Image: The London by Willem van de Velde the younger © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
The London exploded and sank off Southend, concealing herself for centuries on the estuary bed. Her wreck was found in 2005, revealing a hidden history of early modern life. Vanessa Rockel, fellowships and publications officer at the Institute of Historical Research, investigates how the loss of a piece of history allow us to discover a past that would otherwise have vanished.
In 1665 the warship ‘The London’ exploded and sank in the Thames estuary. In his diary entry for 8 March 1665 Samuel Pepys announced that ‘This morning is brought me to the office the sad newes of “The London”’. He later recorded the event with the words: ‘a little a’this side the buoy of the Nower, she suddenly blew up. About 24 [men] and a woman that were in the round-house and coach saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned: the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance. She lies sunk, with her round- house above water.’
The wreck lay undiscovered until 2005 when it was found during works for the London Gateway Port. It was then placed on Historic England’s ‘heritage at risk’ register, as its fragile archaeological remains are exposed by shifting sediment levels on the sea bed.
Despite all that has been yielded up by the discovery of the ‘London’ wreck, we may never know with certainty what caused her demise. It is speculated that the explosion was an accident, due to sailors reloading old cartridge papers with gunpowder. According to a story in The Guardian on 25 July 2014, ‘The London had been refitted at Chatham, and was sailing to Gravesend to collect [her new commander, Sir John Lawson] and become his flagship in the second Anglo-Dutch wars. The ship was carrying 300 barrels of gunpowder and it is believed that a 21 gun salute was being prepared.’
The London had had a short but eventful life. Built in Chatham in 1656 for Cromwell’s Navy, it was the ship sent to collect Charles II and restore him to his throne in England upon the advent of the Restoration in 1658. When The London sunk it fell to the sea floor, encapsulating the life of its own world and its own moment in time. Sheltered in an anaerobic environment the wreck preserved clues to everyday life in early modern England, as it was lived aboard and on shore.
Many aspects of day-to-day life, and even evidence of contemporary technology, can be gradually lost to the historical record, through the ordinary passing of time and the gradual nature of the changes that brings. The London wreck has been, to some degree, frozen in time. It, unlike other ships of its era that faded from use less dramatically, can still tell detailed stories. This ship’s very loss in aquatic isolation preserved treasures that have otherwise disappeared from the historical record.
On 22 November 2017 the Institute of Historical Research will host a public event exploring the history and present life of ‘The London’, as part of the Being Human Festival (17–25 November). This is in collaboration with Historic England (HE), Cotswold Archaeology and The London Shipwreck Trust. The event stems from the IHR’s relationship with Historic England, which holds an associate fellowship with the institute.
The activities will start with a short talk by Historic England but we intend this to be an immersive and interactive evening, exploring food, drink, ballads, and more from the time of ‘The London’. During the event HE will launch its virtual dive of the wreck, so attendees can get a sense of what it is like to explore the remains of the ship in the murky depths. The School of Advanced Study will be showcasing its new 3D printer, replicating artefacts from the early modern world, and participants will be able to meet the archaeologists and divers bringing ‘The London’ to the surface and her world back to life.
The wreck speaks to our imagination. The remains of the boat itself shows limited evidence of her significant role in world history, but seeing the outline of the wreck conjures an image of that voyage during the Restoration, connecting out to political, religious and diplomatic history.
Less abstractly, this 17th-century warship has yielded up physical objects that speak to lifestyle, navigation, war and work in the early modern period. Artefacts include a length of rope that hands have knotted, callipers worked by trained fingers, a leather shoe still moulded as around a long-gone foot. The callipers were held in individual hands, attached to people with stories of their own, but they were used to guide the ship on voyages, carrying dozens of other men and women across the sea and impacting their lives. The shoe fit around a particular foot, and that foot walked not only on the deck of The London but off the gangway and through the streets of early modern London.
You don’t have to be a historian to feel compelled to imagine the smells and sounds of that London, the ways in which it would be unrecognisable and the ways in which it feels the same today. We can piece together ideas of this landscape by working from findings made on The London – traces of leather and food and drink and tobacco.
The history of the senses is an exciting and growing field of study, and one of the IHR’s junior research fellows, Will Tullett, works on exactly this. His postdoctoral project will trace the soundscapes and listeners of London between 1660 and 1832, and he plans to share his insight into the sensory world of 17th-century London at the November event.
The evening also comprises a demonstration by a rope-tying expert. Rope-tying is an art that has been lost, to a degree; water-goers still need to know how to tie a secure knot but many intricate and distinct styles and traditions of knot tying have been forgotten. The fragment of rope on the wreck was found still embedded in its pulley.
The wreck has been explored by divers, underwater archaeologists and passionate volunteers. Wessex Archaeology, the English Heritage diving contractor, began this work. From 2010 a group of local volunteers continued the task under the direction of site Licensee Steve Ellis. Cotswold Archaeology carried out extensive evaluation and excavation on the site in 2014-15. It was Ellis who discovered the gun carriage, one of the best-preserved and most remarkable finds from the wreck.
As Alison James, a maritime archaeologist at HE, says, ‘It is complete with all the implements that the gunner would have used to make the cannon fire – all the archaeological material is there with it so it’s hugely exciting. Until now, it’s been well preserved, enclosed in an anaerobic environment, oxygen-free mud, safe from all the creepy-crawlies that would normally erode it. We even have the 350-year-old rope going through the pulley block. But as parts of the gun carriage recently became exposed, we had to act fast to save this rare piece of our history from the ravages of the waves and biological attack.’
The London Shipwreck Trust now works to advance, promote and provide for the preservation of the ‘London’ and its artefacts for the public benefit and to protect it for future generations. Southend Museum is curating finds from the site as well as developing a community project which will involve local people with the process of finds sorting, recording, conservation, storage, research and display.
Endeavours like the study and salvage of The London rely on volunteers as well as trained professionals, and this event at the IHR is a chance for those who are passionate about history to see how they can get involved with historical work. We hope that people will come because they care about naval history, social history, London history, food, maritime history, music, ships, water, the Thames, new technology, and ordinary lives. In one way or another, these are all continuities through time, relevant to our past, present and future.
- The event will be accompanied by an exhibit at the IHR from 17 November.
- Buried treasure: the wreck of ‘The London’, 22 November (6–9pm), Wolfson Suite, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU