A Wreck Process . . . interrupted by centuries

The Ship under the Power Station

Development has always presented archaeological opportunities and threats. Nowadays policies for archaeological watching briefs and rescue archaeology are firmly in place – as witness the 2002 Newport Ship discovered during development – but go back 90 years before that to 1912, and arrangements for unexpected finds were rather more ad hoc.

In November that year, excavations took place at Roff’s Wharf, at the south-western corner of the Borough Electric Works premises, in advance of the construction of the new Woolwich Power Station. Workmen uncovered part of a wooden sailing vessel situated at right angles to the river bank, not far from the water’s edge.

At first it seemed that things looked favourable for securing the site. Sir William Henry White, the retired Director of Construction at the Admiralty, appears to have been the first on site that November. (1) He gave it as his opinion that the state of preservation of the timbers suggested a vessel which had been there around a century and a half, and thus since around 1765, while local historians suggested that the vessel might be older, and correspond to the remains of a ship wrecked in this area during the reign of Charles I (1625-1649). (2) The site certainly had a prior history as boat repair shops, which may in turn have replaced earlier maritime activity on the site, which seems at least likely given the Woolwich dockyard close by.

The London County Council (LCC) then drew the attention of the site to their Committee ‘interested in local government records and antiquities’. The Committee then sent a representative to record the site in January 1913, by which time further excavation had revealed just over half the length of a wooden sailing vessel, measuring around 95 feet long by 25 feet wide.

That representative was their Superintending Architect, W E Riley, whose drawings are undated, but must be an outcome of this visit. Riley was eminently well qualified to survey the site, having, in addition to his longstanding architectural expertise, which gave him the skills to produce a proper measured survey, an Admiralty background. His drawing shows the excavated portion of ship from bow to approximately just aft of amidships: the stern portion was not excavated.

Pen and ink site plan and key plan on paper of layout of shipwreck site as excavated.
Plan of Remains of Ship exposed during excavations, (1912) at Roff’s Wharf, Woolwich. W E Riley, London County Council. © Historic England Archive MD96/07356

Having considered the evidence from the drawings, the photographs taken at the same time, and Sir William’s opinion, the LCC then suggested to Woolwich Borough Council that part of the vessel should be preserved. The Borough Council refused to countenance this proposal – on the usual grounds of cost.

In the meantime, the site lost one of its interested experts when Sir William died of a stroke on 27 February. At least the Woolwich and District Antiquarian Society published a paper summarising some suggestions for the identity of the vessel in 1913, including an even earlier possibility: a 17th century hulk of Dutch origin, and kept up interest in a note in its 1914 publication. (3)(4)

Towards the end of 1913 the artist John Seymour Lucas RA revived interest in the wreck. The Times reminded readers of his painting The Armada in Sight (1880), which, on the face of it, seems tenuous grounds for his expertise (and the subject of that painting is Drake being interrupted at bowls, not a marine painting depicting ships) but Seymour Lucas had trained as a woodcarver before turning to painting, and evidently had some knowledge of shipbuilding as an amateur enthusiast.

He subjected the LCC photographs taken earlier in the year (now untraced) to detailed scrutiny, together with artefacts extracted from the hull: two gun carriage wheels, stone shot and some pottery, which to him suggested an Elizabethan or earlier 16th century vessel. However, the wreck was no longer intact by the time of his visit, to his evident dismay: ‘When I arrived the timbers of the wreck were being carted away to Castles’ timber-yard.’ (2)

At that time Castles’ were operating from two locations, with their prestige headquarters at Baltic Wharf, 160 Grosvenor Road, where they had ‘show rooms and a museum’, advertised as an attraction ‘close to the Tate Gallery’ (now Tate Britain). (5) Their works, however, were at Woolwich, half a mile from the find site, so it would seem more cost-effective, and more likely, that the timber was sold to the Woolwich yard, and perhaps, if required, transported on to the Baltic Wharf site.

Castles’ Shipbreaking Co., Baltic Wharf, Millbank. This image is more or less contemporary with the find at Roff’s Wharf, being taken around 1900, and gives an idea of their activities. Note the ‘ship timber logs’ advertised on the horse-drawn cart. Source: Historic England Archive BB76/04423

Another unnamed ‘expert in naval history’ identified the remains as coming from the Pelican, better known by her later name the Golden Hind, displayed in Deptford following her three-year circumnavigation of the world under Sir Francis Drake in 1577-80. There was some latitude in this interpretation as the two locations, while occupying the same bank of the river, are a few miles apart, and if anything remains of the original Golden Hind, it is probably buried under Convoy’s Wharf in Deptford.  (There is another little bit of her somewhere else, as we shall see.)

This was wishful thinking with a commercial motive, which prompted Messrs Hindley, (Hindley and Wilkinson), who were ‘architectural decorators, upholsterers and cabinet makers’ at Welbeck Street, to purchase the timbers – clearly to refashion into furniture. What sort of furniture might that have been?

There is a long tradition of recycling timber from a maritime context, whether in ‘upcycling’ wreck materials or repurposing timber from shipbreaking (indeed our very first post was on the subject of timbers reused from the wreck of the Royal George). The inspiration for Hindley & Wilkinson’s purchase was probably the chair made after 1662 from the best surviving timbers of the Golden Hind, by that time a much-decayed vessel, and presented to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where it now remains. (Are there any surviving Hindley & Wilkinson chairs modelled on the Bodleian original anywhere? If so, they would join the original Golden Hind chair in being similarly the last remains of a vessel . . . )

By the time that the Admiralty met to consider the matter in 1914 the site had therefore been irretrievably compromised and, in any case, they had other matters on their minds, for war was looming.

The irony is that the vessel’s discovery represents the second stage of a long-drawn out wrecking process with several centuries in between each phase. Such wrecks are relatively unusual, but occur sporadically in the record and often under fairly extraordinary circumstances. Where they occur, they are usually the products of abandonment and forgetting: the deterioration of the vessel through the simple processes of time represents the first phase of the wrecking process, and is common to a wider group of wrecks, the hulks of abandoned vessels seen all around our coastlines, rivers, and other bodies of water. Nevertheless, there is a paradox: this ‘dereliction’ stage preserves the vessel from the more common fate of ships at the end of their service lives – normally broken up and thus removed from either a functional or a preservation context.

So what was the Woolwich Ship? Her dimensions suggest a vessel of some size, perhaps around 800 tons. The remains appear to have consisted of a largely intact keel which retained evidence of the notches that suggest she was originally clinker-built, before being rebuilt carvel-fashion. (For the difference see this explanation from the University of Southampton.)  This build history suggested that she was originally active in the 15th century. Her framing timbers remained in situ, while the retention of the mast step suggests it was not intended for the mast to be permanently dismounted. The orientation of the vessel some 50ft from the present-day water’s edge (6) on a layer of silt suggested that it had been laid up in a creek or inlet.

The wreck was ‘revived’ when scholarly discussion nearly 50 years after its discovery,  compared surviving documents with the archaeological record, with the consensus that on the available evidence Henry VII’s Sovereign, built in 1487, rebuilt in 1509-10, and laid up at Woolwich in 1521, was the best fit for the ship’s identity. (7) A list of October 1525 suggests that by this time the Sovereign was unseaworthy, but was certainly intended for rebuilding: “She must be new made from the keel upward . . . the form of which ship is so marvellous goodly that great pity it were she should die, and the rather because that many things there be in her that will serve right well.” (8)

B&W photograph of Thames with the masts with furled sails of two barges at their moorings in the foreground being echoed by the two tall towers of the power station to the left centre ground, on the opposite bank of the river, under a clear sky with puffy white clouds.
View of Thames barges with Woolwich Power Station in the background, taken by S W Rawlings, who worked for the Port of London Information Office between 1945 and 1965. The image must therefore date after 1945, but before the 1952 development of the power station, since only two of its (later) three chimneys can be seen. Source: Historic England Archive AA001710

Over the course of the 20th century the footprint of the power station expanded several times to serve London’s growing power needs, which led to a third, and final, stage in the wrecking process – for the 1952 extension appears to have destroyed the stern, left unexcavated 40 years earlier. The power station built over the wreck was itself demolished over the course of 1978-80, with investigations in 1983 (6) and 1986 (9) failing to locate any remaining traces of the ship.

What we do have, then, is what is now termed ‘preservation by record’, and without Riley and his plans, the originals of which are now in the archives of Historic England, we would have little to no evidence for the vessel uncovered in 1912 – unless any replicas of the Bodleian chair turn up!

(1) Times, 19 November 1912, No.40,060, p14

(2) Times, 9 December 1913, No.40,390, p7

(3) Woolwich and District Antiquarian Society, Annual Report (1912), Vol. XVIII, pp74-5

(4) Woolwich and District Antiquarian Society, Annual Report (1913), Vol. XIX, pp16, 61

(5) Advertisement for Castles’ Shipbreaking, Baltic Wharf, Millbank, c.1914, exhibited British Folk Art, Tate Britain, 2014

(6) B Philp & D Garrod, “The Woolwich Ship”, Kent Archaeological Review, 1983, No.74 pp.87-91

(7) R C Anderson, “The Story of the Woolwich Ship”, Mariner’s Mirror, 1959, Vol.45, No.2, pp94-9; W Salisbury, “The Woolwich Ship”, Mariner’s Mirror, 1961, Vol.47, No.2, pp81-90; T Glasgow Jr. “The Woolwich Ship”, Mariner’s Mirror, 1971, Vol.57, No.3, p302; R C Anderson, “The Woolwich Ship”, Mariner’s Mirror, 1972, Vol. 58, No.1, p103

(8)Henry VIII: October 1525, 16-31′, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 4, 1524-1530, ed. J S Brewer (London, 1875), p762, No.3. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol4/pp757-772 [accessed 17 January 2019] derived from original MS British Library Cotton Otho E IX 64b

(9) Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, 1577296