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17th century Shipwreck off Southend Pier to Give Up Its Secrets

English Heritage and Cotswold Archaeology are to excavate the London and Southend-on-Sea Borough Council's Museums Service to display the ship's finds.

One of England's most important 17th century shipwrecks, the London, which is rapidly deteriorating on the seabed off Southend-on-Sea in Essex is being excavated by English Heritage and Cotswold Archaeology to discover and retrieve many of the ship's artefacts before they are lost forever. The London sank in the Thames Estuary nearly 350 years ago in 1665 after mysteriously blowing up en route from Chatham to The Hope, near Gravesend in Kent.

CGI reconstruction of the London wreck
CGI reconstruction of the 'London' wreck © Touch Productions

The London was one of only three completed wooden Second Rate 'Large Ships' that were built between1642 - 1660 and is the only one that survives. Now lying in two parts off Southend-on-Sea, the London played a significant role in British history as it formed part of an English Squadron sent in 1658 to collect Charles II and restore him to his throne in an effort to end the anarchy which followed the death of Oliver Cromwell.

English Heritage's marine archaeologist Mark Dunkley said: "We are hoping to recover some rare and well-preserved items which will provide a great insight into the English Navy during an unsettled time when Britain was emerging as a global power. While the hull of the ship will remain on the seabed for the foreseeable future, the recovery and display of vulnerable artefacts will aid our understanding of life on board ship in the late 17th century and enable us to remove the wreck from our Heritage at Risk Register." 

Signet pipe tamper ring recovered from the London wreck
Signet pipe tamper ring recovered from the 'London' wreck © Carol Ellis

Over the next two years, English Heritage has commissioned Cotswold Archaeology to carry out an underwater excavation in order to find out just how much archaeological material survives. Divers will be excavating three trenches in the bow of the wreck, exploring archaeological remains in the hold, the orlop deck where the anchor cables are, the main gun deck as well as carpenter and boatswains store rooms which would have contained tools and timber stores. Based on test dives of the site, expected finds include personal items such as leather shoes and navigational dividers, buckets, pots and cooking utensils, ship fixtures and fittings such as door latches, an anchor cable and ordnance including cannon balls.

The London was rediscovered in 2005 during works in advance of the London Gateway Port development in Thurrock, Essex. In October 2008, it was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973) and immediately placed on English Heritage's Heritage at Risk register as its fragile archaeological remains were being exposed by shifting sediment levels on the seabed.

English Heritage marine archaeologist Mark Dunkley with a member of the team inspecting an artefact on deck
English Heritage marine archaeologist Mark Dunkley with a member of the team inspecting an artefact on deck © Steve Ellis

Steven Ellis, an experienced Thames Estuary diver who has been granted the Government licence to dive the wreck, working closely with Cotswold Archaeology, said: "Although the underwater dive conditions are difficult with limited visibility, we are looking forward to bringing up some exciting finds! "

Finds recovered from the site will be curated by Southend Museums Service which has secured a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to develop a community project to record the finds as well as create a permanent display at the Southend Museums Service headquarters. There will also be a publication produced about the wreck.

Clare Hunt, Curatorial Manager at Southend Museums Service, said: "This hidden wreck lies just off Southend Pier, which is visited by thousands each year, yet the wreck remains largely unknown. It's part of our local as well as our national history and we're inviting local people to get involved in recording these ship finds."

Southend Museums Service and Steve Ellis with his dive team are a contender for this year's English Heritage Angel Awards for their work on the London. The Angel Awards, co-funded by the Andrew-Lloyd Webber Foundation, celebrate local people who rescue heritage at risk and will be announced at a glittering ceremony in London on 3 November 2014.

The diving team, Carol and Steve Ellis with Steve Meddle
The diving team, Carol and Steve Ellis with Steve Meddle © Steve Ellis
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The London

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • A latchet shoe recovered from the 'London' wreck © Steve Ellis
  • CGI reconstruction of the 'London' Wreck © Touch Productions
  • CGI reconstruction of the 'London' wreck © Touch Productions
  • Pewter pot recovered from the 'London' wreck © Steve Ellis
  • A salt glazed pot recovered from the 'London' wreck © Steve Ellis
  • Signet pipe tamper ring recovered from the 'London' wreck © Carol Ellis
  • Tagging a cannon as part of the survey work © Steve Ellis