Hampshire & Isle of Wight

SS Mendi: WW1 shipwreck's bell 'recovered' in Swanage

bell at Swanage Pier
Image caption The bell was left at Swanage Pier in the early hours of the morning

A bell from a ship involved in one of Britain's worst off-shore disasters has apparently been found in a plastic bag left anonymously for a BBC reporter.

It bears the name of the SS Mendi which sank off the Isle of Wight during World War One, killing more than 600 black South African labourers.

The bell is thought to have been stripped from the wreck by divers.

Maritime archaeologist John Gribble, who has surveyed the ship, said the bell was probably genuine.

BBC reporter Steve Humphrey said the anonymous donor phoned him on Wednesday after seeing recent coverage of the Mendi centenary.

Mr Humphrey arranged to arrive at Swanage Pier in the early hours to find the bell in a plastic bag.

A note in the bag read: "If I handed it in myself it might not go to the rightful place.

"This needs to be sorted out before I pass away as it could get lost."

Image copyright Imperial War Museums
Image caption More than 800 members of the South African Native Labour Corps were on board the Mendi at the time of the disaster

"The bell has never been reported found, but given the extent to which the site was stripped of non-ferrous metals in the past I'd be very surprised if the bell was still on the wreck", Mr Gribble said.

"The bell looks right. It's the right sort of size for a bell of that period."

The SS Mendi sank on 21 February 1917 when it was accidentally rammed in thick fog by the Royal Mail packet-boat SS Darro.

A government inquiry said the Darro failed to lower lifeboats, leaving 646 men to drown.

Most of the dead were members of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC), heading to France to do manual labour on the Western Front.

Image copyright WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty Images
Image caption In 1995 the Queen and Nelson Mandela unveiled a memorial to the Mendi victims

The Darro's captain, who was blamed for the tragedy by the Board of Trade, was handed a one-year suspension of his master's certificate.

The story became a symbol of racial injustice in South Africa, where successive white-led governments discouraged annual Mendi Day commemorations.

In 1995, the Queen and Nelson Mandela unveiled a memorial to the Mendi victims in Soweto.

Image caption A note was left with the bell in the early hours
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Media captionA bell, apparently from the wreck of the WW1 ship SS Mendi, is found in a plastic bag

The government's Receiver of Wreck said the bell would probably be given to a museum while a decision was made about its future.

The South African government, which is attempting to recover Mendi artefacts, has been approached for comment.


The SS Mendi

17 February 1917 - SS Mendi sinks after a Royal Mail packet-boat, the SS Darro, ploughs into her at full speed in thick fog

1974 - Divers identify the wreck, 11 nautical miles (20km) south west of St Catherine's Point, Isle of Wight

1995 - Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II unveil the Mendi Memorial in Soweto

2003 - The Mendi Medal is introduced as South Africa's highest honour for bravery

2007-08 - Two surveys carried out by English Heritage

2009 - Ministry of Defence designates the wreck as a protected war grave, making it an offence to remove items


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