In 1976, Jeb Robinson was diving down to a WW2 North Sea shipwreck, the SS Benmacdhui, nearly nine times a day. The wreck was about 24 meters underwater, and Robinson was trying to recover some of the ship’s nonferrous content for scrap metal.
His team’s salvage vessel, the Fame, towed a magnetometer to trawl the sea depths for such hidden treasures, and once an anomaly was found, Robinson would dive to investigate.
Jeb Robinson and the Benmacdhui
Forty-seven years ago, Robinson picked up a coin from the Ben’s wreck that he didn’t think much of at the time. “On that first dive, I also came across one small coin, which I kept as a souvenir,” says Robinson.
He presumed it to have been small change belonging to one of the ship’s crew. Sea conditions had been good that day. He was able to find all kinds of nonferrous materials spread over the seabed.
According to Robinson, there were copper, brass, and tin ingots and nearly 50 tons of copper wire among the remains. There were also several Hong Kong banknotes. On surfacing, he was asked what he had found. Jeb Robinson held up the coin and raised laughter by exclaiming: “We’re rich!” Little did he know!
The 6,869 ton, 132m long cargo vessel SS Benmacdhui had been a British Expeditionary Forces supply ship. On 21 December 1941, Ben went missing from a WW2 convoy that had set off for Hong Kong.
It was reported that she had caught fire and had sunk after hitting a German mine, with no presumed loss of life. In 1946, the Royal Navy had further intentionally damaged the wreck to destroy artillery on board.
An Exciting Discovery
Until a few years ago, Jeb Robinson had been hoping to lead a dive team back to the Benmacdhui. But the coronavirus pandemic put a pause on his plans.
“If the divers have access to a decent boat, they’d be welcome to see what they can find,” says the veteran diver. “I reckon it’s a real Pandora’s box.”
When he was first diving down to the Ben in 1976, Robinson and his team had worked to recover the nonferrous cargo. Once recovered, he later contacted the Salvage Association and arranged for his company, Humber Divers, to buy the Benmacdhui. Robinson then moved on to the next job without a second thought about the wreck he had just purchased.
It was only many years later, in 2015, that Robinson discovered the true treasure trove that was the Benmacdhui. Four years earlier, Robinson had presented a Turkish diver friend with some coins he had collected from various wrecks over the years as a wedding gift. Among these coins had been a coin salvaged from the Benmacdhui.
Hong Kong coin
The Turkish friend had taken the coin to be valued. Although the expert had initially believed the coin to be a fake, he was subsequently able to confirm that it was, in fact, an exquisitely rare 1941 Hong Kong 1-cent piece.
In 2015, it was thought that there were no more than 100 of these pieces in existence. Most of them had been melted down to contribute metal for the war effort.
Coin collectors have been known to pay as much as £16,000 for them.
Jeb Robinson now lives in north Cyprus with his wife Pauline and teaches at the local dive school. However, even well into his retirement, the Benmacdhui never seems far from his mind.
Exploring the Coins’ Value
After cross-checking the ship’s manifesto, Robinson believed that the Benmacdhui had been carrying 32 boxes of bronze coins. Other rare coins that appear to have been included in the shipment include rare 1941 Sarawak 1-cent pieces. Struck by this luck, Robinson is now looking for accomplished wreck divers to explore the vessel on his behalf. “I just need to know,” he says.
According to the World Coins price guide, nearly 5 million Hong Kong 1-cent coins were minted before being split into three lots. One lot had reached Hong Kong and was melted down to make ammunition. The second lot had been recalled to the UK and also melted down.
These coins’ third and final shipment was thought to have been on the Benmacdhui. It had been pure luck that Robinson had found the coin in the shipwreck and luck again that his friend had suspected it to be valuable.
Colleagues of Robinson’s have since revisited the wreck, recovering over a dozen scattered Hong Kong and Sarawak coins. But Robinson believes that most of the coin boxes remain in the No. 2 hold. This had been entirely sealed off before the ship’s departure to block out intruders.
“People say to me, if that single coin is valuable only because there are so few in the world, what will it be worth if there turn out to be millions of them on the wreck?” says Robinson. “I say to them: what are a million pennies worth? It has to be a win-win situation.”