An underwater house and lost treasures deep down in the Sound

Plymouth Sound is so rich in history – from epic naval moments to being the home of daring science experiments.

It’s also a place where many great voyages have set sail, and pieces of history lie deep down at or near the bottom – untouched and frozen in time.

And not many know some of the incredible, shocking and fascinating discoveries that have been made beneath the waters of The Sound.

To celebrate and remember some of these amazing things, we’ve come up with a list of some of the most bizarre, interesting and surprising things at the bottom of The Sound.

Grab your metaphorical scuba gear (or just a cup of tea) and come on the journey.

Underwater House

I’m ashamed to admit I’m not a born and bred Plymothian – so I was extremely shocked to learn about the story of the Underwater House at the bottom of The Sound.

But after learning about this bizarre science experiment, I think I’ll remember it forever.

In 1965, two scientists hoped to prove that not only could underwater living be done, but that it could be done at a fraction of the cost of similar tests being carried out by ambitious scientists in America at the time.

The pair submerged themselves in the tiny 3.7m by 2.1m chamber and lived inside it for seven days.

Project Glaucus was conceived and inhabited by Dr Colin Irwin and John Heath, who were then 19 and 21-year-old science officers, at the cost of just £1,000.

The duo had to endure freezing temperatures, high humidity and a gale force nine storm erupting around them which almost made them stop the project.

But since their success the house has remained submerged, forgotten and neglected near the Breakwater Fort.

“It was always cold and damp. We struggled with 100 per cent humidity and it was freezing,” said Dr Irwin in 2015.

During their stay Irwin remembers hearing the 'ping' of sonar from a submarine
During their stay Irwin remembers hearing the ‘ping’ of sonar from a submarine (Image: Colin Irwin and John Heath)

“Once we were down, we had to stay down. We had to change the oxygen levels in order to decrease the chances of getting the bends.

“We put the oxygen up to 70 per cent and reduced the nitrogen levels. Nitrogen levels are predominately what cause a diver to get the bends.

“One night, there was a strong gale that measured as a gale force nine. I remember waves started coming over the break water. We nearly had to make an emergency ascent.”

The house allowed the underwater-homeowners to live 10.7m below the surface for an extended period of time.

The container was mounted on four legs and kept submerged by 14,000kgs of railway line and sleepers.

Oxygen tanks were fitted to the home, as well as soda lime trays that lined the two-ton vessel’s walls and collected waste carbon dioxide. Those two elements combined allowed the divers to survive in an artificial environment.

You could say it was a bit like lockdown as the divers stayed for seven days with beds that folded away, cupboards, a kitchen and even a functioning toilet.

An early version of CCTV allowed a surface team to monitor the daily activities of the two young divers, while a telephone served as Irwin and Heath’s only point of contact with the surface.

During their time, Irwin remembers hearing the ‘ping’ of sonar from a nearby submarine, as well as “hot meals like stew” being delivered from the surface in vacuum bags.

The original plan was for both divers to ascend with their home at the end of the week, but due to buoyancy issues, Glaucus was abandoned.

Project Glaucus was conceived and inhabited by Dr Colin Irwin and John Heath
Project Glaucus was conceived and inhabited by Dr Colin Irwin and John Heath (Image: Colin Irwin and John Heath)

Four years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary of the experiment, Dr Irwin digitally reformed a virtual version of his former home to allow budding scientists the chance to discover what life was like for them during that cold week in 1965.

Dr Irwin visited the wreck near the Breakwater, where he and a team of divers from the Shipwrecks and History in Plymouth Sound (SHIPS) Project placed a plaque on the wreckage.

“It was really nice to dive with the SHIPS Project team,” he said at the time. “It reminded me of the camaraderie that comes with diving as a part of a group.”

HMS Amethyst

It’s not just fascinating science experiments that can be found at the bottom of The Sound.

There are many shipwrecks that have been uncovered – it can take us back in time and imagine what life was like.

The last wreck that was identified off our waters was the HMS Amethyst, found seven years ago.

Launched in 1799, the majestic ship helped the Navy fight in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars against the French.

The Amethyst had a “very successful career,” the SHIPS project says, and captured over 46 ships as prizes between 1800 and 1809.

HMS Amethyst (Image: The SHIPS Project)

But in 1811 the striking 36-gun Royal Navy frigate sank in Plymouth Sound.

In February 1811, HMS Amethyst was set to leave Plymouth Sound after crew had finished repairs.

The captain needed to go ashore so issued instructions to the crew to recover one of the two anchors that was holding the ship, so she could leave quickly on the captain’s return.

When the “negligent” captain got back on the ship, he did not give orders to sail, but he did not order a second anchor to be dropped either.

One night, gale-force winds jolted the ship – and with just one achor, HMS Amethyst was blown to the shore.

Simon the cat with crew members aboard HMS Amethyst

The ship’s cannons were fired as a distress signal and people on the beach fixed rope between the ship and the shore to allow some of the crew to escape, while others were rescued by boats.

By morning, the ship was stuck on the rocks and had to have her guns and stores removed to make her lighter.

But sadly all attempts to save the ship failed, and a subsequent storm caused HMS Amethyst to break up, and local carpenters were tasked with trying to take her apart.

Sadly, she soon sank into The Sound.

HMS Amethyst lay undiscovered on the ocean floor until July 2013, when the SHIPS project team followed a geophysical survey of the area and tracker her down.

The team found cannonballs, ship fittings and ships timbers partially buried in the muddy seabed and hidden by thick seaweed.

Barquentine Yvonne

This picture was taken in 1920 of the shipwreck Yvonne
This picture was taken in 1920 of the shipwreck Yvonne

Another shocking shipwreck one hundred years ago was the four-masted Barquentine Yvonne.

The tragic wreck happened after the vessel attempted to escape the rough seas by sailing into Plymouth.

On August 8, 1920 the barquentine Yvonne smashed into the rocks and the ship’s crew was forced to scramble to safety on to the breakwater’s surface.

Hours later the Plymouth lifeboat and the tug Rover arrived just in time to pull the sailors from the water – as waves 10m high were breaking over the Yvonne.

The beacon on the eastern end of the breakwater was designed as a refuge for up to six shipwrecked sailors.

This painting by artist Tim Thompson was commissioned by David Rendle
This painting by artist Tim Thompson shows the crew of the Yvonnemaking their way towards the Beacon (Image: Tim Thompson)

It is most likely the crew of the Yvonne tried to make their way towards the Beacon, and even attempted to climb it.

Submerged.co.uk says: “In the next few months the Yvonne lay stranded on the breakwater gradually being stripped of all her equipment and fittings.

“Though she had become an empty hulk, the sea which had caused her so much harm finally relented and broke her into pieces so that she slid to her final resting place at the bottom of the breakwater.”

The Dutton

The Dutton is one of Plymouth's most famous shipwrecks
The Dutton is one of Plymouth’s most famous shipwrecks (Image: Nicholas Pocock)

This painting shows the famous maritime event that happened more than 200 years ago.

Painted by Bristol-born artist Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821), the painter was well-known for his detailed works of naval scenes.

His skills were originally honed during a spell in the merchant navy, when he spent some of his time at sea making sketches of ships and coastal scenes for his log books.

The event shown in the painting is one of Plymouth’s most famous shipwrecks.

It has inspired numerous other paintings and engravings, many created by Pocock and his younger contemporary, Thomas Luny.

The ‘Dutton’ was built on the Thames in 1781 and chartered by the East India Company.

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It was bound for the West Indies with troops on board when it was wrecked in Plymouth Sound during a gale on January 26, 1796.

The painting is almost haunting, with people calling out to the boat from the shore as heavy dark clouds shadow the vessel and waves loom over it.

The Plymouth coastline and other boats are shown through the driving rain. Mount Batten tower in the background and the Citadel to the left are recognisable landmarks.

The Dutton is shown close to the shore with waves crashing against it. Its masts are gone but a series of rescue lines are being held by people on the beach.

In the bottom left hand corner, a small group are helping what looks like an exhausted survivor. Other figures are still in the water, holding on to bits of wreckage as they make their way towards land and safety.

The rescue operation from the wreck is one of the things that made it so famous.

It was led by a man called Admiral Sir Edward Pellew (1757-1833), 1st Viscount Exmouth. He was a British naval officer with Cornish roots who fought during the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.

Pellew was stationed at Falmouth commanding a squadron of frigates, but on January 26 happened to be in Plymouth.

He was a powerful man and so he swam out to the grounded boat with a line. This enabled the rescue lines that you can see in the painting, otherwise known as ‘breeches buoys’, to be rigged.

Thanks to Pellew and the efforts of those on the shore all but four of the estimated 600 people on board were saved from the wreck.

It’s believed he is the officer in the blue uniform coat.

If you want to read more about the interesting shipwreck finds, read our article on the hidden wrecks in Plymouth Sound.

The Maria

This is slightly different to the long-forgotten shipwrecks of the past, and is the tale of the world’s first submarine death in Plymouth Sound.

Millwright John Day went to a watery grave in June 1774, lowered in a converted wooden sloop called The Maria.

He descended in a weighted air chamber wearing civilian clothes, carrying a candle, water, a watch and a couple of biscuits.

Day, from East Anglia, aimed to stay on the sea bed 120 feet below Firestone Bay for 24 hours. It is likely that he survived only a matter of moments before the vessel was crushed.

Neither he nor the Maria were ever seen again – despite an amazing rescue bid a month later which somehow hoped to find him alive.

Much of the information about John Day and The Maria comes from a pamphlet from the following year, Nikolai Detlef Falck’s “A philosophical dissertation on the diving vessel projected by Mr Day, and sunk in Plymouth Sound”.

An impression of what The Maria could have looked like on her descent into Plymouth Sound
An impression of what The Maria could have looked like on her descent into Plymouth Sound (Image: Human Interface Technologies Team, University of Birmingham/Erin Black)

Local marine research and exploration group the ‘SHIPS Project’ (‘Shipwrecks and History in Plymouth Sound‘) have even worked with experts at the University of Birmingham to create computer-generated external and internal 3D videos and pictures of The Maria.

Little is known about Day’s origins but Falck, in the publication held in the National Maritime Museums collection in Greenwich, said Day had succeeded in staying for six hours underwater in a previous vessel in East Anglia.

He enlisted the financial support of Charles Blake to buy a 50-ton sloop called The Maria, and fitted her out to include an ‘air chamber’ of 12 feet by 9 feet by 8 feet for its only passenger.

The air chamber was re-enforced against the pressure of the water with ‘stout stanchions’ on all sides. External ballast, consisting of ‘twenty rough stones, each of a ton weight’, was attached to the underside of the vessel by rope. Sluices in the forepart of the vessel allowed water to enter.

Day was meant to have undone bolts which would detach the Maria from the ballast and allow it to float to the surface.

Even if the vessel had survived, according to marine archaeologist and submarine expert Pete Holt, from the SHIPS Project, Day did not have enough air to survive the stay on the sea bottom. His candle would also eat up the oxygen, an element which was only discovered that same year.

Several attempts had been made to recover The Maria without success.

Peter said: “We know where it is. It is in a shipping channel, but we don’t want everyone to know. Divers have probably swum over it because there is very little left to see.

“You would have to be a very muddy diver to find it.”

Interesting stuff.

Lancaster bomber remnants

In January 2019, divers thought they might have found parts of a crashed Lancaster Bomber plane.

This came after the discovery of a plane propeller discovered in the Sound, and the remains of an aircraft, which was initially thought to be a German fighter shot down during the Second World War, were found by fishermen in Plymouth Sound on January 5, 2019.

Part of a rusty propeller was caught by a fishing vessel in its pots line on the western end of the Breakwater, which was taken to experts to establish its precise identity.

Peter, The Ships Project, believes that the remains are likely to belong to the Lancaster Bomber ED450 which crashed on the breakwater in Plymouth Sound on February 13, 1943.

Peter Holt of the SHIPS Project
Peter Holt of the SHIPS Project (Image: Peter Holt)

The wreck was held in a freshwater hold in Mount Edgcumbe so it could desalinate – and then was cleaned up further.

Divers have been back to where the propeller was discovered to see if they can find more of the wreckage and paint a picture of what happened.

Mallory Hass, who is part of the project which studies shipwrecks and maritime history in and around Plymouth, said at the time: “We went and did a dive on Monday and we did find more aeroplane material.

“We had four divers out for about 40 minutes and we dived about 13 meters down. We found trawling gear, fishing cable and we found a gasket – it doesn’t look like something off of a fisher [boat].

“We took pictures of it in situ and measured it up. We think it’s probably from the Lancaster Bomber – it was 10 meters from the shot line of the coordinates.

“We want to paint a picture of what happened and tell the story of the plane involved.”

This could be something very special
This could be something very special (Image: The Ships Project)

Speaking to PlymouthLive at the time, Peter, who has been investigating wrecks in the city since 1993, shed some light on the propeller find.

He said: “The propeller label says it is off a Merlin X engine. This would be from a Wellington, Halifax or Whitley. There is a Wellington crashed nearby in Whitsand Bay, so it could be from that, dragged in and dumped by a fisherman.

“It could be from the Lancaster, just mislabelled as an X, rather than an XX type. We have researchers looking at this now and we have contacted Rolls Royce to see if they can trace the serial number.

“The propeller has now been moved to Mount Edgcumbe house to undergo conservation.”

Peter added that it was an “unusual find” and that many people aren’t aware of the aircrafts that have crashed into the Sound.

“Most people don’t know that there are aircraft crashed in the Sound, and even the divers only know of one or two,” he said. “We only know about them because we researched their stories, but even now we have parts of aircraft we have no story for.”

HMS Scylla

Couldn’t leave without mentioning one more shipwreck which wasn’t too long ago.

The boom of 46 explosive charges echoed across Whitsand Bay on March 27, 2004, as the last frigate ever built at Devonport sank below the waves.

HMS Scylla was Europe's very first artificial reef project
HMS Scylla was Europe’s very first artificial reef project (Image: Neil Hope)

Naval frigate HMS Scylla went through a baptism of sorts in that explosion – from 2,500 tonnes of war machine to Europe’s first artificial reef in just over two minutes.

After 20,000 man hours and the work of 60 specialist experts, she landed perfectly on the seabed and within days marine life had begun to move into their new underwater home.

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Scylla was launched in 1968 and carried out duties all over the world -from ramming the Aegir during the second Icelandic Cod Wars to becoming a relief ship in the Cayman Islands.

She was decommissioned in 1993 and spent the next seven years in Portsmouth harbour, slowly rusting away.

That was until the Ministry of Defence put Scylla on the market in 2000, attracting interest from groups who wanted to preserve her as a museum or monument in Plymouth.

HMS Scylla is a popular spot for divers to explore, but sadly many have lost their lives in the deceptively dangerous environment (Image: Neil Hope)

A consortium aiming to turn the Scylla into Britain’s first artificial dive reef at Whitsand Bay became the front-runner to buy the vessel. It gained the backing of the National Marine Aquarium, which eventually took over the bid and bought the ship for £200,000.

Hundreds of boats had gathered to watch the spectacle of Scylla sinking and let off horn blasts and cheers as the ship went down.

Spectators in their thousands also watched from the shoreline.

Although her successes have been many it should not be overlooked that several divers have lost their lives exploring Scylla, which can be a deceptively dangerous environment.

Plymouth Live