The Essex 3 who took on London
BACK IN THE 17TH CENTURY, pipe-tamper rings were a popular if odd-looking item of gentlemen’s jewellery – bronze signet-rings that incorporated a handy smoking accessory, and probably came in handy in a fist-fight, too.
Steven Ellis spotted what looked like one at the bottom of the Thames. “But I’m starting to get low on air, my computer’s saying it’s time to start going up, and of course you can’t just pick things up on an archaeological site – you have to take pre-recordings.
“All of a sudden I moved and the silt just went to black-out, and I couldn’t find this ring again. So I came up.
“But we found it again – six weeks later.”
Flash back to 1665, year of the Great Plague. England, ruled by King Charles II, is at war with rival sea-power the Netherlands. Tamper-rings are in vogue.
Freshly refitted in her home port of Chatham, a three-deck warship called the London is making her way through the Thames estuary to Gravesend to pick up her captain, Vice-Admiral John Lawson. She will then head back out into the Channel as flagship of a fleet set to battle the Dutch.
For a ship originally built for the puritan Oliver Cromwell, the London’s carvings and adornments seem elaborate, but five years earlier she had been one of the vessels that escorted Charles back from exile to be restored to the throne.
Launched in 1656, the second-rate frigate had been one of only three built during the Commonwealth period. The rating was determined by the number of guns/crew carried – London had 76 cannon and on this day is carrying 350 people, but they aren’t all crew, because a number of women and children are also aboard. The vice-admiral’s family and friends are enjoying a pleasure cruise, planning to disembark in Gravesend.
Then, two miles off Southend, there is an almighty explosion. Perhaps it has something to do with preparations to fire a 21-gun salute, and the questionable quality of the 300 barrels of gunpowder carried aboard – or so they’ll be saying in the capital’s coffee-houses in the days that follow.
The effect is dramatic. Broken in two, the London sinks to the dark, silty seabed. “About 24 and a woman that were in the round-house and coach saved,” writes the chronicler of the times, Samuel Pepys, “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.”
The survivors are likely those able to cling on to the round-house, the highest part of the stern.
“The guns may be got, but the hull of her will be wholly lost,” Pepys notes three days later, following an inspection. Some of those 76 guns would be recovered, but it is not until 340 years after the sinking that the wreck of the London is rediscovered, and the salvage work begins in earnest.
Today we’re gathered in a modernised priory in Prittlesham, only a few miles from where the London met her fate.
I’m photographing a peg from the fiddle of a sailor who was aboard the ship at the time. Beside me, a materials expert with flowing white locks and a red beret is getting quite excited about a bootlace still threaded into a black shoe, oddly modern in style, recovered from the wreck.
THE OCCASION IS the setting up of the London Shipwreck Trust, a charitable body that will arrange conservation and display of the historic ship’s treasures with the help of Southend Museums Service, which has been storing the finds. The trustees want to raise funds to build a dedicated museum.
Historic England (HE) is present, and the local MP, making a speech that touches on maritime history occasionally.
But I’m interested in the underwater experiences of the three Essex divers who put in the hard graft, week in, week out.
These trustees all have close ties to the sea and grew up with boats. Licence-holder Steven Ellis is a fishmonger and Steve Meddle a local fisherman. Steven’s wife Carol is a psychiatric nurse, and the three of them smile as she tells me this, having heard it all before about being mad to do the diving they do.
I hadn’t appreciated that this is literally a dive-team of three, but the arrangement suits them fine. I soon appreciate why.
“The tide is so strong, you have to hold the line really tight to get down – there’s no way you can let go,” says Carol Ellis. It eases a bit just above the seabed but “if you’re using any equipment like a torch or camera you can’t let go of it because you turn round and it’s gone.”
“It’s such an exposed area, and the shipping is increasing, with bigger boats coming through all the time,” says Steve Meddle. This container-ship traffic is one of the team’s biggest problems.
“This is why we keep the dives tight,” explains Steven. “Two divers on the site at once is more than adequate.
“Getting yourself down on slacks an hour before high water in the Thames, the visibility is often literally inches. You have to be attached to the line, so there’s always a risk of entanglements while we’re working on a small section.
“We’ve tried buddy-lines, but that’s no good. So Carol will clip her reel onto my line and when I come back I’ll wait for Steve. We’ve evolved our diving so that we all come up at the same time, and we look out for each other.”
On one occasion a passing vessel did cause a major entanglement, but there was no panic because all three knew what to do – Carol moved out of the way and let the others sort out the differently coloured lines.
“And there was one time when my camera got caught up with Steven’s line,” she says. “It was either him or my camera, and it was quite a hard decision!”
In the end, she cut the camera away.
“I thought I’d better leave it, hoping that he’d bring it up.”
NATURALLY, MANY leisure-divers are keen to see the famous 18m-deep wreck and volunteer to help, but not only is it risky for anyone unused to this type of diving, it’s a case of too many cooks.
“At one time we were being asked on a weekly basis,” says Steven. “The trouble is that because we’re working on the site recording everything, if you take people you tend to give them a tour, and then you can’t get what you want done.”
The Ellises can hardly have foreseen that a diving holiday to the Maldives six years ago would spark their dramatic immersion in history.
At the departure gate they got talking to a fellow-diver, who turned out to be an eminent nautical archaeologist.
Prof Nigel Nayling expressed amazement that the Ellises should choose to dive in the Thames for pleasure, and told them that most attempts at archaeological expeditions there tended to be frustrated by wind or tides.
Interested to hear of Steven’s interest in amateur archaeology (as a child he would hunt for artefacts on the Southend mudflats) the professor mentioned that Historic England welcomed volunteers to work on historic wrecks.
When the London had been found in 2005 during work on the London Gateway, the Port of London Authority diverted shipping away from the site for a time to allow Wessex Archaeology to launch a salvage operation.
Timbers, artefacts, cannon and bones were found, but working in the estuary proved problematic, to say the least.
In 2008 the wreck was designated as a protected historic site, after cannon were raised illegally and sold abroad (long afterwards a diver was jailed for this and other such offences).
The Thames silt had preserved the London well, but now it was increasingly shifting, exposing wreck and contents to the elements and to destructive seaworms proliferating as a result of climate change.
All this increased the urgency of uncovering the London’s secrets.?There was no intention of raising it, just of mapping it out and recovering whatever could be recovered.
So Alison James from HE must have been pleased when Steven stepped forward, because she offered him a visitor’s licence to survey the London.
He studied the preliminary reports she had given him. “They hadn’t been able to work out what was left on the wreck, but on my first dive I landed on top of one of the cannons,” he says with a grin.
It was a Monday, with an hour’s slack for diving, and he had popped down the line for a look while Steve was working on the boat. “I said to Steve, when you go down by the anchor-chain, just see what you can see. He came back and said, it’s a cannon, and I said, yeah.”
At first the archaeologists were sceptical about the discovery “but I kept diving and I found 11 of them”.
“I showed them the site-plan I’d made and they couldn’t believe I could have produced it, and I showed them that there was another wreck to the west of the first one.” This turned out to be the remains of a 19th-century clipper.
ALISON DECIDED that as Steven was already mapping out the site, he should be given a survey licence. “Then we took Carol for a tour – and started finding things that had been lost.”
“Piles of shoes – it was amazing,” says Carol. By the next dive the footwear had disappeared again, a demonstration of the problems caused by the powerful tides and shifting silt. “And I found a heavy carriage-wheel.”
“Yes, and then that was gone too,” says Steven. So great was the water movement that even large timber frames they had tagged would end up on top of their lines.
The three divers undertook professional diving qualifications so that they could participate fully in the fieldwork. The training, like much of the work on the London, was sponsored by HE and Southend Museum Service through the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund. They would also practise-dive until late after work to help them cope with the tough diving conditions.
“But I like it now, because when you’ve got really bad visibility, especially in winter, you can really concentrate,” says Steven. “You don’t move much, so in a way you feel more relaxed. I know that if I move I’m going to disturb the silt, and if I stay put I’m not breathing so much. You actually see less by moving around.”
THE TEAM’S DIVE-SEASON LASTS a full 11 months. “We try to dive twice every week, sometimes three times,” says Steven. “We go out before we go to work. Because of the tides we have an hour’s window, and sometimes we’ll be out at three on a Sunday morning!”
Only in January do they take time off to service their boat, a 6.5m ex-commercial RIB with an outboard motor replacing the previous inboard and a custom dive-ladder.
“It’s not flash but it’s heavy and it sits well,” says Steven. “It’s a really, really nice boat,” says Steve approvingly.
The divers’ biggest moment was the finding and raising of a gun-carriage. With the site looking increasingly promising, HE had part-funded the setting up of excavation trenches. The team were now working alongside Cotswold Archaeology.
“I was working with an archaeologist, but it was silly because I was either tipping silt over him or he was tipping silt over me,” says Steven. So they decided to split up and work on their own trenches.
“After the dive he came over and said you know what, I thought I’d found a gun-carriage, but it’s not. He looked really down in the dumps.
“Well, a few days later on a dive I’m thinking yes, I can see steps, I think this is a gun-carriage. But on the boat he tells me that unless I’m sure, he’s not bothering to move.” He indicates Carol and Steve. “These two were laughing their heads off – they said I’d been like a schoolboy when the teacher ticks him off.
“But I said if I work down the sides and I can feel the trucks [wheels] it’s definitely a gun-carriage. So I did that, filmed it, and that night we showed him and he said do you know what, I think you’ve found a gun-carriage! He couldn’t get there quick enough the next day.”
THE WELL-PRESERVED 1.6m carriage would have held a 3m-long cannon capable of firing balls up to two miles. HE came up with the money for the major operation of lifting the carriage onto a barge by crane. It was a significant moment, as only one other such carriage was known to exist – at Windsor Castle.
Confident that he now knew his way around the wreck, Steven moved a couple of metres along – and found another gun-carriage. There were complete barrels on their sides there, too. “And then you start to build up a picture of what’s left and how it lies…” he says.
So just how significant is the London?
I later ask DIVER consultant Dave Parham, Associate Professor of Maritime Archaeology at Bournemouth University.
“The site appears to contain a huge collection of material and structure from a period that’s key to the development of the Royal Navy and of the UK as a maritime power,” he said. “Material of this date and type is almost completely absent from museum collections.
“The material provides a detailed understanding of how ships and their crews of this period operated, something that’s unavailable from any other source. The London is a site of international significance, and one of only a handful that can provide this wealth of data.”
Now that’s diving with a purpose.