Unknown Wreck: Chesil Beach (Cannon Site)


Heritage Category:
Maritime Wreck
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


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

Marine Location Name:
National Grid Reference:
SY6227879359, SY6228979153


The site lies on the seaward side of Chesil Beach in Dorset. It was discovered in 2010 and comprises two distinct areas of wreck. An inshore site lies just off the toe of the beach and comprises eight heavily concreted cast iron cannon identified as English 24-32 pounders cast between 1650 and 1725. Lying 220m south of the cannon assemblage, the offshore site consists of seven very heavily concreted cast iron English cannon, one of which is probably a six pounder, cast in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Reasons for Designation

The remains of the Unknown Wreck at Chesil Beach (Cannon Site) are a Protected Wreck Site for the following principal reasons:

* Rarity: The overall assemblage is one of the few known archaeological wrecks representative of late C17/early C18 date;

* Group value: the cannon assemblages are part of the rich archaeological heritage off Chesil Beach and has group value with the designated wreck site off West Bay;

* Survival: areas of potential survival have been identified and there is potential for buried artefacts and deposits to be preserved, particularly under the guns;

* Potential: The assemblages have the potential to enhance our understanding of merchant ships and seafaring trade during the mid to late C17. The remains have significant potential for further study and comparison with other designated cannon sites such as those at West Bay and Salcombe;

* Vulnerability: the site remains vulnerable to souvenir hunters and uncontrolled salvage.


The site lies on the seaward side of Chesil Beach in Dorset. It was discovered in 2010 by the Shipwreck Project (a Weymouth-based Community Interest Company) and comprises two distinct areas of wreck, termed the inshore and offshore sites. Wessex Archaeology was subsequently commissioned by Historic England to undertake diving investigations on the two areas in 2015.

The designation consists of two separate areas of protection. The inshore site appears from the available evidence to be a merchant ship. Three cast iron cannons have been tentatively identified as English 24-32 pounders cast between the third quarter of the C17 and the first quarter of the C18. The guns are of different lengths so the most likely explanation is that they were cargo.

The offshore site is almost certainly the wreck of a wooden sailing ship but has a dissimilar set of cannon to that of the inshore site, which suggests that the sites represent two different wrecks. However, it is possible that the two cannon assemblages derived from a single shipwreck event dated to around 1700.

As with the northern site, the guns are not firmly dated because their features are obscured by concretion. Nevertheless, enough is known about them to suggest that they may also be English and cast in the second half of the C17. It is not clear whether the guns were being carried as defensive armament or as cargo/ballast. The larger, 7ft guns, could be defensive armament and the presence of a possible iron shot in the mouth of the bore of one suggests that the gun was loaded. Guns carried as armament would often be kept in a loaded state.

Trial excavations in the 1970s led to the recovery of a number of items including a huge plug of tobacco preserved beneath the cannon, and a number of Dutch silver coins. The position of this site however was not accurately mapped at the time and appears to have been some 500m to the north-west, where no site currently exists.

The National Record of the Historic Environment records the documented losses of 25 ships at Chesil between 1600-1780, of which seven date specifically to 1650-1733. These losses provide an opportunity to begin determining the origin of the cannon assemblages and historical research is encouraged as is regular archaeological monitoring to reduce anthropogenic risks to the sites.


Designation History: Designation Order: No 773, 2017 Made: 18th July 2017 Laid before Parliament: 19th July 2017 Coming into force: 18th August 2017

Protected area: 30 metres within 50º 36.758489’ N 02º 32.070084’ W (inshore site) and 30 metres within 50º 36.651607’ N 02º 32.059267’ W (offshore site)

The inshore site appears to represent the remains of a merchant ship comprising eight cannon cast between 1650 and 1725, cannon fragments, areas of concreted iron shot, and fragments of worked worn wood. In addition, the presence of at least two more guns just inshore has been reported by the Shipwreck Project since the 2015 fieldwork.

The offshore site also comprises the remains of a wooden sailing ship represented by seven very heavily concreted English(?) cast iron cannon one of which was cast in the second half of the C17. It is not clear whether the guns were being carried as defensive armament or as cargo/ballast. Larger 7ft guns present could be defensive armament and the identification of a possible iron shot in the mouth of the bore of one suggests that the gun was loaded.

There are several anecdotal reports of material having been recovered from the vicinity in the 1970s including shot, a brass barrel spigot and an C18 iron cannon (now on display in Portland). Trial excavations in the 1970s also led to the recovery of a number of items including a huge plug of tobacco preserved beneath the cannon, and a number of Dutch silver coins. Records held by the Receiver of Wreck indicate recoveries of three cannon balls in a canvas bag, rivets, a branding iron and a canvas needle. However, these artefacts cannot yet be directly associated with the Chesil cannon assemblages.

There are several recorded shipwrecks candidates for the identity of the Chesil Beach cannon sites on the basis of documentary revelation of guns consistent with the finds at the site. One is De Hoop or Hope, a 1749 wreck of a Dutch West Indiaman which stranded at Chesil Cove en route from Jamaica and/or America to Amsterdam, laden with gold and silver coin, linen, woollen goods and tobacco. Constructed of wood, it was a sailing vessel and was armed. De Hoop is the best documented wreck which fits the circumstances and date although the large size of the guns may cast some doubt on this. Whether it is likely that a Dutch West Indiaman would be carrying English guns is unclear but guns can appear outside their national context, for example the protected warship London was carrying Dutch guns. De Hoop was wrecked and ‘became embayed in the Deadman's’ which is Deadman's Bay, an inlet behind Chesil Bank.

A British candidate is Squirrel, a wreck of a cargo vessel which stranded on Chesil Beach in 1750. She was a wooden sailing vessel from Maryland for London, laden with 513 hogsheads of tobacco.

Both Squirrel and De Hoop were homeward-bound which may strengthen their case as potential candidates, since the prevailing south-west wind in the Channel may have increased the likelihood of vessels from the westward stranding on Chesil Beach.


Wessex Archaeology (2015) 'Unknown (Cannon Site) Weymouth', Undesignated Site Assessment. Unpub report prepared for Historic England


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: 2017/773

End of official listing

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