The Royal Navy mastered the art of recycling long before it was fashionable. Parts of their worn-out wooden warships often enjoyed an afterlife as flooring or roof supports in naval dockyard buildings. So when the floors of the Wheelwrights’ Shop at The Historic Dockyard Chatham were lifted for maintenance in 1995 the work was carefully scrutinised. Sure enough, ship parts were discovered, but to everyone’s surprise their presence went far beyond simple reuse. Hidden beneath seven layers of flooring were the remains of around a quarter of the frame of a Royal Navy ship from the age of sail. Hailed as ‘the single most important warship discovery in northern Europe since the Mary Rose’, the quantity of timbers crammed into the floor cavity cannot be explained as mere recycling. So why were they put there?
What lies beneath
Creating a level floor in the Wheelwrights’ Shop has been a challenge ever since it was constructed in around 1786. Occupying an awkward plot that slopes downhill to the north and west, towards the River Medway, the building also overlay a filled-in extension to one of the dockyard pickling ponds. This former pool, dug so that timbers earmarked for use as ship masts could be seasoned in brine, left a platform of gradually settling earth. Excavation using small test pits established that the ship parts within the Wheelwrights’ Shop did not belong to its original phase. Instead they were part of a major refurbishment, dated by archive research to 1834. A key element of this upgrade was installing a robust new floor.
On the face of it, cannibalising ship timbers to create a level interior within the Wheelwrights’ Shop was a practical approach to recycling a decommissioned vessel. Huge oak beams were carefully inserted into the building’s floor cavity and socketed into its brick foundations. Despite becoming an integral part of the Wheelwrights’ Shop fabric, these massive timbers preserve clear traces of their original role. Once used to support the ship’s decks, where these beams were too short to span the hull, two would be carefully combined using jagged tapering scarf joints. Slots where other parts were held in place and even traces of the original paint scheme show that these deck beams were reused the right way up. Nailed on top of them was a layer of thick planking that served as the new floor. Dangling from some of these boards were wads of oakum – the material forced into gaps between planks to waterproof them. Made of old rope strands and goat hair mixed with pitch, the presence of oakum identified the floorboards as hull planks that once formed the ship’s skin. So far, so utilitarian.
It is what lay concealed in the voids between the deck beams and beneath the flooring that divorces the Wheelwrights’ Shop refurbishment from everyday recycling. A range of smaller ship’s timbers were carefully placed there, filling almost all of the available space. Parts such as the futtocks – which were joined in sets of four to create curving ribs running all the way from the ship’s backbone at the keel to the main deck – lay useless between the deck beams. Too short to reach the brick foundations of the building and completely unnecessary to support the planking, these sections of the ship’s frame served no purpose in the new floor. The result is far more timber than could possibly be justified by the requirements of the Wheelwrights’ Shop refit. Dockyards were busy places and the work required to transport and install ship parts that were obviously redundant to the new floor represents wasted effort. So why do it?
Study indicated that the timbers probably came from a single vessel. Enough were present to show that she must have been either a small second-rate or large third-rate Royal Navy ship of the line. These warships were designed for combat involving the ‘line of battle’ tactics most famously deployed at Trafalgar in 1805. Such fighting saw columns of ships vying to unleash devastating broadsides from carriage-mounted guns firing through their hulls, a form of warfare that the watertight gun ports on the Tudor Mary Rose (see CA 272) represent the first steps toward. Given that the ship beneath the floor would have been an important naval vessel, establishing the name of this former high seas warrior became a tantalising prospect. Indeed, the more that archaeologists and naval historians puzzled over the mystery of why so much of the ship had ended up in the building, the more the identity of the vessel seemed key to solving it.
Attempts to understand the rationale behind the quantity of timbers kept coming back to the only logical explanation being a deliberate attempt to preserve as much of the warship as possible. Far from suffering an ignominious afterlife as a workshop floor, the vessel had been dismantled and essentially buried within the Wheelwrights’ Shop. Making the building something akin to an unofficial ship’s mausoleum or memorial, such a display of sentiment is highly irregular – unique in fact – in a naval dockyard. So what could a ship possibly have done to deserve this exceptional treatment? After over a decade and a half of archaeological detective work by bodies including the University of St Andrew’s Institute of Maritime Studies and Oxford Archaeology, this question can finally be answered.
A number of ship timbers have letters and numerals scored into their ends, providing a guide to how they fitted together. Invisible when the pieces are joined end to end, these markings transform a seemingly random group of timbers into a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. One deck beam, for example, is scored ‘IIIXX S’, indicating it was the 23rd timber on the starboard side of the vessel. Other timbers, marked ‘L’, lay on the opposite, larboard side. Careful study of both the markings and the range of timbers present revealed that not only are they part of a single ship, they also represent a continuous portion of that ship. This indicates that pieces were brought to the site immediately after being stripped off the vessel, with work on the new floor beginning at the northern end of the building. Such instant recycling would fit with the presence of smaller, more ephemeral pieces such as the hammock rails. If the deck timbers they were originally attached to had travelled far or been left lying around for long these would have been knocked off earlier.
It would also explain why none of the keel made it into the flooring. The first part of a ship to be laid down, this is also the last bit to be broken up, and by then the floor cavity would have been full. If this interpretation is correct, the deck beams are likely to belong to the lowest deck – the orlop – so-called because it overlaps the hold. Some of these beams retain a coat of scarlet paint, and even neat rows of numbers ringed with black circles. It is tempting to see these as signalling a gun deck, which tradition has it would be painted red to hide the blood, but the orlop deck lies below the waterline. As guns could not be fired from such a position, rather than representing action stations, the numbers are likely to show where specific sailors slung their hammocks.
The timbers also provided clues that were essential to establishing the ship’s identity. As well as displaying construction techniques current from 1750-1775, a number of shipwright’s marks had been cut into the wood. Little more than haphazard scoring to the untrained eye, these served as signatures for the craftsmen working on or checking the parts. Comparison with surviving markings on the original parts of Nelson’s famous Trafalgar flagship HMS Victory showed that there had been an overlapping workforce, with a number of shipwrights working on both vessels. As Victory is known to be a Chatham-built ship, constructed from 1759-1765, these shipwright marks revealed that the ship beneath the floor had not just been broken up at Chatham: it was built there too.
The final, crucial piece of the puzzle came from a comparatively modest timber that belonged to the 1800s rather than the 1700s. By the early 19th century, the Royal Navy was having trouble sourcing the wood to build its ships. A single second-rate ship of the line, for example, consumed between 3,500 and 4,000 trees. Some of the oaks needed to be 300 or 400 years old, and here demand was fast outstripping supply. The problem was particularly acute when it came to ships’ ‘knees’. Boats are roughly handled by the elements, getting pushed and pulled in many directions by the wind and sea. The flexibility of wood meant that over time a vessel’s timbers loosened, requiring a refit to tighten them again. Pressure from these forces was particularly severe at the junction between the deck beams and the hull. To counter this, very strong wooden braces known as ‘knees’ were used.
The problem was that knees could not be carved from any old tree. As the knee gained its strength from the grain of the wood, it had to be cut from a suitably shaped piece of oak: a forked branch curving out from the tree. By the 19th century, such wood was sufficiently scarce that many of the ships that saw action at Trafalgar were held together by knees salvaged from other vessels. Robert Seppings, who became master shipwright at Chatham in 1804, set about solving this problem by harnessing the advances of the Industrial Revolution. Exploring the possibilities that the new availability of cheap, high-quality iron brought, Seppings designed a metal knee. Far more robust than its timber counterpart, this proved a great success. A wooden backing to one of Seppings’ experimental metal knees lay among the ship parts in the Wheelwrights’ Shop. This provided clear evidence that the ship had been modified in the early 19th century, quite possibly as a guinea pig for his inventions.
Together, these clues provided a detailed set of criteria that any candidate for the ship beneath the floor had to meet. The vessel needed to be a second- or third-rate vessel built at Chatham between 1750 and 1775, before being modified to incorporate 19th-century design advances, and then broken up around 1830. Only one Royal Navy warship matched all of these criteria: HMS Namur. Named after a Belgian city captured by William III in 1695, this ship is now all but forgotten. In the late 18th and early 19th century, however, the Namur was as renowned as Victory and that other great Trafalgar veteran and Chatham-built ship, HMS Temeraire, immortalised in the famous Turner painting.
What’s in a Namur?
The ship under the floor was the second vessel to bear the name Namur. The first had foundered in 1749, the year before her successor’s keel was laid at Chatham. Launched as a 90-gun second-rate ship of the line on 3 March 1756, the new Namur cost £57,284 11s 2d to build. It was an investment that would repay the Royal Navy handsomely over the course of 47 years’ illustrious service. During that period the Namur fought in nine fleet actions spanning three worldwide conflicts. She also found herself at the forefront of Robert Seppings’ radical new approach to ship design. In 1804-1805 the Namur was cut down to a 74-gun third-rate ship to trial the master shipwright’s innovations. After ending her days guarding the Thames estuary mouth at Nore, at one point under the command of Jane Austen’s brother Charles, the Namur was broken up in 1833-1834. At the same time her hull was placed in the Wheelwrights’ Shop, the Namur’s upper timbers were sent to Woolwich to patch up a storehouse.
Of Namur’s many battle honours, by far the most distinguished was Lagos, on 19 August 1759, when the Namur served as the flagship in a crucial action during the Seven Years’ War. It was a day that delivered Britain one of the great victories that Nelson’s Victory was named after. Today we hark back to the time when Britain ruled the waves, but in 1759 success at sea seemed an equally distant dream. The Seven Years’ War, running from 1756-1763, is often described as the world’s first truly global conflict. With conflict raging in Europe, North America, India, the Indies, and the Pacific, stakes were high. Three years in, the situation looked perilous. Britain was short of friends, and the Royal Navy was on its knees following a string of defeats. French troops were massing in the mouth of the Loire, waiting only for their Mediterranean and Atlantic fleets to combine before springing an invasion. On 18 August, the French Mediterranean fleet passed the Straits of Gibraltar. A British force, under the command of Admiral Boscawen in the Namur, gave chase.
Remarkably, an eye-witness account of what happened next survives from someone on board the Namur. Even more remarkably, that person was a 14-year-old black slave who would later become a prominent voice in the abolition movement. His name was Olaudah Equiano, and his master was one of the ship’s lieutenants. Thirty years on, when he penned his memoirs, Equiano’s memory of the carnage was undimmed. He recalled that:
‘My station during the engagement was on the middle-deck, where I was quartered with another boy, to bring powder to the aftermost gun; and here I was a witness of the dreadful fate of many of my companions, who, in the twinkling of an eye, were dashed in pieces, and launched into eternity. Happily I escaped unhurt, though the shot and splinters flew thick about me during the whole fight. Towards the latter part of it my master was wounded, and I saw him carried down to the surgeon; but though I was alarmed for him and wished to assist I dared not leave my post.
‘At this station my gun-mate (a partner in bringing powder for the same gun) and I ran a very great risk for more than half an hour of blowing up the ship. For, when we had taken the cartridges out of the boxes, the bottoms of many of them proving rotten, the powder ran all about the deck, near the match tub: we scarcely had water enough at the last to throw on it. We were also, from our employment, very much exposed to the enemy’s shots; for we had to go through nearly the whole length of the ship to bring the powder. I expected therefore every minute to be my last; especially when I saw our men fall so thick about me…’
When the smoke cleared British victory was complete. The French Mediterranean fleet had been destroyed, ending the threat of invasion. When the annihilation of the French Atlantic fleet followed in November, with Namur once again involved, 1759 was hailed as Britain’s year of miracles. Together, these actions paved the way for worldwide British naval supremacy that would endure for over 150 years. It was an astonishing coup for the Royal Navy.
An action that may have been far more significant for the Namur herself, however, came on St Valentine’s Day 1797 at the Battle of Cape Vincent. The opening engagement of the 1796-1808 Anglo-Spanish war, this action saw 15 British ships defeat a 27-strong Spanish fleet, with the Namur bombarding and then capturing one of the Spanish vessels. On board the Namur that day was a boy named James Alexander Gordon. Later Admiral of the Fleet, Gordon was Captain Superintendent of Chatham Dockyard from 1832 to 1837. As the man in charge when the Wheelwrights’ Shop was refurbished, could it be that his childhood association with the Namur, coupled with the ship’s formidable reputation, prompted him to order her partial preservation in an unofficial memorial?
The 1830s decommissioning of the Namur coincides with the end of the age of sail and the dawn of steam. Turner evocatively captured the moment in 1838 with his depiction of HMS Temeraire being towed to the breakers’ yard by a steam-powered tug. It turned out that Seppings’ innovative use of iron was only the beginning of a revolution that would change the face of ship-building forever. Cruelly perhaps, the techniques he pioneered at Chatham with the help of the Namur ultimately doomed not only timber warships, but also the dockyard itself to obsolescence. Previously ships had been limited by the size of timber. Iron brought far fewer constraints. Chatham caught an early glimpse of its fate in 1837, when the dockyard’s Number 3 slipway was constructed, only to become redundant within a couple of years because it was too small for the next generation of vessels. It was a trend that would continue, as over time the ships outgrew the dockyard itself.
Further information The Namur is currently on display at The Historic Dockyard Chatham (www.thedockyard.co.uk). It is planned to be the centrepiece of the new HLF-supported ‘Command of the Oceans’ project, for which the Dockyard is seeking to raise £57,000 from the public – the original cost of the Namur.
Alex Patterson is Collections and Galleries Manager at The Historic Dockyard Chatham. CA is also grateful to Gail Louise James.
ALL photos: M Symonds, unless otherwise stated.