In late November 1703, the crew of HMS Northumberland must have thought that things couldn’t get much worse. The warship was newly returned from a long and arduous campaign against the French, but during the voyage home many of its crew had died – not from battle injuries, but from disease. Those who remained were weak and sick, and when their vessel finally made anchor off the east Kent coast, conditions below deck must have been miserable. Their tribulations were far from over, however. On the night of 26/27 November, Britain was struck by what would become known as the Great Storm of 1703, which modern scholars have equated to a Category 2 hurricane.
The author and journalist Daniel Defoe (best known as the creator of Robinson Crusoe) collected eye-witness accounts of the destruction, publishing them in a book in which he described the storm as ‘The Greatest, the Longest in Duration, the widest in Extent, of all the Tempests and Storms that History gives any Account of since the Beginning of Time.’ Defoe’s dramatic text details the destruction of forests and buildings alike, and coastal towns ‘most miserably torn to pieces’. There were numerous casualties both at sea and on shore, and many ships were blown far off course or wrecked. As for the Northumberland, it, together with three other Royal Navy vessels – the Restoration, the Mary, and the Stirling Castle – was driven onto the treacherous Goodwin Sands.
We can only imagine the pandemonium and panic below deck as anchors began to drag and the ships were inextricably pushed towards waters that were known to be extremely dangerous. Measuring 17km by 6.5km wide, the sandbank represents a huge but difficult-to-spot hazard (it is just covered at high tide) within what has long been a major shipping route for trade and travel; today, shipwreck maps are thickly scattered with the locations of thousands of vessels that have been lost there over the centuries. Sadly, the fate of the four ships named here was no different. The entire 387- and 220-strong crews of the Restoration and the Northumberland lost their lives that night, as did two-thirds of those aboard the Stirling Castle. From the Mary’s 270 men there was just one survivor, who might reasonably be called the luckiest of sailors after surviving being shipwrecked twice in one night. This was Thomas Atkins, who managed to scramble aboard the Stirling Castle as his own vessel sank, only to be swept overboard once more – fortunately, he was spotted and plucked from the raging sea by local boatmen. As for the ships themselves, they sank beneath the waves, where they would remain, anonymous and lost, for almost 300 years.
A race against time
The Stirling Castle was the first to be rediscovered, when divers set out in 1979 to investigate why local fishermen kept snagging their nets over the site. Remarkably, the warship had survived virtually complete from gun deck to keel, presenting a ghostly sight with its remains still sitting upright and guns pointing through their ports. This was thanks to the particular environment of the Goodwin Sands; this area is known as the ‘ship-swallower’, because the sandbank has a way of engulfing entire shipwrecks, drawing them down to the bedrock, and sealing their remains beneath deep protective layers of sand and sediment. Like all sandbanks, though, the Goodwin Sands are highly mobile, meaning that buried ships periodically appear and disappear once more. It was this process that brought the Stirling Castle back to light in 1979; a year later, both the Northumberland and the Restoration followed suit. The ships were all found lying in a line, and the latter two were particularly close together (the location of the Mary remains unknown). As the most-complete of the known Great Storm wrecks, the Stirling Castle has received the most research attention to date – but the Northumberland is also proving to have an illuminating story to tell.
In 2015, marine archaeologist Dr Dan Pascoe (then with Pascoe Archaeology, now also with Bournemouth University) took over the licence for investigating the Northumberland from its previous holder, Robert Peacock. At that time, the wreck was completely buried in sand, but in 2016 Dan was passing over it in a dive boat, en route to another site he was working on, when he spotted an intriguing hump on the seabed that was clearly showing on the echo sounder. It appeared that the Northumberland was making its way back to the surface once more. Dan immediately contacted Historic England to apply for funding for a geophysical survey to establish quite how much of the wreck was becoming exposed; while this situation meant that the fragile remains would be easier to document, it also left them at risk of erosion from strong currents and wood-boring sea creatures.
In 2017 and 2018, multibeam bathymetric surveys (measuring water depth) confirmed that the sandbank was indeed shifting, and each time the team visited, more of the wreck could be seen. By 2020, there had been a dramatic change in the sandbank’s appearance, with significant movement away from the wreck. Another bathymetric survey, combined with magnetometer and sub-bottom surveying, set out to investigate how much wreck material was still preserved beneath the surface; this revealed that the Northumberland was now precariously perched right on the edge of the sandbank, with the 3.5m of wreck that remained covered lying directly on the bedrock beneath just 0.5m of seabed. With such a limited and rapidly diminishing burial environment, the remains were becoming very vulnerable – but their archaeological potential was huge. The magnetometry survey showed that all the ship’s guns that could be seen were still concentrated in one place; this was not a scattered wreck but a largely coherent vessel lying on its side. Like the wreck of the famous Tudor flagship Mary Rose (see CA 272), the fact that one side of the hull was still buried suggested that this portion – and its contents – was likely to be particularly well preserved. As the Northumberland’s protective sediments continued to be stripped away, the case for investigating and documenting as much of its remains as possible before they deteriorated further was clear. (Indeed, since CA spoke to Dan, a further survey has revealed that the sandbank has now passed by altogether, leaving the wreck site isolated. Through surface difference analysis of the bathymetric data, the team has calculated that nearly 10,000 cubic metres of sand have gone from the main area between 2017 and 2022.)
Samuel Pepys’ ships
The wreck of the Northumberland is not only an invaluable resource for understanding life in the late-17th- and early 18th-century navy; it is also a key piece of evidence from a historically significant shipbuilding programme spearheaded by Samuel Pepys. Although best known as a diarist and social commentator, Pepys is often described as the ‘Father of the Modern Royal Navy’. In 1660, he was appointed Clerk of the Navy Office, despite having no experience of ships or seafaring, and by 1673 he had risen to the lofty position of Secretary to the Admiralty, making him the most influential man in the administration of the Royal Navy.
During this career, Pepys made it his mission to stamp out corruption and inefficiency, and also pushed through key reforms including establishing new rules about food standards for sailors – the daily rations of 1 gallon of beer, 500g of biscuits, 100g salt beef or fish, and butter and cheese that he set down represented a definite improvement on their predecessors, though modern readers will notice none of the fresh fruit or vegetables that would later prove key to preventing scurvy. He also created the first examinations for would-be naval commanders and set new standards for other officers.
Perhaps the most significant step, though, was his transformation of the Royal Navy as a fighting force. In the aftermath of the 3rd Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674), the English fleet was in a poor state of repair and its numbers badly needed reinforcing. Pepys commissioned the construction of 30 new ships: 20 3rd rates (one of which was the Northumberland), nine 2nd rates, and one 1st rate, doubling the navy’s strength. The Northumberland launched in 1679, and went on to have a long and successful career, seeing action in many of the major naval battles of the late 17th and early 18th century (largely against the French), until its loss in 1703.
Dan and his team had dived the wreck already in 2018, to confirm the extent of the exposure shown in surveys, and in 2021 they returned in earnest to record as much as possible. ‘This was a virtually untouched site, full of material culture from Queen Anne’s navy,’ Dan said. ‘We have good evidence from earlier ships like the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545, and the London, from 1665 [CA 308 and 363], and from later ones like the Invincible, from 1758, but the Northumberland is bang in the middle and represents an important period in naval history that is still quite poorly represented in museum collections. This site is a really useful addition to that picture, because it’s important that we study ships not as individual wreck sites but as a collective so that we can start tracing changes and developments in their design, and how their crew – who would have been carrying out similar tasks across the centuries – adapted what they were doing to improve their everyday routines and solve everyday problems.’
Important though the divers’ task was, it was not an easy one; Dan described how, for the first three days of the investigation, the water was completely black with sediment and working conditions were so dark that without a torch you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Fortunately, this then cleared, but the site itself also presented its own challenges: over recent years the wreck’s timbers have become festooned with fishing nets, which are easy to become entangled in – a threat to marine archaeologists and marine life alike. The nets are weighted, suggesting that they haven’t just washed onto the site, but represent fishing boats trawling over the protected site and snagging on the exposed remains, Dan said.
In spite of this environment, however, the team has been able to document a wealth of clues as to what life on board the vessel was like. The Northumberland’s role as a Royal Navy warship shines through much of the exposed evidence. The Northumberland was a 70-gun ship – prior to the development of ‘74s’ like the Invincible, these were the backbone of the Royal Navy – armed with big 32-pounder guns, as well as longer culverin stern-chasers and smaller demi-culverins; so far, the team has located around a dozen along one side of the wreck site. As the ship had tipped onto its side when it sank, unlike the Stirling Castle’s guns these had not remained at their stations, but magnetometry surveys have helped to identify a concentration of guns, and closer inspection has revealed that many of them are still attached to the partial remains of their wooden carriages; it is hoped that those still buried could be even more complete.
Dan’s investigations have also identified the part of the ship that would have served as the armoury, where hand weapons were stored. There, extraordinary bundles of muskets and swords, corroded and jagged, protrude from the sea floor. A small broken piece from a group of swords some 50- to 60-strong has since been X-rayed and carefully cleared of corrosion by conservators, revealing that the blades are still in very good condition, and had been sheathed in leather scabbards.
The presence of so many metal objects has also helped to preserve organic finds, such as a wooden chest that has survived completely intact, covered with mussel shells and cocooned in a shell of concretion – a mineral crust created through iron from the adjacent guns leaching into the wood. Dan hopes that this protective layer means that the chest’s contents will have also survived in good condition; for now, its purpose remains unknown, but if the find is raised to the surface in the future, conservation should reveal more clues. The exposed hull of the ship itself, although less complete than that of the Stirling Castle, is also well preserved, leading the team to suspect that the buried portion will still survive in three dimensions, with artefacts still in place where they had been left, offering detailed insights into shipboard life and culture, and a better idea of how these objects were used, maintained, and organised by the Northumberland’s crew.
Other artefacts linked to the everyday running of the ship included pots and glassware – including a complete onion bottle, named for its distinctive round-bellied shape – as well as cauldrons and numerous coils of rope and cables, the latter so covered in mussels that they reminded Dan of the way in which shellfish are cultivated on ropes in modern mussel farms. One of the more dramatic finds, though, was a huge wall of concretion measuring almost 2.5m in height. This mineral mass was studded with artefacts – copper cauldrons, ceramic pots, wooden barrels and buckets – and when the team looked closer, they were able to see why such an unusual assemblage had been created. This area of the site yielded quantities of iron bar shot, and it is thought that this part of the wreck may have contained the ship’s shot locker, into which objects had fallen during the sinking. Over time, iron had leached from the shot into the artefacts, joining them together and forming a considerable obstacle for the divers to navigate.
In terms of the survival of the hull, and the quantities of artefacts thought to be preserved in situ, this wreck might be compared to that of the Invincible, which sank off Portsmouth and which Dan has also been investigating (see CA 389). But as well as being separated by half a century, there is another crucial difference in the story of their respective losses. All of the sailors on board the Invincible managed to escape; the Northumberland’s situation is more like that of another Solent shipwreck, the Mary Rose, whose hull was equally full of artefacts but also contained the remains of some of its crew. Indeed, records for earlier investigations of the Northumberland by the site’s previous licensee attest that human bones had been seen on the site, but these had not been recovered.
‘This is not just another ship with lots of stuff on it – the crew might still be here too, and we hope to find them before they wash away as the wreck uncovers,’ Dan said. ‘The lost sailors deserve for their stories to be told, and – like any site on land – skeletons can tell you so much about a person’s diet, their health, and where they came from. We know from isotope and aDNA analysis of human remains from the Mary Rose that the Royal Navy was very diverse in the 16th century – I would love to know more about the make-up of crews like that of the Northumberland.’
Looking to the future
In terms of future research, the exposed portion of the hull has been digitally recorded using photogrammetry to create detailed models of the remains. The uncovered section represents only the top of the site’s stratigraphy, however, and Dan is keen to raise funds to excavate the still-buried timbers before they too lose their protective covering. ‘During the lifecycle of any wreck, it will go through many cycles of burial and uncovering, and each time more detail will be lost,’ he said. ‘Historic England funded the geophysical- and diver surveys on the site but we need to progress to the next stage – we did the surveys so that we could react to the ship uncovering, and time is of the essence. We knew from the Stirling Castle that you get incredible preservation in the Goodwin Sands – but once a wreck is exposed, it starts to deteriorate rapidly. The site was made a protected wreck because of its historical significance in 1980, but while that designation means it is legally safeguarded from human interference, it does not protect it from natural forces, which can cause much more damage.’
You can watch a short film about HMS Northumberland on the Pascoe Archaeology YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/TKa92eAThk0.
There is also a series of short ‘wreck diaries’ videos by Michael Pitts, about the 2018 investigations, at https://pascoe-archaeology.com/blog.
You can read more about the project at https://pascoe-archaeology.com/portfolio/the-northumberland and https://pascoe-archaeology.com/portfolio/the-northumberland-2017-2018-project.
For the latest news about the wreck, see www.facebook.com/TheNorthumberlandwrecksite.