A pair of shipwreck divers who stripped thousands of pounds worth of metal from a sunken ship have been jailed.
Kent Police said Nigel Ingram, 57, and John Blight, 58, of Winchelsea, East Sussex, looted a Royal Navy vessel – HMS Hermes – at the bottom of the English Channel in 2014.
The protected 19th century cruiser was converted into an aircraft ferry and depot ship ready for the start of the First World War but was sunk by a German submarine in the Dover Strait in October 1914, causing the loss of 44 British lives.
A jury at Canterbury Crown Court found both men guilty of fraud relating to their failure to disclose recovered items in order to make a financial gain.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said Ingram, who was convicted of four counts of fraud and one count of money laundering, was jailed for four years, while Blight, who was convicted of two counts of fraud, was jailed for three-and-a-half years.
Police were alerted in early 2015 that a number of historical artefacts were missing from the wreck.
Officers later recovered more than 100 items of unreported wreck at Ingram’s home along with approximately £16,000 in cash.
A number of photographs were also located on his computer, one of which showed the condenser of the Hermes on the back of Blight’s boat called De Bounty approximately four hours after it had been boarded by French maritime surveillance officers.
The French officers found the men at the Hermes site on September 30 2014, Kent Police said.
Ingram, who had dived from De Bounty, was in the water.
Officers became suspicious because of the lifting equipment present on the vessel and an underwater exploration of the Hermes took place three days later.
It showed the ship’s condenser had been removed and that some of the equipment spotted on De Bounty had been left behind, Kent Police said.
Officers also found that Ingram had cashed a cheque from a scrap merchant for £5,029 on October 1 2014.
The French authorities launched a criminal investigation which was later referred to Kent Police.
They also seized a notebook – titled De Bounty, Diver Recovery – from Ingram’s home, which was filled with details of different dives and the items recovered, including the condenser.
The total value of the wreck collected was estimated at being more than £150,000, Kent Police said.
None of the items listed were reported to the Receiver of Wreck as they should have been.
After sentencing, investigating officer Pc Anne Aylett, of Kent Police, said: “The HMS Hermes and other shipwrecks of its kind are legally protected for a reason, and that is because they form an important part of the history of this country.
“Nigel Ingram and John Blight have demonstrated a complete disregard for the law by helping themselves to artefacts that should have remained beneath the sea instead of being brought to the surface and sold for scrap metal.”
Looting from the shipwreck means that “part of our national story is lost and can never be replaced, particularly where historic artefacts have been sold for scrap,” Mark Harrison, head of heritage crime and policing advice for Historic England, pointed out.
He said: “All archaeological sites underwater comprise a finite, irreplaceable and fragile resource, vulnerable to damage and destruction through human activity.
“Like nighthawking on land, the illicit removal of objects from underwater archaeological contexts does much more damage beyond just the loss of an item.
“All archaeological sites can give us clues and evidence about past events and it is this history that is disturbed and lost when items are removed.”
Richard Link, of the CPS, said that both men were guilty of fraud but had also caused irreparable damage to sites of historical importance.