Heritage Category:
Maritime Wreck
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Location Description:
Cattewater Estuary, The Sound, Plymouth


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
Cattewater Estuary, The Sound, Plymouth
Marine Location Name:
Not applicable to this List entry.
Competent Authority:
National Grid Reference:
SX 48725 53519


The keelson of what appears to be an early sixteenth-century vessel was recovered during dredging operations in 1973. The site was partially excavated and recorded between 1976 and 1978. From the associated artefact assemblage she may have been carrying leather and textiles.


The wreck was discovered in 1973 when timber wreckage was brought up during dredging operations in the Cattewater. A survey initiated by the National Maritime Museum and the Department of the Environment resulted in the lifting of a keelson and three concreted fragments of iron breech-loading cannon with more timber and post medieval artefacts. The site was subsequently designated and the Cattewater Wreck Committee was established in 1974. Excavations began at the site in 1976. A substantial portion of the structure and wide variety of finds have been recovered, including pottery, worked wood, a brass pin and buckle, various lead objects, leather, rope, textiles, animal bone and a number of wrought iron stave-built guns on sledges.


Designation History: Designation Order: No 1531, 1973 Made: 3rd September 1973 Laid before Parliament: 4th September 1973 Coming into force: 5th September 1973 Protected area: 100 metres within 50 21.690 N 004 07.592 W

Designation Order: No 262, 1975 Made: 24th February 1975 Laid before Parliament: 4th March 1975 Coming into force: 25th March 1975 Protected area: 50 metres within 50 21.690 N 004 07.625 W

No part of the restricted area lies above the high-water mark of ordinary spring tides.

Documentary History: The Calendar of State Papers of 1637 mentions the removal of a ship 'long since sunk' in the harbour and there is an account of a number of vessels lost in the harbour at about the same time. However, the information that can be gained from primary sources is sketchy and often no name or details are given.

Positive identification has not been possible, although archaeological evidence strongly suggests an early sixteenth century merchantman, of between 200 and 300 tons burden, lost circa 1530. However, the wreck may be that of the St James which sank in 1494 having lost all her rigging during the night in Plymouth harbour through violent winds and a great storm. There is, however, insufficient evidence to confirm this wreck.

Archaeological History: In June 1973, the Holland XVII, an Anglo-Dutch bucket dredger, recovered timber and the fragments of two guns whilst working in the Cattewater, the last reach of the River Plym. The remains were described as the keelson of the wreck.

Partial excavation occurred between 1976 and 1978 and concluded that the vessel was a merchantman of between 200 and 300 tons burden lost circa 1530. The site lies on a bed of fine silt and mud in the estuary of the River Plym, at an average depth of 8 metres, a low energy environment with little sediment movement. Finds include a number of wrought iron stave-built guns on sledges along with animal bones, worked wood, a brass pin and buckle, various lead objects, leather work and textiles. The wreck comprises about 10 metres of coherent structure, with an associated artefact assemblage including composite iron guns on carriages/sledges, animal bones, leather, textiles, and a pewter syringe.

The vessel is carvel built from sawn planks with a lap-dovetail frame construction. This type of joint was wasteful of timber and would have been abandoned once the more economical overlapping futtocks proved reliable. The framing of the ship is reminiscent of ship finds dating to the period when Europe was building true ocean-going ships to open up the New World. Remains of hearth tiles and cooking debris suggest that the galley was down in the hold. The ballast stones appear to have been picked up along the south coast or Severn Estuary. The three guns recovered are composite iron swivel guns, small quick firing breech loaders that would have been considered antiquated on warships by the mid 16th century although they could have remained in use on merchant ships. Suggests merchant rather than naval vessel, bigger guns may be expected on a naval vessel. Heavier stone shot may indicate some examples of heavier pieces of ordnance.

The Cattewater ship belongs to a period of developing ship design bordering the revolution in naval construction taking place around 1480-1525 and the appearance of the first English evidence for mathematically based formula for ship lines c.,1580. Positive identification has not been possible, although the archaeological evidence strongly suggests an early sixteenth century merchantman, of between 200 and 300 tons burden.

Current investigations are being led by the University of Plymouth.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:
AMIE - Wrecks


Books and journals
'International Journal of Nautical Archaeology' in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, , Vol. 7, (), 195-204
'International Journal of Nautical Archaeology' in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, , Vol. 7, ()
'International Journal of Nautical Archaeology' in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, , Vol. 7, (), 248-251
Carpenter, Ellis, McKee, , 'Maritime monographs and reports' in The Cattewater wreck, , Vol. 8, (1974)
Redknap, M, 'Oxbow monographs' in Artefacts from wrecks : dated assemblages from the late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution, , Vol. 84, (1997), 73-85
Maritime Monographs and Reports 1974, National Maritime Museum, Maritime monographs and reports,


This site is designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 as it is or may prove to be the site of a vessel lying wrecked on or in the sea bed and, on account of the historical, archaeological or artistic importance of the vessel, or of any objects contained or formerly contained in it which may be lying on the sea bed in or near the wreck, it ought to be protected from unauthorised interference. Protected wreck sites are designated by Statutory Instrument. The following information has been extracted from the relevant Statutory Instrument.

Statutory Instrument

Information provided under the Statutory Instrument heading below forms part of the official record of a protected wreck site. Information provided under other headings does not form part of the official record of the designation. It has been compiled by Historic England to aid understanding of the protected wreck site.

Statutory Instruments: 1973/1531

End of official listing

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