It is now around 50 years since Ray Cossum’s brother Eric told him about a treasure ship off the coast of Donegal.
The passing remark was to spark an epic adventure for the brothers who in the late 1960s went on to purchase the historic ‘Laurentic’ vessel, which sank off the coast of Downings in Donegal in January 1917, resulting in the deaths of more than 300 young men.
The ship also had a secret cargo of 43 kilos of gold bars on board.
As preparations get under way to mark the centenary of the First World War tragedy next year, the 50th anniversary of their involvement with the Laurentic is also tinged with sadness for Ray Cossum as his brother Eric recently passed away in Kent.
Ray, originally from Folkestone in Kent, has lived in Derry since he was a young man and said of his brother: “He loved it here. He was here every turn around, all the time. He loved the diving.
“There was no Irish long distance swimming when we started but they are now to be contended with. It has really taken off.
“It’s like yesterday to me. I used to work in the BSR when the pool opened in Derry at William Street. We used to do long hours training in there. We used to bounce off each other. By and large, we used to say, ‘not bad from where we grew up in the back streets’.”
Ray hung up his diving gear several years back but is still heavily involved in swimming as Vice President of the Channel Swim Association. In fact his CV reads like the central protagonist of an adventure novel, having been involved in the setting up of the first diving club in Derry and claiming the title of the first Irish man to swim the English Channel in November 1970 in a time of 13 hours 41 minutes.
Ray went on to coach the Irish Junior Channel Team, which set a record when they swam the Channel from England to France in 1978.
As Vice President of the Channel Swim Association, Ray has verified, among others, comedian David Wallaims’ headline-making success back in 2001.
Ray arrived in Derry as a teenager in 1949 with the Royal Navy and made the city his home, having married and raised a family here.
His skill as a diver is recorded in photographs, his own writings, and the many certificates amassed for having completed epic swims across Lough Swilly, from Portrush to Greencastle, Belfast Lough and Derry to Moville to mention just a few.
He later worked as an oil rig diver and deep sea salvage diver in deep waters across the world. But it is the White Star Line SS Laurentic for which Ray Cossum is perhaps best known locally.
The massive 565 ft trans-Atlantic cruise liner was built at Harland & Wolff in 1908. The passenger ship had been requisitioned by the Navy with the outbreak of the First World War and had set sail on January 23, 1917 from Liverpool bound for Halifax in Nova Scotia on what was to be its final voyage.
The crew had an unscheduled stop over in Buncrana due to a number of cases of sickness on board, but despite misgivings over the German U-boats operating in the area, slipped anchor again that same evening.
Less than an hour after departing from Buncrana, the ship struck two U-boat mines.
A total of 354 young men lost their lives that day, 71 of whom are buried in a mass grave at Fahan. Survivors were later photographed at the Guildhall in Derry.
Unbeknownst to the public at the time, the Laurentic crew was undertaking a top secret mission to bring £300 million in today’s money worth of gold bars to pay the United States for munitions for the War.
Several months after the disaster, a survivor from the Laurentic, Petty Officer Augustus Dent, was among those who were tasked with diving the wreck for the gold. Dent had served on board as a gunner’s assistant when it went down and his testimony about the events was later recorded by Ray himself.
Speaking about his own early acquaintance with the ship several decades later, Ray said: “I first learned about the ‘Laurentic’ in early 60s. I’m 85 now so that’s 50 years ago. First of all it was just a passing interest to us.
“We were a couple of divers, the brother and me. There was no-one in this part of the world diving then; it was a wonder we didn’t kill ourselves! My brother Eric turned around one day and said: ‘do you know there is a treasure ship out there’.
“I said ‘where did you hear that?’ and he said in ‘Boy’s Own’, and it went on from there, we tried to locate it and find it.
“We started researching the ‘Laurentic’. We contacted Risdon Beazley in Southampton, they did all the salvage, even for the Royal Navy. They did a boat off Bunbeg one time. But it turned out they didn’t own it.
“The ‘Laurentic’ was sunk by a mine. 43 tonnes of gold, 3,211 gold bars. The aim was to get them to Canada and try and ship them down to America.
“In March that year the Commander in Charge of Salvage managed to get down to the Strong Room and some guy managed to blow open the door and recovered boxes of gold. Salvage went on and they said all was clear but they were wrong.
“After they were out there and located it, there was a tremendous storm and they found stuff floating, wooden doors, chairs etc.
“Everything had broken up, and when they managed to get down to where the gold was it was scattered down throughout the decks. They spent seven years working on it up to 1924. There were six gold bars in each box, and each box weighed more than a hundredweight.
“In those days someone would hand a light down, they would have gone down with a helmet on, heavy boots, into dark passageways, trying to find a way, bodies floating around in the water.”
While almost all of the gold was recovered at the time, and some of the bars recovered since, 22 gold bars remain on the sea bed to this day.
Ray said: “We spent so long looking for it and we were just about to give up and then we went out with Jim Brown from Inch, who has since passed away.
“The Royal Navy had done a survey of ships out there, and I wanted land bearings. We went out there into that area and Jim Brown, he said ‘that’s not rocks, that’s metal’, the way the echo sound was coming through.
“I wouldn’t have done it without the Browns, their skill and knowledge of tides and the area.”
By the late 60s, Ray and Eric had raised £100 to purchase the Laurentic.
“We wrote to the Ministry of Defence. In those days £100 was like thousands of pounds. You would never get it now but they accepted it. I wrote a book with Jack Scoltock about it called ‘We Own The Laurentic’.
“All credit to Donegal and Ireland, they did everything correct. Everything was done by the book.”
The Cossums officially took ownership of the ship in 1969, following a few years of negotiations and preparatory work.
Ray’s son Dessie was later recruited to help run the operation, and 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 at the site 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.
“When you come to the seabed you have three quarters of the guns buried, it’s like concrete there. Then you need equipment,” Ray said.
Plans are underway for a host of activities leading up to centenary of the sinking of the Laurentic, with artefacts collected from it expected to form the centre piece.
But a century on, Ray’s Laurentic remains a sleeping giant at the bottom of Lough Swilly with the final chapter in this treasure ship’s story as yet unwritten.