The Raid on the Medway

There’s a persistent myth that the country has never been invaded since William landed at Hastings at 1066. Since 1066, too, many actions on land and at sea have become household names: Bosworth 1485, Naseby 1645, Trafalgar 1805, Waterloo 1815, Dunkirk 1940 and D-Day 1944, to name but a few.

There is one action of the 17th century, however, that is both relatively little-known and was an invasion. It has been somewhat overshadowed in the history books because of the internal drama of the Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration, taking up 1642-1660, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (itself an invasion, and a successful one).

It was the Raid on the Medway, an action of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667). For the English the war had begun inauspiciously with the loss of the warship London (now a protected wreck in the Thames Estuary) in March 1665. The ensuing engagements of the war were to see some of the greatest battles of the age of sail and the Raid was a phenomenal feat of seamanship.

The English had already recognised the potential vulnerability of Chatham Dockyard on the Medway. A defensive chain was laid across the river under the protection of Upnor Castle, to protect the yard and England’s capacity to build and repair ships.

Colour photograph of blue river running diagonally through image from bottom left corner, on the right bank brown mud and a jetty structure, on the left bank the pitched roofs of the dockyard and other buildings.
Chatham Dockyard as seen from Upnor Castle, September 2016. Historic England Archive DP187773.

Stationed at the chain were the guardships, the Charles Vor, to give her her Latin name, Carolus Quintus and Matthias. If you think that these names are unusual for English ships (we have never had a Charles V), you would be right. They were English, but only by default: they had been captured from the Dutch in previous engagements to enter English service.

Bottom third of image is blue river, with horizontal reflections, with the white walls of a fortification visible in the distance against a backdrop of green trees. Upper two thirds of image is blue sky.
Upnor Castle from the Medway, September 2016. Historic England Archive DP187777.

The Raid began 350 years ago on 9th June 1667 according to the Old Style calendar still in force in England, but on 19th June 1667 according to the New Style calendar already in use in the Netherlands. (It would be over 100 years before the same calendar was adopted in Britain.)

We are used to a constant scroll of instantaneous news as it happens, from mobile footage to Twitter feeds. So here is what happened next in the words of those there at the time: mouse over the footnotes to read the original documents.

On the 7th/17th 50 ‘warships, yachts and frigates’ left Den Helder. (1) On the 9th/19th a report from Harwich noted ‘between 40 and 50 sail of Dutch appeared on this coast, in the Sledway, over against Bardsey Ferry, where they continued all the day till 7 in the evening’ (2)

News travelled fast. Samuel Pepys, then Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board, wrote the same evening: ‘Being come home I find an order come for the getting some fire-ships presently to annoy the Dutch, who are in the King’s Channel, and expected up higher.’ (3)

Potrait of man facing to the left, face towards viewer, wearing a white cravat and brown jacket with white sleeve poking through, and a letter in his left hand towards bottom left of image, against a dark background.
Samuel Pepys by John Hayls, oil on canvas, 1666, NPG 211 © National Portrait Gallery, London Creative Commons Licence 3.0

Things had changed swiftly by the morning of the 10th/20th June: ‘Up, and news brought us that, the Dutch are come up as high as the Nore, and more pressing orders for fireships.’ (4) Pepys went hither and thither gathering intelligence, standing ship captains a drink at a tavern, and all confirmed the news of the Dutch being at the Nore in the Thames Estuary, between Shoeburyness on the Essex coast and Sheerness on the Kent side, and less than 50 miles from London.

Yet the Medway, rather than the capital, appears to have been the Dutch objective. On the 11th/21st, Pepys noted that Commissioner Pett of Chatham Dockyard ‘is in a very fearful stink for fear of the Dutch’ having ‘written word, that Sheernesse is lost last night, after two or three hours’ dispute.’ More fire-ships were hired following an order in Council that ‘under an invasion, as he owns it to be, the King may, by law, take any man’s goods.’ (5) 

On that day a number of ships were sunk west of the chain as blockships to deny the Dutch entry to the twists and turns of the Medway. Some of these vessels were requisitioned merchantmen, others were warships. Even those with an unbroken history in English service had still had a chequered career, such as the Marmaduke, which had served first the Royalist, then the Cromwellian causes, and was now in Charles II’s navy.

17th century portrait of sea captain in contemporary military dress, with his ship in the background beside his left elbow (on the right as the viewer sees it).
Michiel de Ruyter, Ferdinand Bol, 1667, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Yet the Dutch, under their commanders, including Michiel de Ruyter, (the Dutch equivalent, perhaps, of Nelson), were nothing daunted by chain, blockships or fireships, or the perils of navigating a narrow, winding, muddy river. Two fireships attempted the chain, the second, the Pro Patria, breaking through, and the rest following. Further fireships were expended. The official correspondence of the time is full of ‘strange reports’ and garbled rumours. (6)

These rumours came to the ears of Samuel Pepys, who wrote on the 12th/22nd: ‘ill newes is come to Court of the Dutch breaking the Chaine at Chatham, which struck me to the heart . . . and so home, where all our hearts do ake; for the newes is true, that the Dutch have broke the chaine and burned our ships, and particularly the Royal Charles.’ (7)

17th century oil painting in muted colours, showing a winding river with ships in combat, to lower left the grey smoke of a town burning, the sky filled with grey clouds and grey smoke.
Burning of the English Fleet at Chatham, 19-24 June 1667, Willem Schellinks, 1667-78, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. To the lower left Sheerness burns. Chatham lies beyond the three ships burning in the centre of the river, with the square tower of Upnor visible on the upper bank. In the far distance Rochester Castle and Rochester Cathedral can be discerned against the smoke. Popular prints were made from scenes such as these, with places and ships carefully labelled.

A letter to Pepys on the 14th/24th made some sense of events: ‘Yesterday the Royal James, Royal Oak, and Royal London were fired. Saw all three flaming, and the enemies become masters of the Royal Charles, giving her such a friendly entertainment that it is expected she will be our enemy this afternoon. On Tuesday two or three more ships were lost . . . Several other vessels have been sunk. The enemy have lost five or six fire-ships, either by sinking or in executing their employ.’ (8)

The Dutch then sailed back with the Royal Charles in tow, to a heroes’ welcome. To this day the counter-stern of the Royal Charles is displayed in the Rijksmuseum, as is the golden cup awarded to Michiel de Ruyter in commemoration of his deeds.

Carved wooden relief panel with some faded colour, showing 17th century royal shield of arms in centre, with lion supporter on left and unicorn supporter on right.
Counter-stern of the Royal Charles, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

What wreckage remains from this action over several days in June 1667? What is the archaeological potential beneath the mud of the Medway?

The Commissioners of the Navy literally sought to salvage what they could from the wreckage. The majority of the sunken ships were painstakingly recovered – they were an obstruction to navigation. By August 1668 they were planning to raise the Marmaduke ‘which is the ship most hurtful to the river’. (9) They succeeded in ‘making her swim’. (10) However, she required pumping and by the next August there was nothing more to be done with her: ‘We think that the best manner of disposing of the Marmaduke will be by exposing her to sale, she being incapable of removal, and inconvenient to break up at so great a distance from the yard.’ (11) She was then broken up by her buyer.

There are tantalising clues that something may yet remain: a ‘bottom’ here, or a disappearance of a ship from the records there (but this may mean that the records do not survive rather than that a piece of wreckage does).

What archaeological discoveries have been made were third-hand, at best: there is a box in the collections of the National Maritime Museum, fashioned from timbers attributed to the Matthias or Carolus Quintus according to a label inside. It continues: ‘found by a party of convicts during the excavating of the new docks and basins at the extension works, St. Mary’s Island, HM Dockyard Chatham in the year 1876.’ (12) There is no indication of how the identification was made, or by whom, and a gap of 200 years sits between the alleged origin of the timbers and their identification.

Other archaeological evidence may reside in other wrecks far from the Medway with a greater or lesser degree of certainty. It was the lot of a warship to have an eventful career, and frequently to end that career in a similarly eventful fashion. One such vessel was HMS Ramillies, wrecked at the Bolt Tail in 1760. Some sources attribute the origins of the Ramillies to the Royal Katherine, of 1664, one of the ships scuttled, then raised at the Medway: but if this is true, after two intervening rebuilds there can have been very little left of the original vessel! It is also possible that the Hind Sixth Rate, lost on the Isles of Scilly later in 1667,  is identifiable with the Hind which was scuttled and recovered from the Medway.

The fortunes of the three Anglo-Dutch wars see-sawed between the two nations. The Dutch won some battles, the English others; defeat could follow victory and victory defeat; and indeed, in some engagements, both sides claimed victory. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that the Royal Charles is in Amsterdam, and a possible piece of the remains of the Matthias or Carolus Quintus in London, reflecting the characteristic fortunes of their ships.

The Raid on the Medway was a clear defeat for the English navy, but the Dutch did not press home their advantage and attack London, as was feared. The other great diarist of the time, John Evelyn, records his impressions (several days’ worth compressed into the slightly erroneous date of 8th/18th June):

‘To London, alarmed by the Dutch, who were fallen on our fleet at Chatham, by a most audacious enterprise . . .This alarm caused me, fearing the enemy might venture up the Thames even to London (which they might have done with ease, and fired all the vessels in the river too), to send away my best goods, plate, etc., from my house to another place.’ (13) With all that going on, no wonder he was too busy to write up his diary!

What remains, then, is a shared heritage of words and pictures, if little in the way of wreckage.

Places to visit:

UK:

Chatham Dockyard: special exhibition for Raid on the Medway 350 Breaking the Chain (to 3 September, 2017)

National Maritime Museum (paintings of the Raid, portrait of Michiel de Ruyter, which can also be seen on the website)

Rochester Castle (English Heritage)

Upnor Castle (English Heritage)

Netherlands:

MuZEEum, Vlissingen, special exhibition for Raid on the Medway 350 (to 1 October, 2017) (in Dutch)

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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Footnotes:

(1)  Oprechte Haerlemsche Courant, June 11, 1667 (NS)

(2) London Gazette, Thursday June 20, to Monday June 24, 1667, (NS), No.167

(3) Pepys, Diary, June 9, 1667 (OS)

(4) Pepys, Diary, June 10, 1667 (OS)

(5) Pepys, Diary, June 11, 1667 (OS)

(6) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, Vol.205, No.4

(7) Pepys, Diary, June 12, 1667 (OS)

(8) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, Vol.205, No.58

(9) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, Vol.244, No.101

(10) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, Vol.245, No.77

(11) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, Vol.264, No.103

(12) Royal Museums Greenwich, REL0550

(13)  Evelyn, Diary, June 8, 1667 (OS)

 

 

 

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Diary of the War: June 1917

The Sir Francis

At first glance the Sir Francis appears to be yet another British steam collier lost through enemy action in the North Sea, torpedoed 4 miles off Ravenscar, North Yorkshire, on a ballast run to the Tyne to pick up coal on 7 June 1917.

In that sense there is nothing remarkable about this particular wreck, which shares the characteristics of so many other ships of the same ilk, lost in the same sea area to war causes. not only during the First World War but also the Second. Even her tonnage of 1153 tons net, 1991 gross, was entirely characteristic of a steam collier of the early to mid 20th century, and she belonged to one of the big names in coal shipping, Cory Colliers Ltd.

Also fairly characteristic was the death toll: 10 men out of a crew of 22 lost their lives that day in June 1917. The Mercantile Marine Memorial at Tower Hill, London (listed Grade I) records their details so far as they were known. They were:

Wanless, A, master, whose place of birth, residence, and family is not recorded;

de Boer, J, seaman, born in Holland;

Jonsson, John, born in Iceland, resident in South Shields and married to an Englishwoman;

Kato, T, fireman, born in Japan;

Nishioka, B, fireman, also born in Japan;

Poulouch, N, fireman, born in Greece;

Sharp, Joseph, steward, of South Shields;

Talbot, Alfred, engineer’s steward, of Penarth;

Tippett, Albert, engineer, a Yorkshireman resident in Tyneside;

van der Pluym, Johannes Cornelis, seaman, a resident of Amsterdam.

Colour photograph of stone memorial inscription reading '1914-1918: To the Glory of God and to the honour of twelve thousand of the merchant navy and fishing fleets who have no grave but the sea'.
Detail of the Mercantile Marine Memorial, Tower Hill. By Katie Chan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28279403

Seafaring has, of course, always been a mobile profession with a long heritage, stretching back centuries, of crew serving aboard ships not originating in their local ports or country of birth, ocean-going liners and tramp steamers being obvious examples. On the blog we have looked previously at lascars engaged as foreign labour and subsequently shipwrecked on board ships plying to and from south Asia during the period of British colonial rule: Mahratta I, 1909; the Magdapur, 1939; and the Medina, 1917. The Tangistan is a good example of this phenomenon earlier in the war: when she was lost in 1915 en route from Beni Saf, Algeria, for Middlesbrough, her crew included men from the Indian Merchant Service and Scandinavian sailors.

The international composition of crews working on domestic routes appears to become more marked as the war continued. A primary contributory factor was, of course, the shortage of labour in the merchant marine, as experienced sailors were recruited into the Royal Navy, and the high death and injury toll among the crews of ships lost to war causes.  There were other factors, including international agreements (which will be covered in a later post). Undoubtedly, further research among the histories of each individual crew member might well reveal other factors at play: for example, rates of pay and war displacement (shipwreck by war causes and internment of vessels).

In July 1917, another collier, the Empress, would also be sunk in the North Sea with a truly multinational crew on a wholly domestic route, this time delivering coal from the Tyne to Southend-on-Sea. Among the survivors on that occasion were 3 Norwegians; 2 Argentines; 2 Swedes; and one man each representing Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia (although at this period crewmen from the Baltic Grand Duchies of Russia were lumped under the ‘catch-all’ label of ‘Russian’ in contemporary sources) and Spain. Among the dead were Swede Peter Anderson [sic], able seaman; Norwegian Olaf Husby, boatswain; and Dutchman Peter van Klanders, fireman.

There is a similar tally on board a larger collier, the Polesley, which lost all but one of her 43 crew when she was torpedoed in 1918. Half came from diverse national and ethnic backgrounds. Some originated from various corners of the contemporary British Empire: three men from Sierra Leone, one man from the Bahamas and another from Nevis; a South African; one man from India; and another from Hong Kong. Others came from countries unconnected to the Empire: there were five Japanese sailors on board, and from Europe two Danes and two Lithuanians, a Norwegian, a Russian, a Spaniard and a Swede lost their lives.

These three specific cases among British colliers, the Sir Francis, the Empress, and the Polesley, shine a light on a hidden, but significant, heritage of multinational and multi-ethnic crew composition on British ships during the First World War.

(All crew details from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.)