Cross-Channel Trade

Privateers, Onion Johnnies and eco-trading

Look, what day that endelong Bretagne                                                                                        Ye remove all the rockes, stone by stone,                                                                                   That they not lette ship nor boat to gon . . .

[Chaucer, Canterbury Tales]


Modern black & white photo of a stone ledge on a wall with a carved relief of a sailing ship.
A number of 17th century carvings of sailing ships survive on the exterior walls of a number of religious and secular buildings in Roscoff, reflecting the basis of the town’s prosperity.

Modern black & white photo of a stone ledge on a wall with a carved relief of a sailing ship.

As is traditional for Wreck of the Week at this time of year, I’m taking a diversion into our maritime records to illuminate an international aspect of England’s maritime heritage, inspired by my holidays.

This year I take a look at Morlaix and Roscoff in Brittany. Chaucer’s use of a Breton lai or lay in the late 14th century Canterbury Tales points to a strong, well-established and enduring cross-Channel cultural interchange. The appearance of the Canterbury Tales is bookended by the earliest known vessels lost in English waters while bound to or from Brittany: Le Seynt Marie stranded at Dungeness on her passage from Sluis for Brittany in 1364, while in 1421 a French ship laden with wine from Brittany ‘for the king’s use’ foundered in the Thames Estuary. (1)

Thereafter the extant wreck record is silent on trade between England and Brittany until the mid to late 17th century, but this does not mean that there was no trade or that there were no ships lost en route: simply that the documentation is yet to be discovered, has been lost, was never recorded in the first place, or the sources omit to tell us the origin or destination of a voyage (all too common until the 18th century).

Nevertheless, after this period, wreck records provide evidence for both established industries and trade routes, as demonstrated by the 1669 loss of the John, laden with linen from Morlaix, on Chesil Beach. Morlaix prospered in the linen trade and the town’s unique 16th century maisons à pondalez retain shutters which folded out as shopfront counters for the display of linen, decorated internally and externally with symbolic linenfold panelling.

Modern colour photo of 3 glass windows set in a timber building, with horizontal shutters open above and below the windows, the lower shutters acting as counters (used to display literature on the building, formerly as a shop).
Shopfront, Maison a pondalez, 9, Grande rue, Morlaix, with linenfold panelling symbolising the goods once sold on the shutter counters above.

By the late 18th century Roscoff, along with other Breton seafaring towns, was well known as a privateering centre, with 14 prizes sent into the town in 1778. (2) Breton lugger privateers continued to operate in the Channel during the Napoleonic wars. For example, the Incomparable lugger privateer of 14 guns, le Duc, (3) belonging to St. Malo, took the Mary brig of Sunderland in 1812. The Mary would be her last prize, for she was intercepted and engaged by the Hind revenue cutter, with three broadsides enough to sink her off the Dodman on 18 June 1812. The English noted that she was operating out of ‘Roscoe’, which may even suggest that her crew were Breton speakers (Rosko in modern Breton).

The wreck record around the mid to late 19th century suggests the dominance of Channel Island ships in trading between Brittany and England, exchanging English coal for Breton agricultural produce. Two of these Channel Island wrecks from 1898-1899 are especially interesting because they preserve a record of a formerly widespread trade that began after the Napoleonic wars and persisted well into the 20th century.

In particular, Paquebot No.5, sunk in a collision with a steamer off the Goodwin Sands on 13 August 1899, perfectly illustrates this popular trade route: laden with onions from Roscoff, together with ‘lads brought over to England by a merchant, named Henry Tongay, for the purpose of hawking the onions.’ (4)

These young men were the famed ‘Onion Johnnies’ of Roscoff who voyaged to Britain every summer to sell their produce. The 24 men on board, mostly the onion ‘hawkers’ and the date of their voyage, after the Pardon de Ste Barbe in Roscoff in mid-July, tallies well with an account of the ‘Johnny Onions‘ in Wales in the mid 20th century, suggesting that the trade changed little in half a century. (In Roscoff their memory is preserved in the street name rue des Johnnies, in sculptural form as a door corbel on a house in the town, and in a dedicated museum, and as a cultural exchange on both sides of the Channel through the biennial Brittany-Dorset Onion Jack tour.)

Another example of living heritage was the visit of the centenarian schooner De Gallant to Roscoff during my stay. She was bound for Penzance, last from Noirmoutier with salt, following in the wake of her predecessors on the route, with the sailing vessel now seen as an eco-friendly way of trading internationally. Our maritime records also reflect the heritage of this trading route, with two French ships lost on the Cornish coast during the 19th century, while bound from Noirmoutier to Penzance with salt (1839 and 1899).

A common trading and cultural heritage, changing as patterns of trade changed, is illustrated by documented wreck events on this side of the Channel and expressed in architecture on the other.

Colour photo of a schooner's sail being lowered between two masts as she ties up at a quayside.
De Gallant in Roscoff, 25th June 2019.


(1) Calendar of Patent Rolls (CPR), Edward III, Vol.XII, 1361-4, p536, membrane 29d (HMSO, 1912); CPR, Henry V, Vol.II, 1416-22, p384, membrane 27d (HMSO, 1911)

(2) NIÈRES, Claude. Les villes de Bretagne au XVIIIe siècle (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2004)

(3) Named as Jean le Duc, Newcastle Courant, 27 June 1812, No.7,081, p4; possibly Anastase Joseph le Duc, recorded as capitaine de corsaire (privateer captain) of St. Malo, commanding the Incomparable in 1812, thereafter recorded as captain of the Embuscade.

(4) Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 August 1899, No.2,981, p10



Queen Victoria 200

Friday 24 May 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth. Her long reign (1837-1901) saw an expansion of worldwide trade, facilitated by innovations in ship construction. Brunel’s SS Great Western, for example, was launched only a few months into her reign in 1838, and paved the way for the transatlantic ocean liner that would dominate maritime traffic for over a century.

Queen Victoria herself and the great changes in shipping that took place during her lifetime are both well-documented. Perhaps less well known is Victoria’s intimate connection with ships, shipping and shipwrecks, despite the many Fleet Reviews of her reign that set a precedent for later monarchs.

Black and white photograph of a billiard table in a room decorated in late Victorian style, with three lampshades low over the table.
Billiard table at Windsor Castle, fashioned from timbers recovered in the early years of Victoria’s reign from the 1782 wreck of the Royal George, Spithead. Bedford Lemere and Company, 1893. Source: Historic England Archive

Victoria kept a lifelong journal recording her interest in ships from an early age, beginning with her teenage visits to resorts on the Kent and Sussex coasts. She took a lively interest in all the ships and sailors she saw and took great pains to learn their names and nationalities. Then as now, press interest in royalty, was intense, including a stay at St. Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex, in late 1834, which coincided with a spell of bad weather: ‘The weather has been very unfavourable, since the arrival of the Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria for out-door exercise . . . ‘ (1)

On 20 November, a coal brig homeward-bound to nearby Rye sprang a leak off St. Leonards. A rescue party in a boat was swamped and all on board drowned, a loss that was made all the more poignant because the crew of the original wreck had in fact saved themselves by abandoning ship. The royal visitors ‘most liberally subscribed . . . towards the relief of the several families who have been thrown into great distress . . .’ (2) Victoria’s entry for 5 January 1835 describes an encounter with one of the widows: ‘As we walked along by the towers we met Mrs. Weeks, one of the widows, with her little girl . . . She looks as pale as death . . .‘ (3)

One of the most famous wrecks of the entire Victorian era occurred very early in the Queen’s reign, primarily because its heroine was a young woman not much older than the Queen herself. Grace Darling (1815-1842) won international fame by accompanying her father in the perilous rescue of the survivors of the paddle steamer Forfarshire, wrecked in 1838 among the Farne Islands, Northumberland. In her journal for 28 September 1838 Victoria records hearing of the ‘gallant behaviour of a girl called Grace Darling’ from Lord Melbourne. On a rather boisterous voyage to Scotland in 1842 aboard the Royal Yacht, Victoria was nevertheless eager to discern ‘ . . . Farne Island, with Grace Darling’s Light House on it, & curious rocky islands . . . ‘ (5)

The 19th century saw enormous gains in the matter of ship safety. From 1850 the Admiralty was responsible for compiling records of shipping losses, a duty which devolved to the Board of Trade through the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854. For the first time, registers and summary abstracts (Board of Trade Casualty Returns) provided a centralised record from which to distil a statistical overview of shipwrecks and identification of common trends in shipping casualties. Hazards which caused regular or frequent losses could be identified and mitigating measures adopted (such as building new lighthouses where needed). The Returns were very successful and were copied elsewhere, for example in Denmark, and have become one of our key sources for wrecks of the Victorian era.

Similarly, a further Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 enforced the compulsory marking of a load line on British ships to do away with the overloaded ‘coffin ships’ that all too often foundered with all hands or were sent to sea unseaworthy. The load line, which is still used in a much refined form today on modern shipping, is popularly known as the ‘Plimsoll line’ after the MP Samuel Plimsoll, who had campaigned for many years to achieve its adoption.

Not all the legislation in the world could avoid ‘stress of weather’, natural hazards, or tragic accidents. The sheer volume of naval, commercial and leisure traffic in the Victorian period ensured that collisions were a frequent occurrence in crowded waterways, in the Thames, Humber, and English Channel in particular.

On 18 August 1875 the Queen herself was involved in a wreck event when the Royal Yacht Alberta was involved in a collision in the Solent with the sailing yacht Mistletoe. Victoria’s journal gives a vivid impression of the event: ‘When we [n]eared Stokes Bay, Beatrice said, very calmly “Mama, there is a yacht coming against us,” & I saw the tall masts & large sails of a schooner looming over us. In an instant came an awful, most terrifying crash . . . ‘ (6) Victoria was then ‘horrified to find not a single vestige of the yacht, merely a few spars & deck chairs floating about . . . ‘ Some of those on board the Mistletoe had saved themselves, as was common in such incidents, by jumping aboard the colliding vessel. Three lives were lost, including Thomas Stokes, master of the Mistletoe, who was picked up alive and brought onto the Queen’s yacht, but soon afterwards died of his injuries.

The subsequent inquiries were, of course, much reported in the press, and generated much adverse comment on the conduct of the respective crews. Had the Mistletoe approached too close in order for her passengers to catch a glimpse of the royal party? Why had the Alberta not been able to avoid the Mistletoe?

Less than three years later another shipwreck occurred off the Isle of Wight, which again generated huge publicity. This time it was the wreck of the sail training ship Eurydice, homeward-bound from the West Indies, which capsized in a snowy squall off Dunnose Point on 24 March 1878 with the loss of some 300 lives, mostly young men. The priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) would paint a vivid word-picture in his poem The Loss of the Eurydice of the ordeal of one of the two survivors, Sydney Fletcher of Bristol:

Now her afterdraught gullies him too down,

Now he wrings for breath with the deathgush brown,

Till a lifebelt and God’s will

Lend him a lift from the sea-swill.

The Queen heard of the wreck at Windsor Castle: ‘Too awful! . . . Too fearful! Could think of little else.’ (7) Over the course of that year the Queen and other members of the royal family, in common with much of the country, would discuss the sad fate of the Eurydice on many occasions. She was presented with a copy of The Last Four Days of the Eurydice by Captain E H Verney (1878). (8)

Spending much of their time at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, or at that year’s Fleet Review at Gosport, the royal family regularly encountered the grim sight of the wreck: ‘As we steamed across, we saw the poor Eurydice, lying close off what is called “No man’s land”, just as we had seen her the day of the Review, in fearful contrast to the beautiful Fleet.’ (9) 

This blog can only scratch the surface of the Queen’s intimate connection with the sea, one she shared with her people, including direct involvement in a form of shipping tragedy which, statistically, became more common over her reign as more people acquired the leisure for pleasure cruising. She became Queen at a time when many individuals and organisations worked tirelessly to improve both navigational safety and the lot of the ordinary sailor, and it was during her reign that the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, founded in 1824, took the name by which we know it today, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Wrecks were interwoven into her life just as much as they were into the lives of Victorians, many of whom would have gone to sea in the navy, merchant marine, or in the fishing industry, or taken advantage of the new opportunities for passenger travel aboard the steam-powered liner. Others still were moved by what they saw for themselves, or read in the newspapers: the Queen shared all these experiences in common with everyone else.

Oil painting of wrecked ship laid up against white cliffs, with boats surrounding her on a slightly swelling sea, a cloudy sky above.
Henry Robins, The Wreck of the Eurydice, signed and dated 1878. RCIN 406265. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

(1) Hampshire Adviser and Salisbury Guardian, 29 November 1834, No.593

(2) ibid.

(3) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 6, (5 November 1834 – 24 May 1835)

(4) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 7 (11 August – 6 October 1838)

(5) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 14 (1 July – 31 December 1842)

(6) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 64 (1 January 1875 – 29 February 1876)

(7) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 68 (1 January – 24 June 1878)

(8) “The Last Four Days of the Eurydice, National Maritime Museum blog, 09 May 2017

(9) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 69 (25 June – 31 December 1878)




A miraculous rescue

The Brig Nérina

In the autumn of 1840 two French brigs left their mark on history in very different ways. One was witness to a key historical moment, the other an unusual tale of survival against all odds. The brig was, in many ways, the characteristic vessel type of the 19th century, sturdy, strong, and adaptable, and accounts for some 7% of our shipwreck records.

The first was the naval brig L’Oreste, detached from the French Levant (Mediterranean) squadron for St. Helena, where she witnessed the translation of the mortal remains of Napoleon Bonaparte aboard La Belle Poule. L’Oreste then accompanied La Belle Poule and La Favorite out of St. Helena on 18 October 1840, and as she set her course for the Mediterranean, La Belle Poule and La Favorite continued north for Cherbourg with the ashes of Napoleon Bonaparte, to be translated to Les Invalides, Paris, where they have lain ever since.

Victorian sepia photograph of ship seen from afar all alone on a calm sea, sunlight striking the sea to the right of the ship from among the clouds.,
The Brig, 1856, by the French photographer Gustave Le Gray. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 67995

The other vessel was the commercial brig Nérina which left Dunkirk for Marseille on 30 October 1840 with a crew of 7, including the captain’s teenage nephew, and a cargo of oil and canvas. What happened next was an incredible feat of survival. The English correspondent assured his readers that it was no ‘Yankee story’ but, as a local resident, had seen the people and events described with his own eyes. (1) In a similar vein, his French counterpart stated that he had both met with the survivors and had obtained a souvenir account of the event printed under the auspices of Richard Pearce, vice-consul at Penzance, as an aide-memoire ‘lest my story be ridiculed’. (2) [The story can be followed in French here.]

The wind was set fair for her voyage with a favourable breeze, but in the English Channel a typical autumn squall set in, as the wind suddenly backed to the south-east. Thereafter the Nérina beat up Channel with extreme difficulty against contrary winds, taking 15 days to reach the Lizard. The wind increased, and the exhausted crew viewed with dismay the fierce Atlantic breakers crashing onto the shore as they passed Land’s End.

They had reached a position some 12 nautical miles south-west of the ‘Sorlingues’ [the French name for the Isles of Scilly] when a heavy sea struck their vessel, which capsized suddenly, sweeping one man off the deck, never to be seen again. ‘The vessel in a moment turned completely over, not allowing time for the water to run into her, by which means the internal air kept the water out.’ (3) This describes what we would now know today as an air pocket.

Three seamen were in the forecastle, of whom one was drowned as he lost his grip, while the other two managed to keep their heads above the rising water and wriggle through a gap, making their way towards voices in the stern cabin, where the master, his nephew, and the mate had been when the ship capsized. The mate had managed to open a hatch into a watertight space and clear away some stores, then helped the master and the boy through the gap. The other two men from the forecastle followed them, and there the five managed to survive for the ensuing three days and nights, with no sustenance or space to stand up, and the air beginning to run out in that confined space. They gained some idea of the passage of time through seeing daylight striking upon the sea being reflected up through the cabin skylight, which, of course, was now below them, and then through the hatchway.

South-west of the Isles of Scilly, they were on course to drift out into the Atlantic, where they must inevitably have perished. They were completely unaware of what happened next, and, as a French journalist wrote, perhaps it was as well that it was so, or they would have suffered even greater agonies of alternating hope and despair than they were already experiencing, although the captain tried his best to maintain their morale. In the meantime the resourceful mate was trying to carve out a hole in the hull in an effort to gain some more air, but his knife broke before he was able to break through (very fortunately, or the water would have rushed in).

Aerial view of the Isles of Scilly, standing green above a calm blue sea, against a blue sky with light white clouds.
The Isles of Scilly looking SW. 23893/12 SV9217/1 © Historic England

Two fishing vessels returning to St. Mary’s spotted crowds of birds gathering over a dark whale-like shape in the water off St. Agnes, and decided to investigate. They found it to be an upturned hull and attempted to take it in tow, but the tow rope broke, and they were forced to abandon the attempt as the weather worsened, not having the least idea that there was anyone on board the derelict.

The attempted tow had, however, taken the vessel out of the currents carrying her inexorably into the Atlantic. In the middle of the night the vessel bumped bows on to the rocks at Porthellick, St. Mary’s, was clawed back by the tide, and again flung onto the rocks, each time more violently. The five survivors were forced to crawl forward as best they could to avoid the rising water, although one man fell lost his footing and drowned. The other four continued on to the ship’s side, where they were able to peer through a hole in the side.

At daybreak a fisherman was out on the beach, and like his fellow fishermen off St. Agnes, he was attracted to the dark shape on the rocks which he could only dimly discern. He clambered down the rocks to investigate, and, spotting the hole, put his arm into it. He received what must have been the shock of his life when the captain eagerly gripped his arm, and hurriedly pulled clear, but as they cried out to him, he grasped the situation and ran back to get help.

Soon the four survivors were pulled out by willing hands and restored with a breakfast and a sound sleep. The dead man, entangled in the shrouds when he was washed out of the vessel, was interred in a simple service, attended by his compatriots: this is most likely to have taken place at St. Mary’s Old Church, Old Town, St. Mary’s, which had until 1838 been the principal parish church of the island and was closest to where the ship had fetched up (now Grade II* listed). The hull broke up almost immediately, as the tide returned, but 50 barrels of oil are recorded as having been saved. (4) The survivors were later waved off from St. Mary’s to begin their journey home via Penzance, thanks to the good offices of Pearce as vice-consul.

The various accounts contain minor discrepancies, not at all unusual for shipwreck reports, gleaned from traumatised survivors and compounded by language difficulties, but the level of detail which made it into the English press suggests that it had been possible to relay the story via an interpreter – again suggesting Richard Pearce’s possible involvement.

In over 20 years’ recording our shipwrecks and reading extraordinary stories of survival and rescue on the coast of England, this is the only air pocket survival I have encountered. A story that seemed almost incredible in the Victorian era has at least two modern parallels, the well-documented rescues of Tony Bullimore in the Southern Ocean in 1997 and Harrison Okene off Nigeria in 2013.

(1) Morning Post, 4 December 1840, No.21,806, and widely reproduced in other UK newspapers

(2) F R de la Trémonnais, “Naufrage de la Nérina“, Revue de la presse: la gazette des familles, Vol.1, 1840, pp408-16

(3) Evening Standard, 14 Decemer 1840, No.5,144, p3, and other UK newspapers

(4) Ibid.



The Vicuna

Ice cold in Norfolk

This month I’m delighted to welcome my colleague Ken Hamilton, Listing Adviser, Listing Projects and Marine Team, Historic England. On the anniversary of the loss of the Vicuna, 136 years ago, he discusses what happened on 6-7 March 1883, and revisits the evidence for the remains on the beach.

Over to Ken:

Great Storms are more common that one might think – 1703 and 1987 come to mind, and they occur regularly in between. One particular Great Storm was on 6 March 1883, where force 9 and 10 winds heralded one of the coldest Marches in 300 years. The storm resulted in the loss of over 50 vessels and over 200 crew around the North Sea, mostly fishermen from Hull and the Netherlands.

One vessel affected was the Vicuna, a 330 ton barquentine bound for her home port of Hull with a cargo of ice. The ship had left Larvik on 23 February, and anchored within the entrance to the Humber on 5 March. The wind rose overnight, and the ship’s master, John Sawyer, ordered the dropping of a second anchor at 8am on 6 March. One of her anchor cables parted at 9am, so the ship requested a tug to tow her into Hull. Both tow rope and the remaining anchor cable parted, but she then ran aground on Sand Haile on the southern shoulder of the entrance to the Humber. She was towed off the sand bank, set sail and sailed east to clear the coast and ride out the storm at sea. The Vicuna rode out the night at sea, but struck the Woolpack Sand off the Norfolk coast in the middle of the afternoon on the 7th. They came off the Woolpack Sand, and Captain Sawyer decided to head for Brancaster, but was blown south onto the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea, running aground at 4.30pm. The Hunstanton lifeboat was launched, the crew were taken off at 7.30pm and landed at Hunstanton at 10pm on 7 March.

Map of the North Sea coast between the Humber and Norfolk, showing the 50 miles travelled by the Vicuna between 9am on 6 March and 3.30pm on 7 March, and the two sandbanks where she grounded en route.
Route of the Vicuna. Modern Ordnance Survey mapping. © Crown Copyright and database right 2019. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number: 100024900. Marine mapping © British Crown and SeaZone Solutions Ltd., All rights reserved. Product licence number 102006.006 © Historic England

The Vicuna‘s departure from the Humber was reported in the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette as the schooner Vienna (a confusion continued into the 21st century, as the two words are difficult to distinguish in 136 year old newsprint even when digitised!). Harder to explain are three entries in Lloyd’s List for 9 March 1883, two for the Vicuna, of Hull, and one for the Vicuna of Bristol (? Hull). It is not clear why the third mention (which is clearly the same vessel) was assigned a different port of registry!

The Vicuna was carrying 500 tons of ice, a not uncommon cargo in the late 19th century. The international ice trade began in 1806, when Frederic Tudor began to export ice from the United States to Martinique, in the Caribbean. Tudor, known as the “Ice King”, made his fortune transporting ice from the United States to the Caribbean and India. In England, William Leftwich started to import ice from Norway in 1822, and the trade grew from there. While Tudor did start to export ice from the USA to England in 1844, Leftwich’s main competitor was Carlo Gatti, who began to import Norwegian ice in the 1850s. Despite the invention of ice-making machines and refrigerated ships by 1882, the ice trade continued to grow until 1900 and did not seriously begin to drop until 1915 when the German blockade of the North Sea made its transport difficult. The last import of ice to the UK from Scandinavia was in 1921.

Ice was cut from south Norwegian lakes in winter, transported to the coast and packed into ships. The journey to England was between 500 and 600 nautical miles, and took between 5 and 10 days, depending on the weather. During that time, the ice would start to melt, with an average loss of between 5 and 10% of the cargo (the ice was insulated, usually with sawdust, but not refrigerated). On arrival, the ice was unloaded into commercial ice houses and ice wells. William Leftwich leased a former private ice house in Park Crescent West (Scheduled: NHLE 1427239), and constructed another in 1829. Carlo Gatti stored and distributed ice from his ice wells in King’s Cross (constructed in 1862: part of the London Canal Museum). A number of commercial ice houses survive across the country, particularly in fishing ports, for example in Berwick (Listed Grade II: NHLE 1396572) and Great Yarmouth (NHLE 1096794). Hull’s ice house was converted to a Salvation Army citadel in the late 19th century, and demolished in the late 20th century (the location survives as Icehouse Road).

It is interesting to speculate about the fate of the Vicuna, and the role of her cargo in her wrecking. After parting tow, she stood out to sea, heading east, but her subsequent known route was mostly to the south, albeit at about 1.2 knots (suggesting she was hove to or had no sail set). By the time the ship approached the Norfolk coast, she had been out in the storm for 36 hours, and so the crew were likely to have become exhausted. At the same time, loss of cargo through melting increased the risk of the ice shifting and affecting the stability of the vessel.

Collapsed hull of wreck still retaining its 'boat shape', half in water to the right, on an extensive beach under a blue sky.
Wreck at Holme-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, known as the Vicuna, February 2019. Courtesy of Ken Hamilton.

Following the wreck, the owners initially intended to refloat the vessel, but later offered to sell the ship and her fittings by auction, although it is worth noting that she was sold as a hull and not as a ‘wreck’. How much of this sale went ahead is not clear, as the remains on the beach do not entirely reflect the documentary evidence. The existence of the wreck was reported again in 1985, but was initially identified as an 18th century collier called the Carrington: the Carrington was, however, a 19th century collier, wrecked on 20 November 1893 on Titchwell beach, east of Holme-next-the-Sea.  Identification of the wreck (and its differentiation from other wrecks along Holme beach) was complicated by the beach itself – it is relatively featureless, so determining accurate locations on the beach was notoriously difficult until the wider availability of GPS systems.

A spread of Scandinavian stone used as ballast, together with oral history testimony, suggested that the wreck was the Vicuna. The spread of ballast was well known locally, and when the Holme-next-the-Sea timber circle (the so-called ‘Seahenge’) was found, the finder noticed it by picking up what he thought was a piece of ballast from the Vicuna that turned out to be a Bronze Age axe head!

Stones scattered over wreck timbers, largest stones in the centre left foreground.
Detail view of the wreck at Holme-next-the-Sea, February 2019. Courtesy of Ken Hamilton.

The writing of this blog has provided an opportunity to review this identification. The auction notice for the ship detailed 60 tons of iron ballast in the Vicuna as well as her 500 tons of ice cargo. An examination of the ballast on the wreck site shows it to be iron slag, and not Norwegian stone. The slag is interesting in itself – it is not blast furnace slag, but slag from a different process, possibly from a finery forge (the process of turning pig iron into wrought iron). Finery forges were replaced by puddling hearths in England in the late 18th century, but continued in use in Sweden until the development of the Bessemer furnace revolutionised steel production in the mid 19th century. If the slag from the wreck is finery slag, it would predate the construction of the Vicuna, and hence raises the possibility that the wreck is another ship entirely.

Lump of brown iron slag with cavities in it, with a scale rule to the right showing it to be 8cm high.
Detail view of iron slag as ballast from the wreck at Holme-next-the-Sea, with visible vesicles (cavities). Courtesy of Ken Hamilton.

There are few records of the nature of ballast on ships, but the existence of large quantities of slag suggests the ship came from an iron-working area. Coincidentally, British iron and steel production in the 18th century relied on Swedish iron, and two ships laden with Swedish iron ran aground between Hunstanton and Brancaster – the Christina, in 1763 and the Sophia Albertina (also identified as the Suffia Britannia Albertina) in 1764. Another, unnamed ship (also laden with iron) was mentioned as running aground the same week as the Christina. Given the lack of detail, the possibility that this third ship is a variant report of the Christina cannot be discounted. A further possible contender is the Hope, another Swedish ship which ran aground on the beach near Holme on 21 May 1771. Without more evidence (and analysis of the ship’s timbers) it is impossible to tell.

Many thanks to Ken for the above blog providing a fascinating new perspective on the Holme-next-the-Sea wreck, and all because he took a closer look at the ballast!


Barraclough, KC ‘Steel in the Industrial Revolution’ in Day, J and Tylecote RF The Industrial Revolution in Metals (1991) The Institute of Metals pp261-306

Blain, BB Melting Markets: The Rise and Decline of the Anglo-Norwegian Ice Trade, 1850-1920 (2006) Working Papers of the Global Economic History Network (GEHN) no. 20/06

Lamb, H and Frydendahl, K Historic Storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe (1991) Cambridge University Press p143

Tylecote, RF ‘Iron in the Industrial Revolution’ in Day, J and Tylecote RF The Industrial Revolution in Metals (1991) The Institute of Metals pp200-260

Lloyds List, 9 March 1883 No. 21484, p11

Norfolk News, 17 March 1883, No.1995, p10

Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 08 March 1883, No.14213, p4

Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 09 March 1883, No.14214, p4

Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 27 March 1883, No.14228, p6

National Slag Collection catalogue Accessed 1 March 2019

Norfolk HER entry for the Vicuna Accessed 1 March 2019

Norfolk HER entry for wreck on Holme beach Accessed 1 March 2019



A Wreck Process . . . interrupted by centuries

The Ship under the Power Station

Development has always presented archaeological opportunities and threats. Nowadays policies for archaeological watching briefs and rescue archaeology are firmly in place – as witness the 2002 Newport Ship discovered during development – but go back 90 years before that to 1912, and arrangements for unexpected finds were rather more ad hoc.

In November that year, excavations took place at Roff’s Wharf, at the south-western corner of the Borough Electric Works premises, in advance of the construction of the new Woolwich Power Station. Workmen uncovered part of a wooden sailing vessel situated at right angles to the river bank, not far from the water’s edge.

At first it seemed that things looked favourable for securing the site. Sir William Henry White, the retired Director of Construction at the Admiralty, appears to have been the first on site that November. (1) He gave it as his opinion that the state of preservation of the timbers suggested a vessel which had been there around a century and a half, and thus since around 1765, while local historians suggested that the vessel might be older, and correspond to the remains of a ship wrecked in this area during the reign of Charles I (1625-1649). (2) The site certainly had a prior history as boat repair shops, which may in turn have replaced earlier maritime activity on the site, which seems at least likely given the Woolwich dockyard close by.

The London County Council (LCC) then drew the attention of the site to their Committee ‘interested in local government records and antiquities’. The Committee then sent a representative to record the site in January 1913, by which time further excavation had revealed just over half the length of a wooden sailing vessel, measuring around 95 feet long by 25 feet wide.

That representative was their Superintending Architect, W E Riley, whose drawings are undated, but must be an outcome of this visit. Riley was eminently well qualified to survey the site, having, in addition to his longstanding architectural expertise, which gave him the skills to produce a proper measured survey, an Admiralty background. His drawing shows the excavated portion of ship from bow to approximately just aft of amidships: the stern portion was not excavated.

Pen and ink site plan and key plan on paper of layout of shipwreck site as excavated.
Plan of Remains of Ship exposed during excavations, (1912) at Roff’s Wharf, Woolwich. W E Riley, London County Council. © Historic England Archive MD96/07356

Having considered the evidence from the drawings, the photographs taken at the same time, and Sir William’s opinion, the LCC then suggested to Woolwich Borough Council that part of the vessel should be preserved. The Borough Council refused to countenance this proposal – on the usual grounds of cost.

In the meantime, the site lost one of its interested experts when Sir William died of a stroke on 27 February. At least the Woolwich and District Antiquarian Society published a paper summarising some suggestions for the identity of the vessel in 1913, including an even earlier possibility: a 17th century hulk of Dutch origin, and kept up interest in a note in its 1914 publication. (3)(4)

Towards the end of 1913 the artist John Seymour Lucas RA revived interest in the wreck. The Times reminded readers of his painting The Armada in Sight (1880), which, on the face of it, seems tenuous grounds for his expertise (and the subject of that painting is Drake being interrupted at bowls, not a marine painting depicting ships) but Seymour Lucas had trained as a woodcarver before turning to painting, and evidently had some knowledge of shipbuilding as an amateur enthusiast.

He subjected the LCC photographs taken earlier in the year (now untraced) to detailed scrutiny, together with artefacts extracted from the hull: two gun carriage wheels, stone shot and some pottery, which to him suggested an Elizabethan or earlier 16th century vessel. However, the wreck was no longer intact by the time of his visit, to his evident dismay: ‘When I arrived the timbers of the wreck were being carted away to Castles’ timber-yard.’ (2)

At that time Castles’ were operating from two locations, with their prestige headquarters at Baltic Wharf, 160 Grosvenor Road, where they had ‘show rooms and a museum’, advertised as an attraction ‘close to the Tate Gallery’ (now Tate Britain). (5) Their works, however, were at Woolwich, half a mile from the find site, so it would seem more cost-effective, and more likely, that the timber was sold to the Woolwich yard, and perhaps, if required, transported on to the Baltic Wharf site.

Castles’ Shipbreaking Co., Baltic Wharf, Millbank. This image is more or less contemporary with the find at Roff’s Wharf, being taken around 1900, and gives an idea of their activities. Note the ‘ship timber logs’ advertised on the horse-drawn cart. Source: Historic England Archive BB76/04423

Another unnamed ‘expert in naval history’ identified the remains as coming from the Pelican, better known by her later name the Golden Hind, displayed in Deptford following her three-year circumnavigation of the world under Sir Francis Drake in 1577-80. There was some latitude in this interpretation as the two locations, while occupying the same bank of the river, are a few miles apart, and if anything remains of the original Golden Hind, it is probably buried under Convoy’s Wharf in Deptford.  (There is another little bit of her somewhere else, as we shall see.)

This was wishful thinking with a commercial motive, which prompted Messrs Hindley, (Hindley and Wilkinson), who were ‘architectural decorators, upholsterers and cabinet makers’ at Welbeck Street, to purchase the timbers – clearly to refashion into furniture. What sort of furniture might that have been?

There is a long tradition of recycling timber from a maritime context, whether in ‘upcycling’ wreck materials or repurposing timber from shipbreaking (indeed our very first post was on the subject of timbers reused from the wreck of the Royal George). The inspiration for Hindley & Wilkinson’s purchase was probably the chair made after 1662 from the best surviving timbers of the Golden Hind, by that time a much-decayed vessel, and presented to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where it now remains. (Are there any surviving Hindley & Wilkinson chairs modelled on the Bodleian original anywhere? If so, they would join the original Golden Hind chair in being similarly the last remains of a vessel . . . )

By the time that the Admiralty met to consider the matter in 1914 the site had therefore been irretrievably compromised and, in any case, they had other matters on their minds, for war was looming.

The irony is that the vessel’s discovery represents the second stage of a long-drawn out wrecking process with several centuries in between each phase. Such wrecks are relatively unusual, but occur sporadically in the record and often under fairly extraordinary circumstances. Where they occur, they are usually the products of abandonment and forgetting: the deterioration of the vessel through the simple processes of time represents the first phase of the wrecking process, and is common to a wider group of wrecks, the hulks of abandoned vessels seen all around our coastlines, rivers, and other bodies of water. Nevertheless, there is a paradox: this ‘dereliction’ stage preserves the vessel from the more common fate of ships at the end of their service lives – normally broken up and thus removed from either a functional or a preservation context.

So what was the Woolwich Ship? Her dimensions suggest a vessel of some size, perhaps around 800 tons. The remains appear to have consisted of a largely intact keel which retained evidence of the notches that suggest she was originally clinker-built, before being rebuilt carvel-fashion. (For the difference see this explanation from the University of Southampton.)  This build history suggested that she was originally active in the 15th century. Her framing timbers remained in situ, while the retention of the mast step suggests it was not intended for the mast to be permanently dismounted. The orientation of the vessel some 50ft from the present-day water’s edge (6) on a layer of silt suggested that it had been laid up in a creek or inlet.

The wreck was ‘revived’ when scholarly discussion nearly 50 years after its discovery,  compared surviving documents with the archaeological record, with the consensus that on the available evidence Henry VII’s Sovereign, built in 1487, rebuilt in 1509-10, and laid up at Woolwich in 1521, was the best fit for the ship’s identity. (7) A list of October 1525 suggests that by this time the Sovereign was unseaworthy, but was certainly intended for rebuilding: “She must be new made from the keel upward . . . the form of which ship is so marvellous goodly that great pity it were she should die, and the rather because that many things there be in her that will serve right well.” (8)

B&W photograph of Thames with the masts with furled sails of two barges at their moorings in the foreground being echoed by the two tall towers of the power station to the left centre ground, on the opposite bank of the river, under a clear sky with puffy white clouds.
View of Thames barges with Woolwich Power Station in the background, taken by S W Rawlings, who worked for the Port of London Information Office between 1945 and 1965. The image must therefore date after 1945, but before the 1952 development of the power station, since only two of its (later) three chimneys can be seen. Source: Historic England Archive AA001710

Over the course of the 20th century the footprint of the power station expanded several times to serve London’s growing power needs, which led to a third, and final, stage in the wrecking process – for the 1952 extension appears to have destroyed the stern, left unexcavated 40 years earlier. The power station built over the wreck was itself demolished over the course of 1978-80, with investigations in 1983 (6) and 1986 (9) failing to locate any remaining traces of the ship.

What we do have, then, is what is now termed ‘preservation by record’, and without Riley and his plans, the originals of which are now in the archives of Historic England, we would have little to no evidence for the vessel uncovered in 1912 – unless any replicas of the Bodleian chair turn up!

(1) Times, 19 November 1912, No.40,060, p14

(2) Times, 9 December 1913, No.40,390, p7

(3) Woolwich and District Antiquarian Society, Annual Report (1912), Vol. XVIII, pp74-5

(4) Woolwich and District Antiquarian Society, Annual Report (1913), Vol. XIX, pp16, 61

(5) Advertisement for Castles’ Shipbreaking, Baltic Wharf, Millbank, c.1914, exhibited British Folk Art, Tate Britain, 2014

(6) B Philp & D Garrod, “The Woolwich Ship”, Kent Archaeological Review, 1983, No.74 pp.87-91

(7) R C Anderson, “The Story of the Woolwich Ship”, Mariner’s Mirror, 1959, Vol.45, No.2, pp94-9; W Salisbury, “The Woolwich Ship”, Mariner’s Mirror, 1961, Vol.47, No.2, pp81-90; T Glasgow Jr. “The Woolwich Ship”, Mariner’s Mirror, 1971, Vol.57, No.3, p302; R C Anderson, “The Woolwich Ship”, Mariner’s Mirror, 1972, Vol. 58, No.1, p103

(8)Henry VIII: October 1525, 16-31′, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 4, 1524-1530, ed. J S Brewer (London, 1875), p762, No.3. British History Online [accessed 17 January 2019] derived from original MS British Library Cotton Otho E IX 64b

(9) Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, 1577296

The Acorn

The Acorn Part III: 2018

For our Christmas special, it’s my pleasure to welcome back Jordan Havell, now a regular guest blogger. I’m also delighted to let you know he received a ‘Highly Commended’ at the CBA awards, in the Young Archaeologist of the Year category.

He gives us an update on the Acorn, a barque in the ice trade, a suitably seasonal subject, which he first discussed in a blog for Christmas 2014, and recalls a dynamic year on the Lincolnshire coast.

Photograph of shipwreck timber seen from above, amid ridges and furrows in the sand with the tide flowing in and out.
Remains of the Acorn emerging from the sand, while marine life has been washed in, seen on 7 November 2018 © Jordan Havell

Jordan writes:

It is now 4 years since I wrote my first blog on the Acorn shipwreck.

Since then my family and I have watched as the wreck appears, disappears and reappears as a result of the tides causing the sand to shift. Photographs were taken each time the wreck was uncovered by the sea to be added to the national database.

Over the last year while doing this, we have noticed other archaeological finds, including a rather large piece of wreck washed up near Trusthorpe in May, and we were involved in recording and digitizing information on the wreck, including photogrammetry work. My mum and I found it after a local lady told us about it and we reported it to Historic England, Lincolnshire’s Finds Officer, Adam Daubney, and CITiZAN’s Andy Sherman for which I wrote a blog. A piece was taken for carbon dating. It is thought to be late 19th century/possibly early 20th. Merchants’ marks were recorded on this piece.

Other things found while doing various visits to the beach include: other ships’ timbers, possible aircraft fuselage pieces, copper sheathing from the hull of timber boats, large pieces of iron concretion, possibly from other local shipwrecks, worked flints, fossils, and Roman pottery. Parrel trucks and deadeyes from ships and even a possible sponge head from a cannon sponge were also among the objects found.

We have also seen much larger chunks of peat from the Lincolnshire Peat Shelf. These pieces have been much bigger than we have seen before. One day recently some of these large chunks were seen scattered right along the tideline for quite some distance.

Two fragments of dark brown peat, one large on left, smaller fragment to centre right, on sand
Fragments of peat washed up on 28 September 2018 © Jordan Havell

During March we saw the ‘Beast From the East’ affect our coastline. We saw hundreds upon thousands of stranded marine creatures, which was a shame to see. During this time we also saw many pieces of prehistoric forest timbers that we recorded and continue to do so.

Another day recently we saw salt lines across the beach – again, the first time we have seen something like this.

Shingle beach criss-crossed with white salt lines
Salt lines, Sutton-on-Sea beach, 2018. © Jordan Havell

I have attached some photos reflecting some of the above and of course some up-to-date pictures of the Acorn as she has recently given up more to see.

It’s amazing to see just how the tides have affected it over: over just a few days over the 21st to the 29th October 2018, the changes we could see were caused by shifting changes in the sand levels.

Acorn Oct 21 2018 1
The Acorn surrounded by water on 21 October 2018. © Jordan Havell

We took pictures on the 29th but couldn’t get as close due to the rising water levels around the wreck.

The Acorn 29th Oct 2018
The Acorn, 29 October 2018. © Jordan Havell

We will continue to monitor this wreck over the next few years in the hope that more starts to appear and I can then make another blog on it all to keep you up to date on it.

We’d like to thank Jordan for his detailed observations on the burial and exposure of this site over the last few years. It has turned into a fascinating case study on the processes and environmental context of wreck exposure in the inter-tidal zone on the east coast. It’s clear that the beach erosion revealing the Acorn and artefacts such as the Roman pottery (other Roman pottery was found locally in the 1950s) mirrors similar disturbances offshore, resulting in a variety of material being washed up.

We wish Jordan – and all our readers – a very happy festive season and all the best for 2019.


Diary of the War: December 1918 and after

The Aftermath

Visitors to the Cenotaph in Whitehall may occasionally pass by and wonder why the end date of the First World War is inscribed as MCMXIX (1919) and not MCMXVIII (1918). Dating inscriptions on some war memorials follow this practice, while others adhere to the conventional dating (as we now understand it) of 1914-1918.

The usual explanation for the use of 1919 derives from the Armistice of 11 November 1918 being a cessation of hostilities, rather than a formal peace, which was delivered by the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919.

At the Armistice land soldiers could put down their guns and retire from their artillery posts at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 (although, as the recent commemorations have shown, there were pockets where it didn’t quite happen like that).

At sea the naval blockade of Germany would continue until Versailles. The threat of live hostile action was gone, but huge minefields remained a threat, their sweeping a laborious and ongoing task. Until well into 1920, mines regularly caused shipping casualties, resulting in a special section inserted into Lloyd’s War Losses devoted to “Vessels Sunk by Mines after Nov. 11th, 1918”. (1)

Thereafter shipping losses due to mines tailed off, but stray mines adrift from their original fields, and hence incapable of being swept up, since their locations were unknown, remained a persistent but deadly nuisance to shipping right up to 1925. The Swedish sailing vessel Hans, lost that year with the majority of her crew off Gotland, is the last reported mine casualty.

Within English waters, the post-war victims of mines included minesweepers: HMS Penarth, off the Yorkshire coast, 24 February 1919 and HMS Cupar, off Tynemouth, 5 May 1919. Among civilian shipping the English collier De Fontaine was mined off the coast of Kent on 16 November 1918, while the Norwegian cargo vessels Bonheur and Eidsfos sank after striking mines off Coquet Island on 23 December 1918. Trawlers faced particular dangers: Strathord brought up a mine in her trawl off the Yorkshire coast on 23 February 1920, ironically after having seen service as a minesweeper.

Occasionally fishing vessels could trawl up other relics of the war. On 20 November 1920, the Brixham trawler Our Laddie fouled a wreck and brought up ‘the 30ft section of a trawler’s mainmast, with shrouds and wire stays intact . . . where the mainmast was broken was found a huge piece of shrapnel.’ (2) The men of the Our Laddie identified the vessel as the remains of the General Leman, lost in a gunnery attack on 29 January 1918 on several fishing vessels off Start Point by UB-55.

The General Leman had belonged to Milford Haven but was clearly a sufficiently familiar sight off the coast of South Devon for the Brixham trawlermen to identify her mast – from among the several vessels of the fleet sunk on that day nearly three years previously. Possibly some of the men who hauled the mast aboard or those who saw it delivered to the Brixham quayside had been eyewitnesses to the incident and were able to piece together the identification.

There was also another group of vessels which would otherwise not have been lost in the seas around the United Kingdom during this period, had the war not taken place. Most famously, of course, the interned German High Seas Fleet was scuttled by order of Admiral Ludwig von Reuter on 21 June 1919 at Scapa Flow, Orkney, Scotland, where the remains of the battleships König, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Markgraf and the cruisers Brummer, Dresden, Karlsruhe and Köln are today protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.

The events at Scapa Flow have tended to overshadow another group of German vessels in the historical record: the U-boats which began arriving at Harwich in groups from November 1918, to be surrendered outright. They were then disposed of by the Admiralty, chiefly by sale for breaking, although some were retained for the Admiralty’s own use in experiments and trials.

In contrast to the warships at Orkney, therefore, the wrecks of German origin within English waters during the post-war period principally comprise the remains of U-boats, although a few other German naval vessels are known, such as the cruiser SMS Baden, scuttled off St. Catherine’s Deep on 16 August 1921.

Some of the U-boats were expended in trials (for example, a group of five or six submarines beached at Falmouth following trials, then broken up, although some remains exist). Others, stripped of their engines, foundered or were driven ashore after parting tow en route to the breakers, such as U118 at Hastings in April 1919 (covered in a previous post). In other words, the sea effectively did the job of the breakers for them – to put the submarines entirely beyond use – although it must have been a source of chagrin to the commercial buyers, who had often purchased the hulls from the Admiralty for considerable sums.

Some of the German surface fleet also met similar fates within English waters. The torpedo boat destroyers S24 and T189 parted tow on 12 December 1920 and went ashore on Roundham Head and Preston Sands respectively while bound from Cherbourg for Teignmouth for scrap. Others still were simply abandoned and left to rot, such as the destroyers V44 and V82, identified at Whale Island, Portsmouth, in a piece of research published by the Maritime Archaeology Trust as part of the ‘Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War’ project in 2016 – check out their new interactive map viewer.

Aerial photograph of green saltmarsh with remains of submarine hull in centre, orientated NNW-SSE, the outline of the hull being broken at the upper right.
The remains of a U-boat, believed (at the present state of knowledge) to be UB-122, lie abandoned on Stoke Saltings, Medway, Kent. © Historic England 27196-027

The aim in writing this post is to make the reader aware of the wide variety of post-war shipping casualties, mercantile and naval: those which came about in clearing up the weapons of war, the painful reminders of past losses (as a 1938 fishing chart (3) had it, the East Coast was ‘one mass of wrecks’ of the Great War), and those which came about through the peace process.

The Diary of the First World War concludes here, but will of course remain archived on this blog for reference and we will continue to showcase the breadth and diversity of our maritime heritage around the coasts of England.

A new Diary of the Second World War, following a similar format, will commemce in September 2019 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of its outbreak in 1939.

(1) Lloyd’s of London. 1990 Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-1918 (London: Lloyd’s of London Press Ltd.)

(2) Western Morning News, 15 November 1920, No.18,939, p4

(3) Close’s Fishermen’s Chart of the North Sea, 1938