Published On: Sat, Jul 6th, 2024
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‘Nowhere like it on earth’ The UK’s dead man’s island | History | News

It’s known as Deadman’s Island. But the chilling and ominous name doesn’t come close to doing justice to this haunting and tragic piece of land on the English coast.

Only 40 miles from London, this uninhabited spot, rich in macabre history, is home to human remains from centuries past, a dark testament to its previous use as a burial site for convicts who perished due to infectious diseases aboard ‘prison ships’ over two centuries ago.

You’ll find this eerie mudbank at The Swale’s mouth, just off the River Medway, facing Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppy, Kent. However, don’t plan a trip anytime soon, as entry to the island is forbidden, though this is down more to it being a breeding and nesting ground for birds.

The island bears no trace of human habitation, except, that is, for the visible skeletal remains and wooden coffins once entombed six feet under but now visible due to coastal erosion. The land is owned by Natural England and occupied by two individual leaseholders, states the BBC.

Scientifically, the island is significant. It is recognised globally under the Ramsar convention and is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. In 2017, a rare opportunity to venture into this forgotten place was extended to the BBC‘s Inside Out team.

Recalling the unique experience, presenter Natalie Graham shared her thoughts with The Sun: “What I saw there will stay with me forever. This is a really strange sight. I would imagine there can’t be anywhere on earth like this.”, reports Wales Online.

Director Sam Supple remarked: “It is like being on the set of a horror film. It looks so surreal, it’s like an art department has designed it. There are open coffins and bones everywhere.”

The chilling locale around the island’s edge has earned the nickname “Coffin Bay”, notorious for its scattered open coffins and human remains.

Local lore is rife with eerie tales about the island, including legends of demonic hounds with blood-red eyes devouring the heads of the interred, a spine-tingling ambiance, and “an island solely occupied by the dead”. A local recounted to the BBC in the documentary hearing stories of “monsters that fed on the brains of people it caught”, while another from Queenborough claimed to hear a “howl” from the island at night.

Yet, the true tale behind Deadman’s Island is one of tragedy. In the 18th and 19th centuries, inmates were confined aboard ‘prison hulks’, floating jails, near the Isle of Sheppey.

One such vessel bore the ominous name Retribution.

These prisoners, some as young as ten and convicted of minor offences like pick-pocketing, were destined for deportation to Australia. However, those too ill for the arduous voyage would spend their dying days on these ships, anchored off the coast, succumbing to death in the dank bowels of the hulks.

Brits were shocked to learn that diseases rampant on convict ships led to a staggering death toll, as revealed in a chilling BBC documentary. The late naval historian Professor Eric Grove detailed the grim reality: “A lot of crimes carried the death penalty, but as a way of being humane and also to inhabit the colonies, it was decided it would be good to transport convicts. But you tended to find that if people were not considered healthy enough to take the voyage to Australia, they would be left in the hulks.”

He further disclosed the dire conditions: “The major problem really was you had a lot of men together, or a lot of boys together, and therefore if an epidemic began to occur, then it would spread and this was particularly important in the early 1830s, when Retribution was here, because there was the cholera epidemic.”

In a bid to halt the spread of disease, the deceased were interred in unmarked coffins on Deadman’s Island, now exposed at low tide with no trace of the prisoners’ identities. Experts face a daunting challenge in preserving these remains, as the relentless sea erodes the island, sweeping bones away.

In a bizarre twist, additional similar human remains have been unearthed in Chatham, Kent Live has reported.

The remains were from numerous French prisoners detained during the Napoleonic wars, who were laid to rest in nearby marshes posthumously. Their remains were later exposed due to erosion and subsequently exhumed and reinterred on St Mary’s Island.

When this land was required for redevelopment, they were relocated to St George’s Church at Chatham Maritime. Mr Supple stated: “There are memorials to other prisoners who died aboard hulks, such as one in Chatham, Kent, but these men have nothing.”

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