No. 76: The London Blows Up, 7 March 1665

To commemorate the 350th anniversary of the loss of the warship London in the Thames Estuary on 7 March 1665, I would like to take a look at the London in 1665 and in 2015, in a two-part blog. In this first part we look at the story of the wreck event in the words of those who were there at the time, and in the next part on Monday we will hear from those working on the London today.


Pen and ink ship portrait of the hull of the London in broadside view, with flag at her stern.
The London, circa 1660, Willem van de Velde, © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Van de Velde was a Dutch marine artist and specialist in ship portraits, and played a role in documenting the battles of the Anglo-Dutch wars.

The London was a stalwart of the Commonwealth Navy, built in 1656 under Cromwell, but had also been part of the fleet accompanying Charles II on his return from exile in the Netherlands in 1660. On 7th March 1665, the London was bound from Chatham Dockyard to the Hope Reach in the Thames, a key location at a tense time, since war had just been declared between Charles II’s England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands on the 4th. The national mood was sombre, and it was also a cold day: thirty miles north, Ralph Josselin, vicar of Earls Colne in Essex, noted that his water pump had frozen that day. (1) Undoubtedly what happened next would have made headlines had there been such a thing as newspapers in England, but the first edition of the London Gazette would not come out until 7th November 1665. However, as Josselin’s journal shows, this was a time of assiduous diary-writing and administrative record-keeping, which allows us a window into the past.

Between Chatham and the Hope Reach lies the Nore: as so often, a safe deep-water anchorage, which was, and remained, a traditional assembly point for battle fleets and convoys up to and including the Second World War, lay next to a hazard, the notorious Nore sandbank. Yet it was not the Nore that was to claim the London.

A letter written on the 8th to Sir Joseph Williamson reported: ‘The brave ship London has blown up near the Hope’, leaving behind only her hull and stern. (2) On the same day Samuel Pepys, in his capacity as Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board, provides us with more detail on the ‘sad newes of the London‘ in his personal diary: ‘a little a’this side the buoy of the Nower [that is, on the London side of the buoy, not the seaward side], she suddenly blew up.’ He tells us that only 24 persons were saved out of a complement of over 300, ‘the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordinance.’ (3)

Portrait of Samuel Pepys in old age, wearing a wig and facing right against a dark background, in a gold frame.
Samuel Pepys, 1689, by Godfrey Kneller. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Pepys was one of the key figures of the 17th century Navy and a very capable administrator. He had been asked to distribute the Articles of War to the fleet in the Hope just a few days previously.

Another letter, this time to Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington, passes on coffee-house gossip, blaming the easy availability of gunpowder ’20s a barrel cheaper than in London’ and therefore by implication suspect in provenance and quality. (4) On the 9th, John Evelyn, the other famous diarist of the period, ‘went to receive the poor creatures that were saved out of the London frigate, blown up by accident, with above 200 men,’ for he had been appointed one of the Commissioners for sick and wounded seamen by Charles II. (5) The Dutch ambassador, Michiel van Gogh, had more specific intelligence on numbers than Pepys, or perhaps more details were known by the time of his letter on 10th March: ‘The London, prepared for Vice-Admiral Lawson, was blown up while sailing up the river, and only 19 out of the crew of 351 saved.’ (6)

On the 11th Pepys recorded the results of an inspection of the wreck by Sir William Batten and Sir John Mennes: ‘out of which they say, the guns may be got, but the hull of her will be wholly lost’. (7) Those guns continued to be the focus of administrative attention for a good 30 years afterwards: recoveries made in 1679 caused some wrangling that surfaced in 1694-5, as the salvor attempted to leverage payment of a debt. (8)

What happened next? Part 2 on Monday will bring the story of the London up to date.

CGI reconstruction of the London, showing her gun decks and masts
CGI reconstruction of the London © Touch Productions

(1) Diary of Ralph Josselin, 7 March 1665

(2) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, 1664-5, Vol.114, No.84

(3) Diary of Samuel Pepys, 8 March 1665

(4) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, 1664-5, Vol.114, No.90

(5) Diary of John Evelyn, 9 March 1665

(6) Copy, Holland Correspondence, March 10, 1665, in Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, Charles II, 1664-5, Vol.114

(7) Diary of Samuel Pepys, 11 March 1665

(8) Calendar of Treasury Papers, Vol. 1, 1556-1696, May 17, 1694, and November 26, 1695

No.53: The Quincentenary of Trinity House

Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar, will celebrate its 500th anniversary on Tuesday 20th May, commemorating the granting of a Royal Charter by Henry VIII on 20th May 1514.

We look today at the first mention of Trinity House in the wreck records of Historic England. Since its earliest days, Trinity House has been concerned with the safety of mariners in all respects, including responsibility for licensing ship pilots as guides into harbour.

In the 16th century pilots with intimate knowledge of the Thames Estuary were required to assist ships to pick their way between the parallel diagonal sandbanks that bar the way to the Thames: the Maplin, the Barrow, the Sunk, the Long Sand, and the Kentish Knock. (Between them they have accounted for nearly 600 recorded wrecks.) Over the centuries many a ship has gone aground in navigating a previously safe channel between these banks.

The details of an incident in 1527 – when a pilot clearly failed in his mission – are preserved in a letter from Charles V of Spain to Henry VIII, concerning a ship inbound for London from Cadiz, whose master, one Arnaton de Gamon, accused her pilots of deliberately running her ashore ‘vpon a banke of Thamyse’. (1)

Reading between the lines, Arnaton was also accusing local boatmen of discrimination, treating him less favourably than their countrymen aboard his ship whose cargo was salvaged and restored to them. The same boats broke up his ship in situ. Arnaton was furious, valuing his loss at 1,100 ducats and asking for a further 900 in compensation, and urging Charles to send out a ‘letter of mark and reprisal against the English’.

Though an international incident was averted when Charles mildly refused this course of action, but instead ‘entreated Henry to see that justice may be done to the said Arnaton’, the story nevertheless represents a turning point. Arnaton’s complaint was a throwback to the Middle Ages, for which the majority of wreck records survive in the form of such grievances brought to a royal authority. The 16th century marks a shift towards wreck records via other reporting mechanisms, such as the records of Trinity House: shipwreck sources become much more diverse.

To help celebrate the Quincentenary, another article on Historic England’s Heritage Calling blog looks at lighthouse heritage . . . and for a link to Trinity House’s own history blog, please click here.

(1) Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, 1627-30, reproduced in more detail in The Trinity House of Deptford 1514-1660, G G Harris, London, 1969