The Himalaya Project

N.B. This article was originally published in 1976 as "A Tale Of Two Hulks: The Anatomy of a Club Project"

I put the mouthpiece of my Mistral between my lips, sucked, and swallowed half a cup of briny water that has been sloshing about in the bottom of the inflatable. I was already on the point of nausea from sitting cramped on the overloaded boat for a couple of hours in a heavy swell and this really was the last straw. With the unmost regret I turned and called on Bill! So ended my first attempt at diving.

Oxford BSAC members preparing to dive in the search for the HimalayaLooking for the Himalaya in Portland Harbour

A few hours later, in the relative calm of Portland Harbour, my diving career began. We were to dive on the wreck of an old coal hulk, known to all as the Himalaya, ex-troopship in use during the Crimean War and sunk during a bombing raid in the last War. The wreck is arguably the best novice dive site on the south coast being well sheltered by the breakwater, easy to locate, reasonable depth (40ft to the deck) and above all, actually looking like a ship, being perfectly upright with little sign of damage. Being a Coal Hulk there is practically nothing in the way of superstructure, and as the bulkheads have for the most part collapsed, it is easy and quite safe to swim from the chain locker, past the heads through the three holds and into the stern where there remains but a skeleton of a deckhouse and a single davit. All the goodies have long gone so there is no chance of the novice being discarded for something brighter. ..

The underwater vis that day was superb, and I still retain a deep memory of descending the anchor rope and seeing the wreck laid out before me in sweeping panorama. Colin Crook my dive leader, showed me round and although I took in little beyond the glass of my mask, the sense of excitement remained long afterwards. I have dived that wreck many times since, and when I became Projects Officer of Oxford Branch two years ago, I decided to go ahead with a plan that had been germinating for some time. lt was to measure and prepare a drawing of the wreck.

The Survey

First thing was to draw on the collective memory of the Branch divers and obtain a sketch of the wreck -before we could measure anything we needed a picture, however inaccurate to work from. This proved surprisingly difficult to obtain. After hours of diving the wreck, the report of the divers could only be said to be diverse. In the end I decided that the first dive would be to try and obtain this elusive and inaccurate picture. The divers went down with instructions to remember a small part of the wreck with rough dimensions. The result was most gratifying -at last we had something to work on.

Himalaya Sketch at Ferrybridge

During the weekend this survey took place, a group of us were chatting to some local people, and one of them mentioned seeing a sketch of the Himalaya in a boat yard at Ferrybridge. This sounded interesting, so taking Pete Shield, the Branch ace photographer, with us, we went for a look see.

The vessel depicted in the drawing was very different to the wreck we had dived on. lt was quite possible that during hulking the silhouette had changed, but the Himalaya was powered by steam as well as sail and on our wreck there was no sign of any sternshaft–the rudder was direct onto the keel as in a sailing ship. Back in Oxford, I went hunting through library and bookshop and came up with a paperback Ships -a picture history complied by Laurence Dunn, published by Piccolo. In this book there was a picture of the Himalaya together with brief history.

The Himalaya

Himalaya-hulk-portlandHimalaya as a Hulk in Portland Harbour“Himalaya ( 1853) The wonder ship of her time and by far the largest steamer afloat, the Himalaya was designed for the London–Alexandria section of the P&O Eastern mail service. She was converted from paddle to screw propulsion while building, the Admiralty having previously vetoed anything but paddles. She proved exception-ally fast, and on occasion under sail and steam she logged 16.5 knots. With the Crimean War she was first chartered and then bought to become a Naval Transport, and she continued as such until the eighties. Thereafter a coal hulk, she was bombed and sunk at Portland in 1940”

“Data: Owners P&O Steam Navigation Co.; Builders C.J. Mare & Co., Blackwall; Launched May 1853; Maiden voyage January 1854; Tonnage (gross) 3438 tons, (displacement) 4690 tons; Length 340ft; Breadth 46.2ft; Depth of hold 34.9ft; Draught 21Aft; Speed 14 knots; passengers 200 saloon; Engines 1 set trunk type 2050 l.h.p.; Screws one (two bladed).”

A Mystery

Our survey, gave estimated dimensions as length 200ft, breadth 25ft–surely we couldn’t have been so much out? But, if this wreck was not the Himalaya, what was it? and more important, what had happened to the Himalaya which had quite certainly sunk somewhere in Portland Harbour?

Becoming more and more intrigued, I wrote to the Imperial War Museum for any information they might have–result, nothing known. I wrote to the Hydrographic Dept. at Taunton–their information was that the wreck we were surveying was the Himalaya.

In the meantime, a second survey had been conducted by Eric Roberts (D.O.) and Eric Bargent, and this confirmed the dimensions as length 240ft breadth 29ft, as well as adding many more details to the drawing we were preparing. The method used in this survey was interesting. Briefly, it incorporated the use of a reel of very cheap packaging twine which was stretched across areas to be measured, cut, and tagged. Back on dry land each piece was measured with an ordinary tape measure. The tags were labelled before diving commenced, and thus a great deal of information could be gathered quickly and relatively easily.

Pondering the next move, I was given inspiration at the BSAC Chairman’s Conference in 1974: “Get some good publicity for your Branch”, “Appoint a Press Officer”.

Well, the Himalaya had sunk in 1940, so there must be quite a few people who had seen her go and were still living in Weymouth. I wrote to the editor of the Dorset Evening Echo, enclosing a sketch of the wreck we had been surveying, a copy of the wreck list from the Hydrographic Dept., and also a copy of a highly informative article in Ships Monthly (April 74) on the Himalaya by Stuart Nichol. In my letter I managed to introduce the word “mystery” three times, which I hoped would act as psychological bait.

The result was highly satisfactory the paper not only printed a 7” para­graph, but gave it half inch headlines “Two Mysteries of the Harbour Wreck” and even printed the sketch I had sent them! The following week was one of the most fascinating I have ever spent. Every post brought at least two letters.

From Mr. W.A. Symons: the ship you are diving on is not the Himalaya, she was bombed and sank on her moorings at least three-quarters of a mile from the break­ water. These are facts, for I was on a tug at the time, and we tried to save them and put them ashore but no luck (the Haytain, another coal hulk, was sunk at the same time.)

In the middle 1930’s–about I would say 1936–in a strong blow, a coal hulk went ashore there, we went to her assistance but she was sunk on the tippings with her stump masts and Temperly gear (a form of rig used on hulks for loading and unloading coal) just above water, this gear was removed by a local firm Basso & Turner and the ship slid down the tipping and would I presume (be) very close to the stones at the bottom of the Breakwater. The name of this one could be COUNTESS OF ERNE ex-railway paddler...

From Mr. G.H. Carter:

“The Himalaya sank on the 5th June 1941, bombed by a Junkers 88 from 500ft at 21.20 hours”
(I would Iike to acknowledge the help of Mr. Carter, who is preparing a history of Portland and who has subsequently given me much information on the area.)

From Mrs D. Monger:

“My husband who was Trinity Pilot at the time she (the Himalaya) sank, could tell you that she lay with her masts above water all the war and was then blown up by the Admiralty salvage people after the war. He thinks the wreck you are interested in is either the Links or the Countess of Erne -they both broke adrift before the war, one drifting through the north ship channel, one going ashore on the breakwater about a cables length to the westward of a pierhead.” (the Links was in fact the Minx, another coal hulk.)

Frorn Mr. D.W. Bray:

“I was working as a temporary signaller with the RN. I was 15 at the time and in the Scout movement. I was signalling from the top of the Northe Fort when the old coal hulk was bombed and sunk. We saw the German planes flying over the oil tanks and saw the bombs dropping. At first we thought they were after the oil tanks. The bombs were delayed action and as far as I can remember there were 6 or 8 bombs, most going in the water. Incidentally on the wireless next day ‘Lord Haw Haw’ claimed that German aircraft had sunk the aircraft carrier Ark Royal in Portland Harbour.”

Condensing the information received, it seemed most likely that the wreck on the breakwater was the Countess of Erne and that the Himalaya had been sunk somewhere in mid harbour, had lain with her masts above water throughout the war, and had finally been blown flat after the war.

Extract from ‘Railway and other Steamers’ by C.L.D. Duckworth & G.E. Langmuir:

Figurehead - Graham BowsherFigurehead - Graham Bowsher“P.S. Countess of Erne built at Dublin in 1868 this steamer had the reputation of being the fastest in the L.N.W. fleet. She was employed on the Dublin route till 1873 when she was transferred to the Greenore station. About 1890 she was reduced to a coalhulkand for many years lay in Portland Roads”.

“Data: Owners Chester & Holyhead Railway Co.; Builders Walpole Webb & Co. Dublin; Type Iron Paddle Steamer; Engine Builders Fawcett Preston & Co.; Length 241.4ft; Beam 29ft; Displacement 14.3ft; Tonnage (gross) 830 tons; Nett H.P. 300.”

I wrote back to everyone who had contacted me, thanking them for their letters. To try and locate the position of the Himalaya I enclosed a photostat copy of Portland Harbour and s.a.e. and asked if they would mark on the chart where they thought the ship had sunk. Also, I tried to encourage them to mark down any other wrecks they might know about. I was beginning to realise that I now had introductions to several interesting people. The result of this approach was not too successful. I got as many different positions as I had charts–only to be expected I suppose.

We did plan a search, however, in what seemed the most likely area. lt was what I choose to call a swastika pattern. Four pairs of divers set off along the cardinal points, each pair going 100 fin strokes turning right 90° doing a further 100 fin strokes, turning right, doing 50 fin strokes and finally one more right turn and 100 fin strokes. lt doesn’t cover the ground very efficiently but I reckoned good enough to find a wreck over 100 yards long. In half an hour 8 divers can cover about 20,000 square yards. We found nothing.

Back to the writing desk, I penned a letter to the Queens Harbourmaster, Portland Naval Base. The reply was discouraging: “I have made local enquiries regarding the wreck of the Himalaya. You are right in saying that the wreck on the inside of the breakwater is not the Himalaya, and I am grateful to you for ascertaining that it is probably the Countess of Erne. Himalaya was demolished by explosives at some time after the war. The pieces were cut up and landed at Castle town Pier for scrap.”

Well, having come this far, I was determined come hell or high water I was going to find some remains of the Himalaya, even if it was only a rivet, after all, she was once the largest ship in the world. If she had lain with her masts above water for any time, she must have been charted.

Letter to the Hydrographer: “In exchange for information on the Countess of Erne, how about a copy of a chart of Portland for the period, say, end of 1941 to 1945?”

I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the response. Free of charge I was sent copies of charts for 1934, 1945, 1946, a large scale chart for 1945, and a new metric chart. Low and behold, there she was, clearly marked and on the 1934 chart, a coal hulk was marked over the same position!

Transposing the position on to the new chart was simple, as was finding some good transits. lt gave a position about half a mile south of where we had planned our search.

On Monday, 31st March 1975, after a bitterly cold Easter during which three quarters of our party had returned home, seven of us set out in the fibre-glass boat owned jointly by Mick Phipps, Eric Bargent and Max Goodey.
Diving that day were Barry Winters, Max Goodey, Pat Maroney, Graham Rackley, Tony Raven, Geoff Hughes and myself. We sailed out along one transit until we closed the other. The echo sounder was switched on and immediately we picked up a scattered echo. Tony and Geoff were first down. Two minutes later they were back up: “There’s plates and wreck-age everywhere!!”

I dived with Graham. At 40ft we entered a cloud of stirred silt, headed north and after a few fin strokes found ourselves hovering over a plain of grey ooze from which protruded a tangle of unrecognisable metal. We took a closer look. lt was immediately obvious that what we were looking at was the remains of an old ship that had been blown up. The plates were iron and not steel, riveted and not welded. They were badly distorted. We explored further. Odd lengths of pipe a lot of waterlogged wood-that struck a chord.

Letter from Mr. W.C. Cook: “In the days following the bombing, the wind was easterly and a considerable quantity of wreckage was washed ashore. This timber was teak, and I collected some of this from which later I was able to make various articles ...”

We came across many pulley blocks–part of the Temperley gear? Getting low on air we decided to bring a couple up–still bound together with tarred rope. The sheaves, when stripped apart, were found to be thick with coal dust. We had only explored a relatively small amount of wreckage – how much more lay round about? After everyone else had dived, Graham and I decided to go for an anchor ride. Grabbing a fluke each, Max guided the boat over quite a large area. We were down to 30 ats apiece before we came across any more extensive wreckage - no time for more than a brief look before it became imperative to surface. Max had taken some marks; we would return.

Countess of Erne sketchCountess of Erne sketch

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