Shipwreck Carrying Rare 19th-Century Ceramics Gets Government Protection

The British emigrant vessel sank with a cargo of Victorian pottery on board

Pottery in the shipwreck of the Josephine Willis
Pottery from the wreck of the Josephine Willis, which has been granted historical protection by the British government © Stefan Panis / Historic England

In the winter of 1856, the Josephine Willis was traveling to New Zealand with a group of emigrants—and a cargo of rare ceramics.

But just days after setting sail, the ship collided with a steamer off the coast of Kent, England, and sank. Of the 44 crew members and 66 passengers, 70 people—including the ship’s captain, Edward Canney—lost their lives. The boat broke into two pieces, which eventually settled on the seabed 75 feet below.

The wreck remained untouched for more than 150 years, until a Kent diving club found and identified it in 2018. Many of the ceramics are still on board, including some with patterns that can’t be found in museum collections.

Now, the United Kingdom’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport has granted special protection to the ship, Historic England announced in a statement. Recreational divers can still approach the wreck, but its contents will remain undisturbed.

The Josephine Willis was a “packet” boat, a medium-sized wooden sailing ship usually used to transport both passengers and goods between Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand during the 18th and 19th centuries. Carrying British emigrants and pottery, the boat was on its second round-trip voyage to New Zealand when it met its watery end.

The crew saw a light and mistakenly believed it came from a nearby lighthouse, per the Guardian’s Caroline Davies. In reality, it came from the SS Mangerton, a steamer on its way from Limerick, Ireland, to London. The two ships collided.

“The sinking of this passenger ship is a sad story of ordinary people being lost to the sea while taking the risk of a long journey to New Zealand in the search for a better life,” says Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s chief executive, in the statement. “The other side to this story is of the rare cargo on board, which gives us clues to help improve our knowledge of the Victorian export ceramics industry in the mid-19th century.”

Egg cups from the Josephine Willis
Much of the pottery from the shipwreck has been well preserved, with some pieces still in their original crates. © Stefan Panis / Historic England

Indeed, the ship’s cargo amazed the divers who first discovered the wreckage five years ago.

“There was a huge amount of crockery, including plates and cups in different shapes and sizes, all beautifully decorated, and many of the items bearing the maker’s stamp,” Stefan Panis, one of the divers, wrote for Divernet in 2018.

He added, “My camera was almost exploding as I took as many shots as possible.”

Most of the ceramics from the wreck would have been relatively ordinary, mass-produced dishes in their time, affordable goods for British emigrants overseas. Because of how common these items were, collectors often weren’t interested in them.

“The overseas market was tremendously important for pottery manufacturers,” ceramics specialist David Barker tells Stoke-on-Trent Live. Wares from England’s Staffordshire county—which had around 200 pottery factories, including the three that manufactured the artifacts found in the Josephine Willis—“became the industry standard for ceramics” at the time, Barker adds.

A decorative plate from the Josephine Willis wreck
Experts have traced the ceramics from the wreck of the Josephine Willis, including this shell-patterned plate, back to three English pottery manufacturers. © Stefan Panis / Historic England

That’s why many of the wreck’s well-preserved ceramics—some of which are still in their original crates—display previously unknown patterns that have no equivalents in today’s museum collections, according to Historic England. Others are complete examples of patterns only known from discarded pottery damaged during the firing process. Experts hope these rare finds will offer insight into Victorian life.

“These ceramics are both ordinary and special,” says Graham Scott, a marine archaeologist for Wessex Archaeology, in the Historic England statement. “Not only do they help shine a light on Victorian industry and trade and the lives of emigrants, but they also help fill important gaps in the collections that those museums preserve and display for us.”

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