The Swallow

A Mystery at Minehead

It gives me great pleasure this week to welcome our guest blogger Philip Ashford of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, with his blog considering the documentary evidence for a wreck of the early 1640s at Minehead.

The period leading up to the English Civil War was one of high political and religious tension at home and abroad. Given this, the reporting of wrecks was very low priority, despite the fact that trade continued and, besides naval movements, troops were moved by ship. Wrecks from the 1640s are therefore under-represented in the record.

Aerial view of beach with small wreck visible at centre right, with green fields and hills beyond.
Aerial image of the equally mysterious scheduled wreck at Minehead, visible just off centre right of the image. This wreck is believed to date to the early 19th century. © Philip Ashford

Philip’s blog uncovers part of a much bigger story from that period, a tale of refugees who suffered shipwreck. He writes:

Mysteries regularly become more intriguing and opaque after a little investigation. Inevitably, the more that is known, the more questions arise, perhaps never to be fully or completely answered.

Such a mystery surrounds the fate of the Swallow as it arrived at Minehead Quay: even its date is somewhat unclear. In October 1641 an Irish rebellion by Catholics against Protestant settlement began, and as it intensified Protestants and their goods were evacuated from Munster to England or Wales by ship. The trail of the Swallow begins with the depositions in late 1642 of surviving Protestants referring to events at some point in late 1641 or early 1642.

Robert Fennell, a merchant of Cork shipping butter, beef, Irish wool and ‘Irish Freize’, a form of coarse woollen cloth, from Cork to Minehead during the latter 1630s and in January 1642 in various Irish and Minehead vessels, [1] claimed to have lost personal items in the Swallow.

Fennell stated on 5 August 1642 that he had stowed his ‘shop goods’ on the Swallow which was ‘droven a ground att the kay of Mynhead and ther sunken, being overflowen with watter, ‘droven’ implying that a storm was responsible for the wreck. Fennell thus suffered a further £200 loss of goods beyond those he had already lost through the rebellion from his farm and corn in the ground at John’s Town, Cork ‘on or about Candlemas last past’ (2 February), suggesting the shipment of his goods after that date. [2]

Also on board the same ship were goods and books belonging to the archdeacon of Ross, Thomas Frith, books that had been left him by his late brother, a Cork gentleman. Frith stated that the Swallow ‘had overset by the key of Mynhead’ and his books and goods were underwater for two days and therefore lost. [3]

It is also probable that books belonging to William Chappell, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, were stowed in the Swallow. Chappell had escaped the uprising by taking a passage from Dublin to Milford Haven in December 1641. Eventually he arrived in Bristol in March 1642 to be greeted with the news that a ship sailing from Cork to Minehead with his effects and precious books aboard had been ‘lost near Minehead’ [4] in an incident with striking similarities to the Swallow.

Ships can only enter Minehead harbour at high tide. It appears that the Swallow might have been approaching Minehead but was unable to delay its arrival, because of strong winds, until the correct state of the tide, the anchors clearly not holding as it was driven towards the shore.

A first mystery is whether the Swallow was wrecked and broken up or whether it grounded and ‘overset’, but was then salvaged once both saveable and ruined goods had been offloaded. There is an indication in Frith’s testimony that his goods were removed after two days. Given that both Fennell’s and Frith’s depositions state that the incident took place at or near Minehead Quay, it is certain that at low tide the vessel would have been lying on pebbles or sand which stretch for hundreds of metres to the north of the quay, so it would have been possible to remove goods from the stricken vessel and, using blocks and tackle, right the ship. However, no documentary reference to either eventuality, wreck or salvage, has been found. All that we can say for certain is that the vessel certainly underwent some sort of damaging event.

A second mystery is the identity of the Swallow. As so often at this time, there was more than one vessel of that name and a similar mystery concerns the identity of a vessel known as the Swan, implicated in the wreck of 1653 at Duart Point. [5] Fennell stated in his deposition that the ‘Swallowe’ was ‘my Lord Waricks’ vessel. Robert Rich (1587-1658), second Earl of Warwick. was commander of the Parliamentary fleet from May 1642. This Swallow of 160 tons, 150 men and 34 guns, [6] appears in a number of historical documents. Parliament voted in November 1641 that it should be one of the armed vessels that accompanied troopships to Munster [7] but it is not clear when it arrived on station. On 17 December 1641 Sir William St Leger wrote to the first Earl of Cork relating to his idea of loaning money for the ‘setting forth’ of the Swallow, so it appears it had not arrived in Munster by then. [8] It is likely that the first escort duty was, however, in February 1641/42, [9] and it was off the Irish coast in March 1642. [10] For certain, the Swallow remained on station off the Irish coast during the summer of 1642. [11] The vessel saw further action in the Bristol Channel area including taking part in an assault on Tenby in 1644, [12] and also seems to have been off Kinsale and the southern coast of Ireland again in 1648. [13] It is known that ships of the Royal Navy did organise the rescue of people and goods to the Somerset coast during this time of difficulty. For example, on 3 April 1642, under the warrant of Captain Kettleby, 145 people were disembarked at Minehead from Kinsale in the Curteen of London, John White master. [14] Kettleby was none other than the Captain of the Swallow.

So, was Fennell correct? Was it the Swallow of the Parliamentary Navy which foundered off Minehead? If so, there is no record of the affair found so far. If the incident did relate to this Swallow, it was clearly salvaged and back in operation in a very short time. It is certainly the view of Elaine Murphy, who has researched and published significant work on the Navy at this time that the Swallow involved was not one of the ships of the Parliamentary Navy. [16]

A number of overseas customer and controller port books remain for Minehead for the 1630s and 1641-2. It is clear from these, that neither Minehead nor ports in Ireland such as Cork or Youghal owned a ship named Swallow trading with Minehead at the time. In fact, no Swallow appears in any of those port books as having entered or left Minehead with customable goods except one entry. On 15 February 1641/2 the Swallow of London, 80 tons, Henry Forms master, entered Minehead from Cork. February, of course is a winter month with increased possibility of stormy winds that might have driven the vessel ashore. Various entries in the port book show that it was carrying Irish wool, tallow and Irish frieze owned by various merchants but, significantly, the first mention of the vessel indicates that Robert Fennell had tallow and hides aboard. [17] Over the next four days the various goods belonging to other merchants were entered into the customs accounts. This eventuality was not unusual, but the particular length of the Swallow entries might indicate a speedy but difficult job of offloading, possibly at low tide across a beach from a damaged vessel on its side. For comparison, the 50-ton Abraham of Youghal which entered Minehead on the same day was still being unloaded well into March. Robert Fennell’s tallow and hides could have survived salt water submergence, but, as his original deposition indicates, other ‘shop goods’ he had on board, as well as the non-customable books belonging to Frith and Chappell were lost through water damage. The Swallow did not take on customable goods at Minehead to return to Ireland or sail to France as most vessels , and there is no coastal port book for Minehead for that year so the trail has gone cold. So the question remains, is the Swallow of London the likely candidate?

Other Swallows sailing in the Bristol Channel appear in various records in subsequent years. The Swallow of Youghal, a post-barque en route from Youghal to Bristol, was taken as a prize by the Spy frigate in June 1644, also the Swallow of Flushing was taken as a prize into Dungarvon in southern Ireland in 1649. [18] In the early 1650s there was a Swallow of Ilfracombe and a Swallow of Bristol. Both had dealings with Ireland. [19] If either of these Swallows is the candidate, then, as with the Swallow of the Parliamentary Navy, they operated after the event near the quay of Minehead, indicating the vessel was re-floated. However there is no real corroborating evidence to put any of these vessels ‘in the frame’.

Now there are several more than two Swallows, has summer arrived? Is it possible to properly conclude this mystery with a definitive statement? The best answer perhaps is as with unsolved police investigations, ‘the file is still open’. Hopefully, advances in research, if and when further evidence comes to light, will help bring the matter to a conclusion. However, given the fact that Robert Fennell had goods on the Swallow of Cork arriving in Minehead in February 1642 New Style, at the right time and the right place, this vessel seems to be the prime suspect. Perhaps the dislocation and stress of the rebellion caused Fennell to confuse his Swallows, as no doubt he would have been aware of the operation of the navy’s candidate in and around Cork and that his goods were to be embarked on the Swallow. Notwithstanding the identity, was the event an accident that was righted or a wreck that was broken up?

Many thanks to Philip for his researches on this one wreck event – which has improved our knowledge of wrecks for England as a whole in 1641-2 by 20% – which underlines how little we know about wrecks for the period unless they are involved with the political strife of the time.

View of sea to bottom of image, beach at centre left to middle, with town and green wooded area to background of image.
Aerial view of the present-day Minehead harbour. The Swallow was wrecked at the 17th century quay. © Philip Ashford


[1] Fennell shipped butter and beef in December 1635, Irish wool in December 1636 and ‘Irish Freize’, in January 1642 from Cork to Minehead. TNA, E190/1088/12, 1088/15, 1089/9. Prior to the adoption of the modern Gregorian ‘New Style’ Calendar in 1752 in England and Ireland, the Julian Calendar continued in use, with the calendar and legal year running from 25th March to 24th March annually. Thus, in contemporary sources, 1 January 1641 Old Style was the day after 31 December 1641, i.e. 1 January 1642 New Style, not the first day of 1641.

[2] Robart Ffennell’s depositon. 1641 depositions, Trinity College Dublin found at MS 824 234r.

[3] Thomas Fryth’s deposition. 1641 depositions, Trinity College Dublin found at MS 825 124r.  Frith does not name the vessel in his deposition of November 1642, so it is my reasonable assumption, given that the location, origin of the voyage and refugee context are clearly the same, that his testimony refers to the same event that Fennell mentions.

[4] A Kippis, Biographia Britannica 2, (London, 1748), 1284-5.

[5] C Martin, A Cromwellian Warship wrecked off Duart Castle, Mull, Scotland, in 1653 (Edinburgh, 2017)

[6] E. Peacock (ed.), The army list of Roundheads and Cavaliers: 1642 (London, 1874), 63, under the subtitle ‘His Majesties ships for the Irish seas’.

[7] M Lea-O’Mahoney, The Navy in the English civil war (University of Exeter D.Phil thesis, 2011), 33.

[8] A. Grossart (ed.), The Lismore papers: The private and public correspondence of Sir Richard Boyle, first and great Earl of Cork 4 (London, 1888), 229-30.

[9] Lea-O’Mahoney, Navy, 33.

[10] E. Murphy, Ireland and the war at sea 1641-1653 (London, 2012), 19-20.

[11] Murphy, Ireland, 29.

[12] Murphy, Ireland, 32, 38; Lea-O’Mahoney, Navy, 94, 96.

[13] C. McNeill, The Tanner letters: Original documents and notices of Irish affairs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Dublin, 1943), 302.

[14] W. Coates, et al, The private journals of the long parliament (1992), 406. There is no mention of the Curteen in Minehead’s overseas customs book of December 1641-December 1642 (TNA, E190/1089/9).

[15] Peacock, Army, 63.

[16] Elaine Murphy, personal correspondence, December 2017.

[17] TNA, E190/1089/9 page 6.

[18] Murphy, Ireland, 139, 182 and 194.

[19] H. Nott, The deposition book of Bristol 1650-1654 (Bristol, 1948), 14, 105 and 161.


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