Odyssey Victory salvage plan hit by fresh revelations

Loss of HMS Victory 1744 : Wiki Commons

The troubled HMS Victory 1744 Project faces fresh problems on two fronts reports Andy Brockman

The plan for American treasure hunting salvage company, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc, to salvage the wreck of HMS Victory, flagship of Admiral Sir John Balchen lost in a storm with all hands in October 1744 has been dealt two fresh blows.

Odyssey is already beset by questions over the nature and terms of the commercial salvage contract the Florida based company has entered into with the wrecks owner, British charity the Maritime Heritage Foundation.  The company and its UK PR representatives the Brunswick Group have also faced accusations, reported by Heritage Daily, that a recent attack on English Heritage over its treatment of the HMS Victory site in the Sunday Times was designed as an attempt to intimidate or discredit that organisation, the UK Government’s statutory advisor on heritage matters, in advance of a government decision on how to proceed with the management of the Victory wreck site.

Now Odyssey now finds that its moral authority to work on the site, which is the grave and memorial to over a thousand Royal Navy sailors and the authority and competence of the final arbiters of any work on the site, the Ministry of Defence, are both under severe question.  In fact some authoritative sources go so far as to suggest that work on the site will have to be suspended by the Cameron Government pending a full review of the nature of the Maritime Heritage Foundation’s financial resources- or rather the lack of them.

This new crisis for Odyssey has come about because, in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee [JNAPC], the Ministry of Defence has been forced to admit that it has no record that its officials made any attempt to establish what financial resources were available to the Maritime Heritage Foundation to undertake the HMS Victory Project prior to the ship being “gifted” to the Foundation earlier this year.

This failure of the Ministry of Defence to undertake what is basic “due diligence” regarding the Maritime Heritage Foundation, which is chaired by senior Conservative Peer Lord Lingfield, is critical because the British Government has repeatedly stated that the Annex to the 2001 “UNESCO Convention on the protection of the underwater cultural heritage” represents British policy for the treatment of historic wrecks.  Rule 17 of the UNESCO Annex states that, except in an emergency, adequate funding to see a project through to completion must be shown to be in place before any work is allowed to start.

Although the salvage company has consistently argued, based on its own surveys, that the site is under threat from damage by trawlers and other commercial salvors, at no stage has Odyssey, or the Maritime Heritage Foundation, argued that this represents an emergency in the terms of the UNESCO Annex. It follows that the Ministry of Defence has failed to follow the government’s own stated policy and thus it is argued by the JNAPC and others, that work on the wreck site must be suspended until the Foundation can prove it has the independent financial means to complete what is bound to be a sensitive and expensive project on an internationally important shipwreck site.

Odyssey Explorer in Falmouth Docks Wiki Commons

Estimates for the cost of the salvage planned by Odyssey are as high as £20 million and current indications are that the Maritime Heritage Foundation actually has no independent financial resources at all.  In fact, with the company flagship, Odyssey Explorer, authorised to undertake non-invasive work at the site, it appears the Foundation may be stacking up hundreds thousands of pounds worth of debts to Odyssey under its salvage contract.  Debts which Odyssey hopes will be paid off in cash- which the Foundation does not have; or through the sale of artifacts such as the bronze guns Victory carried, which is not allowed under the terms of the UNESCO Annex.

As if that was not enough bad news for Odyssey and its stockholders, who have been repeatedly told that HMS Victory would be “monetised” starting in the Summer of 2012, the 23 June edition of the Times newspaper saw the publication of a letter from Mr Richard Temple West, a direct descendent of Admiral Sir John Balchen who was lost in the Victory sinking.

After stating that he had been following the fate of the Victory with “increasing dismay,” Mr Temple West expressed concern that the decisions about HMS Victory were being made behind closed doors with scant regard for the site’s status as the grave and memorial to over 1000 mariners, including his ancestor, Sir John Balchen.

Mr Temple West stated his family recognised the historical importance of HMS Victory and for that reason asked that any investigation of the site should be led by expert archaeologists with no financial interest in the results and be carried out for the benefit of the people of the UK.

He concluded his letter with a devastating critique of what many see as the motivation behind the Odyssey/Maritime Heritage Foundation project…

“Most important of all, my ancestor’s grave must not be used by advertising men to pretend that the profit-seeking activities of a treasure hunting company are archaeology done in the public interest.”

Mr Temple West’s intervention undermines the key plank of Odysseys public relations strategy, maintained since the announcement of the finding of HMS Victory in February 2009, which has been to suggest that the descendants of Admiral Balchen support their plan.

Odyssey has been able to do this because of the association of the project with Lord Lingfield.  At the time of the February 2009 announcement and press conference, Lord Lingfield was still plain Sir Robert Balchin and he was introduced as a “descendant” of the Admiral in Odyssey’s Press Release; a claim which was then repeated in the press conference and in a television interview with Fox Business.

Heritage Daily now understands that the precise family relationship between Lord Lingfield and Admiral Balchen is almost certainly much more distant.  That is if it exists at all.  This of course raises the question as to why the claim of direct kinship was made by Odyssey in its press release in the first place?

In the meantime,  whatever Lord Lingfield’s precise relationship with the historical Admiral Sir John Balchen, direct descendants of the Admiral clearly see the plans of Odyssey and Lord Lingfield’s Foundation to mount a for-profit salvage of the shipwreck as little better than grave robbing.


Written by Andy Brockman

HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Press Releases


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Andy Brockman

Andy Brockman

Andy Brockman[ ] is director of Operations Room Archaeology [the Op’s Room] and the Digging Dad’s Army Project and is a specialist in the Archaeology of Modern Conflict. He has a particular interest in community based projects which involve research into archaeology within living memory and supports Operation Nightingale, a British Army initiative to use archaeology to help rehabilitate injured servicemen and women.

  • Follower

    An excellent report at last identifying the true descendants of Admiral Balchen, note the spelling of his name. The modern Balchins changed their name in the seventeenth century from Balchild and have no documented relationship to the Admiral. If they, the modern Balchins, did have a documented relationship I would expect to see trancripts of their documents on their Balchin Family History Society website at &lt ;>. One of their objectives is "to promote and make available research into Balchin Family History" but there is no sign of this on their website!

  • Anon

    The Institute for Archaeoogist guidelines are very clear on issues related to this matter:

    1.7 A member shall not knowingly be employed by, or
    contract with, an individual or entity whose purpose is the
    sale of items excavated and/or recovered from
    archaeological contexts and where such sale may lead
    to the irretrievable dispersal of the physical and/or
    intellectual archive, or where such sale may result in an
    undispersed archive to which public access is routinely

  • heritagedailyuk

    You can see the responses of the shareholders at:

    We also recommend looking at the rest of their threads… as you can guess, its all about money, silver, treasure, market shares…

    e.g. "the M and G sites..the Victory is not important at this time. We have to get that silver and when we do the sp will go up because OMEX will have proven itself and that is good for further work in the future."

  • Carla Ness

    It's very concerning, especially when you look at the past fiasco of the Black Swan. After a five-year court battle, a U.S. federal judge awarded the treasure to Spain in February 2012 and ordered Odyssey Marine to relinquish the treasure to Spanish authorities. Did the Victory Project even go to public tendor for other specialist firms that actually abide by IFA standards??

    • Andy Brockman

      Information from Freedom of Information Act requests indicates that there is no evidence that the Maritime Heritage Foundation made any attempt to seek other tenders for the work on HMS Victory and it's technical advice is entirely that supplied by Odyssey and its paid consultants.

  • Tom K

    Why don't you offer to team up with Odyssey to study this site? Why wait? Do you think you"re going to live forever. Let's get the job done now. How long do you intend to keep history buried?

    • Andy Brockman

      The problem is Odyssey's for-profit business model is not compatible with stated UK Government policy under the Annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, nor within the ethical framework within which the vast majority of archaeologists all over the world on land and at sea work within.

      If Odyssey agrees to abide by UNESCO, not attempt to sell of finds on the commercial collectors market and to undertake an excavation to a timetable dictated solely by the needs of the archaeology of the site, not the need to "monetise" it for its stockholders, then all things become possible.

      Also, to many people the idea that private investors will profit from the exploitation of the grave and memorial to over 1000 Royal Navy Sailors is abhorrent. It is as if a commercial salvage company asked to remove personal material from the USS Arizona, IJN Yamato or HMS Hood and sell some of it for 50-80% commercial profit.