No.50 The Helverson

Wreck-on-Wreck Collision

There’s a reason why wrecks have always been marked on Admiralty Charts as a navigational hazard – for their potential to cause more wrecks. Superstructure sticking up out of the water might be a clue, but, as with icebergs, the most dangerous part is under water.

Wreck-on-wreck collisions are relatively common and are, perhaps, the seaborne equivalent of a motorway pile-up, although any subsequent wrecks may happen much later than the original wreck.

A concatenation of events led to the collision of the English Third Rate Helverson with the wreck of the Norway Merchant in the Medway on 22 July 1667. That summer was one of panic in and around the Thames, following the Raid on the Medway on 9-14 June 1667, the raid being known in Dutch as the Tocht naar Chattam (Fight at Chatham). In response, a number of ships, both merchantmen and warships, were deliberately sunk in and around the Medway as blockships to prevent any further Dutch incursions.

The Norway Merchant was one of these, and it was upon her broken stump that the Helverson, being brought to act as an accommodation hulk for the men employed in raising as many of the ships sunk as possible, became impaled. According to the Masters in Attendance at Chatham Dock, ‘she sank upright.’ It was blamed on the pilot, ‘one Basford of Stroud’ because the previous pilot had left her, suggesting he perhaps didn’t give the Norway Merchant enough clearance or was unaware of her extent. By January 1668 they had ‘got her out of the wreck on which she was sunk’, but she thereafter disappears from history. (Quotes from the Calendar of State Papers Domestic.)

Ironically, this ship created more work for the already overworked men who were busily trying to raise as many ships as they could (many of which were beyond repair anyway). And the next day there was a further flashpoint at the Hope near Tilbury between the English and Dutch fleets, with another action fought off Sheppey on 26 July, which caused yet more wrecks. Peace was concluded at the Treaty of Breda on 31 July.

Perhaps you might think Helverson is an unusual name. In a further irony, she was ex-Dutch Hilversum, captured as a prize at the Battle of Lowestoft in 1665. She started the Second Anglo-Dutch War as a Dutch ship, and ended the war as an English one. Who better to draw her portrait than Willem van de Velde the Elder, who recorded the First and Second Anglo-Dutch Wars for the Dutch, but the Third War on the English side as a pensioner of Charles II?

Portrait of the Hilversum, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, 1655,
Portrait of the Hilversum, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, 1655,
(For heritage buffs: according to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, her stern decoration preserves an image of the manor house at Hilversum, later consumed by fire.)

2 thoughts on “No.50 The Helverson

  1. Thanks – enjoyed the piece. I remembering hearing back in the 1980s that some mid-19th century photos were discovered at Chatham Dockyard and that these were believed to show the uncovered wrecks of some of the 1667 blockships. Have these been published anywhere?

    1. Thank you! I have never heard of these photos, though I have heard of the uncovering of the dockyard material c1876 and have seen material purporting to be from the ‘Carolus Quintus’ from these excavations, but the grounds for this identification are unknown. It was uncovered by a gang of convicts apparently!

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