From sea shanties to the shipping forecast, boats and the sea are woven into the fabric of English life and culture, and yet we only began to take shipwrecks seriously as historical and archaeological monuments in the 1970s. Chris Catling looks at what we have gained in the 40 years since the passing of the landmark Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973.
England’s rocky shores and sandy estuaries are littered with the remains of historic ships and boats. Shipwrecks, in fact, constitute the largest category of recorded monument, with some 37,000 shipwreck ‘events’ on record, ranging in date from the Bronze Age to the more recent ship and submarine casualties of two World Wars (not to mention dirigibles and aeroplanes lost on the seabed).
To put that in perspective, there are 14,500 places of worship in England considered to be of sufficient architectural or historic interest to be included in the National Heritage Register. And whereas the number of historic places of worship is relatively static, the number of known wreck sites is growing all the time; what we know now represents just a fraction of the actual number of historic shipwrecks on the seabed. Two new sites of great importance were discovered as recently as 2006, when archaeologists found two adjacent wreck sites prior to dredging works in the River Thames – those of the London, built at Chatham in 1656 (soon to have its own CA feature), and the King, a vessel thought to have foundered during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654).
Systematic surveys funded by English Heritage are taking place around England’s coast to try to pin down exactly what has survived. The Modern Wrecks Project, for instance, has so far added 500 new records to the wreck database of ships lost since 1945. This has revealed new patterns in the type of vessel lost: for example, the large number of fishing trawlers that sank in the 1970s and 1980s, especially those from former Soviet Eastern Europe. Another recording programme called the National Hulks Assemblage Project is looking not at ships wrecked as a result of storms like the one that lashed England and the near Continent on St Jude’s Day, 28 October 2013, but vessels deliberately abandoned.
These include boats and ships that have simply outlived their usefulness and been left to rot because they are no longer economical to repair, as well as boats deliberately beached to help stabilise eroding riverbanks or beaches, such as the Purton Hulks (CA 237). This hauntingly atmospheric ships’ graveyard lies on the banks of the River Severn, where the river and the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal run parallel, with only a narrow bank separating the two. One stormy night in 1909, part of the bank slipped into the river, leaving it vulnerable to further erosion. With the threat that it might give way, draining the canal, the call went to local boat owners for old vessels to be brought to the vulnerable riverbank and sunk to provide a barrier against further erosion. Some 80 redundant vessels were run aground over the next 60 or so years.
As mud, silt and sand settled into their hulls, the once narrow bank has become a broad expanse of grassland from which the skeletal prows and ribs of historic barges and schooners stand up like the bones of ancient sea creatures.
On the surface, the Purton Hulks look like a lost cause – nothing but a few mossy and eroded timbers and rusting nails. Until the Friends of Purton started putting up plaques to inform people of the historic importance of the wrecks ten years ago, the amount of visible timber was fast disappearing as local people saw the Hulks as a source of free firewood or made barbecues on the beach. Fortunately, recent excavation has shown that, below the ground, the waterlogged silt has preserved a huge amount of valuable information about the form and structure of these working boats that were once so commonplace nobody bothered to record them.
This is one of the great ironies of wrecked boats and ships: those that were ‘lost’ are the ones that have, in fact, survived. They have immense importance as the only material evidence we have for the vessels that were essential to England’s economic prosperity, communications, and defence for thousands of years until the post-1945 rise of air freight. The further back in time you go, the less documentary evidence we have: works of art, depicting sea battles or seascapes, are often our best source of information. The fate of the ships themselves at the end of their useful lives was to be broken up for scrap, just like the Battle of Trafalgar warship in Turner’s evocative painting (1838) of the ‘Fighting’ Temeraire being towed to its final berth, a breaker’s yard in Rotherhithe, by a steam-powered tug.
What happened to the material salvaged from such ships is worthy of a study in itself: it is part of England’s maritime folklore that many a timber framed building incorporates ship’s timbers, and occasionally we have documentary evidence to substantiate the myth: timbers from the early 19th-century ‘man o’ war’ HMS Impregnable, sold for breaking up in 1906, ended up being used to build the cloister of St Conan’s Kirk, located by the shores of Loch Awe, in Argyll and Bute, and to construct the façades of Messrs Liberty & Co, in London’s Marlborough Street, built in Tudoresque Arts and Crafts style in 1922-1924.
Wrecks could, of course, suffer the same fate, if they ended up in shallow water or beached. As Serena Cant explains in her new English Heritage book England’s Shipwreck Heritage, the reason we have so many documented wrecks is because of the numbers of people and organisations that had an interest in salvaging what they could from any wreck. Much folklore surrounds the question of salvage, including the notorious practice of deliberately wrecking ships by luring them ashore using misleading lights.
While acknowledging that wreckers would have a strong motive for keeping their activities secret, nevertheless, says Serena, the primary sources ‘refuse to yield any evidence of such activity’. The earliest usage she has been able to find of the word ‘wrecker’ being used to describe someone deliberately luring a ship to its fate on the rocky shores of Devon and Cornwall dates from 1882, and she is sure that such tales have been ‘romanticised and embellished for the nascent tourist industry’.
Instead, the sources reveal that ‘wrecker’ is the term commonly used to refer to anyone plundering a wreck after the event, just like the crowds who gathered from all over Britain and the near Continent in January 2007 when the MSC Napoli was beached at Branscombe, taking items washed up from the wreck as various as dog food and BMW motorbikes. Many of those who turned up did so in the belief that wrecks and their cargo belong to nobody and that taking them is a form of legal windfall, much like the plot of Compton Mackenzie’s novel Whisky Galore (1947) and the 1949 Ealing comedy film based upon it.
In the 20th century, the law has been clarified to make it clear that wrecks and their cargo remain the property of their original owners. Anyone who takes them is guilty of theft unless they inform the Receiver of Wreck, whose job is to attempt to establish who is the legal owner. Additional safeguards apply to historic wrecks, ships and aircraft that are the last resting place of the remains of members of the armed forces. In the past, however, the Crown, monasteries, estates, and lords of the manor have all claimed rights over wrecks, and the real owners have often had to fight for their rights.
The earliest recorded example dates from 1318,and concerns an Oporto-based merchant, Martinde Bek, who doggedly pursued over 40 offenders through the courts over a period of 20 years for stealing cargo from the Navis de Jehsu Christi de Portu (‘Ship of Jesus Christ of Oporto’) when she ran aground during a storm at Brighstone, on the Isle of Wight. From this and similar court cases, we learn much about the sorts of cargo that were being imported to London at this time – wines and spices being among the most important, but also fresh fruit (especially figs and grapes),which suggests that these were premium products, worth the gamble on whether they would reach the market in good condition, before they began to deteriorate.
This is an extract, but you can read the whole feature in CA 286.