8. The Great Storm

Man Friday

With the stormy weather continuing until earlier this week, giving rise to the usual media reports wondering whether it is unprecedented/is evidence of global warming, maritime archaeology does indeed give us a perspective that reassures us storms in late November are by no means unusual.

The ultimate example is, of course, the Great Storm of 1703, 309 years ago. Many readers familiar with maritime archaeology will know the three certainly-identified Designated Wrecks arising out of the storm, the Northumberland, Restoration, and Stirling Castle and another Designated Wreck which may be the remains of a fourth, the Resolution. The havoc wrought by similar storms during the same period in other years is also well documented.

However, today I’d like to draw attention to a documented wreck event arising from the storm, a little ship laden with tin.  She was driven helplessly before the wind out of Falmouth and scudded along all the way to the Isle of Wight in 8 hours.

This was remarkable enough in itself. What was more remarkable was that such a small vessel, which would otherwise have been overlooked in contemporary records on both social and economic grounds, should survive at all in the documentary record. Even more remarkably, she was included in three separate reports collated and published by a young journalist struggling to make his name in a ground-breaking work of early journalism, The Storm, 1704. One surviving report from this period per wreck is often about as good as it gets.

Was it a question of ‘never letting the facts get in the way of a good story’? I had my doubts as to the time frame, since in the text the repetition of ‘next morning’ (Freudian slips, or careless editing?) suggested two consecutive mornings, rather than 8 hours; perhaps a period of 30 hours. When I initially blogged this story, a modern-day sailor got in touch to say that he felt that in 8 hours the vessel would have been making an extraordinary number of knots, but over 30 hours a more credible number of knots and a sailing speed fast enough to have caused comment at the time would be plausible. So we have arrived at a similar conclusion from forensic examination of language and a hands-on sailing perspective!

This little wreck, however, also illustrates how specialist knowledge can lift a documented wreck off the page into the realms of archaeological potential. I have not only the modern sailor to thank, but a diver who used his local knowledge to suggest an excellent location for the wreck in Freshwater Bay which fulfilled all the criteria as described in the original sources.

This ground-breaking work was eclipsed at a later date by another, one of the earliest examples of the novel form. The journalist was, of course, Daniel Defoe, and his novel, also centred on a shipwreck event – Robinson Crusoe. It is fascinating to speculate how much he gathered from the accounts of the 1703 storm, and other stories he must have heard, for, of course, Robinson Crusoe was based on a real-life castaway, Alexander Selkirk.

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