Here’s a thought: what you’ll really, really need after a long winter is a nice day out by the sea, preferably with lots of seventeenth century naval history thrown in. Well, now you have your chance! On 7 March, in Southend, there’s an entire day of talks about one of the most important shipwrecks in British waters, the mighty Second Rate man-of-war London, originally built for the navy of Oliver Cromwell. The timing is no coincidence – it marks the anniversary in March 1665 of the accidental destruction of the ship, blown up in the Thames estuary on the eve of the second Anglo-Dutch war. But the fate of the London is much more than a footnote in the history of ‘Pepys’s navy’. The rediscovery of the wreck by a hugely enthusiastic and committed diver, Steve Ellis, has revealed it to be an astonishing time capsule of seventeenth century Britain – indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s very much in the same league as the likes of the Mary Rose or the Vasa. But whereas they could be raised and preserved, the prospects for the London are very different. It lies off Southend, close to the major shipping lanes of the Thames, and the destructive effects of ever larger hulls mean that the remains of the London are fast disappearing. So it’s a real race against time to record what’s there and to bring up as much as possible. A tremendous amount has already been done, and some of the artefacts brought up from the wreck are both remarkable and poignant – take a look at the ‘Finds Gallery’ page on the website of the London Shipwreck Trust, where you’ll find much more information about the wreck and its discovery, as well as Steve’s own compelling account of how he got involved.
I’m delighted to have been invited to be one of the speakers on the day, and to say I’m in very good company is a considerable understatement!
Of course, I’ve publicised the London and its fate in both my non-fiction and fiction. Readers of the ‘Quinton Journals’ may recall that in the third book in the series, The Blast That Tears the Skies, the colossal explosion that tore the ship apart is the first of the two ‘blasts’ from the title, and I had Matthew Quinton embarking on a desperate mission to try and save any survivors from the wreck. Here’s how I envisaged the scene:
…we veritably raced down Gravesend Reach, and there were still perhaps two hours of daylight remaining when, over toward the Essex shore and the isle of Canvey, an appalling spectacle began to unfold before us. At first I blinked, for in the distance I seemed to see nothing less than an aquatic Calvary: three crosses, protruding above the water. A moment later, I recognised them for the masts of the stricken London, still shrouded in smoke from the vast explosion that had destroyed the great ship. It was another mile or so before I could make out the remnants of upperworks beneath the farthest cross. The roundhouse and quarterdeck of the London remained above the surface of the Thames, although no such evidence of the forecastle could be seen. The water around the wreck was full of debris: timber and planking, the remnants of flags and sails, the detritus of all those who had lived and died aboard her. The air reeked of gunpowder, burned wood and burned humanity. All around the remains of the London were craft of various sorts, wherries, yawls and the like, as well as a big Levanter. Aboard all of them, men were peering into the waters. Occasionally arms pointed excitedly, and what appeared to be large lumpen shapes were pulled from the Thames.
‘Sweet God,’ said Pepys, ‘the poor, poor creatures. God rest their souls.’
All in all, then, 7 March in Southend should be a terrific day, I’m really looking forward to it, and I hope that a few readers of this blog might be inspired to come along, too. Booking and venue details can be found here.