What links Walmer Castle and Amsterdam, by way of Waterloo?
This week, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, my guest blogger Abigail Coppins looks at how a lucky find while researching the appearance of Wellington’s bedroom at Walmer Castle led to the discovery of some correspondence between Wellington and potential salvors of the wreck of the Amsterdam at Hastings, lost 80-odd years previously. In his capacity as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, resident at Walmer, Wellington fielded a copious correspondence with these salvors throughout the 1830s, a historic connection adding to the interest of what is today the Designated wreck site of a Dutch East Indiaman.
The Duke of Wellington and the Wreck of the Amsterdam
I was actually looking for the Duke of Wellington’s bedroom, particularly anything that might solve the knotty problem of his carpet. But you never know what you might come across when you’re in the archives. I drew a blank on the carpet but found some other things relevant to the Waterloo 200 project at Walmer Castle. Then this caught my eye. At the time I didn’t know anything about the Amsterdam but I figured that it was worth making a note of the facts just in case it was a known (or unknown) wreck. Someone somewhere might be interested.
It started in 1830 when 42 labourers from the Parish of Bexhill wrote to the Duke of Wellington complaining that they had been prevented from digging out the ‘…Dutch ship Amsterdam which was wrecked on the Coast of Sussex…in the year of 1740’ [sic – the wreck took place in 1749]. The labourers were unemployed and had taken it upon themselves to open up the wreck in search of ‘remuneration for their labours’. All had been going well. They had managed to retrieve some timber and glass, but unfortunately the Customs Officer from Hastings turned up and called a halt to the proceedings.
Having spent £28 on some equipment, including a couple of chain pumps, the labourers decided to petition the Duke of Wellington for his assistance in the matter. The Duke, as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, oversaw the administration of wrecks and salvage rights in the area. Wellington ordered enquiries to be made and the labourers were given permission to carry on their work – with certain stipulations. Wellington’s clerk in Dover Castle, Thomas Pain, pointed out that another local wreck had been stripped of ‘Block Tin’ and ‘purloined by the finder’ and he was keen to stop this happening again. The Bexhill labourers were told that they could keep the value of any goods found up to a value of £100. After that the usual rules of salvage would be applied.
Then things went quiet.
In May 1833 a Thomas Wood from St Leonards-on-Sea wrote to Wellington asking to be allowed to recover the wreck of the Amsterdam. In June the same year he wrote again, this time about another wreck in the area. Then he sent a letter asking what proportion of salvage he would be entitled to. By August, Wood was trying to arrange a meeting with Wellington.
Then it all went quiet again.
In August of the following year, 1834, Thomas Pain wrote to Wood asking if the salvage project had been abandoned. Wood wrote back asking about Thomas Telford’s work at Dover instead. Was Wood perhaps interested in that as well?
By August of 1835, a James Bungay of St Leonards was also interested in the Amsterdam wreck and by the following February wanted details of any lien Wellington might have over it. He also wanted a meeting. Bungay then wrote that he was going to petition the Treasury to allow him ‘…possession of all or any part of the Amsterdam or cargo.’ Unsurprisingly the Treasury refused Bungay’s request to raise the cargo ‘free of duty’. Undeterred, Bungay then suggested that a customs officer should be on site to record what got taken off the wreck. Pain replied that Wellington had no objection to this proposal.
The various salvage plans seem to have rumbled on. In 1837 Thomas Pain suggested that Bungay should be allowed to sell parts of the Amsterdam’s hull in order to recover his costs. Then all the documents went missing and it all got a bit messy. What happened next is unclear. I kept meaning to go back and find out, but other research projects got in the way: more remains in the archives for us to discover, despite the gaps in the documents.
With very grateful thanks to Abigail for sharing her research thus far and establishing an important historic connection between Wellington and the Designated site of a wreck which happened before he was even born.