The Essex Coast is situated on busy shipping routes to the ports of Harwich, Felixstowe, Tilbury and the Port of London.

The southern half of the coast with the estuaries of the Blackwater, Crouch and Thames is dominated by sandbanks with comparatively narrow channels that need to be navigated by shipping.

Whist modern navigational aids mean that nowadays commercial shipping is rarely involved in wrecks, during the 1700's and 1800's wrecks were common on the Ray, Buxey, Barrow, Sunk, Gunfleet and Foulness Sands.

1935 OS map showing the sandbanks that caused so many wrecks

There are many stories of heroism with local seamen taking small craft out in dangerous weather to effect rescues and even more stories of wreckers who braved similar conditions to strip a wreck as it was breaking up or to keep it afloat and then claim salvage fees

The Coastguard concentrated its efforts more on catching smugglers than preserving life at sea and RNLI stations at Clacton on Sea and Southend on Sea were not opened in 1878 and 1879 respectively.

Approximate figures for officially records wrecks are listed below


River Blackwater


River Crouch


Barrow Sands


Buxey Sands


Dengie Flats


Foulness Sands


Gunfleet Sands


Maplin Sands


Ray Sands


Sunk Sands


Many more vessels ran aground but were floated off on the high tide.

Wartime Losses

Four vessels were lost to mines in World War One although many more were lost off Harwich.

8 vessels were lost during World War Two to a mix of mine and aircraft action.


Royal Involvement

Albert, Duke of Edinburgh was involved in two wrecks on the Essex Coast on the same day , 15 November 1822, in one case he was judged a hero but in the other a villain.

 Click here for the full story


Five vessels lost in one night

One of the worst nights was 12 the December 1849 when 6 vessels foundered.

The wind was blowing strongly from the east and there was a strong rip tide. The night was described as exceedingly thick, dark and rainy.

Five of the vessels were laden with coal from Newcastle for London and the sixth was a foreign vessel that was following the line of ships.

The first vessel misjudged the location of the Whitaker Channel and ran into the Gunfleet Sands each of the following ships made the same mistake and were all stranded within a few yards of each other.

A cutter called HMS Scout commanded by Captain Saxby heard of their grounding and sailed to the scene rescuing all of the men. 

One of the coasters was towed off and was able to resume its journey. Anther was freed but filled with water and sunk shortly afterwards.

The survivors were taken to Harwich and put into the care of the Harwich Shipwreck society although this aid was quickly refused due to a dispute over payment for care of survivors from a previous wreck from Newcastle.

A local subscription raised money for the subscribers from local people and they were transferred to London Docks for more care.

Records exist of the crew for four of the wrecked vessels

Schooner William

Henry Clother ( Master) ,William Roberts (Mate) , George Dane, William, Culter and William Chapman

Brig Rapid

William Steinkop (Master) , John Thaw ( Mate) , William Hindson, James Wilson , Alex Wright, Alex Wishart

Brig Endeavour

John Cook ( Master) , Thomas Bank ( mate) , Stephen Coates, Thomas Noakes, Charles Chibberton, George Mutton, John Sanderson

Brig Beta

John Johnson ( Master) , John Dodds ( mate) , George Nesbitt , George Martin, William Wallis, John Codling , Jethro Hughes

All Crew Lost

A typical wreck was Sailing Vessel 'Thomas Willis' who was en route from Hamburg to London.

The Master misjudged the Whitaker Channel, running into the Sunk Sand which is one of the outermost sandbanks.

Although local seaman were able to salvage part of the cargo there were unable to save any of the crew who were all presumed drowned.

Like so many wrecks where all perished, we will never know the reason for the wreck.

Weather conditions were satisfactory so the cause is probably a simple error in navigation's that was a frequent cause of shipwrecks.


Many men were grateful for help from lifeboats including the Burnham on Crouch Ketch Magnet which was owned by John Smith.

Magnet was laden with coal for  Hartlepool en route to Rochford  in December 1897 when it lost its anchors and chains in heavy weather off Lowestoft. The drifting ship suffered damage and was wrecked shortly after the crew was recused by the lifeboat.

The rescued crew were Captain Guymer, Arthur Bell, Stephen Taylor, Henry Savill and Arthur Mynett.

The loss of the barge Defence

The sailing barge Defence was a 43 ton spritsail barge built at Sittingbourne in 1869.

Defence was one of a fleet of barged owned by James Cardnell of Steeple which were based at Stansgate although they traded over a wide range of ports.

On Saturday 20 November 1926 the Defence was laden with a cargo of Clinker and ashes which she had picked up from Beckton in London (probably the gas works) to deliver to Bradwell on Sea.

The barge was skippered by Leonard Turner of Ship Road, Burnham on Crouch with George King as mate.

After leaving the River Thames the barge suffered under a stiffish southerly breeze and rolled the mainsail up.

Disaster struck when the Defence hit the South Buxey Sands 8 miles off the coast at about 2.30am.

The crew tried to set the sails to pull the barge off but were unable to do so and after 30 minutes of attempts the wave rose over the boat and the crew took to a small boat to escape.

The seas were so heavy that the small boat kept filling with water so the mate bailed water while the skipper rowed towards the coast through huge waves.

The Clacton lifeboat was called but on its arrival the barge was submerged although they were able to make out its name. A search of the area by the lifeboat failed to find any crew although debris was found in the sea and washed up at Clacton the following day.

Turner and King managed to make the perilous journey to the mainland beaching their small boat at St Peters Chapel, Bradwell on Sea


Further Research

There are quite a few books on Shipwrecks on the Eastern Coast.

  The shipwreck index of the British Isles vol 3  by Richard and Bridget Larn records over 600 shipwrecks off the Essex Coast is the best.