Just as the Titanic’s ‘unsinkable’ nickname proved to be somewhat hubristic, naming a ship ‘Invincible’ might be seen as tempting fate. This latter designation was intended to intimidate, however, as it described a mighty warship that was among the most technically advanced of its day. HMS Invincible began life as L’Invincible, built at Rochefort in 1744, but its career in the French navy was only brief, as the ship was captured by the British fleet at the first Battle of Cape Finisterre just three years later. This was a real prize, as the vessel’s innovative design gave it many technological advantages over British ships: it was swifter under sail thanks to a wider bow and slender stern, while its narrow rudder meant the ship did not have to slow down before turning, and a long deck allowed for it to carry a greater number of heavier guns and, as such, a heavier weight of broadside. Shipwrights eagerly copied the Invincible’s form to create 74-gun vessels that would become the backbone of the Royal Navy: by the time of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, 16 of the 27 ships in Nelson’s fleet were ‘seventy-fours’.
Returning to the 18th century, in 1758 HMS Invincible was packed with people and provisions, part of a Royal Navy expedition destined for Louisbourg, an important French fort in what today is Nova Scotia. Among the 690 people on board were 440 seamen, 100 marines (a fighting force armed with grenades and flint-lock muskets who were also tasked with maintaining discipline and security on the ship), and 28 servants solely dedicated to the needs of the captain, John Bentley. There were also numerous subordinate officers, from the bosun and the surgeon to the carpenter, purser, and chaplain; their assistants, known as ‘mates’; and 46 soldiers who would help to storm Louisbourg fort on arrival in Canada. Ordnance and fighting supplies, as well as stores to sustain the crew during their long voyage, filled every available space, neatly arranged and carefully labelled.
The journey had barely begun, however, when disaster struck. The fleet was barely four miles from its departure point, Portsmouth Harbour, when HMS Invincible’s anchor became stuck and could not be raised. Worse, when the crew eventually managed to lift the anchor it became wedged under the bow. Meanwhile, the ship was drifting towards a sand bank (Dean Sands), and at the moment the ship needed to tack to avoid going aground, the helm jammed. Unable to steer, the ship drifted into shallow waters and became grounded on Dean Sands. Although the crew was able to refloat the vessel once, strong winds blew it back aground where it stuck fast, never to sail again. After signalling their hopeless situation with distress lights and guns, the crew was rescued and the long guns salvaged, but the Invincible itself could not be saved; over the course of the next four days, it took on more and more water, and was finally swallowed by the Solent. There it would remain, buried in silt and sand, for more than 200 years.
Rediscovering the wreck
It was not until the 1970s that the wreck was rediscovered, and then only by chance. In 1979, fisherman Arthur Mack snagged his nets on an underwater obstacle that proved to be a series of massive timbers. It was the remains of the Invincible. The ship was still remarkably intact – in fact, the wreck remains the best-preserved 18th-century warship found in UK waters – and in 1980 the site was formally designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act, which had come into effect just seven years earlier. This legal protection could not guard against time and tide, however, and the Invincible remained under threat from strong currents that were gradually pulling away the sands covering its timbers, exposing the vessel to erosion and the attention of nibbling sea creatures. The case for excavating and recording as much as possible, before vital archaeological evidence was lost forever, was clear.
The story of the Invincible’s loss, rediscovery, and excavation is told in Diving Deep: HMS Invincible 1744, an exhibition currently running at The Historic Dockyard Chatham (see ‘Further information’ at the end), where many of the Royal Navy’s ‘seventy-fours’ were constructed. Having recently transferred from Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, it features many of the artefacts recovered from the wreck, using them to explore both life on board the warship and the painstaking process of excavating its remains. As the displays attest, the first phase of investigations took place in the 1980s, headed by Commander John Bingeman. This work confirmed the then still-anonymous wreck’s identity and demonstrated the impressive extent of its preservation, documenting large portions of the ship’s port side. Equally impressive was the array of objects left untouched for centuries, from the sailors’ provisions and coiled quantities of rigging and rope, to trays of grenades with their fuses still attached and ready for use, accompanied by the flints used to strike them alight.
In 2010, Dr Dan Pascoe (now of Bournemouth University) took over the licence for the wreck from John, and while surveying the site he could see that far more of its timbers survived in situ than were depicted on plans from the 1980s investigations. This might sound like an exciting development, but it was in fact a cause for concern: the layers of sediment that had previously shielded the archaeological remains had completely shifted so that the wreck, which had once rested in the middle of a bed of sand, now lay right on its northern edge. The timbers of the Invincible’s starboard side, which had not been documented in detail before, were exposed to view, as were numerous artefacts that now scattered the surface. Historic England commissioned further surveys from Dan between 2010 and 2016, and this work made an inarguable case for more detailed investigations. As a result, between 2017 and 2019 Bournemouth University, MAST (Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust), and the National Museum of the Royal Navy teamed up to carry out one of the largest maritime excavations in British waters since that of the Tudor flagship Mary Rose in 1982 (see CA 218 and 272). It was a race against time to document what had been uncovered – and was continuing to emerge – from the bed of the Solent, and to recover as many at-risk artefacts as possible.
Recording the remains
Dan was the site archaeologist for the recent investigations, and while speaking to CA about what the excavations had revealed, he described the extent of the ship’s preservation. About 75-80% of the hull still survives, albeit broken into large chunks. These pieces are still easily identifiable, though, and a key part of the project has been to document the timbers using photogrammetry, which has allowed the team to piece its form back together digitally. (An interactive model of the results is displayed in Diving Deep: HMS Invincible 1744.) On the port side, the Invincible is largely intact from stern to bow, and from the height of the gun deck all the way to the bottom of the ship. The starboard side survives to a similar extent, though broken into several pieces. ‘We also found the bottom of the keel around midships, where all the cannonballs had been stored,’ Dan said. ‘The weight of these had pinned the bottom of the ship in place, and the two sides had then peeled away. So the ship was no longer intact, but it had not been reduced to matchsticks – the fragments were all still coherent.’
One of the most significant parts of the Invincible to be excavated – and one of the few timbers from the wreck to have been brought to the surface, as recovery efforts focused mainly on artefacts – was the ship’s cutwater. This is the very front part of a vessel’s bow, designed to divide the water as the ship sailed forward, and sometimes topped with a figurehead. The Invincible’s cutwater was huge, a six-tonne construction formed from eight pieces of oak joined using iron bolts, and raising it from the seabed was no small undertaking – but, as the team could not recover the ship itself, they were keen to rescue such a recognisable part of the vessel, to represent the Invincible as a whole. The cutwater is currently being conserved at Bournemouth University and MAST’s specialist archaeological centre in Poole, and will ultimately go on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.
While features like the cutwater offer vivid insights into how ships like the Invincible were built, it is the smaller finds from the wreck that illuminate what life was like in the Georgian Navy. The sailors would have spent much of their time occupied with onboard chores, and many of the recovered objects reflect such labours. In the exhibition, displays include the handle of a scrubbing brush (its bristles long since decayed) and a piece of soft sandstone known as ‘holy stone’, which was used to clean and whiten the deck. Dan Pascoe also described the discovery of what the team dubbed the ‘broom cupboard’: ‘this was a shelf on the side of the orlop deck, which was probably the bosun’s store. All the objects that it had held were still where they had been left, including a wooden stave bucket, several besom brooms, and even a mop head.’
As well as keeping the ship tidy and clean, sailors were tasked with unpicking old rope (known as ‘junk’) into individual strands that could be used to make oakum, twists of tarred fibres that were used for caulking and to make the wads that stopped round shot rolling back out of the barrels of the ship’s guns. Large quantities of junk, as well as sennit rope (an all-purpose cordage that Dan described as ‘the gaffer tape of its day’) were recovered from the wreck. ‘We found tonnes and tonnes of rope, all covered in tar,’ he said. ‘The smell, when you got it to the surface, was wonderful – you could close your eyes and imagine being on the ship, knowing that the 18th-century sailors would have smelled exactly the same thing.’
Life on board ship
As a Navy ship, a key part of the Invincible’s operation was manning its 74 guns, and the ship was well stocked with supplies and spares for such activity. There were three sizes of gun on board – 9-pounders, 24-pounders, and 32-pounders – each of which required specific sizes of shot, wadding, rammer heads, and spare parts for actions involving loading and manoeuvring them. Grabbing the wrong-sized object in the heat of battle could be a dangerous mistake, risking injury or rendering the gun useless at a crucial moment, and so each of the supplies had to be labelled with the number of the gun they were intended for. Highlighting the level of organisation that had gone into preparing the Invincible for its journey, Dan described the discovery of hundreds of gun wads, neatly packed into carefully labelled string bags. Wooden objects often had their gun number scratched into their surface, while other items were tagged with wooden tally sticks carved with Roman numerals. As the part of the exhibition that explores this aspect of onboard life explains, these markers had to be easily distinguished and very tactile, as you would not have wanted to linger with a lit candle in a space full of gunpowder. Displays of recovered shot and musketballs, gunpowder barrels, and cartridge cases further emphasise that the Invincible’s crew had been primed for action at any time.
What, though, was it like on board the Invincible when the vessel was not engaged in active combat? Many of the finds from the wreck reflect the sailors’ everyday experiences – as well as the class divide that existed between officers and crew. Nowhere is that more evident than in archaeological traces of their meals, which are explored in detail in the exhibition. Ordinary sailors were entitled to one pint of grog (water mixed with rum to disguise the brackish taste that developed during long voyages) and seven pints of beer a day; recovered rum barrels and wooden tankards represent these rations, but they also stand in stark contrast to the glass bottles of wine and brandy and the gleaming white fragments of English creamware crockery that were reserved for the ship’s officers. Regular crewmen dined from square wooden plates; these were easy to stack and store, were robust if dropped, and were less likely to slip on a moving ship – they are also sometimes said to be the (possibly apocryphal) origin of the phrase ‘a square meal’. As for how the meals were prepared, the last thing you wanted on a wooden ship full of gunpowder was an open fire, and so the vessel’s ovens were surrounded by bricks. Some of these are included in the displays, as is a leather fire bucket that would have been kept by in case of emergency.
Discipline aboard ship would have been fierce: among the artefacts found on the wreck site is a cudgel that would have been wielded to stop crimes and break up brawls – possibly by one of the marines who were charged with keeping the crew in order during the voyage – and a wicked-looking cat-o’-nine-tails whip that was brought out for more formal punishments and serious transgressions. Alongside the strict rules, the sailors would have drawn some sense of control from their own personal beliefs and superstitions. These more ephemeral aspects of maritime life can be harder to recognise in the archaeological record, but the Invincible has yielded one clue in the form of a box used for storing shot and gunpowder. On the inside of its lid, someone has used a compass to draw a six-petalled flower within a circle, a design known as a hexafoil or ‘daisy wheel’. This motif has long been associated with protection against evil spirits, and is often found on shore, particularly in churches, but it was also employed at sea. Most famously, a hexafoil was found among other apotropaic designs on some of the guns from the pirate Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, when its wreck was excavated off the coast of North Carolina. (This investigation is described in more detail in issue 103 of our sister-magazine, Current World Archaeology.)
Echoes of individuals
From personal beliefs to personal effects, the wreck of the Invincible has produced a host of items owned or worn by the men who lived and worked on the ship, many of which are included in the exhibition. Testifying to the preservative qualities of the sediments covering the wreck, these include items of clothing, among them leather shoes and a panel of very fine black suede leather with carefully sewn buttonholes – once part of an expensive waistcoat. Another hint of the higher-status members of the ship community comes in the form of clay wig curlers. Officers wore ‘work wigs’ comprising rows of curls made from human or (for those with a more limited budget) horse or goat hair. Unfortunately for such style-conscious individuals, sea air tended to make the curls droop, but this could be readily rectified using the curlers, which were heated in a fire and applied by the officer’s servant.
There were also indications of some of the military men who populated the Invincible: as well as buttons bearing symbols of the Royal Navy and the Coldstream Guards, archaeologists have recovered a large fragment of red woollen cloth and a woollen green cuff. Both of these were probably worn by a marine: they were nicknamed ‘redcoats’, and their uniforms had a green trim. As for more ordinary sailors, personal possessions reflecting their presence include numerous clay tobacco pipes and bundles of sewing thread that they would have used to keep their clothes in good repair.
Such tangible traces of individuals who lived centuries earlier highlight the importance of excavating and documenting wreck sites like the Invincible, Dan Pascoe said: ‘There are so many other ships that deserve the same attention – once the remains are sticking up above the sand they deteriorate and you lose that level of detail that gives you such a sense of connection with those on board. We need more funding bodies to recognise the importance of maritime archaeology: once shipwrecks become under threat, it is a race against time to record them. It sounds obvious, but these ships weren’t designed to be underwater for centuries, and UK waters in particular are very dynamic and unforgiving – once the seal of sediment over a wreck is broken, you need to react quickly. It would be great to think that the finds from the Invincible could encourage further investigations. It’s a level of preservation you rarely find on land sites – swimming over the remains feels like time travel.’
Further information You can hear Dan Pascoe talking further about HMS Invincible and its archaeology on The PastCast podcast. Click here to listen. Diving Deep: HMS Invincible 1744 runs at The Historic Dockyard Chatham until 20 November 2022. For more information about the exhibition and the wreck, see https://thedockyard.co.uk/whats-on/diving-deep-hms-invincible-1744 and www.hmsinvincible1744.org.uk.
ALL IMAGES: Bournemouth University, unless otherwise stated.