A rusting iron-shod ship hull stands on a shore, with vegetation in the foreground and a water channel beyond.
Lady Alice Kenlis, Sutton, East Suffolk, Suffolk © Historic England Archive DP435118 Visit the list entry for Lady Alice Kenlis.
Lady Alice Kenlis, Sutton, East Suffolk, Suffolk © Historic England Archive DP435118 Visit the list entry for Lady Alice Kenlis.

What Are Protected Wreck Sites?

The remains of ships and boats which meet the criteria set out in the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 can be protected, which helps prevent uncontrolled interference. The remains of some ships and boats may be protected through scheduling or listing.

The record of each protected wreck site is hosted on the National Heritage List for England (known as the NHLE, or The List). The NHLE is a publicly available, searchable database that contains information on England’s protected heritage. There are other forms of protection and recognition for heritage included on the NHLE, including registered battlefields and listed buildings.

What are protected wreck sites? 

Wreck sites can hold information about ships, mercantile trade, the lives of sailors and passengers and society as a whole, helping to broaden public appreciation of England's maritime heritage. Modern practices, such as dredging or gravel extraction, can be destructive to the seabed which means that certain zones need to be safeguarded. Marine spatial planning also benefits from clear identification of significant wreck sites.

Once we have identified a wreck site as being historically, archaeologically or artistically import, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport may then list it under Section 1 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. We administer the  licensing scheme associated with protected wrecks together with our partners Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments and the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency administers Section 2 of the Act, which relates specifically to dangerous wrecks, through the Receiver of Wreck

In the UK, individual vessels and all crashed military aircraft (known as Military Maritime Graves) are designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, administered by the Ministry of Defence. 

We often use the word ‘listing’ as shorthand for other forms of designation including protection of wrecks – for instance whilst our online application form is called the ‘Listing Application Form’ it is the same form used to apply for protection for a wreck site. 

Explore the interactive map

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Managing access to protected wreck sites

Protection means that, without a licence granted by the Secretary of State and administered by Historic England, it is a criminal offence to do any of the following in the restricted areas around the site of a vessel: 

  • Tamper with, damage or remove any part of a vessel lying wrecked on or in the seabed or any object formerly contained in such a vessel 
  • Carry out diving or salvage operations directed to the exploration of any wreck or to removing objects from it or from the seabed, or use equipment constructed or adapted for any purpose of diving or salvage operations. This is likely to include deployment of remotely operated vehicles 
  • Deposit anything including anchors and fishing gear which, if it were to fall on the site, would obliterate, obstruct access to or damage any part of the site. 

Bathing, angling and navigation are permitted within a restricted area provided they do not breach the above restrictions. Anchoring on the site is only permitted for licensed activities or in cases of maritime distress. 

You need a licence issued by Historic England on behalf of the Secretary of State to access a designated wreck. Anyone can apply to access a designated wreck 

Historic England has supported the creation of a number of dive trails at protected wreck sites. Run by licensees and charter boat skippers, dive trails enable interested divers to get responsible access to protected wreck sites. Historic England has supported the development of these dive trails and the interpretation materials they include. Divers visiting the trails get the benefit of the insight and orientation provided by the trails and also the experience of the licensed teams and their archaeologists. Find out more here. 

Dive trails bring a number of benefits including making access easier for divers (as no licence is required), helping divers to better understand what they are seeing through the use of trail booklets and acting as a deterrent to anyone thinking of illegally accessing the wreck. Research has also shown that dive trails bring local economic benefits 

Gallery

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How many protected wrecks are there? 

There are 57 protected wrecks on the National Heritage List for England. You can explore the location of ships and boats designated as protected wrecks, as well as wrecks protected through Scheduling, using the interactive map above. 

What are the criteria for protecting wreck sites?

The remains of ships and boats which meet the criteria for national protection may be designated as Protected Wreck Sites, though nationally important remains may also be scheduled and some may be protected through the listing system. For historic wreck sites, the protection system has been in place since 1973 and operates under The Protection of Wrecks Act.These protected areas are likely to contain the remains of a vessel, or its contents, which are of historical, artistic or archaeological importance – these are the criteria for a wreck site to be protected. 

Our selection guide Ships and Boats: Prehistory to Present gives detailed guidance about what may be eligible for designation. It provides a brief overview of the types of vessels covered in the guide and addresses other forms of recognition and protection. The second half of the guide sets out specific considerations for assessing ships and boats for protection. A select bibliography gives suggestions for further reading. We also publish two Introductions to Heritage Assets:  

Exploring protected wreck sites without getting wet

By its nature marine archaeology is very inaccessible. A series of virtual dive trails are available for those interested in exploring certain protecting wreck sites from the comfort of home. You can discover the virtual dive trails here. 

The virtual dive trails are just one of the ways the public can explore heritage lying deep underwater. We also raise the profile of our submerged cultural heritage through education and outreach programmes and by sharing research. 

Did you know?

  • Tree ring dating of the Mortar Wreck tells us that the timbers used to construct the hull are from Irish oak trees, felled between 1242-1265, during the reign of King Henry III.  
  • The wreck of Old Brig near Whitstable, may have been used for smuggling - during the 18th century the marshes of north Kent were a base for the illegal trade in products such as brandy, silk and tea. 
  • Fishermen can recognise crabs that have been living around old metal wrecks by their very dark brown or black colour, thought to be caused by their proximity to ferrous metals. 
  • Protection can include other vessels such as submarines. The First World War SM UC-70, a mine-laying submarine off the North Yorkshire coast, is a protected wreck site. This German submarine conducted 10 patrols and sank 40 ships during the war before being bombed on 28 August 1918 with the loss of all its crew. 
  • The wreck site at Salcombe, Devon, is thought to contain the remains of two different vessels, one much earlier than the other. The later 17th Century wreck may have a North African connection, evidenced by Moroccan coins found at the site. Finds from the Bronze Age, including weapons such as swords and axe heads, have led to the belief that there is also a much earlier wreck in the same location. 
  • The Unknown Wreck near Chesil Beach, Dorset, includes a number of large 17th and 18th Century cannons. It is unknown if the canons were for the ship’s defence, were part of their cargo or acted as ballast (weights used to help make the ship float more effectively). The cannons may even have come from two different vessels, with records showing that 25 ships were lost at Chesil between 1600-1780.

Listing Helpdesk