Headless corpses of Deadman's Island
This bleak stretch of flat muddy land lies just at the mouth of the River Swale, opposite the town of Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey, which is just off the north Kent coast. The inhabitants of the adjoining Isle of Sheppey used historical precedent as an excuse for their nefarious smuggling activities and the town of Queensborough was granted a charter by Edward I, allowing them to import and export goods free of duty. This convenient loophole was rescinded in 1575, but the spirit of free enterprise far outlived the letter of the law and smuggling continued as an everyday activity.
Nowadays the uninhabited mudbank is owned by Natural England, who lease it to two people. The wetland site is protected land, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and recognised to be of international importance under the “Ramsar” convention. (The convention entered into force in the United Kingdom on 5th May 1976. The United Kingdom currently has 174 sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance with a surface area of 1,281,989 hectares). It is also an important bird breeding and nesting site and to preserve this, the island is completely out of bounds to the public.
Deadman’s island is in close proximity to the mooring area used for various historical prison hulks dating back several centuries. These hulks housed hundreds of prisoners convicted of a variety of crimes ranging from petty to serious and also those awaiting transportation to Australia and other overseas prison colonies.
These were bleak soulless mosquito infested places with squalid filthy conditions and contagious diseases were prevalent and deadly due to the cramped living areas aboard the hulks.
Deaths were common occurrences presenting the authorities with a problem to legally dispose of the numerous infected corpses and the island offered the ideal local solution and thus the name of Deadman’s Island was given and seemed appropriate.
Regulations required the bodies to be buried the statutory six feet down in cheap unmarked wooden coffins but over a period the sea levels began to rise. These rising sea levels and coastal erosion over the years have begun to slowly wash away the land surrounding their final resting place, leaving broken wooden coffins and skeletal remains protruding out of the mud exposed only when the tide is out. This effect was becoming evident many decades ago and a slightly higher section of the island was built up to use for cremations, particularly of infectious bodies.
It raises the question will or can the skeletal remains be recovered and reburied other than in a mass grave? The majority of the remains are being washed in a jumbled heap out into the sea, and would be difficult nigh impossible to identify and re-bury complete bodies. In addition, even if we discount the stories of the devil hounds, few if any skulls have been found. The logical explanation is that once the coffins are broken open the heads break away from the skeletons quite easily and the sea washes them away rolling like a bowling ball.
Coincidentally, during the Napoleonic wars, many French prisoners of war were held around the coast at Chatham in various prison hulks, with those who died buried on the nearby marshes. When land erosion started to reveal the bodies, they were exhumed and reburied en-masse on St Mary's Island. When the land was later needed for redevelopment, they were disinterred again and reburied at St George's Church, now the St George's Centre, at Chatham Maritime.
Going back to the story of Deadman’s Island, experts estimate more than 1,000 men and boys were incarcerated in floating prisons ‘Retribution’ and ‘Captivity’ anchored at Sheerness. These had been converted from decommissioned Ships of the Line stripped of their masts, rudder and sails. The interior was fitted with cells and the gun ports barred over. The prisoners were double shackled day and night, although extra shackles would be added if they were caught trying to escape or attacking the warders. There are no known certifiable records of those who died and some of the corpses would be of those French prisoners of war from the prison hulks further down-stream at Chatham.
HMP Retribution was a prison hulk launched in 1779 as the 74-gun Third-rate HMS Edgar. Edgar was converted into a prison hulk in 1813, renamed HMP Retribution in 1814 and broken up in 1835.
HMS Bellerophon was a 74-gun Third-rate launched in 1786. Having had an illustrious career fighting in the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Nile alongside HMS Victory and Admiral Nelson, she became a prison hulk in 1815, converted at a cost of £12,000 in 1817, she was renamed HMP Captivity in October 1824 and was sold out of service in January 1836.
Deadman’s island has inspired tales of supernatural devil dogs and bodies buried or discovered without skulls. Locals in the Sheppey town of Queenborough grew up with the legend of grim red-eyed hounds who broke open the coffins and ate the fresh brains/heads of its victims on the eerie land mass.
A few years back, Peter Cook, in writing his “The Way We Were” column for the Medway Messenger, dredged up a sinister tale from the files of bygone ghost-hunter Frederick Sanders. Under the heading 'Midnight trip to 'island of ghosts' at river mouth', Cook wrote, 'Dead Man's Island lies at the point where the Swale meets the Medway. It is well named. About 200 years ago dozens of French soldiers taken prisoner by the British were buried there. These men of Napoleon's army had been cooped up in the fetid atmosphere of prison hulks anchored on the Medway. They had died of the bubonic plague. In June 1950, two intrepid journalists - Duncan Rand and Frederick Sanders, made a midnight trip to examine this "island of ghosts. At that time, many of the coffins were exposed with the lids gone. Mr Sanders was particularly intrigued by the fact that none of the skeletons revealed was in possession of its skull. Neither had any skull ever been found on the island. Mr Sanders recalled a legend of a huge spectral hound which ranged across the Medway marshes, digging up the coffins and flipping open the lids to consume the dead men's brains. The two explorers were ferried out to a part of the island known as Coffin Bay, where they were marooned for the night. "We found many broken coffins and hundreds of bones but no skulls," they later reported.
The natural phosphorescence given off by the river's micro-organisms added to the atmosphere, and what appeared as warriors "black and gaunt in the moonlight" turned out to be rotting wooden piles driven into the mud to define the Smugglers Gut channel. As the tide returned, the ghost hunters ran the risk of being cut off and joining the "spectral army". But three flashes from a torch brought a dinghy from the darkness, oars creaking towards them.
Other islands in the estuary are not just uninhabited but also have grisly or nefarious pasts. During the Napoleonic Wars, French prisoners were housed in other hulks on the Medway. Because they were kept in close quarters and in pretty dismal conditions, diseases such cholera, smallpox and typhoid were rife.
As previously mentioned those that succumbed, were mostly buried on the nearby and aptly named Dead Man’s Island, which is near Queenborough Harbour on Sheppey. It is possible to land at Queenborough on any tide and there are still boat builders and chandlers in the marina.
Admiral Lord Nelson is reputed to have learned many of his seafaring skills in these waters, and also shared a house near the small harbour with Lady Hamilton. Most of the buildings from this period are still standing but the church is the sole surviving feature in the town from medieval times. Today, the harbour offers an all-tide landing and moorings in the Swale that is ideally situated for London, the south and east coasts and the continent.
Tarry a while at one of the pubs or sample a cooked breakfast or afternoon tea and cake at Castle Connections, a Community Art Centre and Café built on site of the old Queenborough Castle.
Elsewhere in the Medway, there is also Burntwick Island, a notorious smugglers’ haunt and one-time home to the infamous North Kent Gang, one of the more gruesome gangs to operate in Kent during the early 19th century. Several of its members were tried for the murder of a blockade man, Sydenham Snow. Efforts by the authorities to apprehend the smugglers failed on several occasions until the mid-1820s when the gang was discovered by a blockade force at Westgate-on-Sea, an event that eventually led to the executions of the leaders.
Many of the islands in Medway are barely above sea level, marshy and not places that anyone would want to develop or live on. However, despite the fairly unappealing nature of some of these places, there is one that has been brilliantly redeveloped: St Mary’s Island, Chatham.
For much of its history, St Mary’s was little more than a marshy swamp criss-crossed by tidal channels. This changed during the Victorian era, when thousands of convicts were forcibly employed to dig out St Mary’s Creek and construct, in its place, Basins One, Two and Three of Chatham Dockyard. The spoil created was used to form the island we know today.
“Once the Dockyard was closed, the area was left with this island no one knew what to do with,” says David Taylor, Chairman of St Mary’s Island Residents Association.
Situated between the Isle of Grain and Upchurch on the River Medway is the desolate island of Burntwick, part of the Parish of Upchurch until the second part of the 19th century. It had originally become separated from the mainland due to erosion of land by the sea during the mid-18th century. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries it became a base for smuggling and part of a quarantine mooring for ships with disease infected crews. Dead Man’s Island which is situated nearby became the main burial ground for deceased sailors from infected ships.
With a rise in customs duty smuggling became increasingly worthwhile and was rife on the Medway during the 1780s. Tea, spirits and owls were the main items smuggled out, usually by boat at night. (I was puzzled by a “commodity of owls”. However, after much investigation I found there was a group of smugglers named the “Owlers” who communicated by making owl hoots. What they smuggled was bales of Kentish wool, which was very high in quality and value and known colloquially as “owls”). Upchurch village folklore has suggested that a tunnel extended from the ‘The Crown’ public house to the river from where contraband was brought ashore. Hard evidence for this in contemporary documents is lacking so it remains village folklore, passed down the generations by word of mouth.
In the early 19th century Burntwick Island became a base for the North Kent Gang, an infamous group of smugglers who operated at different locations along the Kent coast. They were generally ignored until 1820 when a group of them were confronted by two blockade men while unloading contraband in Stangate Creek. In the resulting conflict one of the blockade men was seriously wounded then the culprits escaped. Believed to have about fifty members the North Kent Gang were involved in several incidents along the Kent coast. Eventually they were caught, three were executed at Penenden Heath near Maidstone and fifteen transported to Tasmania. In 1831 with the abolition of import duties smuggling effectively ended.
Later in 1845 a ship’s surgeon named Sidney Bernard who served on HMS Rollo just off the coast of Sierra Leone in West Africa became associated with the island. The crew of another ship, HMS Éclair, contracted yellow fever and some of them died. Bernard’s ship was sent by the Royal Navy to assist and Bernard was appointed assistant surgeon on HMS Eclair to treat the sailors. The ship returned to England but the naval authorities, worried that the disease might spread to the general population, ordered the captain to moor the ship in Stangate Creek just off the Ham Green peninsular. The cargo was then transferred to one of two hulks permanently moored there and a naval cutter guarded the infected ship to prevent anyone going ashore. Sidney Bernard continued treating the crew but was unable to save them until he also contracted the disease and died aged 27 on 9th October 1845. He was buried on Burntwick Island and his grave remains there today, maintained by the Royal Navy.
During the 19th century the island became a dumping ground for refuse from London, brought by barge and even today the ground is covered with Victorian glass and crockery.
Sheep had grazed on Burntwick Island for years and during the 1840s a shepherd named James Woolley and his wife Sarah lived there in a solitary house. The remains of the house still exist there today. A track ran from Shoregate Lane at Ham Green out to the island and traces of it can still be seen. Later, In the 1860s, the famous ‘Great Eastern’ ship which laid the first cable line between England and the United States was temporarily moored nearby. After that, during the 1870s, a shepherd named Thomas Hoare and his housekeeper Emma Castleton lived there and tended farmer Richard Sands sheep but during the early 20th century the tide flooded the island making it unsuitable for grazing so from that time livestock only grazed on the mainland.
Burntwick Island eventually became the property of the Ministry of Defence. During the early years of the 20th century a battery was constructed there which included two 12 pounder guns, machine gun emplacements and three searchlights. A torpedo school later became established with a barracks building and ammunition depots with target practice taking place during World War Two. In addition, at the hydroplane base a practice radio station was set up to trial new communication units for Great War aircraft. The island then fell into disuse and is now just a desolate haven for seabirds and is completely under water for several hours at high tide.
The Royal Navy’s presence eventually became less prominent on the River Medway as other dockyards developed and ships grew in size and complexity, so that they were largely replaced by prison hulks which would frequently dispose of their dead charges on a salt marsh at the mouth of The Swale, which was subsequently to become known as Dead Man's Island, and can still be found as such, on local maps today. The new fort and harbour developments completed at Sheerness by this time further replaced Queenborough by being better positioned at the mouth of the Medway.
These days Stangate Creek on the south side of the Medway is a popular stop for cruising sailors and motorboaters – it’s sheltered, and visitors are surrounded by low-lying land and islands and salting’s, with some impressive bird life.
With the Naval dockyard complex at Chatham just a few miles away up the Medway, the Navy has at times used the area intensively as a place to moor warships and carry out maintenance when necessary. In addition, the Royal Navy used the area as a place to refuel their nuclear submarines and there is some suggestion of toxic nuclear contamination of the land and the technicians who worked there.
From 1712-1896 it was used for quarantining ships. For example, there’s a story that in 1832, the barque Katherine Stewart Forbes set out from Woolwich with a complement of male convicts for Australia but then anchored in Plymouth Sound after cholera broke out. She was sent back to Stangate Creek for many months – of 222 convicts aboard, 30 men developed cholera and 13 died.
As mentioned converting the ships to prison hulks involved removal of the rigging, masts, rudders, and various other features required for sailing. Some hulks retained a few of these features, but all were rendered inoperable or unseaworthy in some way. The internal structure was also reconfigured with various features, including jail cells, kitchen and infirmary in order to accommodate convicted criminals or occasionally prisoners of war. The hulks, which retained only their ability to float, were typically located in harbours. This made them convenient temporary holding quarters for convicts awaiting transportation to Australia and other penal colonies within the British Empire. In 1798 the hulks held more than 1400 out of about 1900 people waiting for transportation to Australia. Most British prison hulks were decommissioned in the 19th century, although suspected and convicted criminals are still confined aboard ships on occasion for various reasons. The last British prison ship was HM Prison Weare built in 1979 as an accommodation ship and converted to a prison ship in 1997 for 396 male prisoners and based in Portland Harbour, Dorset. It was finally closed in 2006 and sold to Nigeria as an oil field accommodation ship.
To help clarify the matter there’s a historical account of how the quarantining started here.
During the Napoleonic era, French prisoners of war were confined in prison hulks on the River Medway, where they were exposed to cholera, smallpox, typhoid and malaria and many of those who died were buried on Deadman’s Island on the eastern side of the Creek.
It is believed Cholera became established on the Isle of Sheppey in the ex-warships anchored off Sheerness and Queenborough in 1831. The hulks were used to house convicts at the time, they lived in cramped dirty conditions and the disease spread rapidly.
The island had already suffered with Yellow Fever and the Plague in the past due to Stangate Creek being the quarantine station of the Naval Authorities, this was next to Burntwick Island in the River Medway, there was usually two hulks stationed here used as prison ships for quarantined patients.
The first incidence of cholera in England occurred in Sunderland in October 1831 when a ship, carrying sailors who had the disease, docked at the port. From Sunderland, the disease made its way northwards into Scotland and southwards toward London. Before it had run its course the disease had claimed some 52,000 lives. Due to this the quarantined boats from the Baltic were sent to Stangate Creek, it soon became very crowded in this area with all letters from the crew and passengers being opened, fumigated (with vinegar) and resealed before being sent to Queenborough post Office. All parcels had to be aired on the ships deck before being sent or used.
The prison hulk HMS Cumberland had 80 deaths onboard, this included a surgeon that was treating the victims. At the same time, there were 12 deaths in Sheerness from the disease, another 12 in Faversham and 47 in Minster, Sheppey. Cumberland was a 74-gun Third-rate frigate launched in 1807, Northfleet. She was converted to a prison hulk in 1830 and was renamed HMP Fortitude in 1833. She was put on the sale list in 1870 and was subsequently sold.
Another Hulk, the HMS Euryalus, which was moored off Chatham had a serious outbreak in 1831. The prison ship housed mostly boys aged 8-15. Surgeon records from the transport vessel, the Waterloo, noted picking up 214 convicts, they travelled to Sheerness where it was recorded 40 convicts were suffering from Cholera and 8 had died from the disease. After her return to England HMS Euryalus was converted to a prison hulk. From 1825 to at least 1843, she was a prison for boys, the youngest being nine years old. In 1845 Euryalus became a coal hulk at Sheerness. In 1846-7 she was refitted as a convict ship and in that capacity she was moved to Gibraltar. In 1859 she was renamed HMP Africa but was sold to a Mr. Recanno for breaking up in 1860.
In 1811 there were 520 convicts living in hulks in the area.
It was recorded there were 135 deaths in 11 areas of Sheppey by mid-1832.
HMS Menelaus was a Royal Navy 38-gun Fifth-rate frigate, launched in 1810 at Plymouth. In 1820 she moved to Chatham and in 1832 became a quarantine hulk. On 19 December 1848, she accepted sick from the convict ship Hasemey, which called in at Portsmouth en route from the River Thames to New South Wales with a number of cases of cholera and diarrhoea. She remained with the Quarantine Service until 1890 and was sold in 1897.
HMS Canada was a 74-gun Third-rate launched in 1765. She became a prison hulk in 1810 and was broken up in 1834.
HMS Dolphin was originally launched as an East Indiaman named Admiral Rainier, which the Navy bought and renamed HMS Hindostan. The Admiralty purchased her in 1804 for service as a 50-gun Fourth-rate. She was converted into a 20-gun storeship in 1811. She was renamed again in 1819 as Dolphin, and once more in 1831 as HMP Justitia, when she became a prison hulk. She was finally sold in 1855.
Maritime historians estimate that some 12,845 French prisoners died on British hulks between 1803 and 1814 due to a combination of neglect, starvation and disease with many being buried on Deadman’s Island.
Several cases of cholera were reported in Eastchurch, with two being harvest labourers. The graves were fenced off in accordance with Government instructions. There were so many deaths in Eastchurch that many people were buried in a mass grave in the church's meadow.
Another victim of Cholera, this time from Sheerness, was Vice Admiral Sir Richard King, Commander in Chief, Nore. He was a member of the Court Marshal that tried the ringleader of the Mutiny at the Nore, Richard Parker, in 1797. Sir Richard King died at Admiralty House in the Dockyard, his body was interred at The Church of All Saints in Eastchurch. You can find a memorial plaque on the wall inside.
The General Board of Health recorded that the huge scale of the Cholera epidemic in 1849 was due to overcrowding, poor ventilation, the inadequacy of the water supply and lack of sewers, drains and privies. There were still no drains in Sheerness in 1860, after which a simple system was installed.
To try and reduce the disease spreading any further dead bodies of the victims and prisoners were taken and left on a small area of marsh near Queenborough. This marshy island is the one we refer to as Dead Man's Island and it is still known by this today. Victims that had suffered from smallpox, malaria and other easily spread diseases were buried here also. The later cremations were on a man-made raised section and the ash and charred remains were buried elsewhere on the Island. It is thought that cremation was allowed for diseased corpses and non-Christians.
There are two raised areas on the old maps. One to the south of Shepherds Creek which I don’t think has been part of Deadman’s and looks a likely spot as its raised and seems to have a hill heading up to it. It raises the question of whether this could be the site of an old structure.
Although the requirement was a grave 6 feet deep it's not easy digging a grave in London Clay as it would have soon filled up with water. In the event, they would have been relatively shallow graves dug significantly above the tidal level.
At the time, current thinking was that disease was spread by 'poisonous miasma' or "Bad Air" i.e. the stench of the decaying flesh which could be neutralised by fire cleansing (cremation) or by the use of powdered Lime wash applied to the houses and barrels of tar and vinegar were burned in the streets to try to remove the bad smells.
The last case of Malaria on the Island was recorded in 1952 when a man died of the disease. Due to this there have been many investigation in the area to keep track and reduce the number of mosquitoes that thrive in the marshy land on the Isle of Sheppey. The smugglers, however welcomed the presence of the mosquitoes as it tended to keep snoopers and Customs men away from the area.
The following describes a commercial ritual carried out by Adam Chodzko a contemporary British artist, invoking the spirits of Deadman’s Island.
“Ghost” is a large decked-in kayak; almost a sculpture which can be considered as a vessel, coffin, bed, costume and camera rig. It is designed to ferry people to the island of the dead. To initiate this process the first destination was Deadman’s Island, a small island off Queenborough, Isle of Sheppey. Deadman’s Island was used as a burial site for bodies of people who had died on the prison hulks moored in the Swale in the 18th and 19th C. Ghost is therefore a vessel for visiting the dead. Its design (e.g.; the deck patterns, eyes in the hull, the position of the passenger, its cargo including wormwood seeds, etc.) is influenced by the possibility of this encounter. Ghost is designed by Chodzko to have a rower at the stern, and a member of the public in the midships/bow. The passenger lies down low and flat. Like a body in a coffin but with their head slightly raised. A dome in the deck of the kayak also separates them physically and visually from the paddler at the back. On the deck is a mount for a video camera which records the journey of the kayak at eye level from across its bows. Therefore, Ghost generates a record of its own journeys and this footage will be archived as each passenger makes their own unique journey and experiences the atmosphere.
Eventually Deadman’s Island and its hundreds of skeletons and souls will be absorbed as the waters gradually rise and the marshy land no longer exists. All that will remain is the memories and stories written by the people at the time.
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© 2017 Peter Geekie