The grisly spot in Kent awash with human remains from the 18th century likens itself to a chilling horror movie

CAKED in thick, grey mud, two pairs of human leg bones lie in open coffins.

Nearby, a jawbone, complete with teeth, pokes out from the squelchy soil.

It is a grisly scene that could come straight out of BBC1 thriller Taboo.

But this grotesque land-scape is very real — and it is right here in the UK.

Known as Deadman’s Island, the stretch of land opposite the Isle of Sheppey on Kent’s River Medway has long been the subject of gruesome folklore with whispered talk of dead bodies, headless skeletons and red-eyed devil dogs.


Now the disturbing truth behind these tales has been captured by the investigative team for BBC show Inside Out South East.

More than 200 years ago, the island was used as a burial ground for convicts who died aboard prison ships.

Thanks to sea erosion, the grim remains can now be found dotted about the surface.

Director Sam Supple said: “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.”

Getting to the remote mudflats, which are owned by Natural England, is no easy task.

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Only accessible by boat, they are part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest for birdlife and are out of bounds to the public.

Sam said: “Because we were filming in winter when the birds had migrated and weren’t breeding, we were given special permission to film on one day only in November.”

Presenter Natalie Graham said: “What I saw there will stay with me forever.

"The island was covered with human remains.

“The remains, buried 200 years ago, are now being exposed to the elements as nature takes its course.

“This is a really strange sight.

 

"I would imagine there can’t be anywhere on earth like this.”

Human bones are littered among the shells, while coffins that were once six feet under have risen to the surface, threatening to expose their contents.

The bodies come from prison ships, known as hulks, moored on the Medway and Thames in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The former warships had names such as Retribution and Captivity.

One estimate puts the number of Royal Navy prison ships in the 18th and 19th centuries at 40, including one off Gibraltar and others in Bermuda and Antigua in the Caribbean.

Many of the criminals, who by today’s standards would be considered petty thieves, had been sentenced to death.





Naval historian Professor Eric Grove said: “They would be people who picked pockets and would include ten-year-olds sentenced to 15 years transportation.

“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.”



Conditions aboard were poor.

Diseases spread easily and the death rate was high.

A cholera epidemic in the 1830s is thought to have wiped out many of the prisoners, who were then buried in unmarked graves on Deadman’s Island.

Archaeologist Dr Paul Wilkinson said: “This particular island was retained for people who died of contagious diseases so that the disease couldn’t erupt through prison ships and the local populations.”

Thanks to natural erosion, the coffins and skeletons have emerged as the mud has gradually washed away.


Sam said: “They are being exposed to the elements and there is no record of who they were, which is quite sad.

“There are memorials to other prisoners who died aboard hulks, such as one in Chatham, Kent, but these men have nothing.”

Natalie added: “It was an extraordinary place.

“For me, it wasn’t particularly frightening, it was incredibly still and actually quite magical.

“I wonder if those myths and legends that have grown up over the years have done the inhabits of Deadman’s Island a favour by warning others away and leaving them to rest in peace.”

— Watch the episode on Inside Out South East on BBC iPlayer.

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