Conservation of Artefacts from the wreck of the London
I am pleased to welcome this month’s guest blogger Eric Nordgren of Historic England, who tells us more about conservation of artefacts excavated from a maritime context.
I have been working with Historic England as a conservation project assistant since November 2016. My main role is to carry out remedial and investigative conservation on artefacts lifted from the Londonprotected wreck. TheLondonwas a Royal Navy warship that sank in the Thames Estuary following an explosion in 1665. A program of work to better understand this protected shipwreck has been under way since 2014, resulting in surface recovery of exposed objects and in two seasons of underwater excavation and recovery of hundreds of artefacts made of wood, leather, rope, ceramic, glass, iron, copper and lead. The London: Excavation of material at riskproject is a collaboration between Historic England, the protected wreck licensee, Cotswold Archaeology, and Southend Museum Services, where the artefacts and site archive will be deposited.
The process of conserving marine archaeological material can often involve quite a bit of time and repetition: consider that 150 Apostle musket cartridge bottles have been recovered from the London, from complete examples with cap, to some that consist of just a few broken fragments. Each one has to be photographed, assessed, repackaged in soft nylon netting, wet cleaned to remove mud from the sea bottom, desalinated, treated with polyethylene glycol and freeze dried. I’ve just finished the wet cleaning stage which took 4 workdays!
It’s not just the Apostle cartridges, all the artefacts from the London have to go through similar stages. The water in all 158 boxes of artefacts has to be changed every month in order to remove salt from the marine environment in a process called desalination. Both organic (wood, leather) and inorganic (ceramics, glass, metal) materials can be damaged if allowed to dry out while they still contain soluble salts such as sodium chloride. Artefacts are soaked in baths of distilled water which allows salts to diffuse out, allowing them to be safely dried. Desalination isn’t difficult, but it does take some time and requires knowledge of the drying behaviour of a wide variety of materials.
Though some stages of marine conservation are repetitive, there are lots of interesting moments as well. One of the most exciting things about archaeological conservation is finding out more about the artefacts during the process and especially discovering clues about who made them and the technology they used. This process is called ‘investigative conservation’ and uses a variety of tools and techniques such as microscopy, X-radiography and digital imaging.
Here is one example discovered during digital x-radiography of a pewter spoon:
The letters ‘BA’ can be seen in the x-ray, just above the point where the handle meets the bowl of the spoon. Marks in this area are called ‘touch marks’ and can tell us where and when the spoon was made and who made it. Some marks on pewter made in London or Edinburgh can be identified by records on ‘touch plates’ kept by the Worshipful Company of Pewterers, but marks from the period of the London are difficult as many records from the Pewterers were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, just a year after the ship sank. Still, it may be possible to identify who made the spoon based on comparison with other examples. We are hoping to find out more about who ‘BA’ refers to.
Another type of mark was found on a leather strap during wet cleaning. A stamped letter (or letters) can be seen in this photo taken with raking light illumination:
Markings like this can be added by the leatherworker who made the strap, or might indicate its function or the sailor who used it on board the ship. We will pass this information on to the experts studying leather artefacts from the London.
Sometimes we find unknown or unexpected materials on artefacts during conservation, and need to investigate them further to get a better idea of what they are made of and why they are there. I noticed a yellow material with a tar-like odour inside the layers of a leather shoe from the London. Using a technique called Fourier-Transform Infra-Red spectroscopy (FT-IR for short) I was able to determine that it was indeed an organic material with chemical bonding similar to natural resins. This material may have been applied during the shoe’s construction as an adhesive or a sealant.
Conservation work on material from the London is quite rewarding as we have a chance to progress artefacts from post excavation though conservation treatment, learning more through investigative conservation along the way and preparing them for storage and display at Southend Museum.
Many thanks to Eric for his fascinating blog. The thing that caught my attention particularly was the stamped leather – that such detail has survived 350 years of immersion in a hostile environment and can be recovered by archaeology is amazing.
For more on conservation of artefacts from the wreck of the London, please also have a look at an earlier post from 2015.
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.
Stationed at the chain were the guardships, the Charles V, or, 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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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 HindSixth Rate, lost on the Isles of Scilly later in 1667, is identifiable with the Hindwhich 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.
At first glance the Sir Francisappears 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 Memorialat 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.
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 Tangistanis 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.
It is my pleasure once more to welcome Jordan Havell for a third blog on his local heritage.
Here he focuses on two Humber billyboys which were lost on routine voyages which ended disastrously on the Lincolnshire coast. Jordan has been honing his research skills in going back to original newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive and trying to trace the history of the ships involved through the Guildhall Library, two of the most important sources of information for any shipwreck historian.
He has helped identify one vessel – the York Merchant– and discovered another – the Swan– and seems to have caught the research bug! So I would like to thank Jordan very much for passing this information on to us. Potentially one or the other of these two vessels, or perhaps another one that we haven’t yet discovered more about, might tell us where fragments of wreckage recently washed up near Jordan could have come from.
Over to Jordan:
My blog this time relates to the Swan billyboy that was lost at Huttoft on 17th Oct 1869.
I had asked about another vessel – a billyboy that had been listed in Historic England records as a wreck 05.11.1858 carrying shingle. I have now, with the help of The Guildhall, London, been able to name that wreck as the York Merchant of Yarmouth. She was lost along with 3 crew and 3 passengers. The story is told in varying newspapers: the Stamford Mercury, 12 Nov 1858; Leeds Times, 13 Nov 1858; Morning Advertiser 16 Nov 1858, as well as the Dundee Courier Weds 17 Nov 1858 and The Bucks Herald Sat 20 Nov 1858.
There were similarities between the two vessels (the York Merchant and the Swan). Both the vessels had been classified as billyboys. Both had set sail for Gainsborough, Lincolnshire – one carrying wheat, and the other carrying shingle. Both had been hit by severe weather and had both been carrying the family of the masters aboard – sadly in the case of the York Merchant it is known there were fatalities.
I was finding pieces of stranded wood on my local beach over recent weeks. I got in touch with Serena Cant at Historic England as we had been in contact before. She, along with Andy Sherman of Museum of London Archaeology, looked at my photos etc. Andy said the some of the pieces may have come from a billyboy ship.
This, in turn, relit my interest in shipwreck history. We started visiting the library locally and the RNLI records to see if any of these vessels had been wrecked in this area. We found the Swan – a record from a book called Mablethorpe and North Lincolnshire Lifeboats. The vessel had been en route from Boston to Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, when she was caught in a violent gale. She was made of wood and was carrying a cargo of wheat believed to be about 200 quarters, of which only 14 was saved. We found reports in various newspapers in The British Newspaper Archive including the Lincolnshire Chronicle and Manchester Courier, as well as the Hull and Eastern Counties Herald that confirmed the story.
The Master is named as Mr John Would. The owners are named as Nicholson and Burkitt of Retford. The crew is listed as 2, and 3 passengers were aboard at the time. They were saved by the National Lifeboat called the Birmingham. A quote taken from the Mablethorpe and North East Lincolnshire Lifeboats reads: “The only other effective service by the Birmingham Number 1 came on Oct 17th 1869, when she rescued the master, his wife and 2 children plus a man and a boy from the billyboy Swan of Hull.”
The saved master and crew were taken to the Jolly Bacchus – which we now know as the Bacchus Hotel – owned at the time by Mr Simons, from one of the newspaper stories of the time. One of the newspaper quotes read ‘the boat (referring to the lifeboat) was happily the means of saving the shipwrecked persons’. An interesting point was that the cost of this lifeboat when built was £190, the funds having been raised in Birmingham, hence its name.
The Lloyd’s Agent was named as Mr Bradshaw.
I have been in contact with the Guildhall Library in London. They have tried to help me find a record for the Swan. The nearest they could find was Swan of Hull, official number 26882, 37 tons, owned by Henry Robinson, 21 Waverley Street, Hull. There were 3 other vessels called Swan, but all appear to be from Goole, so am I assuming that this one above may be the one.
Jordan’s post brings out some interesting history. As his last paragraph shows, it can be very difficult to trace small ships in the registers: we can eliminate some, but we can’t always be sure that what is left is the ship we are after. Even experienced researchers like me – and I have been doing this for over 20 years – can come up against a brick wall, but that’s part of what makes it so fascinating.
We can also see that similar ships shared a similar fate on the same stretch of coastline just a few years apart, so this is the type of wreck that could be said to be fairly characteristic of the east coast – you won’t find Humber billyboys on the west coast or Mersey flats on the east coast, because they were generally short-range coasting vessels (though some ships do turn up wrecked in odd places, having been sold out of their local area). The fact that one of the billyboys is called the York Merchant demonstrates that it was intended to serve Yorkshire and to be capable of travelling upriver as well as sailing coastwise.
Another similarity is that on board both vessels the master’s wife and family travelled with him, which shines a light on the role of women on board ships in Victorian Britain. We don’t often read much about this – it’s an under-represented area of history – so well done to Jordan for finding out more.
We also see the importance of community – the local community rallied round and put the shipwreck victims up at the nearby inn. Finally, it is interesting to see that people from the wider community, from inland Birmingham in fact, cared enough to raise money for a lifeboat at Sutton, following the terrible storms of a few years previously.
Here’s some interesting pictures of billyboys – one of 1875 from the Yorkshire Waterways Museum, Goole, showing wheat being unloaded from a billyboy whose voyage was more successful than the Swan, also laden with wheat. Here is another from Goole Museum, painted before 1910, of the Masterman.
Just like Jordan, I’ve been following all sorts of clues. If Jordan hadn’t written this article, I wouldn’t have been looking for billyboy images to illustrate it with. When I found the Masterman, I realised that she, too, was a wreck which we hadn’t yet recorded. Like the Swan, she was wrecked with her master’s wife and children, who died, like those on board the York Merchant. So thank you again Jordan – because of you I too have found a new wreck for the records!
In the second instalment of our double bill covering 30 April and 1 May 1917 we take a look at the Gena, sunk on 1 May. On the face of it, Gena was fairly typical in both vessel type and location of loss, a collier sunk in the North Sea while steaming south with her cargo from Tyneside.
Yet there are two things which are very unusual about this particular wreck site. The first is that the position of loss is very precisely specified in relation to a relatively small and impermanent seamark.
She sank “¾ mile S by W ½W of ‘A’ War Channel Buoy, Southwold”. (1)
Unsurprisingly, with this level of detail, the wreck site has a secure history of recording that goes back to the date of loss. (2) It also gives some clue to the location of one of the buoys marking out the East Coast War Channels, or safe swept channels, that kept the shipping lanes open and (relatively) free of mines, swept largely by minesweeper-trawlers such as theArfonwhose loss on 30 April 1917 was commemorated in yesterday’s post.
These War Channels have been the subject of recent investigations on behalf of Historic England (2014) by Antony Firth (Fjordr), illustrated with maps and charts showing the extent of the War Channels. One unofficial chart marking the buoys further north up the East Coast is known to have been used by an airman providing cover for North Sea shipping (Fig. 7 in report).
If aircraft could provide cover for shipping, tracking U-boats and indeed collaborating with patrol vessels to destroy enemy craft, it followed that ships were also vulnerable to attack from the air. The Gena was the first ship within English territorial waters to be sunk by aircraft, torpedoed from the air by two Hansa-Brandenburg GW seaplanes of Torpedostaffel II, operating out of Zeebrugge. This was not the first aerial attack on merchant shipping by aircraft, but it was one of the first to successfully sink a ship.
So unusual was it that Lloyd’s struggled to fit it into an appropriate category in their ‘ledger’ of war losses. In the “How Sunk” column, the standard abbreviations S(sunk by submarine) and M (mine) were clearly inappropriate, and even this distinction was outdated, since ships had been sunk by mines laid by U-boats since 1915, so arguably fitted both categories (see earlier post on minelaying submarines, introduced in 1915). The only other category available was C (cruiser or raider), which was still inadequate, but it seems that a new category was not considered necessary, and ‘raider’ was at least appropriate in intent, if not in ‘vessel type’ as such. A marginal annotation clarified matters: “German seaplane”. (3)
The Gena was an armed merchant, however, and her attackers did not have it all their own way. Sunk by the planes, her gunner nevertheless managed to down Hansa-Brandenburg 703, whose two crew were rescued to become prisoners of war. (4) An interesting photo gallery of the Hansa-Brandenburg GW can be found here, including stablemate 700, a view of the torpedo loading bay, and film stills of the aircraft landing on the water.
The course of the war at sea was changing: terror could strike from above as well as below, and aircraft though slow, unreliable, and terrifying to fly by modern standards, were proving to be amphibious and adaptable. Finally, the increasing presence of aircraft at sea meant that wrecks at sea were no longer necessarily ‘shipwrecks’, although, on this occasion, the aircraft was also picked up for examination: (see previous double bill on Zeppelin wrecks from February 1916 and March 1916).
The whole incident was recognised at the time as ‘a new phase of warfare’ and a ‘noteworthy development of aerial craft’ (5) so that, unusually for the time, the Admiralty released details of the ‘duel’, in part because there was some propaganda value in demonstrating that the Gena had not gone down without a fight.
(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127
(2) United Kingdom Hydrographic Office record no. 10320
(3)Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127
A Mounting Toll: G42, G85, Ballarat, Medina, and HMT Arfon
In the first of this weekend’s double bill for 30 April and 1 May 1917 we look at the continuing attrition of British and foreign shipping. On 6 April 1917 the United States declared war on Germany, as unrestricted submarine warfare also began to take its toll on American ships. Within the extent of English territorial waters as currently defined, the figures demonstrate that 71 wrecks were recorded for this month, of which 32 represent sites, the majority positively identified.
At this point during the war, there were no U-boats reported sunk within English waters for the month of April 1917, appearing to underline the success of the continuing submarine campaign.
German warships were also active in the Channel, mounting a raid on the Dover Patrol on the night of 20-21 April and shelling Margate and Ramsgate on 27 April. In contrast to the lack of sinkings of U-boats, however, two German torpedo boats, G42and G85, were sunk as the raid developed into the Battle of Dover Straits. G42 was rammed by HMS Broke, while HMS Swift despatched G85 with a torpedo, making these vessels the only two German warships sunk in English territorial waters during the war.
The closing week of April 1917 provides a cross-section of the war at sea:
On 25 April 1917 the Australian troopship Ballarat, was torpedoed, but fortunately without loss of life. Ironically, it was the war itself which was probably the major factor in saving the lives of all on board when she was torpedoed. On that day all were mustered at their stations for a deckside Anzac Day service, remembering their fallen compatriots at Gallipoli in 1915, which in turn allowed for an orderly evacuation.
On 28 April 1917 the P&O liner RMS Medina was sunk. Her history was intertwined with that of the contemporary British Empire and its liner routes which continued to ply during wartime. Her maiden voyage in 1911 was as a Royal Yacht taking King George V and Queen Mary to Delhi for the Durbar of 1911, after which she reverted to the commercial role for which she was built. On her final voyage she left India with passengers and cargo for Sydney, New South Wales, to take on Australian meat and thence for England via the Suez Canal. She was torpedoed off Start Point, the torpedo exploding in the starboard engine room, killing six men, five of them seamen from the Indian subcontinent, known as lascars, who had a long tradition of working aboard British ships, usually, as here, in the engine room. (See previous posts on the Mahratta I in 1909 and the Magdapur in 1939 for more on wrecks involving lascars.)
On 30 April 1917 HM trawler Arfonwas mined while on minesweeping duty off the Dorset coast with the loss of ten lives. She lies virtually intact with her minesweeping equipment and deck gun in situ, a rare but representative example of an early 20th century steam trawler adapted for war purposes, and as such was designated under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act in 2016. A new interpretation board at St. Aldhelm’s Head commemorates the site, while an accessible fully-captioned video trail released for the centenary explores the site through 3D high-resolution images.
The last week of April was therefore a crucial week of a crucial month.
The statistics outlined in Lloyd’s War Losses for April 1917 make grim reading. Over the course of the month 220 British, 103 Allied and 135 neutral vessels had been sunk worldwide for 882,227 tons. (1) Statistics for recent shipping losses were published in the press, followed by a stark warning in Parliament which was widely reported.
‘One hears on many sides that people refuse to be rationed or to ration themselves, because they say the shortage is only newspaper talk.
‘The position is now plain, that if within the next six or eight weeks there is not a very substantial reduction “there will be no alternative but to apply compulsion.” (2) That meat aboard RMS Medina, for example, had not got through.
(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127
It is my pleasure to introduce my guest blogger for today’s piece, Jordan Havell, who wrote an article on the Acorn back in December 2014. He takes up the story again with recent observations on changes in his local beach environment and the impact it has had on the Acorn.
Since writing my last blog in December 2014 my interest in shipwreck archaeology has continued. Just recently I have found lots and lots of stranded wood being brought in on the tide from small pieces to much larger pieces. They may be pieces from a ‘billyboy’ called the Swan but that’s another story for later.
Now here is where it gets more exciting . . . the Acorn . . .
The Acorn wreck was covered by literally tons of sand by the subsequent beach replenishment work over the last 3 years [since I last wrote]. Just recently however with high spring tides and Storms Doris and Ewan, the wreck has started to reappear.
I went to visit the beach like I normally do, but on the 16th of February 2017 I was very surprised to see that the sands had shifted heavily and the wreck was beginning to show again. Over the following days I visited this area nearly every day and each day more seemed to show.
I am looking forward to the illustrated talk and workshop in April with Andy Sherman from the Museum of London Archaeology CITiZAN Project in my village. I am really keen to hear about this work and how we can be even more involved.
I hope this gives you a snapshot of what is going on my locality. Thanks for reading!
Thank you very much to Jordan for writing this piece and illustrating it with his own photographs – citizen science in action! As he hints, we will be hearing more from him, since his research has uncovered the interesting story of the Swan billyboy, which was also lost locally.