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.)

No.43 The Vogelstruis

An Ostrich with her Head in the Sand (or in the mud . . . )

Happy New Year!

To kick off another year of Wreck of the Week, here’s a ship which was captured, but not wrecked, at the Battle of Portland in 1653. She was the Vogelstruis, beautifully mangled in one English source as the ‘Fugelstrays‘!

The Vogelstruis was built for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1640. She had already made six return voyages for the VOC when she set out on her last adventure, as part of the Dutch escort for a large convoy of merchantmen homeward-bound through the Channel. The English lay in wait to intercept the convoy and thus began the Battle of Portland, or the Three Days’ Battle as it is also known, in February 1653.

In his despatches the Dutch commander Maarten Tromp* noted that it had been impossible to rescue the disabled Vogelstruis drifting ‘in amongst the English fleet . . .’ , who captured her and sent her for Portsmouth. She entered English service under a simple translation of her original name, to become the Estridge or ‘ostrich’, a name that was redolent of the faraway climes of her earlier VOC service.

If a ship could be named Ostrich, then contemporary poets such as Richard Lovelace likened the ostrich to a ship: Eastrich! Thou featherd Foole, and easie prey, That larger sailes to thy broad Vessell needst (Lucasta’s Fanne, 1649).

She was hulked in 1653 and is reported in one source as becoming a careening hulk, a support vessel in the ‘careening’ or heeling over of ships on the shore to be cleaned and repaired, an essential but time-consuming process in the age of sail. As warships aged and/or became obsolete, they would be successively downgraded, passing through a number of incarnations after leaving active service, a process of decay that sometimes ultimately led to wrecking by abandonment or through structural weakness in adverse conditions.

There was another fate, and a common one in the 17th and 18th centuries as the demands of the Royal Navy for facilities increased: to be sunk as harbour foundations or as breakwaters at principal ports. Such was the fate of the Estridge, given variously as at Portsmouth or at Sheerness, but in all sources for the same purpose, and at the same date, in 1679. The Augustine, also captured from the Dutch in 1653, became a foundation at Harwich in 1665, a fate shared by the Play Prize, ex. French Le Jeu[x] in 1697. Even as late as 1830 HMS Glatton was scuttled as a breakwater foundation, again revealing Harwich’s rich heritage of ‘recycled ships’.

*the banner photo is of the Admiral van Tromp, a modern wreck named after Admiral Maarten Harpertsz. Tromp.

18. The Ship of the Desert

As camels are so often poetically named the “ship of the desert” it seems apt that a real ship might rejoice in the name of a camel. Or does it?

This week I have been channelling my inner Errol Flynn by buckling the swash through the Battle of the Gabbard, 1653, among others. I don’t want to spike my guns by revealing too much at this stage, but I do want to whet your appetite for the Battlefields project!

The ship in question is sometimes referred to as the Kameel in both primary and secondary sources, commanded by Joost Bulter, and is one of the six ships sunk in the battle. Only two have the potential to have been lost in English waters, since both were lost before nightfall on the first day – after which the Dutch bore up for the Flemish coast. One of these was the Kameel.

Earlier in the Anglo-Dutch wars Bulter was recorded as in command of a ship known as the Stadt en Land (Town and Country), but this wasn’t the right name either as the Stadt en Land seems not to have otherwise been recorded. It is suggested by one authority that Willem van de Velde the Elder, who drew many ship portraits (as did his son, the Younger – many of you will be familiar with the Younger’s drawing of the London) may have been to blame for the first misapprehension, by recording this ship with a camel carved on her counter-stern, and annotating it as ‘Kameel’. Perhaps this was her first name, if she was a hired ship. (Camel is certainly attested as the name of an English ship in the same period, one of the English fireships expended in the Second Anglo-Dutch War: the name seems to have gone out of fashion until we see a rash of CAMELS wrecked 1875-1896!)

At the same time another ship named the Stadt Groningen en Ommelanden is recorded, and it has been proposed by some that this was Joost Bulter’s ship. It would not be unusual for crews to shorten or otherwise alter the name of their ship: we know, for example, at a later date that the crew of the Bellerophon called her the Billy Ruffian, so that explanation sounds very plausible.

The Gabbard is not particularly well illustrated in Dutch marine paintings, possibly because they were, well, trounced, on this occasion. There is a atmospheric, albeit fairly general, scene by the minor artist Heerman Witmont in the National Maritime Museum, whose central feature is sails with prominent holes over clouds of smoke – no better way to convey the heat of battle! The technique is grisaille – pen and ink drawing on panel – not common, but characteristic of some Dutch marine artists and used by Willem van de Velde the Elder.

Resolution on the right duels Brederode on the left by the mutual firing of broadsides: Resolution flies the ensign of the Commonwealth. In the foreground is the detritus of war – wreckage floating in the foreground on a symbolically choppy sea. This foreground wreckage is very much a convention of marine paintings, particularly of battle scenes, and no wonder, with masts being constantly shot away and the like, but possibly it also subtly alludes to the Dutch losses in this encounter.