A 17th-Century Warship Off Southend-on-Sea
The remains of the London are at risk of being lost entirely. Excavation of the site began in 2014.
The London was built in 1656 and saw active service in the siege of Dunkirk two years later. She was part of the fleet that transported King Charles II to England for the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and in 1665 - at the beginning of the second Anglo-Dutch War - she was on her way to the Hope (near Gravesend) when she was torn apart by a massive explosion. The London had recently been made flagship of the Red Squadron and was about to pick up her admiral, Sir John Lawson. The event was witnessed by Samuel Pepys and recorded in his diary entry for 8 March 1665 (Grey 2002-14):
This morning is brought me to the office the sad newes of 'The London,' in which Sir J[ohn] Lawson's men were all bringing her from Chatham to the Hope, and thence he was to go to sea in her; but a little a'this side the buoy of the Nower, she suddenly blew up. About 24 [men] and a woman that were in the round-house and coach saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned: the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance. She lies sunk, with her round-house above water. Sir J[ohn] Lawson hath a great loss in this of so many good chosen men, and many relations among them.
The wreck of the London was rediscovered in 2005 during work in advance of the London Gateway Port development. In October 2008 the site was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973) and Wessex Archaeology, Historic England's maritime archaeological contractor, started the process of recording and investigation. From 2010 a group of local volunteers began to monitor the wreck, under the direction of the site licensee, Steve Ellis. They noticed that the seabed sediments around the site were unstable and that artefacts were being lost. In 2012 a programme of finds recovery began.
In 2014, with funding from the National Heritage Protection Plan, Historic England (then English Heritage) commissioned Cotswold Archaeology to undertake a two-year evaluation of the site in conjunction with Steve Ellis. The current work is designed to secure the recovery and preservation of at-risk archaeology, to gain a better understanding of the deposits present (including the structure of the vessel itself), and to assess the scale of the threat from erosion.
The Cotswold Archaeology dive team includes both professional archaeologists and Steve Ellis's volunteer team, avocational archaeologists who, like the Cotswold Archaeology team, have Health and Safety Executive-approved diving qualifications. The team thus combines local knowledge with expertise in both archaeology and safe, modern diving practices. Southend Museums Service are also closely involved. Having secured an Esmée Fairbairn Foundation grant, they have employed Luisa Hagel to accession any finds almost immediately, conduct initial processing and 'first aid', and have them conserved by Historic England at Fort Cumberland. Southend Museum has facilitated interaction between the project team, the media, and members of the public - for example by organising open days about the site, based on Southend Pier.
The excavations of 2014 aimed chiefly at understanding the challenges of working on the site, while making an initial investigation of the deposits there. In 2015 the 2014 trenches will be expanded and a small area excavated; a particular aim is the creation of a more coherent picture of the stratigraphy of the site.
The main challenge the team faced in 2014, then, was to establish a diving methodology that allowed work to be carried out safely and effectively. The site is subject to strong tidal streams and has very poor in-water visibility. Due to its close proximity to major shipping routes, it was not possible to mark the site with a buoy and the wreck's position had to be re-located at the beginning of each dive. The dive vessel would then anchor over the site and the divers once again locate the actual excavation areas, often in near to zero visibility.
The season consisted of four short (two- to four- day) diving sessions, designed to work around the tides. The excavation strategy evolved considerably during this time. The initial plan was to excavate three trenches, two across the site and one at right angles to it. These would find, it was hoped, a profile for the inner surface of the hull and the site of a possible deck line. Excavation was by hand, due to the complexity and fragility of the deposits encountered. Progress was inevitably slow. Even with two divers working at the same time, the bottom of the depositional sequence was not reached in any of the trenches. Numerous timbers intruded in one area, and in another a gun carriage lay, complete with associated ropes, blocks, ramrods, and baskets; a significant find, but impeding access to the deposits beneath.
Notwithstanding all this, the information gained from each trench and from the recovery of loose artefacts on the seabed enabled the team to begin to understand how the wreck might lie.
The wreck of the London actually has two sections. The excavation site itself contains anchors, an anchor hawser and the remains of the ship's galley (indicated by the presence of the bricks from which the ovens were built). It thus appears to be located in the bows of the boat. A further section of wreckage approximately 400m to the east is thus believed to be the London's stern.
Along one side of the wreckage, from a point low down in the vessel close to the keel, trenches cut across the hold to an area of timbers that are consistent with cabins rather than main structure. This is possibly the orlop deck, traditionally placed low down and used to store cables. This area gives way to a deck line on which a further gun carriage lies face down in the seabed.
This suggests that the bow section of the wreck lies on its side. Sections from the keel, the main gun deck and, perhaps, other parts of the boat are likely to survive beneath the sediment. The finds support this interpretation. Elements of the ship's stores, containing quantities of leather shoes and barrels, were found in the hold area beneath the orlop deck. Personal effects, including navigation instruments, spoons, rings, and bottles, have been found in the possible cabin area; ordnance-related material was discovered on the proposed gun deck.
Over the years, significant quantities of human remains have also been recovered from the wreck. These lie in many parts of the ship, but clusters in locations such as the gun deck suggest that many people were below decks at the time of the sinking. The fact that a number of bones (including skull fragments) are female may at first seem odd on an operational ship of war, but is explained by what we know about the loss of the London.
This occurred on a cold day in early March; war with Holland had been declared a few days earlier. The London was sailing from her berth at Chatham, where she had been refitted and her guns upgraded or up-gunned, down the river Medway to the Thames. There she was to turn upriver and collect Admiral Sir John Lawson. A battle with the Dutch seemed imminent.
For this first leg of her journey she had all of Sir John's extended family on board and possibly many of the wives and girlfriends of the other officers and men. She would also have had a large complement of sailors and, probably, marines (the marine corps having been formed in 1664). Pepys says that 300 men were on board, but - given the large number of visitors, and with an 'at war' compliment on an up-gunned vessel - actual numbers may well have been over 500. Given the cold weather many of the non-combatants may well have been below decks near the galley at the time that the London was tacking to sail up the Thames; preparations would have been in hand to fire a 17-gun salute to the new admiral.
The exact sequence of events will never be known, but our eyewitness account and the archaeology both indicate that the wreck was cut in half by an explosion - presumably from a stray spark reaching the powder magazine. That only 25 people survived, in spite of the fact that the explosion occurred near to the shore at Southend, is testament to the sudden and devastating nature of the incident.
The work done in 2014 has generated a basic understanding of the site and the challenges involved in investigating it. It is also clear that the remains of the London are eroding rapidly and are at high risk of being totally lost. The vessel is a very rare example of a 17th-century second-rate warship. It is also something of a time-capsule. It offers rich insights into daily life in post-Civil War society, including the remains of those tragically lost in the explosion.
This page was first published on 31 March 2015
About the author
Steve Webster MCIfA
Steve is a marine archaeologist of over 30 years' experience. He led the combined archaeological team for Cotswold Archaeology and worked for Wessex Archaeology's Coastal and Marine section for 13 years before leaving in March 2012 to set up a marine archaeology capability at Cotswold Archaeology. He has worked on contracts investigating protected historic shipwrecks throughout the UK and Northern Ireland since 2002 and is currently investigating a range of sites in Scotland, Wales and England as a freelance diver/consultant.
Grey, D S 2012-14, online edition of Mynors Bright (ed) 1875 etc, The Diary of Samuel Pepys.