Welcome to Modbury, a heritage market town that is set in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Shipwrecks off the coast

September 26, 2019

Shipwrecks off the coast

The river Erme in South Devon is tidal up to 3.5 miles from its entrance where it continues upstream to its source on Dartmoor . This route takes it past some of the best archaeological remains on the moor which suggest the estuary was used for trading via the sea during the bronze age.

Erme Estuary Modbury South Hams Devon

Over the years it has become a graveyard for ships as, from the sea, it looks like a safe place to take anchorage but the underwater 'Mary's' reef make the entrance a hazard for shipping.

The site was found by Stephen George who was snorkelling in the area in 1990 and found a swivel gun and cannon and in 1991 42 tin ingots were found in the mouth of the estuary on the north side of the West Mary Reef. Stephen was part of the Bigbury bay investigation Team who formed up with a group of divers from Northampton to form the South West Maritime Archaeological Group (SWMAG). This group did a comprehensive archaeological survey of the site in the 1990's. These ingots date from around 1000 BC confirming that tin mining / trade was a major part of the South Devon economy throughout its history. These ingots are very similar to the ones found by the SWMAG team on the Moorssands site off Salcombe. Over 13 ships have are know to have been lost in the area ranging from 1000BC to 1793. The bronze age finds suggest early bronze age ships were lost in the area.

Erme Estuary Cannon site (This is an English Heritage protected site and the current licensee is Neville Oldham)

The Erme Estuary Cannon site lies in 4-8 m of water within a 250m radius of position 50° 18.41' N, 03° 57.19' W in a partially sheltered location adjacent to West Mary's Rock at the mouth of Erme Estuary.

Erme Estuary ship

One of the wrecks found is thought to be a French armed merchantman. It may well have been the ship carrying Philip I of Castile and Joanna of Aragon who were rushing back to Spain to claim the throne of Castile when their fleet were wrecked in the area. The painting above give you some idea of what she may have looked like
The following sketch shows the layout of the artefacts found. One of the 'Finbanker' cannons (1630/1650 )and a swivel gun have been raised and the cannon is now on display on the quay at Hope Cove in South Devon, having been resorted and mounted on a replica carriage. The sketch below shows the layout of the site of the shipwreck.

Erme wreck chart

The following magnetometer survey was carried out by Pete Holt (Sonardyne Ltd) in the 1990's ,on behalf of the South West Maritime Archaeology Group. The cluster of hits adjacent to Redcove Point are the cannon believed to be from a French ship of 1506

The mouth of the Erme, South Hams Devon




Known losses of ships in the area are:

'Mad   Joanna's wreck'

A fleet   of 300 ships taking Phillip of Castile and his wife Joanna from Antwerp to   Castile to claim his throne are caught in a storm and dispersed along the   English Channel.

Seven   of these seek shelter at Dartmouth, some are wrecked at Melcombe and two between   Dartmouth & Plymouth

Two of   the above fleet are lost at the mouth of the Erme and there are references to   Phillip being wrecked in the Erme estuary

January   1506


Unknown   significant wreck

13th   January 1632


French   Ship

20th   February 1637


Genoese   ship

21st   February 1668


Dutch   ship

29th   November 1691


French   ship

1st   February 1695


Unidentified   ship

December   1698



December   1698


HMS   Pygmy

15th   December 1793


St John   Baptista




December   1851


Commerce   De paris