THE remains of a submerged hospital barge for 1920s diphtheria victims may resurface when a stretch of the Lancaster Canal is dredged.

Although bodies are unlikely to be found on board the 72-feet wooden vessel, speculation has led Lancaster Canal Trust to notify Cumbria police of its plans to clear the canal at Stainton, near Kendal, where the barge lies.

Frank Sanderson, the trust's public relations officer, said: "We've gone to the community police at Lane Farm, Crooklands, and told them about this, just to make sure, because eventually we will have to dredge that section out.

"They (the police) have gone to see the local farmers and they (the police) say, it's probably only a story, we know about it now; we are not going to investigate it any further but it's been recorded, and if you do find anything we will take it from there."

Mr Sanderson told the Gazette he was confident of the sunken barge's location at Field End Farm, Stainton, where the canal widens into a turning area, or winding hole. "If I had not passed all my scuba gear on to one of my sons-in-law, I would go down myself and find exactly where the barge lies," he said.

Canal enthusiasts want to clear silt and dense horsetail reeds from the water at Stainton, among other locations, ahead of next year's Inland Waterways Association Trailboat Festival. The event from May 30 to June 1 will feature best-dressed boats and an illuminated procession after dark.

Retired hotelier Mr Sanderson said there was a diphtheria outbreak around 1920 when the barge became a 'hospital ship or morgue', with the bodies of people who died in nearby rural settlements taken to Lancaster or further south for burial or cremation.

"There might still be bodies. Personally I doubt it because in the 1920s they were well organised, even in small communities," said Mr Sanderson.

He explained that steel barges eventually made wooden vessels redundant, and the former hospital boat may simply have been left to sink at Stainton. "I've done a fair amount of soundings there and I know exactly where it's lying. There will not be much of it left now, just the remains of it," he added.

Diphtheria was one of the most feared childhood diseases before immunisation. This potentially fatal infection causes serious breathing difficulties and even suffocation, and it claimed the life of Queen Victoria's second daughter, Princess Alice, in 1878.

Before a vaccine was introduced in 1942, there were around 60,000 cases each year in the UK, leading to 4,000 deaths.

In the last 20 years, there have been just four deaths in the UK, and all the victims were unvaccinated, according to the University of Oxford's Vaccine Knowledge Project.

- Any divers interested in locating the barge can contact Frank Sanderson on 015395-66967.