History of the Goodwin Sands

Description of Goodwin Sands

The Goodwin Sands are a notorious stretch of sands just off the coast of Kent in the English Channel. Submerged at high tides, with areas being exposed and drying sufficiently for a man to walk on at low tides, they present a particular challenge to shipping especially given their unfortunate location… at the narrowest part of the busiest shipping channel in the world.
This article is copyright UK Shore 2008 (coastpx.uk)

Image: The Goodwin Sands, reproduced under Project Gutenberg License

The Goodwin Sands are around four miles offshore, beginning near Kingsdown, Kent and ending around Pegwell Bay, just south of Ramsgate, a total length of around nine miles. The channel between the coast and the sands is known as the Downs, and although the sands present a grave danger to shipping, their position has also provided protection and thus the Downs and Goodwin Sands, and the protective Harbour at Ramsgate made this area historically important. In fact it may be true to say that over the past 1000 years, this stretch of the English Channel can be considered historically the most important stretch of water in the world.


The geological history of the Goodwin Sands is disputed; some believing it was previously an island which became swamped by sediment and rising sea levels, others that is simply an accumulation of sediment swept into place by the English Channel funnelling back and forth through the narrow straits of Dover. It is true that the nearby Thanet area was in fact an island back in Roman times (hence the full title; Isle of Thanet) and this may lead people to believe the Goodwin Sands are of a similar nature. However the few attempts at surveying the Sands by drilling have not shown any evidence of soil or organic matter which would suggest an island existed. It is more likely that the Sands are simply an accumulation of sediment on a predominantly solid chalk base.

Since the first recorded shipwreck in the Goodwin Sands area dating back to 1298, the maritime history is one of enormous loss of life and shipping. Ships, the crew and passengers that become stranded on the sands were often facing a terrible fate. Typically a ship would break its back as the tide changed, survivors may have been able to clamber onto the sands as the tide receded, and light fires and attempt to attract the attention of the Boatsmen of Deal and Kingsdown, or the lifeboats in later eras. If no help was forthcoming then within hours the tide would return, the sands would turn into lethal quicksand, and ships and survivors would be engulfed. Many ships were simply swallowed whole within a few days.

There are over 1000 recorded shipwrecks, and it is likely that the true toll may be more like 2000-3000 ships lost.

Notable Wrecks

The first documented wreck in the Goodwin Sands was in 1298, when a ship (name not known) returning from Flanders was lost “near Sandwich”.

Many more were to follow, one wreck of note was the HM Frigate Sedgmore, a 50 gun ship which was stranded near South Foreland in 1689. It was reportedly carrying over £200,000 in bullion, a vast sum in those times. No bullion was actually found or recovered, but it would be true to say that there will be many other ships carrying precious cargo which are still waiting discovery in the Sands, although they are likely to stay there for many years, maybe millennia.
This article is copyright UK Shore 2008 (coastpx.uk)
The greatest single event causing loss of life occurred with the Great Storm of 1703. Many warships had taken refuge in the Downs, and Ramsgate harbour to ride out the storm, but after an initial lull the storm returned with a vengeance. Daniel Defoe’s account of the storm (“The Storm” – republished in 2003 to mark the 300 year anniversary of the event) is the principle document covering this event, and it tells the story of 13 Man ‘o War lost, amongst many others, and over 2000 sailors. Included in the toll were:

  • Northumberland, 3rd rate Man o’ War, with 70 guns and 253 men. No survivors.
  • Mary, 4th rate, 272 men and the Admiral lost. One survivor.
  • Stirling Castle, 3rd rate Man o’ War, with 70 guns and 349 men. 70 survivors.
  • Restoration, 70 guns, all 386 crew lost.

The sole survivor from the Mary, Thomas Atkins, had an almost unbelievable escape. He was thrown from the deck of the Mary as it floundered, a large wave then throwing him onto the deck of the Stirling Castle. As the Stirling Castle became wrecked, he was again thrown into waves but again had a huge slice of luck as he was washed into the only boat to be broken adrift from the Stirling Castle. He eventually beached on the Kent coast and survived despite suffering from exposure.

The Stirling Castle has actually been located in recent years, and had been well protected by its sandy grave, but sadly is deteriorating now. See the Wessex Archaeology Coastal and Marine blog for photos of the wreck.

Other notable wrecks include the SS Violet, which was the first steamship to be claimed by the Sands in 1857. In more recent times, the story of the German U-boat U48 is notable as it is one of several wrecks that have re-emerged from the sands for short periods of time before being re-swallowed. The U48 was caught on the surface charging its batteries during World War I. It was shelled by several ships, and chased into the Goodwin Sands, where its crew were forced to surrender. It was then of course swallowed by the sands, where it lay hidden except for a brief reappearance in 1921, and then unexpectedly again in 1973.

Two wrecks, both in 1946, were in fact sister ships; The Luray Victory (9000 tons) ran aground in January, and then the North Eastern Victory broke in two on the sands the following winter. They were notable because they did not become fully swallowed like so many other ships; possibly they were positioned on the chalk base. In any case the masts of the ships were still visible as late as the 1990’s.

The Boatsmen

A history of the Goodwin Sands would not be complete without telling the story of the Boatsmen of Walmer, Deal and Kingsdown. These men were the centre of an industry along this stretch of coast, saving lives, but perhaps more importantly to them; earning a living from the salvage of wrecked shipping. The ‘industry’ had up to 1000 men involved at any one time over the centuries, and at the first sign of a wreck dozens of boats would race to be the first to board a wreck and hopefully claim salvage rights. There were four rival groups; Kingsdown, Walmer Road, Deal South End, and Deal North End. The rivalry between the two Deal groups in particular could be described as bitter.

Saving lives – The lightships and lifeboats

Before the 19th century, there had been talk of setting about beacons, and creating official lifeboats, but it wasn’t until 1852 that the first lifeboat was launched, the Northumberland operating from Ramsgate. In 1857, a further boat the “Royal Thames Yacht Club” was based in Walmer, and by 1865 there were four lifeboats.

Image: The Boom of a Distant Gun, reproduced under Project Gutenberg License from an original photograph by W.H.Franklin

The first lightship was positioned at North Sand Head in 1795, and another at the Gull Stream in 1809. The final two lightships were added at South Sand Head in 1832, and at East Goodwin in 1874. The lightships were positioned to warn shipping of the danger, but also to alert the lifeboats when a ship became stranded. The lightships are not themselves without tragedy, for example in 1954 the South Sand lightship was wrecked and all seven crew lost, the only survivor being a researcher. There is currently only one lightship in operation, at East Goodwin, the others being replaced by automated beacons.

Events on the Goodwin Sands

At low tide, the sands are firm enough to stand on and so a number of events have taken place on the Sands over the years. In recent times, probably the most famous events are the cricket matches played on the sands. The Goodwin Sands Potholing Club were able to make a number of visits when the cross-channel hovercraft were operating from Dover, this providing the ideal charter craft! The club also paid a visit this year (2008) by helicopter.

Modern navigation

The Goodwin Sands are somewhat safer in modern times particularly with the advent of GPS, and detailed mapping of The Channel. The charts on the Visit My Harbour website are well worth a look to get a feel for the relative depths of the sea floor in this area.

Shipwrecks of the Goodwin Sands, Richard & Bridget Larn (Meresborough)
Shipwrecks of Great Britain and Ireland, Richard Larn
Heroes of the Goodwin Sands, Rev. Thomas Stanley Treanor, M.A. (The Religious Tract Society 1904). Illustrated edition now available from Amazon.
Storm victims remembered
, BBC News website, as retrieved 23th May 2008

76 thoughts on “History of the Goodwin Sands

  1. Mike

    Earl Godwin gave his name to the sandbanks off the Kent coastline which came to be called the Goodwin Sands.

  2. Phil Hughes

    There are a number of explanations to how the sands got their name, one being it was land belonging to Earl Godwin who was involved in a dispute with royalty and the land was flooded by storms never to recover. I have a copy of the book “Heroes of the Goodwin Sands” handed down through the family. My wife’s ancestor was Henry (Harry) Belsey who was a crew member on the Ramsgate Lifeboat which went to the famous “Indian Chief” rescue.
    Phil Hughes.

  3. Alistair Kerr

    I was a Junior Ordinary Seaman in the TSS Fordsdale on a voyage from Auckland new Zealand to London. On Christmas Eve, 1946, we anchored off Dover or thereabouts because of thick fog. I was on duty on the bridge when we saw this Victory ship flying past us at full speed. The Pilot said, “He’s heading up to Hamburg and carries no pilot.” Next morning, Christmas Day, 1946, we weighed anchor and headed for London. We saw this ship, which turned out to be the North Eastern Victory hard and fast on the Goodwins, broken in two just forrad of the bridge.

  4. Alvin Dana

    Greetings from Australia!

    I am researching the family genealogy and am hoping to get more information on an ancestor who was claimed to be in a ship disaster off Goodwin Sands.

    He was Captain John Magness of the Brig “HOPE” who lost his life on 12 February 1869.

    Your kind assistance is much appreciated.

    Warmest regards,




    Crouched low inside his lighthouse one fateful storm lashed night
    But twelve, the candles powering its orange flicker light
    There Winstanley cowered ‘bove a horrid tempest sea
    On unforgiving Eddystone in 1703.

    to be continued

  6. David Chamberlain

    Have you read my book ‘Lost and Found’? It gives details of the effect that the ‘Great Storm’ of 1703 had on the fleet that was anchored in the Downs at the time. It also delves into the discovery of the Stirling Castle by divers in 1979 and the subsequent events that have followed. The book can be purchased on line at http://www.goodwinsandsexplorer.co.uk for £3.99p.


    FOR ADMIN…… Ficticious I’m afraid, just off the top of my head! Am very interested in Great Storm of 1703, Stirling Castle, Goodwin, Admiral Cloudisley Shovell etc. 1703 was the first of 2 major disasters for the good Admiral. His 2nd was 4 years later on the Scillies, as many as 3,500 souls perished altogether… We can hardly blame him for 1703, but 1707 was down to Longitudinal error. Although this was pre-Harrison, it should still not have happened. A junior crew member knew the ship’s position, while Shovell put them some 80 miles away, off the Brest Peninsula !

  8. admin

    @JOHN BYRNE – Great stuff John, would like to know more about it. Tried running some of the phrases through Google but couldn’t find anything!



    Rescue craft, erratic progress
    More vertical than forward gain
    Pitching rolling water ingress
    A Nine Two Seven hurricane.

    Region searched, just water sighted
    Homage paid then coastal bound
    Its rescue record somewhat blighted
    No single fragment ever found.

    The end….



    Victims of positional error
    Way beyond known shipping lane
    Stomach churning white eyed terror
    The murderous loss, pure disdain.

    Parasitic armchair backer
    Anticipates illicit wealth
    Too late, the closing Naval tracker
    Outfoxed by luck and cunning stealth.

    to be continued….


    Bow and stern pound together
    Company fleet one less member
    Surrendering to winter weather
    For every man, his last December.

    Brilliant cloud base piercing flare
    Night turns day to thunderous boom
    Part timers on the lifeboat stare
    Across the Downs at Kellet Gut tomb

    to be continued….


    Old merchant ship the nervous guest
    English channel, unruly host
    Thirty feet from trough to crest
    Around force twelve her engines roast.

    Encased within a salty crust
    Unseaworthy antiquity
    Six thousand tons of finest rust
    Convenience flagged iniquity.

    to be continued….



    Keeper of a thousand ships
    Gathered in from tempest storm
    Swallowed whole, an English fleet
    Their quicksand ritual to perform
    Chainless anchor, cast adrift
    Ensnared by sinister Goodwin shift.

  14. admin

    Thanks very much, I see Birkhill Castle is near the coast, I’ll add it to the Fife attractions page in the near future.



    Patiently two monsters lurk
    Beneath a watery camouflage
    Graveyard Goodwins north and south
    To wreak menace and sabotage
    By merchant men in bitter rage
    Long cursed throughout the shipping age…..

  16. Howard Nutt

    Trying to find information on the incident between the Walmer lifeboat and the sailing ship Carnmoney Oct 1899.



    Survivors few, their tale to tell
    Once the jaws of treachery strike
    From waters angry, waters calm
    The mighty Goodwins rise ghostlike
    Damned Clippers moonlit silhouette
    Submits to maritime etiquette…….

  18. John Feehan

    I found this absolutely fascinating as Deal is amost my second home with lots of relatives living there over the years. I rememeber in the late fifties an sixties being able to see lots of ship mast,s on the horizon Spielberg could make a good film about the Sands I bet. I love this part of the coast so historic thanks again John Feehan

  19. Amanda

    I wonder if anyone knows of anyone who actually worked on a lightship in the channel? I am a teacher in Kent and very interested in researching the light ships and their stories. Stories local children would be interested to hear/read about. If anyone is interested, I’d appreciate you getting in touch. Many thanks.

  20. Gary Laming

    I was just looking at the previous comments left by some of you i was particularly interested in jenny Lamings comment.
    My Father has an original copy of the picture i know this to be true as he was asked by the local museum to let them have it he declined i have seen the picture for myself.
    James was the coxswain on the left he served with a man called jaarvit arnold whom for his contribution its said there is a road in the village named after him. OUR relative JAMES or william birch i think he was known, was awarded a medal and my father has this also.
    Jenny if you would like to possibly chat please feel free to contact me mrstripe@hotmail.com

  21. David

    This post reminds me of the story Moonfleet. I believe it was set in the same area you write about – think it was Dorset.

    Just looking round your site. Like your panoramas. There is a site called 360 Cities you can make some coin on with panoramas. Think they sell for £30 a pop.

    Davids latest blog post..Free Fluid WordPress Themes and CSS Templates

  22. admin

    Hi Donna,
    Interesting story. I haven’t any information to hand which would help, might be worth contacting Deal Maritime Museum (see link in 10th March comment).

  23. donna fulford

    Probably Blackett surname… going back generations on maternal side is more difficult.


  24. donna fulford

    My Grandmother always told me a tale of my Great Grandmother’s brother who was supposed to have been lost on the Goodwin Sands. I believe his name was Firth.
    The story she told was that she was asleep and she was ‘visited’ by her brother holding a hurricane lantern and dripping wet. She admonished him for dripping on the carpet and he vanished. Next day, they received a telegram stating that he had perished.
    Old family lore, but I wonder if there is any truth.
    Hopefully someone would be able to assist.

    Thank you


  25. admin

    Hi Patrick,
    Try contacting the Deal Maritime Museum.
    If you live in Kent then the local studies section in Dover or Deal libraries would also be a good starting point. My initial research has found this book which might be of interest and may have some content relating to the late 1800’s:
    The Journal of William Stanton, Pilot of Deal – William Stanton (Publisher: Simpkin Marshall 1929).

  26. Patrick Stokes

    I am researching my family history. My great great great grandfather William Rogers GRIGG born 1797 in Deal. He is listed in the 1861 census as a Pilot. He died in 1878. His son William King GRIGG born 1822 and died 1871 was a master of one of the Deal pilot cutters. I cannot find any information about them. I was wondering if you may be able to assist with anything at all about pilots as they spent their working lives negoiating the infamous Goodwin Sands. Thankyou, Patrick Stokes.

  27. Shelley

    Hi Admin
    Thanks for your reponse and advice, Edward was born 1871 Kirton Suffolk he was on the 1881 census but not on the 1891 so I guess between those years. In the meantime will look up the book you Suggested.
    Thanks Shelley

  28. admin

    Hi Shelley,
    If you know the approximate year then I could narrow it down. Kent libraries have copies of Shipwrecks of the Goodwin Sands (Richard & Bridget Larn) which is always my starting point for any research. You can also buy the book online at Amazon.

  29. Shelley

    Hi Admin
    I have just recently learned that my Great Uncle Edward Cowie went to sea as a lad and drowned on the Goodwin Sands. I have no idea what Ship he was on. Do you know where I can find these details out
    Thanks Shelley

  30. admin

    Hi Mary,
    The incident you are presumably referring to is the loss of the South Sand lightship on 28th November 1954 when she was detached from her moorings in a severe storm. Sadly the entire crew of seven were drowned in this disaster, the only survivor being a Ministry of Agriculture scientist who miraculously survived by clinging to the outside of the overturned hull for several hours until rescued by helicopter the following morning. With this info, you should be able to find online articles, I remember reading a book which had a very detailed account but cannot remember which book it was – I will post another comment if I come across it again…

  31. Mary

    My mother remembers that when she was a child one of the lightships broke loose and the men were trapped for some time. The worry was that while the boa twas water tight was it also air tight. Do you know of any articles on this or even the date? It would be the ’50,s
    Thank you

  32. Annie

    Hi Admin,
    Thank you so much for checking for me. Unfortunately, that was all of the information my mother gave. The only other relatives that may know was my uncles family, (he was her eldest brother and lived in Sydney, Aust. and was superintendent of the Royal Navel House in the early 1900’s, his name was Jack (or John) Partridge, I am trying to find out more about him and his family. Thanks again, Annie

  33. admin

    @Annie – there were a number of wrecks in 1896/1897. I have listed them below, but if you have any further info then that would help.
    1896 – Tempter (27th March, Downs), Flamingo (7th May, Goodwin Sands)
    1897 – Friendship (1st April, Deal), Unidentified (Goodwin Sands)
    (Source: Shipwrecks of the Goodwin Sands, Richard & Bridget Larn)

  34. admin

    Hi Annie, Give me a few days and I’ll see what I can find out. There was likely more than one wreck in that year though – do you have any more details?

  35. Annie

    I was told by my mother who was born in 1895 that her father perished on the sands when she was about 1 year old (1896.) Does anyone know the name of that ship?

  36. Stephanie


    I was there only once when I was just a kid. I don’t have many memories of that time, but I do remember the sands. I think there’s just something special about this place.

  37. Monica

    Hi Jenny,

    I was taken there by my grandparents years ago , and still have a picture but was told spooky stories.

    Thanks for sharing


  38. Tom Chandler

    hello Jenny
    I have now had A4 size photograph taken for printing
    will also get larger size made.
    would you like a copy ?

  39. jenny laming

    The picture of the distant gun. The man on the left of the picture is
    my gg grandfather James Laming.
    l have only a postcard of them and a picture handed down through the

  40. Tom Chandler

    3rd Sept 2008

    I have just obtained a print of the boom of the distant gun
    it is very old and I will be getting it reframed. It is the copy with the
    Coxswains in oilskins. Size approx 28 x 22 inches
    however I may be able to get a copy made if you are
    still interested.

    telephone number 01395 278821

  41. Eyebee

    My father told me the stories about playing cricket out on the Goodwin Sands, and how when the tide turned you had to get off there PDQ before they turned into quicksand and swallowed you up forever.

    That was enough to put me off ever wanting to venture out there. I would assume there is quite a lot of valuable stuff in those sands if it was ever given up.

    Eyebees last blog post..Disaster Survival Kit

  42. admin

    Hi Bob,
    Sorry, I couldn’t track them down as prints either.

    perhaps you could try contacting Julies Antique Prints:

    or here:

    or perhaps the East Kent Maritime Trust?

    I sourced the images from the eBook version of Heroes of the Goodwin Sands.

  43. Bob Williams

    I have recently left the RN after 36 years service, my early service being in Chatham. One of my abiding memories of pubs in the area was the print of the Heroes of the Goodwin Sands. One version of which, also known as the Boom of a Distant Gun appears above. The other version had the coxswains dressed in oil skins and wearing cork life jackets.

    I am very keen to get hold of a copy of either, or both prints. Unfortunately I have drawn a blank so far and would appreciate any advice on where I can get copies.

    Many Thanks.

    Bob Williams

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