Smugglers shipwrecks, and underwater mines. These are just some of the things local historian Richard Symes has uncovered off the coast of Dunwich.

A former farmer who has spent all of his life living near the coastal town, when Richard settled into retirement around 10 years ago, he decided to see what he could find out about the settlement after being inspired by a friend.

“Through my involvement with the National Trust, I got to know a chap called Martin Atkinson. He sadly passed away from leukaemia, but before he died, I said to him ‘why is there no history in the Coastguard Cottages Tearoom at Dunwich? It’s a 200-year-old building and there’s no history about it at all.’ He said there must be some stories to do with the coastguards, ships, and their history.”

With that in mind, Richard began his quest.

“I started my research as a complete amateur. I thought, I’ve got a few grey cells between the ears, why not have a go?”

Richard first began looking at records – and eventually had his fabled ‘eureka’ moment.

“I went to places like the Suffolk Record Office, but it was when I went to the Maritime Museum at Greenwich that I had a big breakthrough. They’ve got an excellent library in there and one day I realised searching under ‘D’ for ‘Dunwich’ wasn’t getting me anywhere.

“But when I began looking under ‘M’ for ‘Misner Haven’, I had more luck as the coastguard station at Dunwich was actually listed as ‘Misner Haven’ as that's what it overlooks. It’s now known as Minsmere.”

Once Richard started searching under Misner Haven, he was met with a treasure trove of information that would prove invaluable to his research.

“It’s amazing how much stuff was available online”, he says.

“I looked at archives from Kew, the Imperial War Museum, and newspaper archives which all proved to be great sources. I also got a lot of secondhand books, but one of the best ways of doing historical research was having a bit of luck and finding someone who gives you a good lead.

“I had one particular bit of luck when I was given a private archive from the family of someone whose great-great-great-grandfather was a coastguard, and had some extraordinary stories.”

This is when Richard learnt about Dunwich’s smuggling history in the 18th century, and the ships that played their part during World War I and II.

“I found out quite a lot about the coastguards, but I didn’t think World War I had anything to do with Dunwich until I read an article on another National Trust site.”

Souter Lighthouse in Northumberland was doing an exhibition on the East Coast War Channel – a carefully defined route between the Thames and the border of Scotland that was cleared of mines at sea during the two World Wars.

And it was this very display that led Richard to Antony Firth, a professional marine archaeologist who had been spending years looking into pathway along the sea, and more specifically what was off the coast of Dunwich.

“Antony was given a huge research grant from Historic England, and he spent about two to three years, full-time, researching the East Coast War Channel. When I met him, he said he had nearly completed his research – but part of his grant was to get his findings out there to the public. So he handed me all of what he found out about Dunwich and World War II.”

And what Richard learned from Antony about the First World War was perhaps the most fascinating.

“Most of the shipwrecks off the coast of Dunwich are from World War I,” he says.

“There were a lot of shipwrecks in the 1700s and 1800s, due to the trade going up and down the east coast during the Industrial Revolution – that's why the coastguards were there in the 19th century.

“Coal and other materials came from the north of England down to London, and were brought down on wooden ships. But anytime one of these ran aground, they would break up, and any salvageable bits were sold off and used. We know what happened with these ships, but they’re almost all unidentifiable. However, the World War I wrecks are very much still out there and we know more about those.”

During the First World War, coal, steel, and other supplies were shipped over from the north of England to France. “Nearly all of this was moved by ship, but the Germans attacked that supply line. It wasn’t just the trenches they were attacking, but shipping routes too.”

A map from Richard and Antony’s research shows that there are around 500 ships from the First World War – and those are about half of the identified ones.

“The Germans attacked the coast with everything – they laid mines with submarines but they also used guns and torpedoes. The British couldn’t clear all of them, so they made a channel which was a strip they marked with surface buoys. The whole length of the East Coast War Channel was swept every day during both World Wars, which was a huge job. They used all sorts of vessels, including fishing boats, as they didn’t have enough ships.”

Richard adds that if you drained the North Sea, ‘it wouldn’t be a vast job’ to find all of the shipwrecks out there. One of the ships that has been identified off the coast of Dunwich include the SS Edernian, a merchant ship that was carrying steel until it was torpedoed by a German UB-10 submarine on August 20, 1917.

“All of the crew aboard the ship came from a little place in north Wales called Erdern. The whole village must’ve been devastated when these chaps all died,” says Richard.

Germans submarines visited the area quite often, sinking anything that got in their way. “UB-17 subs sunk a lot of fishing boats in 1916 – they were fair targets. They would surface next to them, and might’ve let the fishermen go in a dingy before they dropped a hand grenade in the bottom of the boat to blow it up. They didn’t waste torpedoes on them.”

Richard and Antony scanned the seafloor using sonar imaging to learn more about these sunken warships, to find out the shape and size of the wrecks.

Luckily for us though, it’s highly probable that the mines haven’t survived and have corroded away thanks to the salinity of the seawater.

Up on the shore, Dunwich clifftop was used as an observation point. “On this part of the coast, the war channel was close to the shore, so coastguards would patrol it. If any Germans were spotted, they could send a message, or rescue people who had been hit and mine and were sinking. The coastguards had a fairly bust time, and Dunwich was thought to be a likely place for a German beach landing at the beginning of the war.”

With all of this fascinating information in Richard and Antony’s back pocket, Richard soon got to work displaying it at Dunwich Heath – and it’s now available for all to see at the Coastguard Cottage.

Entitled ‘Turbulence to Tranquility’, the display’s name couldn’t be more apt.

“Nowadays, you look out at an empty sea and see very few ships, so people are hugely surprised and often don’t know that Dunwich was a hotspot for smuggling in the 1700s, and later the site of a horrendous shipping battle.”

To find out more about Dunwich and its history, visit

Richard also gives talks and guided tours along the coast for anyone interested.