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HMS Ontario

Volume 479: debated on Monday 1 September 2008

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether the Government has ownership of the wreck of HMS Ontario; and if he will make a statement. (212600)

I will write to my hon. Friend.

Substantive answer from Bob Ainsworth to Gordon Prentice:

I undertook to write to you in answer to your Parliamentary Question on 3 July 2008 (Official Report, column 1040W), about the ownership of HMS ONTARIO, whose wreck has apparently been discovered by a Canadian dive group at the bottom of Lake Ontario on the US-Canada border.

HMS ONTARIO, a 22 gun sloop, foundered in a storm on Lake Ontario on October 31 1780 during the American Revolutionary War—it is uncertain how many lives were lost (estimates range from 88 to over a 120) as the ship may have been carrying some American prisoners of war in addition to British soldiers and her British and Canadian crew. There were no survivors. The dive group, who located the wreck using side-scanning sonar and an unmanned submersible, say that it is virtually intact, it is thought that the cold, fresh water of the lake has acted as a preservative with the lack of light and oxygen slowing decomposition of the ship’s timbers. In addition to being effectively the last resting place of those who perished in the sinking, the remains of the ONTARIO undoubtedly represent an important item of underwater cultural heritage. The dive group apparently have no plans to attempt to raise the wreck or remove artefacts from it and have not publicised its position.

The ONTARIO was launched from Carleton Island shipyard on Lake Ontario in May 1780. A King’s Ship, she was part of the Provincial Marine, a coastal protection service on the Great Lakes operated and staffed by the Royal Navy. This service with the Provincial Marine complicates the question of ownership as it is possible that rights to the wreck may have transferred to Canada when she became an independent nation and the assets of the Provincial Marine were made over to it. This issue is being investigated but as you can appreciate, it is likely to take some time to resolve.

That said, the issue of who actually owns the wreck may, in this case, be moot. The remains of HMS ONTARIO appear to lie in United States territorial waters and the United States have already indicated that they are willing to use US legislation to protect the wreck from unauthorised interference—a stance that the United Kingdom is entirely comfortable with. The United Kingdom is unlikely to object to appropriate archaeological investigation of the find—however, any such investigation would be a matter for the Canadian and United States authorities in the first instance given that these two countries control access to the site. We shall of course continue to monitor developments and liaise with our Canadian and United States counterparts, but it seems clear that all State parties involved are united in their wish to see the wreck of HMS ONTARIO properly protected.