No.84 A family concern

This week’s post approaches wrecks from the viewpoint of family history and local heritage, which are often closely intertwined: today’s case study concerns a number of wrecks which all belonged to the same family with a very distinctive name, the Isemongers of Littlehampton, Sussex.

They seem to have been specialists in the coal trade between Sunderland and Littlehampton, with four collier brigs that we know of, associated with the family and lost within a 30-year timespan.

In 1842, the Economy struck near her home port ‘between Rustington Mills and the Hot Baths’ of the nearby resort, while waiting for a suitable tide to come in. The initial report that the crew had all drowned was later reported as false, and the very specific location described above, in a version in which all the crew survived, lends credence to the report of their survival. She was owned by one Thomas Iremonger (sic), and captained by his brother.

The Peacock of Arundel was lost on the coal route at Caister-on-Sea, Norfolk, on the 12th. On the 25th the Oswy of Littlehampton was beached to discharge her cargo of coal, at Worthing, as was common on the shores of Sussex, and was wrecked when the wind shifted and the weather became stormy – a fairly common manner of loss locally, too.

The Oswy was among the effects of ‘R & P Isemonger’ advertised in a bankruptcy sale in 1851, but the Admiralty Register of Wrecks of 1852-3 attributes her ownership to an Isemonger: did they manage to retain her after all, or buy her back, or was she bought by a relative? (1)

It is 1872 before we hear again of a collier brig owned by an Isemonger of Arundel in another loss incident. The Russell was driven ashore at Hauxley Point, Northumberland, in wind conditions SE force 9. She illustrates another typical manner of loss, for she was outbound from Sunderland for Littlehampton with coal. A severe SE gale could force vessels leaving, or making for, the east coast ports of Shields and Sunderland off course, driving them north to be wrecked along the Northumberland coast.

Patterns of family history are often revealed through wrecks, typically through the names of masters and owners, whose names are those most often recorded in the sources used to tell the story of wrecks. (We do sometimes receive information from people who have traced ancestors as crew members, but that is another post for another day!) There must once have been many families like this, based in coastal towns or villages, who owned a number of ships, usually specialising in a particular trade, and they would have been hit hard by the loss of any one ship. Their story ripples out beyond family and local heritage to become a microcosm of a ‘typical’ 19th century trade route, illustrating characteristic loss patterns at both ends of the voyages they undertook.

(1) Brighton Gazette, 4 December 1851, No.1,597, p1; Admiralty Register of Wrecks, 1852-3, in Parliamentary Papers, Vol.61, pp194-195(197)

No.83: The London, No.3: A Conservator’s Tool Kit

This week Angela Middleton, Archaeological Conservator at Historic England, is my guest blogger, explaining the tools of her trade in conserving some of the objects recovered from the London.

A conservator’s tool kit: air brush, hammer and chisel

As a conservator you may spend many hours peering down a microscope, using a scalpel and slowly removing layers and years of dirt or corrosion: a painstakingly slow process; just like watching paint dry or grass grow. Progress can be hard to measure and to the untrained eye is often barely noticeable.

So why bother, you may ask?

During conservation, the conservator and the object go through a couple of stages. You normally start off with an assessment, where the condition of the object is evaluated, allowing a picture of the artefact’s composition, construction and state of preservation to emerge. Following that you devise a treatment according to the artefact’s condition and its purpose.

The ultimate goal is always to stabilise the object, preserve it for the future and to understand it: and by doing this a conservator also helps others to understand and appreciate it. This is often difficult when the surface is obscured by corrosion products or discoloured due to centuries of being buried. Removing these obscuring and distracting layers will help to reveal the object.

Lately I have been working on artefacts from the London, a shipwreck which sank off Southend-on-Sea in 1665. After their initial assessment (see Heritage Calling: Looking Inside) and a lengthy programme of desalination* (remember this is like watching paint dry…), artefacts can be actively conserved, without obscuring fine surface details or allowing layers of dirt to be consolidated onto the surface.

So this is where the pressure washer comes in. I have been using an air-brush system to clean off loose surface dirt on some of the leather from the London. It works just like a conventional pressure washer, albeit on a smaller scale, with the advantage of being able to regulate the pressure down and work with a really small outlet, enabling you to focus on small areas.

The example shown below is a leather sole from one of the many shoe finds. It is contaminated with iron compounds, which are commonly found in the burial environment (iron compounds originate from naturally occurring minerals or from corroding artefacts in the vicinity). They settle on the leather surface and do not only obscure fine surface details but also discolour the artefact. If not using an air-brush system, I would be cleaning them with sponges, which can sometimes be too harsh on sensitive surfaces such as leather, which can be easily marked and damaged. The air-brush is a much more gentle method of cleaning.

leather sole
Left to right: Leather sole 3141 before cleaning; during cleaning with top half cleaned; fully cleaned.

Here is the mini pressure washer in action:

However, sometimes ‘gentle’ is just not good enough, especially for maritime finds. They often become covered in huge and unsightly concretions. A concretion is formed when a corroding iron object interacts with the surrounding environment, encapsulating marine organisms, surrounding sediments, corrosion products and even other artefacts in a lump. In most cases the artefact cannot be recognised at all. In order to stabilise and understand the object, these concretions have to be removed. And yes, as the name suggests: they can be as hard as concrete. There is little choice but to use a hammer and a chisel to remove them: tools you don’t often find used by an archaeological conservator.

The example below is a concretion containing a multitude of artefacts. Visible at the top was a copper alloy artefact, half embedded in the concretion. A conservator would normally take an X-ray to visualise the embedded artefact(s). However, the concretions are often so dense that X-radiography is of limited use. So in this case I used the shape of the object partly showing at the top to guide me and started chiselling the concretion away. Once again it was a slow process, but totally worth it. What I managed to reveal and finally remove from the concretion was a pair of callipers: the only one from the wreck so far and in near perfect condition. Callipers were used to check the diameter of shot. By also knowing the material and the density the weight can be calculated. In our example it looks like the diameter is engraved on one side of the scale and the weight on the opposing side. The anaerobic conditions on the seabed and inside the concretion have preserved the markings on the calliper and it showes very little corrosion.

Left to right: Concretion as found, the callipers are visible at the top; callipers after being removed from the concretion.
Left to right: Concretion as found, the callipers are visible at the top; callipers after being removed from the concretion.
Detail of the markings on the callipers
Detail of the markings on the callipers

The other example is an iron cannonball which was also covered in concretion. It was important to remove it, not only to reveal the true size of the artefact, but also to reduce treatment times. The thick layer of concretion forms a barrier and will hinder passage of water during desalination.

After the concretion had been removed the cannonball diameter could be determined as roughly 15cm, making it a 30-pounder, suitable for a demi-cannon.

From left to right: Cannonball before removal of concretion; during removal of concretion; after removal.

Each conservation task requires a specific set of tools, depending on the job in hand and the nature of the artefact. The gadgets an archaeological conservator uses are very different to what a paintings or textile conservator would use. However, the similarity is that each conservator strives to preserve the object and enable others to study and enjoy it.

 *Desalination: During burial salts from the burial environment accumulate inside artefacts. If such an artefact is simply dried, salt crystals will form, which expand in volume on drying, which can cause surface layers of the artefacts to flake off, or the whole artefact can actually fall apart. Also salts are hygroscopic, which means they attract moisture from the air. This moisture can cause further corrosion. This is especially true for metal artefacts.

During desalination artefacts are immersed in tap water, and then in de-ionised water, to remove water-soluble salts. This is achieved by regularly changing the water and measuring the chloride level or the conductivity of the storage solution. Once these readings remain sufficiently low, the artefact is considered desalinated and can be treated as in the case of wood or leather, or can be dried as in the case of glass or ceramics.

To catch up with previous posts on the London, here is a post commemorating the anniversary of her loss in March 1665 and another on recent archaeological work.

No.82 Condemned as a Prize (Diary of the War No.10)

Hard on the heels of last week’s Gallipoli blog comes this week’s contribution, featuring May’s First World War wreck on the centenary of her loss on 1 May 1915. The circumstances were neither unusual – sunk by collision in fog off Beachy Head – nor a result of wartime action, but her background provides the opportunity to illustrate a lesser-known aspect of the war at sea between 1914 and 1918.

The First World War saw huge technological advances and the mechanisation of combat as aircraft took to the skies, tanks rolled across landscapes, and submarines prowled the seas. Yet, given the century that had elapsed since the last major pan-European conflict ended in 1915, it was perhaps unsurprising that older practices and technologies were still retained in many respects: we may think, perhaps, of the cavalry regiments who saw action on the Western Front.

Many a Lloyd’s List of the 18th century lists details of vessels ‘taken’ by enemy warships or privateers and subsequently ‘condemned’ as prizes. Condemnation as a prize did not mean that the ship was intended for destruction, but rather that it was adjudged a lawful prize by an Admiralty court, and would sail again under a new flag.

On the declaration of war on August 4, 1914, a number of German and Austrian vessels were detained in British or Empire ports. A month later the London Gazette published the names of these vessels, which were to be brought before the Prize Courts and condemned as prizes, a fate that appears at first sight more redolent of the age of sail. Today’s vessel, the Horst Martini, was one of this group, detained in Newport, Wales.  She had started out life as the British vessel Crosshill in 1883, but was sold into German service in 1900, initially as the Hugo und Clara, then renamed Horst Martini.  With the judgement of the Prize Court, she was about to re-enter British service as a collier. (1)

While her prize status had no bearing on the wreck event, it did have an impact on the subsequent court case. The owners, master and crew of the Horst Martini brought a claim against the owners of the other vessel involved in the collision, the Runic:, who were not permitted to counterclaim against the owners of the Horst Martini,  who proved to be none other than the ‘Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom’. As a concession, they were allowed to sue her master instead. Both vessels were found to have contributed to the accident, with three-quarters of the blame being assigned to the Horst Martini. (2)

Turning these prize vessels over to the colliery service made a significant contribution to the landscape of war since coal was the national fuel. The circulation of coal was based on well-established historical routes from the colliery to the consumer by sea, even for the domestic market. Routes to market were slow to adapt to wartime exigencies: with hindsight it is easy to wonder why recourse was not had to the less immediately vulnerable rail network. (There were many reasons for this, including the integration of the colliery and shipping industries under the coal magnates.)

In turn this meant that that sinking colliers was an effective way of striking at the British economy. The nation needed all the colliers it could get, and those German ships interned in British ports on the outbreak of war fulfilled an immediate need: the seemingly old-fashioned prize law plugged the gaps of a market that, to modern eyes, appears to have been slow to respond to the dangers posed by modern forms of warfare.

(We will follow the adventures of several other ‘prize’ German colliers over the course of the War Diary.)

(1) The Times, 22 January 1915, No.40,758, p34

(2) The Times, 20 May 1915, No.40,859, p3.