Q&A with Alison James - Museums Association

Q&A with Alison James

Recovering a 350-year-old wooden gun carriage
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Rebecca Atkinson
A rare and well-preserved 350-year-old wooden gun carriage has been recovered from the wreck of the London, one of England’s most important 17th century shipwrecks that lies off Southend Pier in Essex.

The waterlogged wooden gun carriage, which is estimated to weigh one ton, was lifted from 20 metres below the waves by a 20-ton crane barge last week. It was brought ashore at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex before being taken by road to York where it will be conserved over the next year by the York Archaeological Trust.

The exploration and recovery of the wreck is being led by Historic England, the government body for the historic environment, with Cotswold Archaeology

Alison James is a maritime archaeologist with Historic England.

Why is this find so significant?

The London was part of the fleet that brought Charles II back to England during the English Restoration. It was one of only three completed second-rate large ships from the ship list of 1642-1660. The ship was blown up in 1665 and sank in the Thames estuary.

The ship’s wreck contains rare and well-preserved structural timbers, artefacts, cannons and human remains, which provide an exceptional insight into the British navy during one of the most significant periods in England's history and a time when British naval power was emerging on the European stage.

The gun carriage itself is an incredibly rare find, especially as it is so well preserved. We have fragments of other gun carriages but nothing that is so complete remaining from this type of naval warship from the period.

The fact that the carriage was found intact with all the gunner’s implements to help fire the cannon, and the related rigging elements, makes this even more special.

How has Historic England been involved in the gun’s recovery?

The London was rediscovered in 2005 during development works on the north bank of the river Thames in Thurrock, Essex. In October 2008, it was designated a protected wreck site and placed on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register because its fragile archaeological remains were being exposed by shifting sediment levels on the seabed.

From the very start the management of the London wreck site had some unique challenges. Its location in a low-visibility, highly-tidal environment on the edge of a busy shipping channel meant it was not an easy or attractive site to dive.

It was also at high risk due to the exposed and deteriorating nature of the wreck and the fact that the majority of artefacts, such as personal items and ship’s fixtures and fittings, were at risk of disintegrating and being lost in the estuary.

In 2013, Historic England commissioned Cotswold Archaeology to undertake a project working with the volunteer dive team to excavate the wreck.

Over the past two summers, divers have been excavating three trenches in the bow of the wreck in order to explore the archaeological remains in the hold, the orlop (the lowest deck in a ship, where the anchor cables are stored) and the main gun deck.

During this programme of work the gun carriage was located and recovered.

What new information about the gun do you hope to discover during the next stage of its recovery?

We already know quite a lot about the history of the ship. Samuel Pepys wrote about the explosion in 1665 that led to the loss of the ship. The ship was mobilised to take part in the Second Anglo Dutch War of 1665-67, but gunpowder stored on board caught fire during a journey from Chatham to the Hope, near Gravesend in Kent, to collect final supplies.

The finds recovered during this project, including the gun carriage, will help add to our knowledge of Britain’s sea-faring past, the navy of the period, and may even shed more light on what caused the explosion that sank the ship and cost the lives of 300 people.

What conservation is needed to protect and restore the carriage, and will it go on public display in the future?

The beauty of waterlogged archaeological wood is that it is often exceptionally well preserved. But it does require an extensive conservation process before it can go on display.

The gun carriage has gone to York Archaeological Trust where it will be assessed before undergoing conservation.

Ownership of the gun carriage will be decided by the receiver of wreck through the process set out in the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. It is expected that the title will pass to Southend-on-Sea Borough Council’s museums service, where it will go on display with the rest of the finds from the London once conservation work is complete.

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