Ellie Broad, Assistant Curator of Archaeology at Southend Museums, on the London shipwreck collection and the ongoing archaeological underwater excavation on the wreck of the 17th Century warship that sank after a mysterious explosion in 1665
There’s something about a shipwreck that really captures the imagination. It could be the mysterious nature of what lies underwater, where few are brave enough to go, or it could be the notorious unpredictability of the sea.
Whatever the reason, the discovery of shipwrecks, like the Mary Rose and the Rooswijk, in recent years, have made national and international news. When, in 2013, excavations began on Southend-on-Sea’s very own historic wreck, the community were incredibly enthusiastic.
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The 17th Century warship the London lies sunk just of the end of the pier, very close to the Thames shipping channel. Because of its location in such turbulent waters, in 2008 it was designated a Protected Wreck, being of historical importance.
From historic records, we know that the London was a Second-Rate constructed as part of Cromwell’s intense ship-building programme between 1654-6. She went on to serve in the Battle of the Sound (1658) and was a part of the fleet of ships that returned King Charles II from his exile in the Netherlands to take back his throne in Britain.
On the 7th March, 1665 she was tethered at an area of the Thames called the ‘Nore’ to allow wives and children to say goodbye to their loved ones going off to serve in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Families climbed aboard for well-wishing, when suddenly the enormous vessel exploded, killing over 300 men, women and children.
Only 24 survived. The tragedy of the explosion hasn’t yet been fully explained but could have resulted from an accident in the powder room. Its magnitude caused the London to be torn apart and to slowly sink into the depths of the Thames.
Some of her 70-odd cannon were salvaged by the British navy for use on other ships, but many, including 3 Dutch 24-pounders, have remained on the sea floor for over 350 years. As she was fully laden and ready to embark for battle, many other fascinating objects, including personal possessions, sank to the Estuary bed.
Funded by Historic England, the London Shipwreck Project began in 2013 and has since spanned several excavation seasons. Cotswold and Wessex Archaeology provided underwater archaeologists and technical expertise, whilst local fisherman and diver, Steve Ellis, was appointed as the licensed diver. His local knowledge and years of experience diving in the Thames are unparalleled.
Southend Museums Service, which is the repository museum for the finds, obtained a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation for a community project to support the London excavations. Volunteers assisted with first-aid conservation and recording of finds. Wet objects were then taken to Historic England’s maritime HQ in Portsmouth for conservation.
Over the past seven months, I have been researching and curating the exhibition on the London, ‘The London Shipwreck: A Sunken Story’, which opened to the public in September 2018. The presentation showcases some of the finds from the wreck, with many others still in conservation. Our display is both informative and emotional; I wanted to educate visitors but also encourage them to consider the enormous loss of life that was sadly commonplace during the Age of Sail.
“a very human observation really sends a shiver down the spine”
‘Life on Board’ displays personal effects of the sailors, including delicate clay pipes, which would have been used over and over again by the sailors, and even a remarkably-preserved beeswax candle. Some of the most emotive objects include leather shoes, each still with the imprint of the wearer’s foot. This simple, yet very human observation really sends a shiver down the spine. Although we don’t know the names or stories of the sailors on board, we can still treasure their preserved footprints.
Moving through the exhibition, visitors encounter ‘Navigation’. The 17th Century was a period of learning for English navigators, with the quest for longitude still in full swing. Although sailors could determine their east-west position or latitude using the angle of celestial bodies in the sky, there was no reliable method for determining how far north or south they were.
This was because they needed to compare their local time with the time from their home destination and no clock yet developed could keep time along with the movements of a ship at sea. It wouldn’t be until the 1730s when John Harrison’s clocks were deemed dependable enough that the search was over. The sailors of the London would have relied on a process called dead-reckoning where they marked their journey on charts and could track where they had been in relation to where they were headed.
On display is an array of dividers as well as a lead sounding weight used to test the surface of the sea floor. There is also an exquisite sundial, with glass faces preserved. The gnomon and dial even have their original markings.
The star of the show is undoubtedly the 12 foot, 2-tonne, bronze cannon that dominates the room. After a mammoth installation project, the enormous gun was successfully mounted in the museum. The London’s cannon was originally Dutch property and would have seen service on Dutch ships before it was salvaged from a wreck by the British. This was a common practice as cannon were so rare and expensive to produce. In a verdigris blue colour, Southend’s cannon is beautifully decorated with the City of Amsterdam crest and sea creatures.
The London Shipwreck Project is very much still active and more objects are being recovered each week. Analysis is taking place on the conserved finds and an academic monograph will be released to share the results. We hope that the research will shed light on what life was really like on board a warship in the Age of Sail, but also in the wider 17th century.
Explore the story more at www.southendmuseums.co.uk/page/The-London-Shipwreck
The London Exhibition is at Southend Central Museum until July 20 2019.
Southend Central Museum and Planetarium
The Central Museum is situated in Victoria Avenue, and houses the Planetarium and principal artefact store. The Central Museum was opened in April 1981, in a magnificent Edwardian library building. The displays tell the story of the natural and human history of south east Essex. The Southend Planetarium is the…