If I say ‘seventeenth century naval history’, what’s the first place which springs to mind? The Vasa Museum in Stockholm, perhaps? Amsterdam? Chatham? Ampthill?
(OK, yes, that last one would just be me, then…)
Wherever you’ve thought of, I’ll bet it’s not Southend-on-Sea, home to shrimps, Kiss-me-Quick hats and the longest pleasure pier in the world. But all that might be about to change if a group of dedicated enthusiasts get their way.
Last Saturday, I attended a superb event in Southend called ‘Discover the London: Southend’s Time Capsule’. This took place on the exact 355th anniversary of the destruction of King Charles II’s great ship London by an accidental explosion off Southend, and showcased the history and archaeology of the wreck. This has been dived for the last fifteen years or so by local man Steve Ellis and his team, and some of the finds they’ve brought up have been absolutely stunning. But the wreck is under serious threat. It lies at the very edge of the dredged channel up to the huge new dock developments to the east of London, and ever larger ships are now using these waters,
gradually rapidly destroying the wreck and making each dive a hair-raising experience for those involved. So the situation is urgent, and the ‘Discover the London’ event was intended to showcase it and to raise awareness among the local community.
I was delighted and privileged to have been asked to be one of the speakers, and was third up in the morning session on the history of the ship. First to speak was John Goldsmith, chairman of the Cromwell Association and former curator of the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon. John provided a quick and clear overview of Cromwell’s life and career, setting the building of the London in the context of the political troubles of the 1650s. Next up was my old friend Richard Endsor, speaking about the construction of the ship. I know just how much effort Richard puts into preparing his talks, and the hard work certainly paid off on Saturday, when he delivered an impressive and fluent study illustrated with his own exceptionally detailed drawings of the various stages of the ship’s construction. (More of Richard anon.) That left me as the last speaker before lunch, talking about the later career of the London, Samuel Pepys’s dealings with it, and the impact of its sinking. Nobody booed or threw anything, which is always a good result, and I even fitted in a blatant plug for the third Quinton book, The Blast That Tears The Skies, which includes the blowing up of the London as the backdrop to scenes with both Matthew Quinton and Pepys. This had the desired effect as I sold out of my copies of the book during the lunch break!
The interval gave opportunities both to find somewhere good to eat (I now have an excellent pub recommendation if you ever find yourself in Southend) and to explore the stalls which had been laid out for different organisations. Then it was back for the afternoon session, chaired by living legend Phil Harding of Time Team fame. First up was the hero himself, Steve Ellis, the man who found the wreck and who has dived it with unfailing dedication and good humour no matter what brickbats officialdom has thrown his way (of which also more anon). Steve showed images of the shocking conditions experienced by the divers, but also of some of the stunning finds which have been brought up from the wreck. It’s always salutary and uplifting to hear a true enthusiast talk about what’s become a real passion for him or her, and Steve certainly fits that bill. Then came Hefin Meara of Historic England, who presented an outline of HE’s involvement with the wreck over the years. In some ways he had something of a thankless task, for HE’s policies have sometimes caused disquiet and appeared, rightly or wrongly, to be somewhat inflexible. Hefin received some pretty direct questioning from Richard Endsor about HE’s current perceived reluctance to recover and record artefacts from the wreck; as Richard pointed out, the rapid destruction of the wreck means that invaluable and potentially hugely important items are literally being destroyed before the eyes of the divers, which can surely only be heartbreaking. The spontaneous applause which Richard received suggested that not a few of the audience shared his opinion.
A disclaimer – when it comes to such matters, I’m a complete layman. I’m a historian, not an archaeologist (although I did once go on a dig, spending a week in torrential rain during an excavation which culminated in the professionals getting very excited about a single small piece of charred wood). But to a historian, the notion of priceless evidence being allowed simply to disappear, when other options are available, is complete anathema. If there’s no funding to conserve raised items, so be it; but I’m afraid I simply don’t understand why recovering items, properly recording them, and then maybe reburying them to await (perhaps) more generously funded days in the future seems to be problematic. Partly, though, that was the entire idea of the ‘Discover the London‘ day, namely to launch an ongoing campaign to raise £200,000 a year to allow the recovery and proper conservation of artefacts – after all, saving an item and putting it on public display is surely the best option by a considerable distance!
Before some of us got too depressed, though, the day ended with a barnstorming performance from Mark Beattie-Edwards, CEO of the Nautical Archaeology Society, putting forward his radical – and as he freely admitted, incredibly expensive – solution to the problem of the London, namely sinking a large box to surround the wreck, then bringing it ashore and excavating it at leisure. This may sound like science fiction, but it’s actually been done – by the Chinese, with a fabulous medieval wreck called the Nanhai One (see Sam Willis’s short film about the wreck). Mark even showed designs for a futuristic museum which could become a real showpiece for Southend, allowing the public to watch divers excavate the wreck. The two problems, of course, are the amount this would cost (Mark referred to it as ‘the big number’ which is so huge it’s not worth thinking about, preferring people to focus on the more attainable £200,000 a year instead) and the time it would take to deliver such a solution, given the speed at which the wreck is being destroyed by ever-larger monster ships bringing the great British public all their absolutely indispensable must-have items. Nevertheless Mark presented the case with infectious enthusiasm, even if Phil Harding had an impossible task to keep him to time!
So all in all it was a really excellent day, and I’m proud to have been a part of it. I’ll also continue to support the project in every way I can, so this definitely not the last you’ll hear about it in this blog!
In conclusion, though, a somewhat iconoclastic thought occurred to me as I was driving home via the delights of the M25. I have absolutely no doubt that those involved with the ship from Historic England (and the purse-string-owning ‘powers that be’ above them) are well-meaning, and that their decisions and policies are based on what they genuinely believe to be good practice. But I have a sneaking suspicion that at some point in the future, they may come to be viewed as we now tend to regard Victorian ‘restorers’ and ‘improvers’ of medieval churches, not to mention those earnest souls in the 1950s and 1960s who decided that cement was an absolutely ideal material to use in the repair of historic buildings. So I really hope the London project gets the support it deserves – you can find out even more about it, and make donations, here – while I also hope that everyone who has dealings with the wreck ends up on the right side of history, instead of coming to a terrible realisation…