The London Shipwreck
"This morning is brought me to the office the sad newes of “The London,” in which Sir J(ohn) Lawson’s men were all bringing her from Chatham to the Hope, and thence he was to go to sea in her; but a little a’this side the buoy of the Nower, she suddenly blew up. About 24 [men] and a woman that were in the round-house and coach saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned: the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance. She lies sunk, with her round- house above water. Sir J(ohn) Lawson hath a great loss in this of so many good chosen men, and many relations among them. I went to the ‘Change, where the news taken very much to heart."
Samuel Pepys’ writings upon hearing of the loss of The London, on 8 March 1665.
Built in Chatham in 1656 for the Cromwellian Navy, The London was one of just three completed wooden Second Rate ‘Large Ships’, of the ten ordered for the Anglo/Dutch War, built between 1642 - 1660 and the only one now surviving. Now lying in two parts off of the end of Southend-on-Sea Pier, The London played a significant role in British history. In an attempt to end the anarchy following the death of Oliver Cromwell, the London formed part of an English squadron sent in 1658 to collect Charles II and restore him to his throne.
The London’s illustrious career as the flagship of the maverick admiral Sir John Lawson was cut short on the 7th March 1665, when she blew up at her anchorage at the Nore near Southend-on-Sea in Essex, the traditional fleet assembly point in the Thames Estuary. Various theories abound as to the cause of the explosion; the most popular of which being that the accident may have been caused as sailors reloaded old cartridge papers with gunpowder. An initial recovery attempt later that same year saw men descending in a diving bell to retrieve some of the more valuable items of the time.
In 2005, during works in advance of the London Gateway Port development in Thurrock, Essex, The London was rediscovered. Subsequently, in October of 2008, it was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973) and immediately placed on Historic England’s ‘Heritage at Risk’ Register, due to its fragile archaeological remains being exposed by shifting sediment levels on the sea bed.
Throughout the course of 2014 – 2015, Historic England has commissioned Cotswold Archaeology to carry out an underwater excavation in order to find out just how much archaeological material survives. Divers will be excavating three trenches in bow of the wreck, designed to explore archaeological remains in the hold, the orlop deck where the anchor cables are, the main deck and the carpenter and boatswains store rooms. Steven Ellis, an experienced Thames Estuary diver, has been granted the Government Licence to dive the wreck, working closely alongside Cotswold Archaeology. Recovery will provide great insight into the English Navy during an unsettled time when Britain was merging as a global power, as well as aiding our understanding of life on board ship in the late 17th Century.
In 2014, Southend Museums Service secured a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to develop a community project which involved local volunteers with the process of finds sorting, recording, conservation, storage, research and display.
Southend Museums Service are the repository museum for the London finds, responsible for their safe storage and future care. You can see some of the finds on display in the free 'London Shipwreck: Sunken Story' exhibition in Central Museum. Lots of the finds are still being conserved by Historic England and will be returned to Southend soon! Check out our recent Museum Crush blog and BBC News feature!
Keep up to date with the project:
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