JUST days after grieving families put their loved ones who died in the Severn bridge disaster to rest, fears have been raised that the shipwrecks holding their memories are being damaged.

The two barges that collided 50 years ago this week were seen being interfered with by a digger in the water two days after a plaque was unveiled in memory of the five men who died on them.

It has raised concerns that part of Gloucestershire’s maritime heritage is under threat with no legal protection to stop people destroying it.

The Arkendale H and the Wastdale H both still lay in the river at Purton after they sank on October 25, 1960.

A photo, taken by the Gazette, showed a large vessel with a digger attached called the Riparian, belonging to Fred Larkham, next to the two shipwrecks.

Mr Larkham, who previously owned the two barges but sold them over a year ago, said he recognised he had gone out at an insensitive time but had wanted to save some of the remaining parts of the ship.

He said that having taken a radio reporter out to the barges a few weeks ago he noticed that many items had been pulled off the wrecks and taken away.

"I felt very shocked to see it, someone had obviously been on the vessels and taken a number of things," said Mr Larkham.

Mr Larkham said he planned to offer the items he recovered to a local museum.

Paul Barnett, of the Friends of Purton, who has worked tirelessly over the years to get all the shipwrecks along the Severn near Sharpness designated by English Heritage, said he was "distraught" to hear the news.

"Just days ago I said to a group of grieving people that Gloucestershire does care about its heritage as we unveiled the plaque and now this happens.

"At a time like this, on the anniversary of this disaster where five men were killed, this is so insensitive."

Mr Barnett also pointed out that there was potential for pollution spillage if the vessels were tampered with, as when they sank one was carrying petrol and the other black oil.

However the shipwrecks have no legal protection of any kind as English Heritage has not yet designated them as historical monuments.

A spokesman for English Heritage said they had been notified about intrusive access to the vessels and had contacted Natural England to find out whether consent was required for the activity.

He added: "English Heritage has received an application to designate these two vessels and we are considering that request at the moment."

A spokeswoman for Natural England said that they seek to ensure items of historical interest are accommodated in areas of conservation but the suitability of their maintenance was not for them to decide.