right The wreck of the London is a 17th-century time capsule, preserving a wealth of artefacts illuminating maritime life aboard the ill-fated warship among them, this sun dial.

Revisiting the London: exploring the campaign to save a 17th-century warship

Resting in the silty mud of the Thames Estuary, the London represents a remarkable time capsule of the Stuart era – but its remains are rapidly deteriorating. Geoff Downer describes an ambitious campaign to raise and preserve the wreck before it is lost to time and tide.

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Imagine the scene. You arrive at your archaeological site or favourite historic house in the morning. It’s almost dark; thick fog surrounds you and a strong wind is blowing. In horror, you see that the roof of the structure has been torn away and irreplaceable artefacts are blowing away as you watch. You can only see an area about two metres around you and you are helpless to stop this loss.

right The wreck of the London is a 17th-century time capsule, preserving a wealth of artefacts illuminating maritime life aboard the ill-fated warship among them, this sun dial.
The wreck of the London is a 17th-century time capsule, preserving a wealth of artefacts illuminating maritime life aboard the ill-fated warship among them, this sun dial. Image: Steve Ellis.

A nightmare? A bad dream? Or so unlikely you wonder why you’re reading this? On land you would be right, but this is the everyday occurrence for the volunteer licensed divers working to record and survey the 17th-century wreck of the London in the Thames estuary.

In 2015, we published a feature discussing the history of the London and how Steve Ellis and his small team of licensed divers came to investigate the site and undertake a lot of detailed discovery, recording, and survey work (see CA 308). The team has continued its work to the present day – supported by Historic England, who have commissioned remote surveys of the site to supplement the underwater investigations – and in this article we will update you on what has been found in the intervening three seasons, as well as on the current efforts to develop an ambitious plan to save this unique time capsule of the Cromwellian and Stuart era.

Remembering the London

The London was a 76-gun warship, which, Samuel Pepys writes in his famous diary (in his entry for 23 May 1660), formed part of the flotilla that sailed to Scheveningen in the Netherlands to bring Charles II to England and restore him to the throne. Despite this distinctly Royalist role, though, the vessel had originally been commissioned by Oliver Cromwell – its remains represent one of just two known Cromwellian warships surviving (albeit both as wrecks) today. Following Cromwell’s death, though, she was recommissioned and joined the Royalist fleet.

Five years after the Restoration, the English were at war with the Dutch for the second time – and by March 1665 the London was fully refitted, victualled, armed, and ready to join the battle. Prior to her departure, though, her crew were allowed a display day off the Nore Anchorage outside modern Southend, and women – possibly wives, sweethearts, or more fleeting companions – were allowed on board to visit their loved ones before they departed for battle.

This convivial scene was not to last, however, as during this voyage the London suddenly exploded without warning and sank off Southend. The shallow anchorage left the ‘round-house’ (part of the stern structure or stern castle) standing clear of the water, and from here around 24 people are said to have been rescued, but 300 lost their lives. The tragedy was chronicled by Pepys who, as well as a prolific diarist, was also Clerk of the Acts of the Navy Office. He wrote, ‘This morning is brought me to the office the sad newes of the London… She lies sunk, with her round-house above water… a great loss in this, of so many good chosen men, and many relations among them.’

Some basic salvage attempts are said to have been made at the time, and it is believed that between 27 and 41 of the London’s 76 bronze guns were recovered and put to use on other vessels. After this, though, the wreck was subsequently largely forgotten and lay for 340 years deep in the mud of the Thames Estuary.

The wreck rediscovered

As a busy seaway, the Thames Estuary is not a regular diving area, and until 15 years ago the remains of the London had lain more or less undisturbed. This all changed in 2005, though, when the wreck – dispersed on two sites, as the ship had been broken in two by the explosion that sank her – was rediscovered during dredging and channel works in advance of the London Gateway Port development near Tilbury.

The wreck of the London was highlighted because one of its sites lies very close to the northern boundary of the main dredged channel, in between 8m and 20m (depending on spring tides) of fast-flowing murky water, with shipping traffic passing very close to the site on a daily basis.

below The London sank after exploding off the coast of Southend. Today, it lies in two pieces close to a busy shipping channel.
The London sank after exploding off the coast of Southend. Today, it lies in two pieces close to a busy shipping channel. Image: Nautical Archaeology Society

Soon after the extent of her remains was confirmed by remote surveying in 2008, the wreck was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act, restricting an area around the wreck from uncontrolled interference and prohibiting unauthorised diving in its vicinity. Shortly afterwards, Steve Ellis, a local diver with extensive experience in diving in the Thames despite the difficult conditions, applied for and was granted the license to survey and record the site, and later to perform limited excavation and recovery where there was a real risk that material discovered by him and his team would simply be washed away down the Thames. We recounted in CA 308 how Steve’s involvement in the project was sparked by a chance encounter with a leading dendrochronologist, Professor Nigel Nayling, at an airport departure gate – a lucky meeting that has since proven very productive.

left Diving in the Thames Estuary is no mean feat; visibility on the wreck site is extremely poor. below The anaerobic conditions of the silty mud at the bottom of the Thames Estuary means that many artefacts made from organic materials have survived in very good condition, including whole leather shoes.
Diving in the Thames Estuary is no mean feat; visibility on the wreck site is extremely poor. Image: Nautical Archaeology Society.

Since the wreck’s rediscovery, the dive team has carried out survey and excavations on the site (in 2013, working with Cotswold Archaeology), often in near-zero visibility. These efforts have identified many unique artefacts, which offer a window into the fascinating period of the Interregnum and the Restoration. The dense clay of the riverbed has allowed a much higher level of survival of organic remains than is often the case on wreck sites around the UK. Deep in the mud, leather goods, fabric, ropes, and wood are extensively preserved, representing tangible links to the men and women who lost their lives more than three centuries ago.

images: Historic England (bottom); Nautical Archaeology Society (top)
The anaerobic conditions of the silty mud at the bottom of the Thames Estuary means that many artefacts made from organic materials have survived in very good condition, including whole leather shoes. Image: Nautical Archaeology Society.

Recording the artefacts – a work in progress

Underwater, working conditions are often difficult, yet the project’s survey and recovery work has continued each year when weather allows, and recording is still being undertaken by Steve and his team of local divers, with support from the London Shipwreck Trust, as well as guidance from the Nautical Archaeology Society’s expert archaeologists.

Some of the project’s finds reflect the London’s role as a warship, such as this rammer and linstock used to hold a slow match, both of which would have been used by her gunners. Images: Historic England.

The London’s estuarine location is both a benefit and a curse. The site’s deep muddy clay deposits are relatively anaerobic, meaning that a wealth of organic material has survived, in contrast to wrecks that lie on typical rocky or mixed seabed. Conversely, the continuous tidal movement, coupled with disruption from the wake of large ships passing in the adjacent shipping channel, causes the surface of the riverbed to be constantly in motion, in many cases washing away lighter finds as they become exposed. (This motion is also a real challenge to divers working on the site and trying to stay in one place.)Steve has described his experience of working on the wreck: ‘After a year of diving “site one”, where we found a number of iron cannon that archival research suggested had been used as ballast (the London’s working ordnance was bronze), we decided to brave diving close to the very edge of the Thames shipping channel, to explore the remains of the ship on its second site. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly nervous diving that close to the enormous cargo ships, but it was worth it. It soon became evident that this site was much more artefact-rich than the other.’

More personal items included clay tobacco pipes (below), of which a wide variety of styles have been found, and the tuning peg (left) from a musical instrument, probably a fiddle.
More personal items included clay tobacco pipes (below), of which a wide variety of styles have been found, and the tuning peg (top) from a musical instrument, probably a fiddle.
Images: Steve Ellis.

‘It was fascinating to see so many artefacts lying on the surface, like an underwater museum – we found parts of muskets, a complete leather shoe, and sadly the physical remains of some of those poor souls who would have been on board at the time of the London’s sinking. But on our next dive we arrived on site to find, to our horror, that most of these finds were gone, as if they had vanished into thin air – or into the Thames in this case. It quickly became clear that the site was severely unstable; although artefacts underwater are known to disappear in tides or through erosion, it’s not normal for them to vanish in a matter of weeks. Thankfully, Historic England came to the rescue, arranging for conservation and approaching Southend Museum Services to be the receiving museum for any further recoveries from the wreck.’

Unique finds

Thanks to previous seasons of work on the wreck sites, an increasingly comprehensive archaeological record has been built up, both through recovering artefacts and recording and photographing others in situ. Among these finds are objects that may have belonged to the ship’s crew, such as combs and numerous styles of clay tobacco pipe. Other artefacts testify to the presence of women on the London’s final voyage, including near-complete leather shoes and, poignantly, a human jawbone found early in the excavation process that has since been identified as female.

Some of the finds are personal items – spoons, buckles, and ceramic vessels, as well as the recent discovery of a tuning peg from a musical instrument, probably a sailor’s fiddle – while others reflect the London’s role as a warship. Among these latter objects are beautifully preserved navigation instruments such as a set of dividers and a sundial, as well as a gun rammer, linstocks that show signs of use, and tampion reels employed by the ships’ gunners.

below Although collapsed into a flat sunburst because its hooping has not survived, this barrel is otherwise preserved entirely intact.
Although collapsed into a flat sunburst because its hooping has not survived, this barrel is otherwise preserved entirely intact. Image: Historic England.

Of particular interest, though, was a small barrel that was found completely intact on the seabed and has subsequently been raised and conserved. Unfortunately, the hooping on the barrel (which would probably have been split cane), did not survive and the barrel is now flat – but every stave is preserved, as are its top and bottom discs, and even the bung used for accessing its contents.

above This gun carriage, recovered intact, would once have cradled one of the London’s 76 bronze cannon; it and the vessel’s ordnance were the subject of a feature in CA 308.
This gun carriage, recovered intact, would once have cradled one of the London’s 76 bronze cannon; it and the vessel’s ordnance were the subject of a feature in CA 308. Photo: Cotswold Archaeology for Historic England.

Another star find is a complete gun carriage, which would have cradled one of the London’s 76 bronze cannon (as reported in CA’s previous article on the project). This has been recovered and conserved, but it was noticeable how much it had deteriorated even in the short space of time between its discovery and raising, illustrating the rapid rate of destruction on the wreck site.

In an attempt to monitor this deterioration, Historic England has arranged for a resurvey of the site to be undertaken in 2020 in order that the images of the site (last recorded in 2009 and 2016) can be compared and contrasted with the current conditions, and the rate of change monitored. For now, though, no more artefacts can be recovered for conservation. Until the end of last year, the dive team had a license to raise artefacts that were at risk of imminent loss or destruction, but due to lack of funding for conservation work it has now been suspended. It was in order to support this aspect of the project that the ‘Save the London 1665’ fundraising campaign was launched; for more information on how you can get involved, read on.

Saving the London

Many years of practical work on the site by the dedicated dive team, combined with remote sensing work, have demonstrated that much of the London still lies beneath the mud – possibly up to the level of the main gun deck. Below the mobile surface of the seabed, limited trial excavations confirm that many more fascinating artefacts are present, and experts including Chris Dobbs (from the Mary Rose Trust) and Phil Harding (Time Team/Wessex Archaeology; an ambassador for the campaign) have likened the London to the celebrated Tudor flagship, the Mary Rose, in the extent and breadth of its contents.

below Well-preserved dividers from the wreck of the London.
Well-preserved dividers from the wreck of the London. image: © Perkins and Will Architects.

Despite the high rate of deterioration experienced across the whole of the wreck site, though, and the urgency of recording and saving the remains of the vessel and its artefacts, the project is currently entirely self-funding. Utilising their own money, the divers can only work on-site 30 to 40 times per year. And, as a result, only a small portion of the artefacts could be recovered and conserved before their licence expired – the rest remain vulnerable on the seabed, open to both natural and human interference. The site visibly erodes from month to month, and without additional activity it is estimated that the wreck will most likely disappear completely within the next ten years.

To address this, the London Shipwreck Trust and the Nautical Archaeology Society recently launched the ‘Save the London 1665’ campaign. This ambitious campaign is working to bring together public, private, charitable, and academic organisations in order to develop and implement a sustainable long-term legacy project that will ensure the wreck’s future, but which will also create an economically viable heritage attraction for the borough of Southend-on-Sea. The ideal outcome would be that in saving this important wreck, we should not create a financial burden for the country but an asset.

The campaign aims to raise an initial £200,000 per year to help fund the ongoing running costs of the volunteer dive team and to enable initial conservation of recovered artefacts to resume, but the longer-term vision is even more aspirational. The hope is to create a purpose-built museum and visitor centre in Southend-on-Sea, similar in concept to the highly successful Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth (CA 280), or to the facility displaying the remains of the Vasa, a 17th-century Swedish warship whose largely intact hull was salvaged from a busy shipping lane located just outside Stockholm harbour in 1961. Today, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm is one of Sweden’s most popular attractions, and the idea is that the London could help not only to rejuvenate tourism in the Southend-on-Sea area, but also provide a huge technological and cultural education opportunity, as the ultimate goal is to raise the hull with artefacts in situ and excavate it in the centre.

below The ‘Save the London 1665’ campaign’s proposal for how the wreck could be raised in situ, and subsequently excavated within a purpose-built facility.
The ‘Save the London 1665’ campaign’s proposal for how the wreck could be raised in situ, and subsequently excavated within a purpose-built facility.

This approach is not as fanciful as it sounds. It draws on experience gained in raising the remains of the Mary Rose (CA 272) and the Vasa decades earlier, as well as more recent projects, including the raising of a 12th-century merchant ship in Nanhai, mainland China, and the work of the Dutch Museum Service, who are at an advanced stage in planning to recover the Amsterdam, an 18th-century cargo vessel, from its wreck site near Hastings in Sussex. The NAS has also been guided by architects Perkins and Will, who were involved in the design of the Mary Rose Museum. If the fundraising efforts are successful, hopefully it will not be long before the London rises once more so that her story can be told for future generations.

Supporting ‘Save the London 1665′

‘Save the London 1665’ (see p.51) has already attracted major supporters including Historic England, the Port of London Authority, Southend Council, and commercial organisations in the region, as well as individuals such as Sir Barry Cunliffe, Sir Tony Robinson, Phil Harding, Sir Tim Smit (founder of the Eden Project), and Professor Alice Roberts. The campaign has also gained interest from a number of TV production companies wanting to follow progress over the next few years.

To find out more about this fascinating wreck and the efforts to save her, visit the NAS website: www.nauticalarchaeologysociety.org/appeal/save-the-london. You can also find further details of how you can help us to raise £200,000 per year to support the work of the London Shipwreck Trust to advance, promote, and provide for the preservation of the London and its artefacts for public benefit and to protect it for future generations. Donations of £10 can also be made by texting SAVETHELONDON 10 to 70085.