In 1995 the discovery of part of a Royal Navy warship hidden in the Wheelwrights Shop at The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, sparked a hunt to determine both the name of the vessel and what it was doing there. Now, this unique find has proven to be the final twist in the tale of an exceptional warship, as Alex Patterson explained to Matthew Symonds.
The Royal Navy mastered the art of recycling long before it was fashionable. Parts of their worn-out wooden warships often enjoyed an afterlife as flooring or roof supports in naval dockyard buildings. So when the floors of the Wheelwrights shop at Chatham Historic Dockyard were lifted for maintenance in 1995 the work was carefully scrutinised. Sure enough ship parts were discovered, but to everyone’s surprise their presence could not be explained as simple reuse. Hidden beneath seven layers of flooring were the remains of around a quarter of the frame of a Royal Navy ship from the age of sail. Hailed as ‘the single most important warship discovery in Northern Europe since the Mary Rose‘, the sheer quantity of timbers crammed into the floor cavity went far beyond any recycling. So why are they there?
What lies beneath
Creating a level floor in the Wheelwrights Shop has been a challenge ever since it was constructed in around 1786. Occupying an awkward plot that slopes downhill to the west, towards the River Medway, and north, the building also overlay a filled-in extension to one of the dockyard pickling ponds. This former pool, dug so that timbers earmarked for use as ship masts could be seasoned in brine, provided a platform of gradually settling earth. Excavation using small test pits established that the ship parts within the Wheelwrights shop did not belong to its original phase. Instead they were part of a major refurbishment, dated by archive research to 1834. A key element of this upgrade was installing a robust new floor.
On the face of it, cannibalising ship timbers to create a level interior within the Wheelwrights Shop was a practical approach to recycling a decommissioned vessel. Huge oak beams were carefully inserted into the building’s floor cavity and socketed into its brick foundations. Despite becoming an integral part of the Wheelwrights shop fabric, these massive timbers preserve clear traces of their original role. Once used to support the ship’s decks, where these beams were too short to span the hull, two would be carefully combined using jagged tapering scarf joints. Slots where other parts were held in place, and even traces of the original paint scheme show that these deck beams were reused the right way up. Nailed on top of them was a layer of thick planking that served as the new floor. Dangling from some of these boards were thick wads of oakum — the material forced into gaps between planks to waterproof them. Made of old rope strands and goat hair mixed with pitch, the presence of oakum identified the floorboards as hull planks that once formed the ship’s skin. So far, so utilitarian.
It is what lay concealed in the voids between the deck beams and beneath the flooring that divorces the Wheelwrights Shop refurbishment from everyday recycling. A range of smaller ship’s timbers were carefully placed there, filling almost all of the available space. Parts such as the futtocks — which were joined in sets of four to create curving ribs running all the way from the ship’s backbone at the keel to the main deck — lay useless between the deck beams. Too short to reach the brick foundations of the building and completely unnecessary to support the planking, these sections of the ship’s frame served no purpose in the new floor. Slender hammock rails lying loose beside deck beams further emphasise this point: there is far more timber than could possibly be justified by the desire to create a new floor. Dockyards were busy places and the work required to transport and install ship parts that were obviously redundant to the building refurbishment represents wasted effort. So why do it?
Study indicated that the timbers probably came from a single vessel. Enough were present to show that she must have been either a small second rate or large third rate Royal Navy ship of the line. These warships were designed for combat involving the ‘line of battle’ tactics most famously deployed at Trafalgar in 1805. Such fighting saw columns of ships vying to unleash devastating broadsides from carriage-mounted guns firing through their hulls, a form of warfare that the watertight gun ports on the Tudor Mary Rose (see CA 272) represent the first steps toward. Given that the ship beneath the floor would have been an important naval vessel, establishing the name of this former high seas warrior became a tantalising prospect. Indeed, the more that archaeologists and naval historians puzzled over the mystery of why so much of the ship had ended up in the building, the more the identity of the vessel seemed key to solving it.
Attempts to understand the rationale behind the quantity of timbers kept coming back to the only logical explanation being a deliberate attempt to preserve as much of the warship as possible. Far from suffering an ignominious afterlife as a workshop floor, the vessel had been dismantled and essentially buried within the Wheelwrights Shop. Making the building something akin to an unofficial ship’s mausoleum or memorial, such a display of sentiment is highly irregular — unique in fact — in a naval dockyard. So what could a ship possibly have done to deserve this exceptional treatment? After over a decade and a half of archaeological detective work by bodies including the University of St Andrew’s Institute of Maritime Studies and Oxford Archaeology, this question can finally be answered.
A number of ship timbers have letters and numerals scored into their ends, providing a guide to how they fitted together. Invisible when the pieces are joined end to end, these markings transform a seemingly random group of timbers into a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. One deck beam, for example, is scored ‘IIIXX S’, indicating it was the 23rd timber on the starboard side of the vessel. Other timbers, marked ‘L’ lay on the opposite, larboard side. Careful study of both the markings and the range of timbers present revealed that not only are they part of a single ship, they also represent a continuous portion of that ship. This indicates that pieces were brought to the site immediately after being stripped off the vessel, with work on the new floor beginning at the northern end of the building. Such instant recycling would fit with the presence of smaller, more ephemeral pieces such as the hammock rails, which are unlikely to have been left lying around for long after the ship was dismantled.
It would also explain why none of the keel made it into the flooring. The first part of a ship to be laid down, this is also the last bit to be broken up, and by then the floor cavity would have been full. If this interpretation is correct the deck beams are likely to belong to the lowest deck — the Orlop — so called because it overlaps the hold. Some of these beams retain a coat of scarlet paint, and even neat rows of numbers ringed with black circles. It is tempting to see these as signalling a gun deck, which tradition has it would be painted red to hide the blood, but the Orlop deck lies below the waterline. As guns could not be fired from such a position, rather than representing action stations the numbers are likely to show where specific sailors slung their hammocks.
The timbers also provided clues that were essential to establishing the ship’s identity. As well as displaying construction techniques current from 1750-1775, a number of shipwrights’ marks had been cut into the wood. Little more than haphazard scoring to the untrained eye, these served as signatures for the craftsmen working on or checking the parts. Comparison with surviving markings on the original parts of Nelson’s famous Trafalgar flagship HMS Victory showed that there had been an overlapping workforce, with a number of shipwrights working on both vessels. As Victory is known to be a Chatham-built ship, constructed from 1759-1765, these shipwright marks revealed that the ship beneath the floor had not just been broken up at Chatham. It was built there too.
The final, crucial piece of the puzzle came from a comparatively modest timber that belonged to the 1800s rather than 1700s. By the early 19th century the Royal Navy was having trouble sourcing the wood to build its ships. A single second rate ship of the line, for example, consumed between 3,500-4,000 trees. Some of the oaks needed to be 300 or 400 years old, and here demand was fast outstripping supply. The problem was particularly acute when it came to ships’ ‘knees’. Boats are roughly handled by the elements, getting pushed and pulled in many directions by the wind and sea. The flexibility of wood meant that over time a vessel’s timbers loosened, requiring a refit to tighten them again. Pressure from these forces was particularly severe at the junction between the deck beams and the hull. To counter this very strong wooden braces known as ‘knees’ were used.
The problem was that knees could not be carved from any old tree. As the knee gained its strength from the grain of the wood, it had to be cut from a suitably shaped piece of oak: a forked branch curving out from the tree. By the 19th century such wood was sufficiently scarce that many of the ships that saw action at Trafalgar were held together by knees salvaged from other vessels. Robert Seppings, who became master shipwright at Chatham in 1804, set about solving this problem by harnessing the advances of the industrial revolution. Exploring the possibilities that the new availability of cheap, high quality iron brought, Seppings designed a metal knee. Far more robust than its timber counterpart, this proved a great success. A wooden backing to one of Seppings’ experimental metal knees lay among the ship parts in the Wheelwrights Shop. This provided clear evidence that the ship had been modified in the early 19th century, quite possibly as a guinea pig for his innovations.
Together, these clues provided a detailed set of criteria that any candidate for the ship beneath the floor had to meet. The vessel needed to be a second or third rate vessel built at Chatham between 1750 and 1775, before being modified to incorporate 19th century design advances, and then broken up around 1830. Only one Royal Navy warship matched all of these criteria: HMS Namur. Named after a Belgian city captured by William III in 1695, this ship is now all but forgotten. In the late 18th and early 19th century, however, theNamurwas as renowned as Victory and that other great Trafalgar veteran and Chatham-built ship, HMS Temeraire, immortalised in the famous Turner painting.
This is an extract, but the full feature can be read in CA 273