The London Excavations

In 2014 Historic England funded Cotswold Archaeology to undertake an investigative excavation of site 2 of the London to determine which part of the ship survives and the depth of surviving structures beneath the muddy silts. Pascoe Archaeology, alongside MSDS Marine and the site Licensee, Steve Ellis and his team, Carol Ellis and Steve Meddle, formed the archaeological team that conducted the excavations over three phases between 2014 -2016. All finds recovered will be displayed at Southend Museum following conservation. For more information follow the work of the London Trust.

The ship

The London was constructed at Chatham under the supervision of the shipwright John Taylor and launched on 19th June 1656. Originally intended to be designed to carry 60 guns, Taylor upgraded her to carry 64 guns (TNA SP18/137 f.32). The ships armament changed regularly, both in terms of type and number but were nearly always bronze as she served mainly as a Flagship. At the time of the wrecking the London had 76 bronze guns (TNAWO55/1667). These included 16 demi-cannon, eight 24-pounders and two Culverin chase guns on her main gundeck; 24 culverins on the middle deck and 20 demi-culverins on the upper deck; four demi-culverin (cutts) and two minions on the quarter deck (Fox 2012:67).

The wrecking

On the 7th March 1665 the London sailed from Chatham down the Medway and into the Thames Estuary. On-board were 325 seamen, approximately 125 short of the full contingent. Also on-board were a number of wives and girlfriends of the officers, there to say their final farewells before the ship went off to war. The plan was to sail a short distance up the Thames on the flood tide to pick up the ship’s Captain, Vice Admiral Sir John Lawson. Tragically, the ship never made it as there was a catastrophic explosion, probably originating from the main magazine, that ripped through the ship. There was a tremendous loss of life with only 25 survivors found clinging to the roundhouse, the only part of the ship left above water (Fox 2012:57).

The site(s)

The wreck of the London is in fact two distinct sites, 400 metres apart and simply known as Site 1 and 2. Site 1 is the original wrecking place and Site 2 is a section that broke away and drifted up-river on the flood tide. Site 2 has been the focus of the most recent archaeological investigations funded by Historic England.

Site 2 is located in the middle of the Thames Estuary on the northern edge of the shipping lane, with Southend to the North and the Isle of Grain to the South (Figure 1). The location next to this busy shipping lane makes it a precarious place to dive but also has led to the site’s vulnerability. The combination of large cargo vessels passing over, dredging activity in the surrounding area to maintain a safe passage for these vessels and the strong tides and currents are all contributing to the uncovering of the wreck in recent times. The loss of surface sediments has been exposing structures and artefacts that, once exposed, are open to biological and physical decay. It then becomes a race against time to record and recover these artefacts before they deteriorate.

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The exposed area of the site is 25 metres long by 12 metres wide but diver probing around the perimeters suggest more is buried. To complicate matters there is a 19th Century wreck that lies next to the south-western end of the London. The remains of the London are orientated NE/SW and she lies on her side, much like the Mary Rose. The southern edge of the site consists of a line of closely spaced frames associated with the bottom of the ship. To the north of these frames lies the inside of the ship extending from the hold up to at least the main gundeck, where a complete carriage was found at its gun station. The discovery of galley tiles and a pile of fire wood suggest a location near the cook room. Furthermore, the presence of coherent partition planking relating to internal cabin structures and the high concentration of musket and pistol shot suggests a location near the gunner’s storeroom. During this period and on a ship such as the London the cook room and gunner’s storeroom were located on a platform within the hold at the bow (Fox 2012:61). At this time the hold extended down from the bottom of the gundeck, there was no orlop like you see today on HMS Victory. Instead there were partial decks known as ‘platforms’ (Fox 2012:61), which were located at the bow and stern and around the perimeters; there was not a continuous deck.

(Fox, F. L., 2012. The London of 1656: Her History and Armament.  Volume 8 57 – 75. Naval Dockyard Society.)

Finds recovered

In 2015 the team made an amazing recovery of the gun carriage along with all of it’s associated gun tackle and many of the gunner’s implements. Excavations during 2016 in the same area discovered numerous more artefacts including a chest of bandoliers. Removal of these artefacts slowly began to reveal the deck and the side of the hull, including the gunport.

The gun carriage

Complete and well preserved carriages are particularly rare but shipwrecks have provided some of the finest examples. Commonly known as a truck carriage this type has been recovered from the Mary Rose (wrecked 1545), the Vasa (wrecked 1628), the Cromwellian wreck at Duart Point and the Stirling Castle (wrecked 1703). The latter two being the closest in terms of period and design.

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Gun tackle

Either side of the cheeks of the carriage were a double and single block with the remains of the rigging. The gun tackle was used to run the gun out and then pull the gun back to the firing position after firing.

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Gunner’s implements

The gunner’s implements are the equipment used to clean, load and fire the gun. Most of the examples below were found at the one gun station where the gun carriage was recovered. A number of aprons of lead, which were used to cover the touch hole of the gun, have been found on the site. It was possible to match one of the aprons to one of the bronze guns previously recovered from the site.

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Following the removal of the carriage and numerous other artefacts the inside of the gundeck began to emerge. The video below shows the excavation of the gun station on the main gundeck following the removal of the carriage.

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