin says “I have found it enormously rewarding sharing the information with the descendants of three of the crew and look forward to meeting them all on the centenary commemoration.”
He continues, “We would like to thank Historic England and the Maritime Archaeological Trust for the enormous amount of work that they have contributed to this project and we hope the Arfon will be left in its pristine condition and respected for its rarity and historical value for many years to come.”