Invincible was one of the first three 74-gun ships conceived by the French, a type of warship that became the backbone of the most powerful navies in Europe. She was constructed on the banks of the river Charente at Rochefort France, under the supervision of the shipwright Morineau and launched on the 21st October 1744.
Her service in the French navy was short. She was captured by a superior British Fleet under the command of Admiral Anson at the first Battle of Cape Finistere on the 3rd May 1747. Anson immediately recognised that she was the future of British warship design and her lines would go on to influence the construction of British ships. Invincible’s significance can be measured by the fact over 50 years later at the Battle of Trafalgar 50 per cent of the ships on all sides were of the 74-gun ship.
Early on the 19th February 1758 the fleet were given orders to weigh anchor and set sail for their voyage across the Atlantic to fight the French at Louisbourg, modern day Nova Scotia. However, a series of calamitous events led to Invincible running aground and wrecking on the Horse and Dean Sand, off Portsmouth and the east side of the Isle of Wight.
Guns were jettisoned to lighten the ship and anchors rowed out off the stern in an attempt to pull the Invincible off the sands, but all to no avail. She was stuck fast with water rapidly filling the ship. The crew worked tirelessly for three days manning the pumps to save the ship but it was hopeless. The Captain, Bentley, realised the Invincible was lost. Guns, rigging and as much of the stores as possible were rescued but she eventually succumbed, rolling onto her beam ends, her port side sinking into the sand. Her upper decks remained above water for a number of months but the constant battering from the waves and tide eventually caused the ship to break up and sink out of sight.
On the 5th May 1979 local fisherman Arthur Mack was trawling along Horse tail Sands with his friend Melvin Goften when they snagged their nets. When they finally manged to retrieve the net it was badly damaged and tangled up inside was a large timber with treenails and concreted iron bolts. Arthur new they must have found an uncharted wooden wreck. To confirm this Arthur returned to the site of the snag with friend and diver John Broomhead. John descended a shot line to the seabed and, despite poor visibility, he described seeing a large expanse of timbers protruding from the sands. There was no doubt this was the remains of a large wooden ship.
Both realised the importance of the discovery and contacted John Bingeman who was responsible for two wrecks off the Needles, the Assurance and the Pomone. These three became a great team, working together with many divers and archaeologists to investigate the wreck throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. The three returned to site in 2017 for a reunion dive organised by Brent Piniuta.
Between 1980-1991 John Bingeman led a systematic excavation of the site. The team discovered that Invincible’s port side had survived, preserved from bow to stern from the main gundeck down to the floor of the ship. They also found several sections of the broken starboard side structure, which was scattered to the north, with the potential for much more to be buried.
Many hundreds of artefacts were recovered associated with all aspects of shipboard life and technologies providing a unique insight into life on board a mid-18th Century warship. Many of these artefacts are on display at the Command of the Oceans exhibition at Chatham Historic Dockyard.
In 2010 I became the Licensee of the wreck, thanks to John Bingeman and Historic England. Since then we have aimed to continue where John left off and investigate and record new areas of the site that have become exposed because of shifting sands. When Invincible wrecked in 1758 she ran aground on the northern side of Horse tail. However, if we look at modern charts and swath bathymetry data of the seabed one can see she now lies on the southern edge of Horse Tail. In fact, the most northerly part of the site is only 15m from the very edge. At present she is, therefore, extremely vulnerable, especially as the site is only 9m deep. High energy storm events during the winter often scour out and remove significant quantities of sand from the wreck. In recent years this has uncovered large areas of previously unexplored starboard side structures as well as un-excavated areas in the remains of the coherent port bow.
In 2016 Historic England funded a project to record areas most vulnerable and at risk on the site. These areas included the port bow, where there were structures exposed relating to all three surviving decks: the gundeck, orlop and hold. The images below show the structures of the bow which are exposed at present.
The exposed port bow
Video clip of exposed bow and areas of the starboard side.
The team undertook a photogrammetry survey of this area using equipment kindly provided by Dr Fraser Sturt of the University of Southampton. The conditions on site were not ideal during the survey, a thick plankton bloom spoiling the generally good visibility.
Section of the lower starboard side
Below you can see a section from the starboard side between the hold and orlop. An in-situ lodging knee marks the position of the deck level of the orlop. At either end of the knee are two timbers with a rectangular recess. These timbers are known as pad pieces and the recess is where the iron knees are counter-sunk and then fastened with iron bolts through the hull.
The area below the orlop was surveyed photogrammetrically. It consists of large pairs of riders fastened over ceiling planking and frames.
The work on the site would not be possible without a skilled and dedicated team, thanks to all that have been part of the projects and continue to do so.