England’s rocky shores and sandy estuaries are littered with the remains of historic ships and boats. Shipwrecks, in fact, constitute the largest category of recorded monument, with some 37,000 shipwreck ‘events’ on record, ranging in date from the Bronze Age to the more recent ship and submarine casualties of two World Wars (not to mention dirigibles and aeroplanes lost on the seabed).
To put that in perspective, there are 14,500 places of worship in England considered to be of sufficient architectural or historic interest to be included in the National Heritage Register. And whereas the number of historic places of worship is relatively static, the number of known wreck sites is growing all the time; what we know now represents just a fraction of the actual number of historic shipwrecks on the seabed. Two new sites of great importance were discovered as recently as 2006, when archaeologists found two adjacent wreck sites prior to dredging works in the River Thames – those of the London, built at Chatham in 1656, and the King, a vessel thought to have foundered during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654).
Systematic surveys funded by English Heritage are taking place around England’s coast to try to pin down exactly what has survived. The Modern Wrecks Project, for instance, has so far added 500 new records to the wreck database of ships lost since 1945. This has revealed new patterns in the type of vessel lost: for example, the large number of fishing trawlers that sank in the 1970s and 1980s, especially those from former Soviet Eastern Europe. Another recording programme called the National Hulks Assemblage Project is looking not at ships wrecked as a result of storms like the one that lashed England and the near Continent on St Jude’s Day, 28 October 2013, but vessels deliberately abandoned.
These include boats and ships that have simply outlived their usefulness and been left to rot because they are no longer economical to repair, as well as boats deliberately beached to help stabilise eroding riverbanks or beaches, such as the Purton Hulks (CA 237). This hauntingly atmospheric ships’ graveyard lies on the banks of the River Severn, where the river and the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal run parallel, with only a narrow bank separating the two. One stormy night in 1909, part of the bank slipped into the river, leaving it vulnerable to further erosion. With the threat that it might give way, draining the canal, the call went to local boat-owners for old vessels to be brought to the vulnerable riverbank and sunk to provide a barrier against further erosion. Some 80 redundant vessels were run aground over the next 60 or so years. As mud, silt and sand settled into their hulls, the once narrow bank has become a broad expanse of grassland from which the skeletal prows and ribs of historic barges and schooners stand up like the bones of ancient sea creatures.
On the surface, the Purton Hulks look like a lost cause – nothing but a few mossy and eroded timbers and rusting nails. Until the Friends of Purton started putting up plaques to inform people of the historic importance of the wrecks ten years ago, the amount of visible timber was fast disappearing as local people saw the Hulks as a source of free firewood or made barbecues on the beach. Fortunately, recent excavation has shown that, below the ground, the waterlogged silt has preserved a huge amount of valuable information about the form and structure of these working boats that were once so commonplace nobody bothered to record them.
This is one of the great ironies of wrecked boats and ships: those that were ‘lost’ are the ones that have, in fact, survived. They have immense importance as the only material evidence we have for the vessels that were essential to England’s economic prosperity, communications, and defence for thousands of years until the post-1945 rise of air freight. The further back in time you go, the less documentary evidence we have: works of art, depicting sea battles or seascapes, are often our best source of information. The fate of the ships themselves at the end of their useful lives was to be broken up for scrap, just like the Battle of Trafalgar warship in Turner’s evocative painting (1838) of the ‘Fighting’ Temeraire being towed to its final berth, a breaker’s yard in Rotherhithe, by a steam-powered tug.
What happened to the material salvaged from such ships is worthy of a study in itself: it is part of England’s maritime folklore that many a timber-framed building incorporates ship’s timbers, and occasionally we have documentary evidence to substantiate the myth: timbers from the early 19th-century ‘man o’ war’ HMS Impregnable, sold for breaking up in 1906, ended up being used to build the cloister of St Conan’s Kirk, located by the shores of Loch Awe, in Argyll and Bute, and to construct the façades of Messrs Liberty & Co, in London’s Marlborough Street, built in Tudoresque Arts and Crafts style in 1922-1924.
Wrecks could, of course, suffer the same fate, if they ended up in shallow water or beached. As Serena Cant explains in her new English Heritage book England’s Shipwreck Heritage, the reason we have so many documented wrecks is because of the numbers of people and organisations that had an interest in salvaging what they could from any wreck.
Much folklore surrounds the question of salvage, including the notorious practice of deliberately wrecking ships by luring them ashore using misleading lights. While acknowledging that wreckers would have a strong motive for keeping their activities secret, nevertheless, says Serena, the primary sources ‘refuse to yield any evidence of such activity’. The earliest usage she has been able to find of the word ‘wrecker’ being used to describe someone deliberately luring a ship to its fate on the rocky shores of Devon and Cornwall dates from 1882, and she is sure that such tales have been ‘romanticised and embellished for the nascent tourist industry’.
Instead, the sources reveal that ‘wrecker’ is the term commonly used to refer to anyone plundering a wreck after the event, just like the crowds who gathered from all over Britain and the near Continent in January 2007 when the MSC Napoli was beached at Branscombe, taking items washed up from the wreck as various as dog food and BMW motorbikes. Many of those who turned up did so in the belief that wrecks and their cargo belong to nobody and that taking them is a form of legal windfall, much like the plot of Compton Mackenzie’s novel Whisky Galore (1947) and the 1949 Ealing comedy film based upon it.
In the 20th century, the law has been clarified to make it clear that wrecks and their cargo remain the property of their original owners. Anyone who takes them is guilty of theft unless they inform the Receiver of Wreck, whose job is to attempt to establish who is the legal owner. Additional safeguards apply to historic wrecks, ships and aircraft that are the last resting place of the remains of members of the armed forces. In the past, however, the Crown, monasteries, estates, and lords of the manor have all claimed rights over wrecks, and the real owners have often had to fight for their rights.
The earliest recorded example dates from 1318, and concerns an Oporto-based merchant, Martin de Bek, who doggedly pursued over 40 offenders through the courts over a period of 20 years for stealing cargo from the Navis de Jehsu Christi de Portu (‘Ship of Jesus Christ of Oporto’) when she ran aground during a storm at Brighstone, on the Isle of Wight. From this and similar court cases, we learn much about the sorts of cargo that were being imported to London at this time – wines and spices being among the most important, but also fresh fruit (especially figs and grapes), which suggests that these were premium products, worth the gamble on whether they would reach the market in good condition, before they began to deteriorate.
What confuses the salvage issue is that salvors can, under certain circumstances, take material from an endangered ship and can claim a reward from the owners for doing so. Commonly, salvage awards amount to between 10% and 25% of the value of the property, being assessed in proportion to the degree of risk faced by the salvor, and the value of the salvaged property. Around parts of the coast where ships frequently foundered, such as the towns of Dover, Deal, Walmer, and Ramsgate, many members of the coastal community supplemented their living by this means, helping to rescue stricken passengers and crew before attempting to salvage cargo, cannon, the major timbers, and any potentially reusable parts, such as capstans, rigging, and sails from ships that went aground and were swallowed up by the notoriously shifting and highly mobile underwater reefs of the Goodwin Sands.
Neither was this necessarily a poor man’s activity. Cant started reading the diaries of the renowned Gothic Revival architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin because they contained many accounts of the wrecks that he witnessed from the lookout tower of his house on the cliffs above Ramsgate (now a Landmark Trust holiday property). It was a surprise to discover that Pugin himself, in contrast one might think to his distinguished architectural career, was actively involved in rescue and salvage work, using the lugger that he owned, a small sailing vessel called Caroline, to supplement his income. His diaries make clear that the reward he was paid for rescuing 18 tons of tallow from the Gazelle, which went aground on 25 November 1850, came at a time when he was very short of money to complete the church of St Augustine that he was building largely at his own expense next door to his home.
Once the vessel sinks, the degree of preservation will depend on the nature of the seabed and the tides. If the wreck site is in a part of the sea that is especially dynamic and mobile, the ship may well go to pieces, releasing any remaining cargo and scattering parts of its structure over a considerable distance: in 1825, when the Ogle Castle went down in the Goodwin Sands, her cargo was later picked up on the coasts of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as south-east England. Strong tidal flows and currents might move the ship about, or break the ship up by placing stresses on the ship’s frame, or by scouring a pit around the frame so that one end is unsupported, causing the ship to break her back.
But in more sheltered conditions and in predominantly sandy and silty environments, wrecking can be an accidental form of preservation. Sometimes the wreck sinks under its own weight into the sand, or it becomes the nucleus for an accumulation of sand and this builds up to create a protective mound, as we have seen famously in the case of the Mary Rose (CA 272). Sometimes the wreck mound covers the wreck so deeply that archaeologists only know it is there when they find tantalising hints, such as the 14th- to 15th-century Spanish coins that have occasionally been found at Praa Sands in south Cornwall.
Such mounds have several benign consequences in protecting the wreck from further structural disintegration from wave action and storm disturbance or fouling by fishing nets and anchors. How effective this can be is seen by the wreck of the Amsterdam, beached at Bulverhythe in 1749 and now buried under the sand except for the tips of her jagged hull timbers, sticking above the sand like a fossilised jaw full of brown teeth. When investigated in 1984, after damage by a mechanical excavator, the hull proved to be exceptionally well preserved, with a good two-thirds of the structure surviving.
A rocky seabed will exacerbate the process of breaking up the ship, but it can also help non-organic material to survive, if this gets wedged into rocky gullies. One example of this is the late 19th-century wreck dubbed ‘the wheel wreck’ because wheels of different sizes form an easily recognisable part of the surviving cargo of metal mining equipment. An amphora trapped in a sheltered crevice has often given away the presence of a Roman wreck when the boat itself has long gone, and the same is true of the famous Erme Estuary and Salcombe wrecks – adjacent sites from which cargoes of Bronze Age tin ingots, rapier blades, palstaves, and a gold torc have been recovered (CA 243), but no boats.
Wrecks also create new habitats that can be colonised by mussels or kelp, both of which may help to protect the remains, or by shipworms, which are not at all welcome: the impact of climate change is already visible in UK waters in the shape of warm-water worms that are moving north from more southerly latitudes. They have already reached Cornwall, Hampshire, and Kent, and are chomping wooden structures as they travel. This is one reason why the so-called ‘Swash Channel Wreck’ (CA 284), consisting of the remains of an early 17th-century merchant vessel, possibly of Dutch or German origin, wrecked outside Poole Harbour, is being monitored on a regular basis.
Ocean acidification, as a consequence of carbon dioxide uptake by the sea, is another new threat to shipwreck heritage, increasing the corrosion rate of metal objects, from ships’ nails and brass cannon, to the complete hulls of 19th- and 20th-century ships and submarines. These remains, of course, represent a very considerable archaeological resource of international significance, encompassing the seaborne and aerial craft of both World Wars, many of which are war graves. While they are preserved from human interference by the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, the impact of climate change is less easily legislated against. This is one reason why maritime archaeologists, such as Mark Dunkley, Maritime Designation Adviser at English Heritage, are working with the UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme to understand better the effects of chemical attrition on archaeological remains underwater.
Human interference is another threat: not always intentional, but damaging all the same. As with metal-detecting, archaeologists long ago came to the conclusion that it is better to work with rather than against those who, for recreation or as part of their work, encounter underwater remains. Thus, since 2005, a protocol has been in place whereby the members of the British Marine Aggregate Producers Association have agreed to report any finds they dredge up – from mammoth tusks to aircraft parts – to English Heritage and the Receiver of Wreck. As recently as 2012, the Fishing Protocol for Archaeological Discoveries was put in place, under the terms of which fishermen report any snagging or dragging they encounter, since it might indicate the presence of a wreck on the seabed, and any artefacts that they trawl up, as well as recording the approximate find site.
That leaves recreational diving, and here English Heritage has adopted a policy of encouraging managed access to designated wreck sites, rather than prohibiting access. Anyone can apply for a visitor licence, and a significant proportion of those who do end up working with English Heritage as local site guides and stewards, or as members of a marine archaeology team, licensed to survey, record, and photograph wrecks and artefacts. Maritime Archaeologist Alison James says that many licensees have built up relationships with sites and with English Heritage that now span many years, and much valuable information has been captured as a consequence.
Studying Davy Jones’ locker
Just as recording historic wrecks is a relatively new archaeological activity, so is studying and making sense of all this data. Much research is focused on trying to identify the known wrecks, using historic documents to try to put a name and a date to a wreck, and to try to reconstruct the circumstances under which she went down. Great excitement surrounds the discovery of individual vessels dating from the period before 1815 (just 4 per cent of the total of known wrecks) and especially those incredibly rare wrecks that pre-date 1500.
What is just beginning is the study of bigger historical patterns: what do wrecks tell us about trading routes and cargoes, the likely nationalities of the vessels involved, the impacts of war, piracy and privateering, the activities of trading companies and networks, such as the Hanseatic League, the Hudson Bay Company, and the English and Dutch East India companies, and about those aspects of history that we might prefer not to dwell on: the slavers and the convict vessels?
Over the last 40 years we have become more detached as a nation from the sea: we have skyscrapers in place of docks, and huge wind farms in place of sailing ships. But slowly four decades of shipwreck research is beginning to build an impressive body of information that will put the story of the sea, shipwrecks, and all those drowned sailors who feature as ghosts in the English folk-song repertoire back on the stage as one of the key narratives of national and international history.
Further reading England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats, by Serena Cant with a contribution by Alison James, English Heritage, £50, ISBN 978-1848020443.
ALL OTHER images: English Heritage, unless otherwise stated.