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Location: Thames Estuary
Age / period: post medieval (mid 17th century)
List entry number: 1000088
Reason for designation: archaeological and historical importance

Wreck history and loss

The London was a second rate 'Large Ship' built in Chatham in 1654. We know that she participated in the First Dutch War (1652-4). Later she formed part of an English Squadron sent to collect Charles II from the Netherlands to restore him to his throne. The London blew-up as she sailed through the Thames estuary preparing to fight the Dutch in the English Channel in March 1665.

HMS London

Discovery and investigation

The site came to the attention of Historic England during an archaeological assessment for the London Gateway project. The significance of the site was immediately apparent and so, in 2008, Historic England designated the wreck under the Protection of Wrecks Act.

From the outset, management of the site had unique challenges; it's location in a low visibility, highly tidal environment on the edge of a busy shipping channel meant it was not an easy or attractive site to dive. It was also at high risk due to the exposed and deteriorating nature of the wreck site. As a result, soon after designating the London, we placed it on our Heritage at Risk Register.

The London is a Protected Wreck Site for the following principal reasons: 

  • Archaeological importance - The warship the London blew up in 1665. Its wreck contains elements including structural timbers, artefacts, cannon and human remains. The rare and well preserved objects provide an exceptional insight into the British navy during one of the most significant periods in England's history - a time when British naval power was emerging on the European stage.
  • Historical interest - The London was one of only three completed second rate large ships from the ship list of 1642-1660. Of these, it's the only surviving example. The London was part of the fleet that brought Charles II back to England for the restoration of the monarchy.

A close up of the scale on a copper alloy navigational instrument
A close up of the scale on a copper alloy navigational instrument that was partially buried in the silt. The silted, anaerobic environment of the Thames Estuary is perfect for preserving such fine detail. © Luke Mair

Further research

An enthusiastic team of Historic England Affiliated Volunteers who regularly visit the site are saving important archaeological material that would otherwise be lost. Historic England developed a finds protocol for the recovery of high risk artefacts to support the team. You can find out more about the team and their work on the London Wreck Project website.

In 2013, it became clear the site continued to be at 'high risk' so Historic England awarded Cotswold Archaeology the contract to mitigate this risk. The project began in 2014 and will be completed in 2015. It focuses on Area 2 where substantial timbers and surface artefacts have been discovered.

Cotswold Archaeology excavated three evaluation trenches during 2014 and these will be joined during a limited excavation planned for 2015. The 2015 work will include the recovery of a nationally significant gun carriage that was discovered in 2014 and was, at that time, in a good condition. On a recent dive the Licensee, Steve Ellis, discovered that wood boring worms are attacking the gun carriage; with five months between this and the last inspection, we consider the rate of deterioration to be rapid and the gun carriage at serious risk.

Southend Museums Service (SMS) have been integral to all work on the site since the conception of this project. They have provided finds handling facilities and secure storage at the Tickfield Centre in Southend-on-Sea. In addition, SMS secured £50,000 match-funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund to employ a project curator to co-ordinate a community project, and to produce a permanent display and publication.

Historic England recognised that the involvement of the Licensee for the London in the project was critical as Steve Ellis and his team have the best knowledge of the site. To facilitate this, Steve and his team all undertook professional scuba qualifications in order to fully participate in paid fieldwork. Historic England and SMS funded this through their Esmée Fairbairn funding.

The aim of the current two-year project is to undertake an evaluation and limited excavation of Area 2 of the London Protected Wreck Site to determine what remains on and under the seabed.

Divers in dinghy
The team arriving at Southend Pier to hand objects over to museum volunteers for finds sorting and preventive conservation © Luke Mair

The future

The current project will finish at the end of 2015. At this point Historic England will work with Cotswold Archaeology (the contractor for the current work), the Licensee and Southend Museum Service to work out an appropriate way forward for the site.

A top-down view of the glass bottle
A top-down view of the glass bottle excavated from the 'London'. The white concretions are the remains of barnacles that were attached to the glass whilst under water. © Luke Mair
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