Ghost Ships of the Dart: The Wreck of the Fever Ship Mayfly

April 2021

Estuaries and creeks around the coast of England are littered with the remains of watercraft which have been deliberately abandoned when they are no longer deemed useful. The extent of this is astonishing. In 2013 a survey identified at least 199 assemblages of hulked vessels all around the English coastline and this is by no means the complete record.  In recent years many have been identified and they have fascinating histories. This week Dr Sam Willis meets Grant Bettinson a maritime archaeologist and Discovery Programme Officer for South Devon Rivers, for ‘Citizan‘ – The Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network. Exploring the banks of Old Mill Creek on the Dart they discover the hulk of the Mayfly, once a fever ship during outbreaks of yellow fever and smallpox in the early years of the twentieth century. The interview was filmed and has been posted on our YouTube and includes stunning drone footage of the hulks on the Dart.

NEED TO KNOW

  1. Purpose of a fever hulk

A fever hulk was used to quarantine those with an illness that was considered contagious and deadly such as bubonic plague, small pox and yellow fever. This practice of isolating those with illness on ships died out during the twentieth century as a result of the advancements in health care. One of the earliest cases that is known comes from the fourteenth century during an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Venice. The common practice was that those infected would remain isolated for 40 days- the period of time required to decrease the rate of infection and prevent a pandemic.

  1. The Mayfly

The Mayfly was a nineteenth century paddle steamer. It was used a fever hulk, and during the early half of the twentieth century, it dealt with cases of yellow fever and smallpox. According to records, the Mayfly was purchased in Liverpool 1893 for £700 and was then converted to be able to hold up to 25 patients as a fever ship. A yellow flag would fly during times when there was a sickness on board to alert others that they were prevented from coming on board. However, by 1919, the ship was declared not fit for others to live on board, never mind those infected as there were shocking conditions discovered, such as flooded rooms. Despite being declared uninhabitable, there was still a case in 1923 where the Mayfly had patients with smallpox. Today her remains lie at the mouth of Old Mill Creek, near Dartmouth.

Alys Collins, Undergraduate, Plymouth University

  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. This week I’m off to Devon more specifically to a little creek just off the river Dart. It’s called Old Mill Creek: it’s staggeringly beautiful, and for maritime historians, it is also fascinating because scattered along its banks are a number of hulks. These are ships many with fascinating histories whose lives ended in this little creek, where they were run aground and left to rot. It’s a wonderful aspect of maritime archaeology; estuaries and creeks around the coast of England are littered with the remains of watercraft which have been deliberately abandoned when they are no longer deemed useful. And the extent of this is astonishing: in 2013, a survey identified at least 199 different assemblages of hulked vessels all around the English coastline. And this is by no means the complete record.

    In recent years, many of these vessels have been identified and they have fascinating histories. There are landing craft, minesweepers, naval pinnace, ferries, steamboats, submarines, rare canal boats, lifeboats, light-ships, the list goes on, and on. And these vessels allow us to explore the entirety of British maritime and naval history a story of course, which helps explain who we are today. Let me now just read an extract from ‘The Merchant Schooners’ by Basil Greenhill, it’s a wonderful little book published in 1968 because it captures this last dying moments of these vessels so beautifully.

    “Wherever an arm of the sea reaches far inland, and the saltwater laps upon the shelter to dry earth of the countryside, here, in the area of drying mud which is neither properly part of the water, nor of the land, there arises a certain smell. It is the smell of brackish water, the last overflow of the sea, and of the weed and jetsam which finds its way to even so far an anchorage. And lies there about the tide line, alternately wetted by the rising water of the creek, and dried by the sun and rotting until it becomes part of the mud. Here in this quiet half sea world, the schooners past their old age. For all those ships which ceased to sail in the years between the wars, more than half were abandoned, their owners is dead or untraceable, to lie slowly falling to pieces in the quiet backwaters of Devon rivers and the remote creeks of Cornish and Irish road steads. Here they lay between steep wooded hills, rising and falling twice each day. They were more than half their years aground, their masts leaning as they lay on their bilge strakes in the tidal ooze.

    At first seaworthy ships, often with the canvas still bent on their booms and yards, they slowly became more and more dilapidated. The men of the creekside villages stripped them of all movable fittings. Their rigging went to equip small boats, and those more fortunate local craft which still sailed. Their deck houses to make tool sheds and poultry sheds. Their companion hatches and skylights to make seats upon the local quays. Slowly they disintegrated settling lower and lower in the water as their plank softened and the caulking wept from each seam. Around them in the mud were collected a host of damage things not worth pilfering, of broken lamps and dead eyes, belaying pins, pots, pans, shattered plates and other crockery and every kind of metal fitting. Then they cease to float at all and were half-submerged on every tide, the saltwater gushing out of them on the ebb. Their masts were taken out before they fell and heaped upon the nearby beaches and quaysides, or they were left to show as they raked fore-aft to the thwart ships, the measure of the rot within the hull. Then at last the mud entered them and with its growing weight achieving slowly what the violence of the sea had never achieved, broke them aboard so that the deck beams ruptured, and the frame split from the keel length and they fell apart in their two halves fore and aft. And the stem and sternpost with hanging rudder stood alone.

    In the quiet creeks, this cycle of slow destruction was repeated many times. In Restronguet and the Ponsharden graveyard, in Ponte Pill in the Padstow River, in Salcombe, the Gannel, Milford, Shannon, and the southern creeks of Ireland, you could find their bones lying side by side, sometimes so thick on the mud that the skeletons were piled on top of one another. Sometimes the whole hull was there. Sometimes the masts were in her. There was often nothing left except the floors of a few frames turned iron-hard and still fastened with green bolts to the keelson. You could find a wooden schooner in South Britain in every stage of disintegration. For the most part, they were nameless, and often there was nobody who could tell you what they were called. In this way half the last schooners ended, the rest were sold to Scandinavia to trade laden with cargoes of sweet-smelling Baltic softwoods, or they were cut down to the deck level to become hulks lying filled with other ships cargoes or to become barges for towing. Some were broken up – their salted timber used as fencing, or for making furniture, or for building or burning with yellow flames in the cottage fires. Some were wrecked and their timbers were strewn over half the beaches of the West of England, and some of them vanished in the open sea.

    Now today I’m meeting Grant Bettinson. He is a maritime archaeologist, and he is the Discovery Program Officer for South Devon Rivers for ‘Citizan’, that’s the coastal and intertidal zone archaeological network. And I have not been as excited or as impressed with a project for some time: these guys are just great. They exist to highlight the threat of coastal erosion to a wealth of foreshore and intertidal sites. And they’ve established an infrastructure and network of volunteers with the skills, commitment and support necessary to record, monitor and promote this fragile and threatened archaeological intertidal sites – all over the UK. You can find them @citizan.org.uk.

    The vessel I’m looking at today is, or shall I say the remains of the vessel I’m looking at today, is the Mayfly. She’s important in these unusual times because she was once a fever hulk, otherwise known as a quarantine ship, or an isolation ship. In fact, the word quarantine comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning 40 days, the time that ships coming from ports infected with the plague were forced to lie at anchor before being allowed into Venice in the 14th century. The Mayfly became a fever ship not because of the plague, but because of yellow fever and smallpox – major threats in the early years of the 20th century. The Mayfly with a paddle steam and she was purchased in 1893 and used in the River Dart as an isolation ship by visiting boats crews and also locals with symptoms. By 1906 she was no longer seaworthy she was repaired, and then still use for many years in spite of her appalling condition, and it was eventually sold to a boat breaker in 1923. I met Grant on the bank of Old Mill Creek on the Dart to find out more. The interview was filmed and there is some stunning drone footage of the hulk of the Mayfly and also other vessels around the area. So do please check that out on the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast YouTube page and also on the Society for Nautical Research’s Facebook and Instagram. Here is the interview.

    Grant, that was probably one of my favourite walks I’ve had for months, and we’ve come to this mysterious wreck. Well, what is this thing?

    Grant Bettinson

    Okay, so these are the believed remains of the Mayfly, which is a 19th-century paddle steamer. So, it’s quite a large thing. And what it was is a hulk – so a hulk is when you strip out the engines, and it becomes just essentially, it just becomes the vessel and is used for an isolation hospital ship is the belief. So, in Dartmouth, after they build the hospital, there is no facilities for quarantining people, so isolation, something we know a lot about at the moment. So essentially, a local landowner doesn’t allow them to build an isolation hospital. So that’s a hospital where you quarantine people with diseases such as yellow fever, cholera, various things that coming in off ships, so they decided to use boats. So, this is the likely remains of the Mayfly, which is a paddle steamer they bought from Liverpool to do this job. It ends up here, due to its replacement, the Kingswear Castle, which, and the second one I’m sure a lot of people will have travelled on is that big one with the paddles, it is replaced. This one is the early one that they use up until I think it’s bought in the 1890s and then it’s used all the way up until 1922. So, it has a capacity of around 30, and essentially, it’s a yellow fever ship. So, when there would be contagious people on board, you would have a yellow flag up and it ends up here because essentially, it’s the last of its life. So, a lot of hulks are used all the way up until they deteriorate, and in this case, it is the exact same. And it was meant to be broken up here, but sadly, sorry, not sadly greatly for us (in great news) it’s still here by looks of it.

    Sam Willis

    What are we actually looking at there? What are those remains of that boat?

    Grant Bettinson

    So, we don’t have a full plan on the site yet. We were meant to do that in 2020 but obviously, with the COVID restrictions, we haven’t got down to a survey. But what we’re looking at by the looks of it is one half of the vessel and you can see just there is where the paddles would have come out in the puddle boxes would have been. We haven’t really got round to the other side because of the deep mud yet. The plan was to come out here with Southampton students (students from the University of Southampton) and record this using an RTK, which is essentially a very fancy GPS. And what we’re looking at, so you can see the stuff buried underneath, you’ll have the main part of the hull and the keel, I believe this is the bow at this end, but again, we need to do a bit more survey and have a little clear away of some of that seaweed and have a look at what we’re talking about. So, these are potentially what is left of the boxes for the paddles. So, the Mayfly was sold after it no longer was an isolation ship or fever hulk as it’s commonly referred to in the documents. It was sold to Distin and Dormans, who were famous boat breakers on the Dart at the time. And they started breaking the vessels in Old Mill Creek, they still, the family is still based here, and they still own a boatyard all the way up at the top the creek. It is referred to in ‘Lost Ships of the West Country’ when he surveyed or, he didn’t survey, had look at the vessels back in the 80s, I think it’s early 80s that book was written, he mentioned that there’s paddles left on the side. And this is potentially those but again, what we need to do is have a look at them, photograph them, start measuring them up and see if we can’t align it to common things, we see in paddle steamers for the time.

    Sam Willis

    Do we have any idea what it would have been like on that when it was a fever boat?

    Grant Bettinson

    Okay. So, this is actually a good story. So, in the local archives, which admittedly I can’t get to at the moment, the reports of it in its last days of being a fever ship that is about its unfit for human habitation – by the 1920s is declared unfit. There’s flooding in the rooms, and they’re still using it incredibly. But certainly, the medical officers say we’re not, we’re not using the Mayfly anymore, it needs to be broken up, it needs to be dumped, and it ends up here. That is the main parts of those records – are those arguments between the medical office and the harbour boards about what they’re going to do about this isolation hospital ship. They do try and give it a last bit of life. So, what you have with a lot of hulked vessels and abandoned vessels is they pour concrete in between the seams of the framing, which gives it a little bit longer lifespan. As I said this is now replaced by – a lot later there is a huge argument back and forth (and it’s in the archives) about getting a replacement for the ship which is eventually the Kingswear Castle which is another famous vessel. The original Kingswear Castle which is dumped up on the weir at Totnes – not on the weir, further down from the weir and that is its replacement. But yeah, we don’t know that much about – we know that it could accommodate up to around 25 patients but in those late days there wasn’t that many records, but I imagine with flooded rooms and unfit for human habitation it is not a place you would want to spend the night.

    Sam Willis

    So, this is just one wreck of many all the way around here, isn’t it? What do we know about the others?

    Grant Bettinson

    Okay, so the area itself is known as Rough Hole Point – these are Rough Hole mudflats. So, we have the Mayfly – basically, the area has been used for dumping boats for countless years. And it’s often here – down here is where Distin’s used to break boats quite commonly. Around the corner, we have a boat breaking yard, or what we believe to be a boat breaking yard. Over in the distance, over there is the Invamoor which was one of the last built schooners in the UK. And that has another fascinating history but doesn’t pay its harbour dues, so the Dartmouth tows it out here and dumps it’s. So, it’s a common place for the dumping of vessels. You find these across the whole of the UK; there will be areas where you find concentrations of ships and vessels, which were commonly areas where they’ve dumped them for unpaid dues. The most common reason for why vessels get like this is they were either set there to be broken up and the breaking of them became untenable or unfeasible or they were meant to be converted into houseboats, something went wrong and then they just end up deteriorating on our foreshores. They do make nice things, but they are lovely now.

    Sam Willis

    So, what’s your job in relation to wrecks like this? What can we do to keep an eye on them? I suppose there’s nothing we can do to make sure they don’t deteriorate until they vanish is there?

    Grant Bettinson

    So, you are fighting the inevitable – you can’t fight tides? And that’s part of the reason why Citizan was set up. So, ‘Citizan’ stands for coastal intertidal zone archaeological network and it’s all about preservation by record. You can’t fight climate change as we know. You can try when it comes to the foreshore, it’s a hugely dynamic environment. It’s constantly changing. It’s something that’s been overlooked in archaeology for years. These vessels will slowly deteriorate, and we do not plan to preserve them, lift them or any of that stuff unless they’ve proved to be incredibly important. The plan is to monitor their deterioration, we need to get the record now so that we can get that information out there. So that people know the story. Because I find, especially with the 2020, this vessel suddenly became very interesting due to its past in hospital isolation ship. We wrote a blog about it on the website, and now I’m researching into doing further stuff on this one, and the Kingswear Castle. But the main thing we need to get done is a record of how many there is – what are they – how many there is. A lot of these vessels were looked at, kind of by passing tourists, there is records of people on the passenger ferry talking about when these had masts on and when they were fully upright. But of course, one of the biggest problems is they refer to them by name. And as soon as your vessel starts to deteriorate, they all start to look the same. So, when you’ve just got a keel and framing, it then becomes a very harder job to investigate the different little things that tell you what that vessel is, then you have to compare those to the original plans if you have them or compare them to iconography of the time.

    Sam Willis

    So, you work for ‘Citizan’ – the coastal and intertidal zone archaeology network, is that right?

    Grant Bettinson

    Yeah, sure.

    Sam Willis

    And so, what can people do to get involved because it was set up to allow people to get involved in this kind of heritage, wasn’t it?

    Grant Bettinson

    Okay. So ‘Citizan’ is coastal intertidal zone archaeological network. So, as we know archaeologist love acronyms, as was a particularly long one, but it’s set up as a community project. So, essentially, what we came to realise and what most of archaeology is now realising there will never be enough marine archaeologists, there will never be enough archaeologists to cover the foreshores, especially in the UK. We have a tidal reach, it’s most of around eight meters, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of meters of foreshore to look at, and things constantly eroding out and becoming revealed or sadly deteriorating and being lost. So, what we do is we set up, we work with local communities. So, I work down here in Devon, and we work with local communities to survey this archaeology before it’s gone. So, what we do is we go out into the foreshores, we pick sites using the HR or we go out and we just monitor sites like Mersea Island, and down here where you have lots of archaeology becoming eroded out on a regular basis. And we just need to get a record of that, because some of it is incredibly important. And without the public, which is what we need to monitor this stuff, we just don’t know this. It’s a mystery how much archaeology has already been lost and now we need the communities to get on board and start telling us about this stuff. There’s never going to be enough archaeologists to know – we need to be able to respond to something. So, we need to be able to respond to communities using the App, which allows them to record archaeology as it becomes eroded out of the foreshores,

    Sam Willis

    Just tell us quickly how people could get involved.

    Grant Bettinson

    Okay, so if you want to get involved, you can just email us: you can get involved with webinars, you can just volunteer in your local Discovery Program, we are talking about running online courses and various other stuff in the future. But the easiest way is to get the App. So, the app on the Play Store is on the Apple Store. And what you need to do with the app is walk your dog, do whatever you do on the foreshores usually, we just need photos and stuff. So, if you see something that looks unusual, you don’t really know what it is, take a photo, write a little description, and just get it to us. You do not have to know the terminology. You don’t have to know the bits of boats, we just need photos, we need to be able to know that stuff is there. That’s the main problem we have at the moment. We need to know it exists before we can actually react and study it. Just don’t go on to the other side, because then there’ll be a big scour

    Sam Willis

    I am quite worried we are going to fall over in this and just completely faceplant. What are we looking at here?

    Grant Bettinson

    So, what we’re looking at here is we have this is my version of a boat drawn beautifully in the mud. So, on a paddle steamer, you of course will have the two paddles on the outside, which provide the propulsion. And that’s what we look like we have the remains here. So, these are boxed in – the paddles will likely remove when they hulked it. But the boxes would have existed. So, this bit so you can see jutting out the wreck oddly is most likely these boxes here.

    Sam Willis

    So, these boxes which held the paddles, that’s what would have been here?

    Grant Bettinson

    Yeah, that’s what I believe these are. So, you see how it juts out from the side of the vessel here?

    Sam Willis

    Yeah.

    Grant Bettinson

    See, comes out quite a long way. Then you’ve got another attachment further down exactly the same, roughly the right distance apart. And then on the other side, although you can’t see it from this angle, there is also the exact same thing. So, this is likely the remains of where those paddles would have been.

    Sam Willis

    It doesn’t take too much imagining to just conceive of these huge paddles, churning up the water going off down to Dartmouth or even just sort of sitting here lying still, with everyone on board suffering from yellow fever, or whatever it might have been.

    Grant Bettinson

    Here you can see the concrete.

    Sam Willis

    So, what’s the concrete for?

    Grant Bettinson

    The concrete is to give it a little bit of life in its last days of vessels, it’s a way of giving them the last little bit of life. So, you pour in between the framing, it sinks the hull down, but it also tightens up all those holes in the hole. So, it just gives it a little bit more life. It’s a very common way to get a couple more years out of a vessel as a pontoon or something – of its repurposing.

    Sam Willis

    Just like a last gasp effort.

    Grant Bettinson

    It’s kind of like last Hail Mary pass. Chuck concrete in the framing and it’ll last a couple more years. And then yeah, after that, you then start the process of breaking it up.

    Sam Willis

    Which is not easy. I mean, this is made of iron, yeah?

    Grant Bettinson

    Yeah, this is iron.

    Sam Willis

    Iron and concrete? And how do you get rid of something made out of iron and concrete?

    Grant Bettinson

    I believe they work from the top down, but I honestly don’t know. So, I’ve been talking to boat breakers, particularly one of the last Disten boat breakers left about how would you actually break down a vessel? Because it’s kind of a mystery to me. I understand it on big vessels. But when it comes to small stuff like this, I’m not 100% sure how what the process of breaking it down would be.

    Sam Willis

    It’s amazing that there’s so much more there is to learn, in all aspects of maritime archaeology, but it’s quite a curious one that you know, you’ve got so much more to learn about how to dismantle boats,

    Grant Bettinson

    Yeah, it’s one of those things. That’s the common way to study the wooden ships, we take them apart. With the metal ships, it becomes a bit harder because you have concretion. So, as you can see, iron reacts to saltwater, and you can see it blooms out. And it becomes a more amorphous mess, essentially. And that makes it a lot more difficult to work out what little bits are. So probably what we’ll do is use an RTK to take really detailed recordings of this. And we’ll also use a technique called photogrammetry, to take a 3D model of one side, and then illustrate up where all those rivets are so that we can match it to common building techniques for the time.

    Sam Willis

    So, one of these is Britain’s last schooner.

    Grant Bettinson

    Yeah. So, it’s a bit of a, let’s call it a bit of an exaggeration in the text. So, it’s called the last British built schooner says, built in Arklow, in Ireland. So, it’s, I think, it’s interesting because essentially, it ends up there because it doesn’t pay its harbour duties. So, it’s a vessel called the Invermoor, which I believe is a schooner. So, it’s two-masted, and it was meant to be used after – it was meant to be used for a trip to Australia. So, it was meant to be a ferry ship to Australia, that falls through from Dartmouth to Australia, and essentially, it stops paying its harbour dues, its mooring fees, and the harbour master dumps it up here. And then it became essentially a tourist attraction for people going past, there’s a lot of speak, of talks of when it was in its shape. And then we have this weird period (and I think it’s the 80s) in few sources, it talks about the National Maritime Museum came to finish the job on it and took out the engine and a few other bits. And I’m yet to find where those bits ended up.

    Sam Willis

    So, lurking in the National Maritime Museum may be the remains of Britain’s last schooner.

    Grant Bettinson

    Likely with a little note on them just saying we took this from the Invermoor.

    Sam Willis

    Sorry!

    Grant Bettinson

    But no one knows. And then obviously, with a lot of vessels, locals – that if you leave something of value on a foreshore, it will be pilfered. And the Invermoor, like a lot of these vessels, stuff is stripped off them.

    Sam Willis

    Is part of the advantage of this being quite isolated, that these have been pretty much left alone?

    Grant Bettinson

    Some of it is. The Invermoore definitely is because you can see how far out it is. It’s very hard to get to on foot. You can get to it by boat, but yeah, the part of the reason that these are still here is Yeah, it’s quite isolated. There’s not that many people that come down here regularly. But yeah, that’s it pretty much. Yeah, it’s kind of its isolation.

    Sam Willis

    Yeah, it’s a wonderful place. Let’s go explore some more.

    Thank you all so much for listening. Do please find the Society for Nautical Research online @sn.org.uk, and of course, across social media. There have been some great contributions to the society’s free forum. Recently we’ve had posts on navigation with sextants, on Postal Service at sea 1815 to 1845, the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and the powder screen aboard HMS Temeraire, the HMS Sheffield and the Exocet that’s from the Battle of the Falklands, sources for researching the nautical history of China, flags worn by Royal Naval dockyard vessels, hammock boards on board HMS Victory in 1805, the building of HMS Terror (oh, I hope you will be watching that on telly), and many many more. Oh, and one more recent one here from evidence for post-traumatic stress in naval veterans – that’s a very, very interesting and important one. So, do please follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The Mariner’s Mirror Podcast has its own Instagram and YouTube page. Do please rate and review the podcast wherever you get your podcasts. But best of all please, please join the Society for Nautical Research and your annual subscription will go towards publishing maritime history and towards preserving our maritime past.

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