Newly Protected Wrecks in North Devon

The remains of two wooden wrecks on the sands in the Northam Burrows Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty have been scheduled as ancient monuments by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Besides its natural beauty, the area is rich in maritime heritage, the sands lying off the entrance to the historic ports of Appledore, Barnstaple, and Bideford. The area also has strong literary connections. At the southern end of the sands lies Westward Ho!, named after Charles Kingsley’s 1855 novel, a tribute to the local Devon seamen of Francis Drake’s time. Westward Ho! attracted a school founded in 1874, the United Services College, immortalised by former pupil Rudyard Kipling in his novel Stalky and Co. (1899).

Often mentioned in Stalky and Co. is a distinctive pebble ridge at the land edge of the beach. It has been retreating landward for centuries and it is clear that no vessel could have breached the ridge in coming ashore, giving a clue to the age of the vessels by their distance from the ridge as it now lies today.

The two wrecks lie a few hundred metres apart from each other. It is not only the pebble ridge which has been eroded on this beach: as sand levels on the beach have risen and fallen, the wrecks have been repeatedly exposed and reburied, most recently during the winter storms of early 2014.

Let’s have a look at the smaller vessel first. It is the more northerly of the two, and can be seen to be constructed of timber and fastened with treenails (timber nails). It lies with one side exposed and the other buried underneath. This suggests that it either drove ashore on its beam ends in a storm, or came ashore and subsquently collapsed in its damaged state. It may even have been covered up very quickly if storm conditions deposited sand on the beach.

Stretch of sandy beach with a strip of water in the middle of the photograph, surrounding the timbers of a wreck protruding from the sand, set against a wide blue sky.
The smaller wreck on Northam Burrows Sands. Copyright Dr Roderick Bale (UWLAS) for Historic England

Because it is uncovered less frequently and for shorter periods than its ‘neighbour’ to the south, it soon became apparent that this wreck had been reported several times in slightly different positions. The research for the case enabled the true position to be established and the various different accounts to be reconciled.

Enough of the exposed side survives to suggest that it is probably the remains of a Severn trow lost around 200 years ago. From its very location on the Bristol Channel coast of north Devon, it is evidence of a period of transition for the Severn trow, during which it developed into a seagoing vessel working the Bristol Channel – a far cry from its original haunts of the River Severn as far inland as Shropshire.

The larger wreck, nearer to Westward Ho! is some 23 metres long by 7 metres wide and, when exposed, can be seen to lie on an even keel in the sand surrounded in its own ‘scour pit’ by water, which does not fully drain even at low tide. This allows an opportunity to observe on land a regular feature of underwater wrecks which displace sand as they settle into the seabed or move slightly in the sand with submarine tides and currents.

The almost complete outline of a wreck sitting in a pool of water against a backdrop of blue sky and clouds reflected in the water.
The newly protected Westward Ho! wreck on Northam Burrows Sands. It is believed to be the remains of the ‘Sally’, which ran aground on the sands in 1769, while bound from Oporto in Portugal to Bristol with a cargo of port wine. Copyright Devon County Council

This even keel was the first clue to the vessel’s possible identity, as was the fact that it lay stern on to the beach. Tree-ring sampling on a previous exposure in 2006 suggested that the vessel was built around 1750 to 1800. This gave a probable date range of around 1750 to 1830 for the date of loss, given the standard service life of around 25 to 30 years for most contemporary vessels. The visible treenails (timber fastenings) are consistent with this date range.

Walking the beach another clue appeared nearby in the sands with the exposure of more timbers, this time in parallel rows of posts suggesting a probable jetty or pier structure. This led us to conjecture that the vessel sank at anchor fairly close to this structure.

A sandy beach from which the tops of timber posts protrude in parallel rows, stretching out to sea. Breakers are on the shore against a grey-blue sky
Parallel rows of the exposed tops of posts suggesting the supports for some form of jetty structure. Copyright Historic England.

Looking at the records, there were two vessels out of the many recorded as lost in the area within this time frame that fitted the criteria:

The Sally, bound from Oporto to Bristol with wine and other cargoes including shumac (a plant dyestuff), came ashore in 1769. Recalling the incident afterwards in a sworn statement, her master stated that he ‘could have no command of the ship and that he imagined himself further to the eastward than he really was’. He let go two anchors one after the other but ‘she still driving, till at last she struck aft . . .’ (1)

The sloop Daniel, from Bristol to Cork with a general cargo, went ‘on shore on Northam Burrows; she brought up to an anchor, but unfortunately struck at low water and filled’ in 1829. (2) The local vicar and other worthies were among those who received a reward for ‘venturing in a tremendous surf in a life boat constructed by Mr Wm Plenty, which had never been tried before.’ (3) However, on further investigation, it transpired that the Daniel was only 4 years old when she went ashore (4), so, with a build date of 1825, she fell outside the date range revealed by the timber analysis.

This suggests that the Sally is the best match so far found for the vessel remains, ‘striking aft’ being consistent with the stern to the landward. She, too, provides evidence of change: she is a tangible reminder of the long-established wine trade between Britain and Portugal. The trade was centred on Bristol: from the Middle Ages onwards vessels laden with wine were a common sight in the Bristol Channel. At this time in the 18th century wine from Oporto was developing into the port wine that we know today with the addition of the fortification process. The Sally is therefore a reminder of an international trade at a key period in its evolution.

During the consultation process on these two wrecks more information came to light, including an article hitherto unknown to us, also proposing the Sally as the vessel at Westward Ho! (5)

The protection of these two wrecks led by Historic England was a real example of multi-agency collaboration in practice, sharing information to fully round out our knowledge of these two wrecks: among them, Natural England; Northam Burrows Country Park; Torridge District Council; United Kingdom Hydrographic Office; University of London; and University of Southampton Coastal and Offshore Archaeological Research Services (COARS).

Even Rudyard Kipling played a small part in the research by providing indirect evidence for the extent of the pebble ridge in Victorian times. The two wrecks are so old they would have been old in his time: a vessel described as ‘very old’ was revealed in the area in 1854, probably the larger vessel. As Kipling ran over the pebbles to bathe with his fellow schoolboys all those years ago, did he ever see the same two wrecks and wonder about them?

For more information on these wrecks, read the Devon’s Shipwrecks post on the Heritage Calling blog.

(1) affidavit of Benjamin Berry, master of the Sally, repr. in Farr, G. 1966. Wreck and Rescue in the Bristol Channel, Vol. 1, 44-5.

(2) Exeter Flying Post, No.3,337, 24 September 1829, p3

(3) North Devon Journal, Vol. VI, No.276, 8 October 1829, p4

(4) Lloyd’s Register, 1829, No.28(D)

(5) Hughes, B. 2007. ‘Attempting to name the large wreck on Westward Ho! beach’, North Devon Heritage, No.19, 8-12

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