Page last updated at 07:52 GMT, Tuesday, 18 May 2010 08:52 UK

Unlicensed salvagers 'biggest threat' to HMS Victory

HMS Victory, artwork by John Batchelor
More than 1,000 sailors died when the Victory sank on 5 October 1744

Unlicensed salvagers have been identified as the biggest threat to the shipwreck of HMS Victory in a report.

More than 1,000 sailors drowned when the British warship, the predecessor to Lord Nelson's Victory, sank in a storm.

The report is part of the public consultation into the future management of the 1744 shipwreck in the English Channel. Consultation ends on 30 June.

The authors of the report said unauthorised salvage could result in "irreparable damage" to the wreck site.

Wessex Archaeology, a registered charity with educational aims, produced the report for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry of Defence which are carrying out the consultation.

It said the site had not been significantly affected by natural processes, but suffered "some level of past physical damage" from trawling or other fishing activity.

$1bn gold bullion

It also said the "greatest threat to the site", which lies within the range of some divers, was likely to come from "unauthorised attempts to recover items such as the bronze cannon or to search destructively for bullion and other valuables".

Cannon in HMS Victory shipwreck
Two cannons and other artefacts were salvaged to identify the wreck

Wessex Archaeology added there was "little evidence" that more than $1bn of gold bullion reportedly aboard the ship actually existed.

One of the issues in dealing the wreck is that it lies outside the UK's territorial waters. Its exact location has not been released to avoid the site being visited by unlicensed salvagers.

The UK Government is considering three possible options for the site's future; caring for it where it is, recovering the visible artefacts and caring for the rest of the site or further examination and excavation.

Managing the wreck 'in situ' would involve monitoring the site, which would cost £20,000 to £50,000 a year.

The cost of recovering some artefacts would depend on the amount of artefacts removed, but is estimated at £1m, which includes conservation study and putting the objects on display. This option would also still involve the annual costs of monitoring the site.

Infamous Casquets

A full archaeological evaluation and excavation would remove any potential threat to the site but would certainly disturb any human remains within the site as well as cost several million pounds, the report found.

Those responding to the consultation are asked not only their views on the future management of the site, but whether they would offer any physical or financial support for that upkeep and in furthering a greater public understanding of naval heritage gained from the site.

Admiral Sir John Balchin
The find exonerated Admiral Balchin from the charge of poor navigation

In April 2008 the shipwreck was found by Odyssey Explorer, a vessel belonging to US-based exploration company Odyssey Marine Exploration.

In September, after artefacts, including two cannons, were brought up from the seabed the wreck was confirmed as that of Admiral Sir John Balchin's HMS Victory by an assessment carried out by Wessex Archaeology on behalf of the UK Government.

The ship was launched in 1737 and seven years on was the flagship of Admiral Balchin when he led a strong force to successfully relieve a French blockade of the River Tagus, in Portugal, where a British convoy was stuck.

On the return journey a fierce storm blew up and HMS Victory was separated from the fleet and until the discovery it was thought she had hit the infamous Casquets, a group of rocks north-west of Alderney.

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