The Laurentic: 100 years on from an epic tragedy onboard the ‘gold ship’

Ray Cossum pictured with the map of Donegal, off which lies the Laurentic shipwreck.
Ray Cossum pictured with the map of Donegal, off which lies the Laurentic shipwreck.

Wednesday will mark the 100th anniversary of the day a ship laden with gold struck two mines laid by German forces off the coast of Donegal.

The World War One tragedy on January 25, 1917 claimed the lives of 354 young men.

The Laurentic in its heyday.

The Laurentic in its heyday.

When it sank back in 1917, the White Star Laurentic had a secret cargo of 43 tonnes of gold bars on board, but there was a media blackout at the time because of the war effort and the nature of the mission - to purchase munitions for the war effort.

Fifty years after the tragedy, talented diver Ray Cossum was becoming involved in setting up of the fledgeling diving clubs in Derry and Donegal when his brother Eric told him about the treasure ship off the coast of Downings. Ray and Eric, (who sadly passed away a few months ago) would go on to purchase the historic Laurentic vessel in 1969.

Ray, originally from Folkestone in Kent, and who has made Derry his home since he first arrived here as a young man, remains the owner of the Laurentic and has dived down to the wreck numerous times.

Items he has retrieved and his painstaking research, which includes interviews with a number of the survivors, will form the basis of a major new Laurentic exhibition to open at Derry’s Tower Museum from on Wednesday.

Des and Ray Cossum pictured with the Laurentic bell during a salvage operation on the Allerton in 1979.

Des and Ray Cossum pictured with the Laurentic bell during a salvage operation on the Allerton in 1979.

This will be one of the highlights of a major programme of commemorative events across Derry and Donegal over the coming days to mark the centenary.

Ray said: “It’s 100 years ago now, it doesn’t seem possible. I have met so many people who originally dived the Laurentic, different people and I was very lucky to meet them.

“The survivors were taken first of all to Buncrana then up to Dunree Fort and then to Derry. The Mayor of Derry then, Anderson, had a collection for the survivors and there were photographs taken in the Guildhall.

“There were 3,211 gold bars on the Laurentic and all but 25 were recovered by the navy and then a few bars were later recovered by a Salvage Company.

The survivors of the Laurentic gathered at the Guildhall.

The survivors of the Laurentic gathered at the Guildhall.

“My brother just died recently and that was very sad for me. We used to bounce off each other. We started teaching ourselves diving and one time he told ‘there’s a treasure ship out there’. I said ‘how do you know that?’ and he said ‘A Boy’s Own’ magazine.”

Fascinated by this, within a few years, Ray and his brother contacted an expert back in Folkestone who ran a salvage company and asked him how much a shipwreck would cost.

“He said ‘never more than £200’. My brother and me we could raise £100 between us and we offered it to the Treasury and they accepted it,” Ray said.

Prior to this, locating the wreck, however, had proved a bit of an issue. Ray said: “It was a bit of a nightmare when the brother and me used to go out there, we couldn’t get the compass bearings because the compasses would go all haywire.

“We used to go out in a 12ft rubber inflatable flat-bottomed boat, 20 horse power engine. Imagine three miles out there, if something happened you couldn’t do anything about it.

“When you think about it, now they have the Swilly rescue craft, helicopters, telephones and all that, and we had nothing. We didn’t know how lucky we were to be alive!”

With the help of land bearings and the late Jim Brown and family from Inch, the brothers were eventually able to locate the shipwreck.

The Cossums then officially took ownership following a few years of negotiations and preparatory work with the Irish government. Ray’s son Dessie was later recruited to help run the operation, and accomplished diver Ray himself has dived the site several times over the years, the last time in 2005.

Over the years there have been problems with people diving searching for the missing treasure and artefacts without permission, and the site is not without its perils and challenges, including strong currents and the position of the wreck itself.

As he marks the 50th anniversary of those early days of the setting up the first formal Sub Aqua club in Derry, Ray said the diving scene is unrecognisable today.

The 75-year-old, whose many achievements including swimming the English Channel and swimming from Buncrana to Rathmullan and back, said: “50 years of diving, and it seems like yesterday. When I look back now on things I think ‘did I really do that, was that me or someone else?’.

“When I started it was all our equipment, me and the brothers, wetsuits and all this.

“In the late 50s I worked in the BSR we used to go up to the swimming pool in Portrush after the shift on a Friday, and then when the pool opened in Derry in William Street I was in there.

“Things have come a long way since then. Diving is colossal now. To see these things come on now its great, marvellous.”