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 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol4/pp757-772 [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

Diary of the War: November 1918

The Day before the Armistice

I began this maritime ‘Diary of the War’ with an entry for August 1914 in the waters off the Northumberland coast. As we approach the centenary of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, we return once more to that stretch of coastline.

From her inception to her service to her demise, HMS Ascot was entirely a product of the First World War. She was the first of a Racecourse-class of minesweepers built under the Emergency War Programme from 1915 in response to that need for sweepers which, as our August 1914 post demonstrated, was so pressing from the outset of the war, and entered service in January 1916. The Flower-class sweeping and anti-submarine sloops built at this time were also commissioned by the Emergency War Programme, of which HMS President, ex-HMS Saxifrage, moored in London, was one, built at Lobnitz, Renfrew.

Photograph of HMS President moored on river in predominantly black and white dazzle camouflage scheme, with some red, against a backdrop of buildings on the river bank.
HMS President is one of three surviving Royal Navy ships of the First World War and is shown here in her centenary dazzle scheme by Tobias Rehberger, 2014. By DieSwartzPunkt Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The Racecourse-class minesweepers were commissioned from the Ailsa Shipbuilding Company at Troon, who were specialists in constructing paddle steamers for the ferry and excursion steamer markets, which retained a strong preference for paddle steamers, otherwise (with the exception of paddle tugs) largely obsolete in other contexts by the 1870s.

The purpose of the maritime War Diary has not only been to illustrate the underwater cultural heritage of this landscape of war around England’s coastline, but to also to highlight some developments as the war progressed and to demonstrate the diversity of vessel types and nationalities involved.

The commissioning of new paddle steamers to go to war may seem an extraordinary decision, but it fits into this theme. Their typically shallow draught, suitable for river or estuary service, was ideal for minesweeping, and commissioning smaller specialist shipbuilders made full use of Britain’s shipbuilding capacity at need.

In fact, both World Wars saw the use of both purpose-built and requisitioned paddle minesweepers, even if they gained something of a reputation for being ‘wallowy’ and uncomfortable at times. Their use was characteristic of an inventive and flexible approach to adapting shipping to wartime use and conditions, which has also been one of the themes emerging from the War Diary.

Black and white photograph taken from a steamer at sea showing another paddle steamer beyond and on the right.
First World War: Paddle minesweepers off Harwich, April 1918. © IWM (Q 18823)
Black and white photograph of paddle steamer marked with pennant number J66 to the left, with its funnel echoed in the chimneys of the industrial buildings beyond.
Second World War: HMS Plinlimmon, ex-Cambria, in her wartime livery circa 1940 as a minesweeper, perhaps shortly after participating in the Dunkirk evacuation. Built as an excursion steamer in 1895, she was typical of many auxiliaries in seeing service during both World Wars (as HMS Cambridge in the First World War). Source: Historic England Archive CC80/00195

On 10 November 1918 HMS Ascot was three days out from Portsmouth for the minesweeping base at Granton, when she was sighted by UB-67 and became the last Royal Navy loss, the last vessel sunk in English waters, and the last vessel sunk by direct enemy action in the First World War anywhere in the world. (The Norwegian Ener was the very last loss of the war at sea on 11 November 1918, sunk by a mine off Fair Isle.)  (1)

On 20 November 1918 a press release announced the loss of Ascot:

‘The Secretary of the Admiralty announces that HM paddle minesweeper Ascot was torpedoed and sunk with all hands on the 10th inst. by a German submarine off the North-East Coast of England.

‘Six officers, including two mercantile marine officers, and 47 men, including eight mercantile marine ratings, lost their lives.

‘The next-of-kin have all been informed.’ (2)

Of all the terrible events in the ‘war to end all wars’, few things can have been more unbearably distressing and poignant for families than to hear that their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons had been killed so close to the Armistice. Such tragic losses touched many families, including my own, with one of the more famous examples the war poet Wilfred Owen, killed in action on 4 November 1918.

Her crew are commemorated on the imposing Grade-I listed Commonwealth War Grave memorials at Plymouth and Chatham. The wreck has been identified east of the Farne Islands by her bell and paddle wheels. (3)

The Armistice marked an end to the fighting, but not to the war itself: the final cessation of hostilities came with the Treaty of Versailles between Germany and the Allied Powers, signed on 28 June 1919, along with other separately-negotiated peace treaties. For this reason some war memorials, such as this one at Euston, London, state the dates of the war as 1914-1919, but there were other reasons too. For seamen there was no longer any danger of shellfire, underwater torpedo or aerial attack, but in some respects the war was not yet properly over. Hence the Diary of the War will conclude with a final ‘post-war’ post in December 2018.

Fearless of storm or foe,
Guarding the traffic of the east and west,
Giving with hearts heroic of their best,

The brave mine-sweepers go.

The Mine-Sweepers, Editha Jenkinson

Charcoal and wash sketch of two men on deck, distinguished by their yellow oilskins, with features of the deck also picked out in yellow.
Bridge of a Paddle Sweeper, North Sea, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree: Imperial War Museum Commission c.1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 775) It seems fitting to conclude this tribute to HMS Ascot with an artwork by Allfree, who is commemorated along with his vessel, ML247,  in our September 1918 post.

(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping Through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile edition, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p238; skipet.no

(2) Widely reproduced across the national and regional press: for example, Western Morning News, 20 November 1918, No.18,323, p6

(3) UKHO No.4397

Black History Month: October 2018

The wreck of the London, 1796: what happened next?

Today’s guest blog comes from Abigail Coppins, a historian specialising in the history and heritage of Black prisoners of war of the Napoleonic era: she recently helped to develop the award-winning display at Portchester Castle telling the story of the POWs who ended up there.

Here she sheds new light on the fate of the prisoners of war who escaped alive from the wreck of the London. Abigail writes:

Historical background and legend intertwined: 

The stranding of the London, at Rapparee Cove in Devon in October 1796, has become part of local legend and folklore on a coastline which has seen more than its fair share of wrecks, including the 1691 loss of a vessel bound from Cork for Brest with Irish soldiers or ‘rapparees’, of which only six escaped alive from the passengers and crew. Documentary evidence for wrecks in this area before the 17th century has largely not survived, but since that time over 30 vessels have stranded in and near Ilfracombe with its rocky coastline and high cliffs. (1)

Photograph of rocky cove with steep, hilly sides covered in green. The tide is nearly at the entrance to the cove, which is very narrow.
View of Rapparee Beach, Ilfracombe, Devon. showing the narrow cove cut off by the tide.  CC-BY-SA/2.0 © Steve Daniels – geograph.org.uk/p/1494232

The London is often described as a ‘slaver’ carrying a cargo of gold and Caribbean slaves or prisoners to be sold in Bristol. This legend is helped along by the periodic exposure of both coins (one of which is definitively Roman, so clearly antedates the wreck) and human remains at the cove.  In 1997 a rescue dig at the cove uncovered more human remains, which were believed to be associated with the passengers and crew of the London.

Their possible identity in the context of a lack of formal burial, consistent with burial practice in cliff locations, has enabled the London to become, perhaps, one of the most controversial wrecks in Britain.

It would be another 12 years following the wreck before the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1808 compelled the interment of shipwrecked bodies in consecrated ground. Elsewhere in England, other mass graves of shipwreck victims where they were washed up are attested, including crew members from HMS Anson, lost in 1807 in a similarly inaccessible location which prevented rescue: and in Northern Europe such burials also persisted until well into the 19th century. (2) Of course, until there is an analysis and published report on the human remains, their identity will, for now, be a matter of conjecture.

However, there is much more to the story of the London than the human remains possibly from the wreck. This blog will pull together what I have managed to piece together about the London, its passengers and what happened to them.

The French Revolution in the Eastern Caribbean

Old b&w map with some colour highlights
Map of the West Indies, Antilles, and Caribbean Sea, from Pinkerton’s Modern Atlas, John Pinkerton (Thomas Dobson & Co: Philadelphia, 1818) Guadeloupe, St. Kitts and St. Lucia are all among the Windward Islands highlighted in pink to the right of the map.

The story of the London and her passengers begins in the Caribbean.  In 1793, when Britain and France went to war, their Caribbean colonies were also caught up in the fighting. In 1794, Victor Hugues, the French-born revolutionary, captured the island of Guadeloupe from Britain and declared an end to slavery on the island. The formerly enslaved plantation workers were enlisted into local regiments as part of a levée en masse, with many of their officers coming from amongst the free-born black and mixed-race population.  As free French soldiers, they fought against Britain on islands including St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Martinique and Grenada. The conflicts on these islands are characterised by the coming together of the internal slave rebellions with the political ideology of the French Revolution to form a powerful new force in the fight against slavery in the Caribbean.

Printed document in French.
Hugues’ proclamation, 1794

As a result, Britain undertook numerous campaigns in the Caribbean to take and re-take various islands, with some islands changing hands several times. The locally enlisted free Black French troops were powerful tools in this military (and ideological) war against Britain and the Black soldiers proved to be formidable opponents.

Despite this, Britain’s campaigns in this part of the Caribbean resulted in the capture of large numbers of free Black French soldiers on islands such as St. Lucia, Grenada, St. Vincent and Martinique. Most of the captured Black soldiers were regarded as French prisoners of war, although there were exceptions. Once captured, these soldiers were placed under guard on military transport ships whilst arrangements were made to send them to the prisoner of war depots in Britain.

Some of the Black prisoners of war are likely to have been from the French garrison at Morne Fortuné, St. Lucia, who had capitulated to the forces led by Sir John Moore on 26th May 1796, under terms that stated ‘The Agent General, the Commander in Chief, and the Forces of the Republic, who have defended the Island ….. shall be treated as Prisoners of War….’ .

The Journey of the London

In July 1796 a convoy of ships, including the London, left the island of St. Kitts and set sail across the Atlantic, escorted by HMS Ganges. The ships were carrying around 3,000 mainly Black French soldiers (prisoners of war) who had been captured on the islands of St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada. The London was carrying ‘…one Officer, Eight Serjeants, and Eleven Privates of the 66th Regt and 106 French Prisoners (Black)….’. (3)

The convoy arrived off the coast of Ireland in September and then divided. One group of ships set off for Liverpool – probably to offload prisoners at the prisoner of war depot at Liverpool. The rest headed south-east, with most of the convoy arriving at Plymouth and the associated prison (Mill Prison) at the beginning of October. When it was discovered that the prison there was full, the ships sailed on to Portsmouth (Portchester Castle).

It seems likely that as the London was wrecked on the North Devon coast she was sailing directly through the Bristol Channel to an alternative prisoner of war depot in Bristol (Stapleton Prison) when she hit bad weather and was wrecked. Another (unnamed) vessel from the convoy also got into difficulty off the South Wales coast, suggesting that it was possibly also making its way to Bristol.

The wreck at Ilfracombe

On 14th October 1796, a letter informed the War Office that the London had been wrecked at Ilfracombe and that the Surrey Fencibles had been sent from Barnstaple to guard the surviving prisoners. Casualties were estimated at one private and two serjeants of the 66th Regiment and 31 black soldiers (prisoners) dead, plus around 40 of the London’s crew. A contemporary newspaper account read as follows:

‘October 16th: This evening a very melancholy accident happened at Ilfracombe: a ship called the London, from St. Kitts having on board a considerable number of blacks (French prisoners) was driven on the rocks, near the entrance of the pier, by a violent gale of wind, by which about 50 of the prisoners were drowned; those who got on shore exhibited a most wretched spectacle, and the scene was altogether too shocking for description.’ (5)

Thirty of the London’s prisoners, including one woman, were then taken to Stapleton Prison, arriving there in December. The timescale between the wreck and the prisoners’ arrival at Bristol suggests that they may have been held somewhere else before arriving at Bristol. The Stapleton prison register records that these thirty prisoners were captured on Grenada and St. Vincent. Other survivors from the London may have been sent to Mill Prison, or possibly to join the over two thousand Black prisoners of war at Portchester Castle.

Ruins of castle set against a blue sky, green lawn in foreground.
Portchester Castle, Hampshire

Women and capture

The woman from the London was Madame Heaurlaux, wife of Colonel Heaurlaux, commander of Fort Charlotte on St. Vincent. Both she and her husband were sent from Stapleton to Chippenham on ‘parole’. Captured officers were often allowed to live outside prison in specially designated parole towns – there were over sixty in Britain at this time.

The presence of Mme Heaurlaux aboard the London is not unusual. Women often accompanied their husbands on campaign, and sometimes into captivity, and women and children are also recorded on board ships from the rest of the convoy.  There were approximately 100 women and children amongst the over 2,000 mainly Black prisoners of war who arrived at Portchester Castle. Portchester’s registers of arrivals record that they were a mix of both Black and European women and children.

At Portchester the women were placed in separate accommodation before being sent to nearby Forton Prison in Gosport. Once there they were given a large room in the prison hospital to live in. Most were soldiers’ wives, following the drum with their husbands and children, and most had been captured on the island of St. Lucia.

Stapleton Prison, Prisoner Exchange and Cartels

The prison register for Stapleton records that all prisoners arriving from the London, both Black and European, were exchanged for captured British soldiers via the ‘cartel’ vessels Nancy and Smallbridge.

Cartel vessels were used to repatriate prisoners of war, and tended to be merchant ships which flew a white flag and a flag of truce. (4) There were regular prisoner exchanges between Britain and France during the French wars. Cartels were also a chance for both France and Britain to do a bit of spying on each other as well!

The first Black prisoner from the London, Timothee, was exchanged to France in October 1797, around the same time that the Black prisoners from Portchester also began to be exchanged. Timothee arrived in France just under a year after he had first arrived at Stapleton Prison, with the rest of the Black prisoners from the London following in January 1798.

Oil painting showing a black cavalryman fighting alongside a white cavalryman in a melee of horses on the battlefield.
Detail from The Battle of Marengo 14 June 1800, Louis-François, Baron Lejeune, 1802, depicting a black soldier. (Wikimedia Commons)

Black Caribbean soldiers in France

Once in France, Black soldiers were sent to the French colonial army depots in places such as Brest, before being brought together at Rochefort and the Ile d’Aix.  They were eventually consolidated into Le Bataillon des Pionniers Noirs and went on to fight across Europe for France in places such as Italy and Russia.

Some, such as Louis Delgrès (who was imprisoned at Portchester Castle), made it back to the Caribbean and fought in the wars in San Domingue (Haiti) and Guadeloupe. Others may have been recruited from prison into the Royal Navy.

Postage stamp with bust of man in wig and military uniform on right, flanked by red hibiscus flowers, on a creamy yellow background.
Stamp of Louis Delgrès issued on the bicentenary of his death.


The black prisoners from the London and the other vessels of the Ganges convoy are incredibly important to the history of race and diversity in Britain. They are also internationally significant because of the role they played in the struggle for freedom in the Caribbean.  They transformed the political ideals of the French Revolution into an idea of universal rights for all. These were ideas that they fought and died for.

The story of the London and its passengers deserves a new place in our history.

Learn more:

Black Lives in Britain

More from Abigail Coppins on Wreck of the Week: The Duke of Wellington and the Amsterdam

Abigail will be giving a free talk in London: The Revolution Comes to Hampshire: Black Revolutionaries in an English Castle 1796-1800 on Tuesday 6 November 2018, 5.15pm


(1) Source: Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, October 2018

(2) Hasse, J. 2016 Versunkene Seelen: Begräbnitzplätze ertrunkener Seeleute im 19. Jahrhundert (Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Verlag Herder GmbH)

(3) The National Archives, WO 40/8

(4) We know of other cartel vessels wrecked on the English coast during the Napoleonic Wars. [Source: Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, October 2018]

(5) Sherborne Mercury, 17 October 1796, No.2,489, p3




Musical instruments in the Sea

The tale of a harp

Earlier this year Historic England were contacted by the finders of a diverse assemblage of artefacts from the wreck of a steamer off the coast of Sussex, including a metal plate which was all that was left of a harp, its wooden body and catgut strings having long since disappeared. The identity of the wreck was unknown – and colleagues passed on the enquiry to me to see if I could find a potential match for the site among the records on the Historic England shipwreck database.

Curved metal plate with pegs and holes on a wooden table.
Figure 1. Harp plate from the unknown wreck off Sussex. © Mike Rountree

On the whole musical instruments are very rarely represented in the documentary record although they turn up occasionally as archaeological finds. Occasionally they are named in the cargo, from the Charles, wrecked in 1675 off the Lizard with unspecified music instruments from Lisbon, to the Preussen (subject of a recent post), which stranded off Dover in 1910 en route from Hamburg to Valparaiso with a cargo which included pianos.

More often we come across references to musical instruments as personal possessions, and not always on board the wrecked vessel either. During the collision of the Belgian steamer Jan Breydel with the Norwegian steamer Salina near the Goodwin Sands in 1921, the Salina came off worse and sank with loss of life, but those on board the Jan Breydel also feared for their lives. One passenger gave a press interview, saying that: “If our boat had been fifty yards further on, there would have been no interview this morning, for the Salina would have struck just about the point where I was sitting.”

That passenger was the violin virtuoso Jan Kubelik (1880-1940), who also said that his first thought was for his precious Stradivarius, known as the ‘Emperor’ Stradivarius, around which he placed a lifebuoy. (1) That instrument still exists today – so a near-shipwreck was just one of many incidents in its 300-year history. It also reminds us that many high-status instruments have a traceable history. (By contrast, the Wreck of the Week War Diary for June 1918 shows that a young violinist survived, although his violin did not, but as it was not ‘his best’ it was clearly the least of his worries!)

The history of the harp would prove crucial in helping to unlock the possible identity of the ship, together with the context of the cargo. Other finds from the same wreck included a number of ‘teardrop’ or ‘torpedo’ bottles marked “Bradey and Downey, Newry”, “F W Kennedy, Limerick”, and “Bewley, Evans and Company, Mary Street, Dublin”.

Green bottle with moulded lettering reading BEWLEY EVANS AND visible, against a white background.
Figure 2. Torpedo bottle, probably for mineral water, which was part of Bewley Evans and Company’s bottling business. © Mike Rountree

The latter were mineral water bottlers and suppliers with a company history which seems to fizzle out around 1863, (2) suggesting a terminus ante quem for the date of loss, and a voyage beginning in or calling at Ireland. Other finds appeared more likely to be of Continental European origin, such as a large blue and white painted earthenware pot, and are as likely to be interpretable as personal household effects as cargo.

Enter the engraved metal plate from the harp. It was still legible, though much corroded, revealing that it was made by Erard, specialists in prestige harps at their London showroom during the 19th century. The firm had been founded in France, but the French Revolution drove Sébastien Erard out of the country, leaving his brother-in-law to carry on the Paris business.  The London and Paris branches then came to specialise respectively in harps and pianos.

Each of Erard’s harps sold from the London showroom was individually numbered with a ‘patent number’, the ledgers for which survive at the Royal College of Music Museum and Archives. The patent number on this example was extremely difficult to read after so long in the sea, and was initially interpreted as 6331 or 6339. Harp 6331 was sold to a clergyman in 1871 and returned for repair in 1874: he retired on the grounds of ill-health in 1875 and died in London in 1906, and harp 6339 was sold in 1864. Both of these post-date the apparent cessation of Bewley and Evans’ operations in Dublin by 1863, and there were no obvious wrecks that fitted the criteria in terms of location, date, or origin post-dating 1864.

Further examination of the patent number in a higher-resolution photograph kindly provided by the finders, and comparison with the lettering of other surviving Erard harps in online collections at the V&A and National Trust suggested that the number could well be 5331, which was the suggestion I put forward to the finders. (Figure 3) The numerals are engraved just to the right of the word ‘Patent’, at the point where the plate begins to curve downwards, (Figure 4) so that each numeral is smaller than its predecessors (compare the two 3s). They are set in an ornamental cartouche of engraved curlicues which have provided a matrix for the further pitting of the metal around the digits.  The semi-circular feature between the tops of the second ‘3’ and ‘1’ was especially ambiguous.

Detail view of corroded and pitted metal in which the numbers 5 3 3 1 are just legible.
Figure 3. Detail view of number on the recovered harp plate. © Mike Rountree
Detail view of top of harp, showing strings and pegs with engraved lettering on a metal plate underneath.
Figure 4. Detail view of harp made by S&P Erard in 1858, now belonging to the V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum

The record for 5331 also survives in the ledgers, noted as built in 1839 and sold to a Mr S J Pigott of 112 Grafton Street, Dublin, on September 30, 1840. He was very heavily involved in Dublin musical society, with showrooms for the sale or hire of harps and pianos at those exact premises – including Erard harps. (3)

A key selling point highlighted in his advertisements was that the instruments were sourced from London, so clearly regular buying trips were made. It is unclear what happened next in the case of this particular harp: whether it was for sale in his shop following its import from London, or whether it was intended for his personal use. If the former, the customer is also likely to have lived in Ireland; if the latter, it may have either remained within the family or have been sold after his death. This part of the story so far remains untraced.

It seems clear that the harp is likely to have been a personal possession on its final voyage, reinforced by the presence of what are likely to be other domestic effects aboard; that its voyage is likely to have originated in Ireland, given the bottles from Dublin, Limerick and Newry as cargo; that the vessel was a steamer from the site as observed; and that the wreck took place before 1863 as the date by which one of the bottling firms seems to have fizzled out; and somewhere on the coast of Sussex.

The candidate that most closely matches the criteria is the steamer Ondine of Waterford, which sank on 19 February 1860 following a collision off Beachy Head with the schooner Heroine of Bideford. The position of loss as reported does not quite tally with the position of the site as located, but this is not at all uncommon, since wreck remains are often identified some distance from the reported place of loss. This would not, therefore, necessarily exclude the Ondine from consideration, particularly as she otherwise matches the criteria so closely.  Additionally, while steamers were common at this date, they had not yet ousted the sailing vessel, which significantly restricted the pool of potential candidates for the wreck site.

Ondine was a regular visitor to London and left Dublin as usual on 15 February with passengers and a general cargo, calling at Falmouth, Plymouth and Southampton en route. Her profile fits well with the finds on site as she was carrying both passengers, providing the context for the movement of personal effects, and cargo, which would fit with the bottles as found. At each port some passengers disembarked and others came on board, so the total number of passengers is difficult to ascertain, but a ‘good many faces’ were looking down at the survivors in one boat as they got away. (4)

It seems that three boats got away, one led by the captain, one the mate, Edward West, and one the second mate, Richard Burke, with a fourth boat being smashed. The captain’s boat was swamped, and all presumably drowned; the mate managed to save 20 persons, who were seen straight away by the Heroine, which picked them up. Of those who got into the third boat with the second mate, only two passengers survived, one of whom, one Marsh, had been on holiday to his wife’s family. His wife and two children got away with him in the same boat, but he suffered the agony of seeing them perish one by one from exposure or drowning, one child in his arms. The mate and the other survivors were very near the end of their resources, with their boat badly damaged and only saved from sinking by its cork lining, when discovered by the Thetis steamer, who sent a boat to pick them up.

One strange circumstance was the presence of an unnamed lady passenger. Richard Burke recalled in his testimony that the captain most particularly adjured him to look after this lady as she got into his boat. Unfortunately, along with the chief stewardess, she was one of the first to perish from his boat. Was, she, perhaps, the harp’s owner?

Further research on the wreck site and in documentary sources will help to confirm whether the wreck is indeed the Ondine, but no other candidates in the historical record appear to fit the archaeological discoveries so well. It’s very common for a maker’s plate to confirm the identity of a wreck, but who would have thought that a maker’s plate for a harp could put a candidate for a wreck’s identity in the frame? There is more research to be done on both the wreck site and in documentary records before this possible identification can be confirmed or discarded in favour of another, but it is a fascinating story that demonstrates the depth of detective work involved in putting a name to a wreck.

With many thanks to Mike and Sue Rountree and to Guy Freeman for sharing their story and photographs of the discovery, and to Dr Anna Maria Barry at the Royal College of Music Museum, who says: ‘The RCM Museum and Library team are delighted to have helped with the identification of this wreck. We are lucky enough to look after the Erard ledgers, and have answered many enquiries about serial numbers – but this is by far the strangest request we’ve had! The story of the shipwrecked harp demonstrates the way in which musical instruments can offer a unique insight into our social history.’ The RCM Museum have also blogged about the wreck: http://www.rcm.ac.uk/about/news/all/2018-05-21museumblogharp.aspx

(1) Shields Daily News, 24 September 1921, No.19,522, p3

(2) British Newspaper Archive searches: no advertisements for the firm later than 1863, supported by (undated) material from Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History

(3) Erard harp ledgers, Royal College of Music Museum. Samuel Pigott announced his move to premises at 112 Grafton Street, advertising Erard and other harps and pianos, in the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent, 4 November 1837, No.1,513, p1. The company continued to sell harps and pianos from the same premises even after Samuel’s death in 1853 (British Newspaper Archive searches). In fact the business continues today as McCullough Pigott in Dublin.

(4) Liverpool Mercury, 23 February 1860, No.3,752, p3

Diary of the War: October 1918

The mystery submarine

On this blog I’ve occasionally discussed the ‘fog of war’, whereby participants in a military or naval engagement are unable to make clear decisions or correctly identify friend from foe: their minds are clouded by the rapidly evolving situations they find themselves in without necessarily having all appropriate information to hand to make a fully-informed decision. Those decisions may, in turn, be informed by previous war experience, for good or ill.

Sometimes a ‘fog of war’ situation has the misfortune to take place wholly or partially in a physical weather fog, or even to be caused by it – which naturally then exacerbates the consequences of events as they unfold.

On the afternoon of 15 October 1918 the Q-ship Cymric was on patrol in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast, acting on reports that a U-boat was operational in the area. Having already seen and dismissed two friendly submarines, it was apparently a case of ‘third time lucky’ when a submarine with a U-prefix was seen close by.

Cymric fired at short range and continued firing even as members of the submarine’s crew climbed out and tried to make signals by firing rifles or waving a white cloth. All these were interpreted as deceptive or hostile actions, of which Cymric‘s commander and crew had had prior experience, by the very nature of their Q-ship activity, pitting the wits of one side against another.  The only course of action open to the submarine was to retreat into a fog bank, which only reinforced the impression of suspicious behaviour.

She was pursued by Cymric,  and as they appeared on scene they found survivors coming up alongside their vessel from the submarine, now in a sinking state. As Cymric‘s crew realised the survivors were sporting not German cap tallies, but British ones, their mission turned from war to rescue. However, only 30 men came out alive from HMSM J6, as the mystery submarine proved to be.

It was a case of mistaken identity, stemming from something simple: the crew of J6 were apparently unaware that some debris hanging outside their conning tower mirrored their J prefix, making it look for all the world like a U – which was then fatally misinterpreted by Cymric.

It was a sad example of ‘friendly fire’, made all the sadder by occurring as the long war moved inexorably towards the Armistice just a few weeks later. Ultimately the J6 was forced to contend that day with both a fog of war and a sea fog which hampered visibility. Despite the fact that the Cymric was the author of the J6‘s misfortunes, it is perhaps as well that she did pursue the supposed U-boat into the fog bank, or her victim’s loss might have passed unseen, and it might have been a long time before her crew were picked up, if at all.

The wreck has been located in recent years in the North Sea east of Seahouses: see this BBC report, 2014.