Lost Property: Identifying the Seventeenth-century Swash Channel Wreck

2010_complete_tcA photomosaic of the Fame wrecksite. (C) Bournemouth University

The Swash Channel leads to the main entrance of Poole Harbour in Dorset, and this is where the Swash Channel Wreck lies. The original name of the ship has been lost for close on 400 years.

Until now.

The Swash Channel Wreck is a Protected Wreck Site, one of 62 in the UK. This means that it has been designated by the government under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 on account of the historical, archaeological or artistic importance of the vessel, or of its contents or former contents.

The wreck of this 17th century armed merchant ship was first discovered by accident in 1990 and then rediscovered in 2004 by Wessex Archaeology. Subsequent work, led by Bournemouth University, has uncovered the structure and raised many artefacts. It’s a vulnerable site as well as an important one, and its condition is monitored.

Bournemouth University commissioned me to undertake a research project to see if it was possible to identify the ship. The subsequent hunt led through more than 15,000 manuscript pages in Dorset and London. It’s a bit of a cliché (to say the least) to compare historical research with detective work, but this project certainly felt like it. Many of the paper trails didn’t go anywhere, a few led to ‘possibles’, and one took me to what I believe is the right answer.

The Swash Channel Wreck is at a depth of between 7 and 9 metres on the edge of the Hook Sands. The hull is carvel-built and about 40 m of the port side survives. This is remarkable, because it includes some of the upperworks, though the structure is split into two pieces. Tree-ring evidence suggests that the hull contains some wood felled between 1619 and 1639 in the Netherlands or Germany, with at least one timber from a tree cut down in the year 1628. The hull had an outer plank sheathing, designed to help protect the main planking from marine organisms. This indicated that the vessel might have been on a voyage to or from the tropics.

Judging by the number of surviving gunports, the ship carried 26 or more carriage-mounted guns, though most of the weapons themselves are no longer there. No cargo was found in the hull, but some Dutch domestic pottery was discovered which dated to the years 1625-1650 (1).

So, the ship was probably Dutch and operated between c 1620 and 1650, or a bit later. With this sort of timeframe, you might think that finding the right ‘candidate’ for the wreck should have been easy. No problem.

Ah, no.

For one thing, there was no systematic government recording of shipwrecks in Britain until the Victorian era. For another, the period 1620-50 predates the first English newspapers by a long way.

1625-42 wreck incident map

Map showing wreck incidents listed in my 1625-1642 wreck survey: Dutch wrecks are marked in red, and many positions are approximate only, e.g. ships identified as wrecked ‘on the Isle of Wight’. (C) Ian Friel 2013

This is not to say that there are no records of wrecks. The archives of the 17th-century state are full of letters, accounts, legal proceedings and other material concerning sunken vessels, some of it very detailed. As part of the search for the Swash Channel Wreck I pulled together as many wreck references as I could find in British sources (mainly for England and Wales) for the years 1625-1642. First and foremost I wanted to identify the Swash Channel Wreck, but also needed to get a sense of the nature and scope of the evidence and to set the Dorset wreck in context. The year 1642 was chosen as the end-date for the survey because the English Civil War started then, and a lot of central government record-keeping went to pieces until the 1650s.

The survey turned up 142 references to losses of specific ships. These were mainly merchant vessels that were important enough to generate paperwork. No doubt there were also many losses of fishing boats and small merchantmen which went unrecorded, but in this case ‘important’ generally meant ‘valuable’.

The single most common reason for reporting these wrecks (in 74 of 142 cases) was that they were lost property, not that they were disasters that endangered life and limb. The loss of a ship could be a huge financial blow for the owner and for anyone who had goods aboard. Small wonder that they made a fuss about it. The fuss was frequently caused by illegal salvage operations.

By law, a sunken ship could only be declared a ‘wreck’ if no-one escaped alive from it. If there were no survivors, the remains of the ship and cargo belonged to whoever owned the ‘right of wreck’ on the stretch of shore where the incident took place. In many cases, this was the local lord of the manor. However, if there were survivors, then the ship and its contents were deemed to be the property of its original owners.

This all sounds straightforward enough, but coast dwellers and others often disregarded the legal niceties and just grabbed anything they could. The vast majority of rural inhabitants were very poor, and a wreck could dump vast wealth virtually on their doorstep.

People could go to extremes to get hold of such booty. One Dutch wreck on the Essex coast in winter 1633, for example, was picked over by three different groups of salvors. One party extracted goods worth at least £5 million in modern terms, but a man in one of the other groups died because he and his companions had to work deep inside the hull in freezing water up to their armpits (2).

Hoorn - port 1980The port of Hoorn. (C) Ian Friel 1980

Dutch wrecks were fairly common around the English coast in this time, a reflection of the rising power of the United Provinces of the Netherlands at sea. Their ships travelled the globe, and in January 1631 one particular vessel set sail from its home port of Hoorn, near Amsterdam, on a voyage to the West Indies. The ship was the Fame, an armed merchantman owned by two men, Hercules Garretson and Cornelius Veene. The vessel’s master was called John Jacobson Botemaker, and in all there were some 45 people on board.  The Fame must taken a course through the Dover Strait and along the south coast of England, because at some point in February it anchored off Poole.

It is not known why the Fame stopped off Poole, but the English Channel can be an inhospitable place in winter and perhaps the crew were seeking to shelter in Studland Bay. If this was the case, it didn’t work, because there was a storm, and the ship seems to have dragged its anchor (that is, the anchor would not hold). The Fame was ‘overset and overwhelmed’, driven on to a sandbank and ‘broken in pieces and torn up’. ‘Overset’ meant that the ship was knocked on its side, or capsized.   Fortunately, the master and crew all escaped alive and got to land – so no way was the ship legally a ‘wreck’ – but people from the Poole area still came out and filched tackle, gear, victuals and other items from the stricken vessel.

Hoorn 1980 - merchants' houses - EDITEDFormer merchants’ houses in Hoorn, decorated with 17th-century ship carvings. (C) Ian Friel 1980

On 2 March 1631, soon after the incident, Garretson and Veene made a complaint about the looting of the Fame to the English High Court of Admiralty (HCA: the HCA was the central court for maritime cases). They wanted the HCA to put together a commission to recover the stolen goods and arrest the people who had taken them. As there were survivors, the owners had a claim in English law to everything that had been stolen, and all that was left in the ship. This was also backed-up by an international agreement. In 1625 the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of Southampton specified that the remains of any Dutch ships and goods wrecked on the British coast had to be restored to their original owners. The Dutchmen had a cast-iron case, but despite this, it seems that the HCA did nothing.

Fortunately, there is a local source that adds to the story. Poole had its own Admiralty Court from the Middle Ages, and records of its proceedings survive from 1550. The Court was meant to meet about once a year, with the Mayor serving as ‘Admiral’ and ’24 honest seafaring men’ acting as the jury. The boundaries of Poole haven extended from the border with the port of Wareham, to North Haven Point, and then as far out to sea ‘as a man could discern a Humber barrel to float upon the ocean’. This distance has been estimated at about three miles, and would have taken in all of Studland Bay and the site of the Swash Channel Wreck (3).

The Poole Admiralty Court had jurisdiction over a wide range of issues within its small maritime empire. These included matters such as theft, piracy, derelicts, flotsam, valuables found on dead bodies, accidental death, impressment for royal service, as well as the regulation of fishing and the fish market (4).

In practice, most Court meetings were taken up with workaday discussions of harbour management and the enforcement of rules. Wrecks were seldom mentioned in the 17th-century proceedings, but in the Court record for 24 June 1631 there is an entry regarding a ‘Mr Newland’ who had undertaken for a ‘Fleming to clear the harbour of the wreck of the Fame of Hoorn’ (spelling modernised; ‘Fleming’ was a catch-all English term for anyone from the Netherlands or Flanders). Newland had also agreed to place two marker buoys on the site by 1 August, on pain of a colossal fine of £200 – millions, in modern terms (5).

It didn’t happen.

Nearly a year later, on 21 May 1632, the Admiralty Court noted that ‘Mr Robert Newland the Younger of the Isle of Wight’ had still not cleared the channel of the ‘Flemish wreck’. He was ordered to do this, and to put two buoys on it by 25 July, or face the fine (6).

These two entries place the wreck of the Fame ‘before Studland’ and in a ‘channel’. The highest single fine that the Court normally levied was £2, so the figure of £200 shows just how serious a problem the wreck was thought to be.

The clear implication is that the sunken vessel was situated on the main approach to Poole Harbour and represented a real danger to shipping. The evidence fits very well with the position of the Swash Channel Wreck, lying right on the channel leading to the modern harbour entrance. Also, the Wreck lies on its side on the edge of Hook Sand, and this corresponds to the statement that the Fame capsized on a sandbank.DSCF1361 (1)The head of a classical warrior, carved on the rudderhead of the Fame of Horn, as displayed in Poole Museum. (C) Bournemouth University 2017

The Fame, of course, slots right into the 1620-1650 timeframe for the Wreck derived from the archaeological evidence. There are other things about the archaeology that also tie in with the documentary sources. The wooden hull sheathing would certainly be consistent with a vessel en route to the West Indies, as the Fame was. No cargo was found in the Wreck, and none is mentioned in the HCA complaint about looting, suggesting that the Fame was sailing out in ballast – i.e. empty of cargo on the first leg of the voyage.

It’s also very significant that a lot of the Wreck’s guns are missing.  Cannon are heavy, expensive items that tend to stay put when they hit the sea bottom. It may be that they were removed by local looters, but the problem with this idea is that the missing guns included most of those on the port side, which was nestled into the seabed and would have been very difficult for opportunist salvors to access. There is another possible explanation, though. Modern archaeologists might not be the first people to dive on the site.

Robert Newland ‘the Younger’ of the Isle of Wight must have been one of the sons of Robert Newland Senior, a wealthy merchant and shipowner (died 1637) who had wharves and warehouses on the island at Newport and East Cowes (7). Four years prior to the loss of the Fame, Newland Snr was involved with a celebrated Dutch salvor called ‘Jacob the Diver’ in the salvage of cargo, gear and weapons lost in the Dutch Eastindiamen Kampen and Vergulde Draeck on the Needles in 1627 (8).

Jacob the Diver’s real name was either John Jacob Janson or Jacob Johnson. He worked in this country, France and Ireland between 1620 and 1633, and was perhaps still operating here in 1636. Jacob had some kind of diving apparatus, which he used to descend on wrecks, and seems to have been very successful at recovering sunken goods and equipment (9).

The ‘Fleming’ who was working with Robert Newland Junior could well have been Jacob the Diver. If this was the case, it means that the Swash Channel Wreck was worked on by one of the most accomplished divers and salvors in Europe. This would account for the disappearance of so many guns, particularly those on the port side, which would have been very difficult to reach.

Presumably, too, Newland and ‘the Fleming’ eventually also cleared the Fame out of harm’s way, breaking it up – the starboard side of the Wreck is long gone. The Court proceedings do not refer to it again after May 1632, and the shipwreck was eventually forgotten.

The links between the historical and archaeological evidence lead me to believe that the Swash Channel Wreck is the Fame of Hoorn.

Unfortunately, research by historians in the Netherlands has not so far turned up any references in the Dutch archives to the Fame or those associated with it. However, given its declared destination, it is possible that the Fame belonged to the Dutch West India Company (WIC), a body set up in 1621 to control Dutch trade with the Americas, the Caribbean and West Africa. Run in true 17th-century Dutch fashion by a body of merchant oligarchs, the Heeren XIX, it had power to make both war and peace, as well as to trade. Like the contemporary Dutch and English East India Companies, the WIC had a terrifying reach (10).

Many of the records of the WIC were destroyed in the 19th century, so identifying the Fame as a ‘Westindiaman’ in this sense may be very difficult. There is an alternative possibility, though. The Fame may have been an ‘interloper’, a vessel on a private trading voyage under the noses of the WIC.

What gives this credence is the lack of any real follow-up to the complaint made by Garretson and Veene to the HCA.   Dutch shipowners with real political and economic clout – like anyone backed by the WIC – often used diplomatic channels to pursue matters of wreck looting in British waters. The case of the Salmon of Amsterdam, wrecked and plundered on the Dorset coast in 1632, even reached the English Privy Council, King Charles I’s own advisory body. Years later, during the short-lived English Republic, goods were taken from yet another Dutch ship sunk off Poole, the St Adrian of Middelburg. The owners of the cargo were important people, and included a Dutch ambassador. The Dutch raised so much hell about the matter that the dispute eventually landed on the desk of the dying Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (11).

The apparent lack of any HCA follow-up to Garretson and Veene’s complaint may well indicate that they were interlopers, and lacked the corporate pull needed to get what they wanted. It’s also significant that the Poole Admiralty Court made no reference to the looting of the wreck.  Perhaps some of the ‘honest seafaring men’ of Poole were not so honest, but even they would have been forced into action if an HCA commissioner had turned up from London.  Commissioners had real power. The Dorset landowner involved in pillaging the Salmon in 1632 was threatened with being dragged before the HCA in order to explain himself.  Only by pleading extreme old age was he able to avoid an unpleasant, and possibly terminal, trip to the capital.

Whatever the full facts of the Fame affair, the ship and its remaining contents joined all of the other lost property lying on the seabed around England.

Future research may uncover more about the stories of this ship, its owners and crew. For now, the Swash Channel Wreck at least has its name back.

The Fame of Hoorn.

 

Acknowledgments

Very special thanks are due to Bournemouth University and Dave Parham, Associate Professor in Maritime Archaeology, for commissioning me to research this ship, and for allowing me to use the Swash Channel Wreck images in this piece. Thanks are also due to Tom Cousins of Bournemouth University for his help with the images.

The discovery, excavation and conservation of the Fame have involved the efforts of maritime archaeologists, scientists, conservators and others over years. Without their skill, commitment and scholarship the loss of the ship would only be known now as one incident among many others.   Their work has made it special, and made it accessible to an international public.

I would also like to thank the staff of The National Archives, Kew and the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester, for their courtesy and assistance.   The DHC staff were especially helpful in locating the Poole Admiralty Book, not then listed in the main DHC catalogue, which was of enormous significance for this research.   The Admiralty Book is an important document, and deserves to be published in full. It is one more demonstration, if any was needed, that local record offices are treasure-houses of history.

The upper part of the rudder from the Fame, with its distinctive rudderhead carving, is now impressively displayed in Poole Museum along with other items from the ship, and is very well worth a visit.

Notes

DHC    Dorset History Centre, Dorchester

TNA     The National Archives, Kew

(1)  https://www1.bournemouth.ac.uk/news/2016-04-01/beach-find-may-be-historic-swash-channel-wreck; https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000082; D Parham et al. 2012 D Parham et al., Swash Channel Designated Wreck Site, Bournemouth University. This present piece is based on my report for Bournemouth University, ‘The Mercy of the Sea’ – Identifying the Swash Channel Wreck, 2013.

(2) HCA 24/89, nos 187, 193 and 202.

(3) HCA 24/87, No 171, ff 1-2v; H P Smith, ‘Poole’s ancient Admiralty Court’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society, Vol 49, 1928, pp 125-31; DHCDC/PL/CLA 24, Poole Admiralty Book 1550-1834.

(4) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, unnumbered folios at the beginning of the volume.

(5) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, f 60.

(7) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, f 61.

(8) TNA PROB/11/174, will of Robert Newland.

(9) A Roddie, ‘Jacob, the Diver’, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol 62, 1976, pp 255-69, pp 259-60.

(10) C R Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800, London 1977, pp 24-26 and 48-50; a translation of the WIC’s charter can be found online at: avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/westind.asp

(11) The Mercy of the Sea, pp 38-47.

© Ian Friel 2017

Daughters of England

 

Stedham - OS 1st edn publ 1813

Stedham and Iping on the 1st edtion Ordnance Survey Map, 1813.  By the 1880s the area called ‘Trotton Common’ was known as Stedham Common, and was the site of the temporary hospital.

This piece is a small contribution to women’s history, for International Women’s Day. It looks at the events of two terrible months in a part of Victorian Sussex, and what they tell us about the lives of local people, particularly those of women.

The village of Iping stands on the banks of the river Rother, a few miles west of the small West Sussex market town of Midhurst.  Before the 20th century the local economy was mostly based on agriculture, but industry was not entirely absent.  In the early 1700s a watermill at Iping was converted into a paper mill.   The mill had an extraordinarily long working life and remained in production until it was destroyed by fire in 1930 (1).

By the early 1880s the mill was owned by Warren & Co and produced blotting paper.   This was made from the fibres of cloth rags – typically cotton and linen.  The bales of cloth came from sources in both Britain and abroad, and were transported to the area by train, arriving at the now long-vanished station at nearby Elsted.   A wagon took the bales to the paper mill, where they were sorted, dusted and cut into small pieces. Boiling and bleaching followed, after which the cloth was made into paper. The whole process, from opening a bale to the finished paper, took about two days.

The rag-loft was an old wooden building that stood on the opposite side of the river to the mill itself.   Described as ‘admitting plenty of air’, it was probably a freezing place to work in winter, and it is likely that the work carried on there was dirty and unpleasant. Fourteen women worked in the rag-loft as sorters, with two men employed to open the bales and to carry the sorted rags over Iping bridge to the mill.   The millworkers mostly lived in and around Iping, though some came from the neighbouring village of Stedham.

The story of what happened there in 1883 relies on local health records, including the report of Dr Charles Kelly, who was the Medical Officer of Health for the West Sussex Sanitary District (2).   Kelly gave the people mentioned in his report a modicum of anonymity by refraining from the use of surnames – he referred to them as ‘Ann D’, ‘Emily H’ and so-on.

On 8 May 1883, a 20 year-old Iping rag-sorter named Emily H went down with a headache and backpain.   Shortly after, she developed a rash.  The rash was caused by smallpox.

Emily had been vaccinated against smallpox before, and soon recovered.  However, Clara H, aged 15, was not so lucky. Like Emily, she fell ill at the rag-loft on 8 May and went home to her family cottage in Iping.   The disease progressed with horrifying rapidity and the girl slipped into a coma on the evening of the 11th. She was dead the next day, and buried by nightfall.

Dr Kelly had gone to Iping on 11 May, having heard of the outbreak there.  He had also received disturbing news that it had already spread to Stedham.   The first Stedham victim was one of the two men who worked in the rag-loft, Frederick D, aged 21 years.   He had felt unwell on 5 and 6 May.  He must have dragged himself into work on the 8th, because he returned home almost at once, feeling very ill.   Frederick went to bed, and by the evening the characteristic smallpox rash had appeared.

Former New Inn, StedhamThe former New Inn (later called the Gnu Inn), Stedham.  Frederick D was probably once one of its customers (image C) Ian Friel 2016

Frederick lived in what was little more than a two-up, two-down cottage with his parents, James (60) and Ann (48), and four siblings, Charlotte (17), James (junior, 10) Lettice (7) and a baby sister. James (the father) took the three middle children to stay with him in an empty cottage.  Ann remained at home to care for Frederick, but also had to look after the baby.

Each of the family members had been vaccinated twice before, and two were revaccinated on 12 May, but this may have been scant reassurance in the face of such an aggressive and terrible disease. As matters proved, vaccination did not offer total protection either: it had not prevented Frederick for catching smallpox, and within a few days his younger brother had it, too. James junior went back to the family home to be looked after by his mother. He was in a bad way by 23 May, but eventually recovered.   It’s difficult to imagine what must have passed through Ann’s mind as she nursed her younger son, for on 18 May the disease had killed Frederick.

Smallpox continued to spread. A 58 year-old Iping rag-sorter, Mrs H, died on the same day as Frederick.   Dr Kelly quickly identified infected rags as the source of the disease. As the people who handled the rags came from the poorer parts of society, it is little wonder that the epidemic seems to have been confined to the poor of the district.   Certainly, all of the victims seem to have lived in cottages, dwellings that were often cramped and crowded, far from being the sort of ‘des res’ some of them would become in the 20th century.

A programme of vaccination was tried, but met with little response.  Isolation was the only alternative treatment available, so infected cottages were quarantined. In  places where a death occurred, the rooms were fumigated with burning sulphur, and sickroom bedding and clothes were burnt. The local Poor Law Guardians supplied quarantined households with food and other necessaries, as did some of their neighbours.   Men were employed at each place to act as messengers, taking supplies to the infected homes and bringing news back.

However, this form of ‘care in the community’ did not work. The smallpox continued to spread. Kelly decided to take the sick people out of their homes and put them in complete isolation.  He got powers to do this from the Midhurst Sanitary Authority, and at the end of May a tented isolation hospital was set up on Stedham Common, to the south of both villages.  Fortunately, the weather was warm and dry.

A big 40 x 20 ft marquee was put up on the Common on 31 May and used to house most of the patients.  Five or more bell tents were also acquired, along with beds, bedding, wooden boards to make temporary floors and a mangle for laundry use. Two trained nurses were employed to work at the hospital, and they were assisted by quaratined relatives of the patients, who were accomodated in the bell tents.  By 1 June there were 25 people at the hospital, rising to 29 two weeks later.  Their homes were each fumigated three times in their absence, and any bedding or clothing remaining in them was either destroyed or disinfected by carbolic acid and boiling water. One elderly man died at the hospital, but he was the fifth and last to be killed by this outbreak, which was declared to be over on 30 June.

In the end, the epidemic seems to have been contained by a number of things.  One was a history of past vaccination in the area.  Many people had already been vaccinated, some as far back as the 1820s, and so had a measure of protection.  Kelly’s decision to move all of the cases to the isolation hospital was clearly a key factor in stopping the smallpox from spreading further. The disease was also defeated by courage – the bravery of the messengers who kept the infected families supplied, of the doctors and nurses and of the family members who tended their sick.

One of these, in particular, stands out: Ann D.   At the risk of her own life she nursed her two sons through a terrible disease and saw one of them die. We cannot know how she coped with the grief and yet was still able to keep her baby safe and see her other son through his deadly ordeal. If asked, she might have denied that this was courage, and have said that this was just what a mother had to do.  We cannot know. However, it is important to remember women like her, who carried – and still carry – enormous burdens and yet manage to keep life going. Her name was Ann Denyer.

(1)      L F Salzman (ed), A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 4, The Rape of Chichester, London (Victoria County History), p 63.

(2)     West Sussex Record Office WDC/CL74/1/1884, pp 93-106; WSRO WG7/59/3, minutes of the Midhurst Rural Sanitary Authority 1879-85, pp 264-65, 267-78; 1881 Census information, identifying the Denyer family, via http://www.findmypast.co.uk.

I came across the report on the smallpox epidemic whilst undertaking research into a house history for some clients: it is thanks to their commission that the story has come to light.

© Ian Friel 2016

The graveyard of the great ships

IMG_5882

The site at Bursledon: to the left, the site of the Grace Dieu, to the right, the possible site of the Holy Ghost.

‘But how do we know that?’ is a good question for people to ask of historians and archaeologists, and one that they have every right to ask. On 12 October Historic England announced that it was going to investigate and assess a feature in the River Hamble in Hampshire that I had identified as the possible remains of Henry V’s great ship Holy Ghost.  The media reaction has been intense and very positive, but it has made me think some more about the ‘how do we know?’ question.  This blog aims to go some way towards answering it (1).

Back in 1982, when working in the (now sadly long-gone) Archaeological Research Centre of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, I was looking one day at an aerial photograph of the Burseldon stretch of the River Hamble in Hampshire. Near to the known wreck of Henry V’s great ship Grace Dieu I spotted a shape resembling one end of a large ship, marked in the mud. This led me to think that a sizeable and perhaps very old vessel might be buried there. Knowing that that there was documentary evidence that the Holy Ghost had been laid up at Bursledon, it made me think that there was a possibility that the ‘ship-shape’ might mark the location of the Holy Ghost. My then Head of Department, Dr (now Professor) Sean McGrail, looked at the evidence I had put together in a document entitled ‘Bursledon II?’ (Bursledon I being the Grace Dieu) and decided that ARC would investigate further.   The fieldwork was decidedly low-tech – we probed the mud with long metal rods from a boat – but about six feet under the mud the rods started hitting something solid in the area of the ship-shape. I can still remember the sense of relief that we had not come on a wild-goose chase!

The presence of the solid object was also confirmed by sonar work carried out by a University of Southampton postgraduate student, Hanna Steyne, in 2001 (2). Historic England will be undertaking further work next year and it is hoped that this will tell us whether or not the Holy Ghost lies here (Historic England is also assessing the site for statutory protection under the Protection of Wrecks Act).  I think that there is a real possibility that this is the Holy Ghost, but leaving aside the identity of the site for the moment, I wanted to write something about the documentary evidence for fates of the Holy Ghost and Henry’s three other great ships.

The four great ships were clearly intended as war-winning weapons. They were hugely expensive, absorbing about one-third of total spending on the royal ships between 1413 and 1422, but three of them seem to have justified the vast amounts spent on them.   Their basic details were as follows (3):

Trinity Royal, 500-540 tons burden, built (rebuild) at Greenwich, Kent, entered service 1415

Holy Ghost, 740-760 tons burden, built (rebuild) at Southampton, entered service 1415

Jesus, 1,000 tons burden, built at Smallhythe, Kent, entered service 1417

Grace Dieu, 1,400 tons burden, built at Southampton, entered service 1420

The Trinity Royal and Holy Ghost took part in the two battles in 1416 and 1417 that broke French seapower and opened the way for Henry V’s second, much deadlier invasion of France in 1417. The Jesus very probably took part in the 1417 battle as well, though the Grace Dieu was completed too late to play a serious part in the sea war, and its one known voyage ended in fiasco (4).

The great ships were all moored in the River Hamble from the latter part of 1420. With a wooden fort called the Bulwerk at its mouth, and two heavy harbour defence chains, the Hamble provided a sheltered and well-defended anchorage for the king’s fleet (5).

Henry V died in 1422, and most of his remaining ships were sold off in the next few years. The great ships were kept, however – perhaps the royal government believed that they could form the core of a reborn royal fleet, if needed. A lot of money was spent on keeping them afloat – paying shipkeepers to live aboard as small maintenance crews, employing shipwrights and caulkers, and purchasing pitch, tar and other materials, along with extra pumps.   Because they were mostly  organic objects, Henry’s warships were wasting assets, subject to decay and sudden leaks. The leakiest of the lot seems to have been the Holy Ghost, which in 1423 received the attentions of a dyver named Davy Owyn, who worked under the hull to stop up cracks. This may be the earliest record of a diver being used for ship maintenance work (6).

HMS Victory - shores in dockThough Nelson’s HMS Victory lies in a Georgian stone dock, it is supported at the sides by shores, just as the Holy Ghost was 

However, by the spring of 1426 the damage caused by natural decay, bad repair and storms left the Holy Ghost in a very poor condition. The authorities must have feared that it was close to sinking. The mast, rigging and much other gear and stores were removed, and taken to the king’s storehouse at Southampton for safekeeping.   Meanwhile, a dock was dug for the ship. This was no mere hole in the riverbank, but a construction project that occupied 96 labourers for much of May and June 1426. Timber for the work was bought on land owned by Titchfield Abbey, and trundled to the site by cart.   The timber consisted of a dozen large pieces of wood to go underneath the hull as stocks or keel blocks, and 100 shores to support the ship at the sides.   The time, money, resources and care used in making the dock strongly suggests that at the time the aim was to preserve the ship for future repair or rebuilding.

As much water and sand as possible was emptied out of the ship before it was docked on 21 June 1426.   The operation involved 80 sailors, as well as an unknown number of craftsmen, and they were kept fed and watered with supplies of bread, fish and local Hamble cider. Jordan Brownyng, the man who served as the ship’s only master from 1415 to 1422, went to live aboard as shipkeeper. He had already worked as shipkeeper on the Holy Ghost when it was afloat, but that was with a team of four other men.  This time, he was alone, and according to the records of the king’s ships he spent the next 1,622 days, sometimes working day and night, pumping out water and baling out mud.   This backbreaking and ultimately futile job finished about the end of November 1430. Brownyng left the ship, and this must mark the point at which the government gave up all hope of ever repairing the Holy Ghost, and left it to rot (7).

But where was the dock? The account for docking the ship is very detailed, but ironically is very vague as to location – ‘near Southampton’, is all it says, which is not much help.   Though the government had given up on the Holy Ghost as a ship, it was still used intermittently over the next twenty years or so as a source of materials, and documents from this period tell us where the ship lay.   The accounts for the king’s ships between 1439 and 1442 are explicit about the Holy Ghost’s location. When 254 boards were salvaged from the ship’s cabins, the accounts say that the boards came out of ‘the king’s ship Holigoste, being at Bruselden’ (Bursledon). This is backed up by the previous set of accounts, which records payments to workmen taking iron chains, probably shroud chains, out of (in this order) the Holy Ghost and Trinity Royal. The men took the ironwork in a boat to Southampton, the account noting that the boat went from ‘Brisselden (Bursledon) and Hamble where the said decayed ships in this way are…’. To my mind, the evidence of the accounts is incontrovertible: the Holy Ghost and its dock were at Bursledon.   The last set of royal accounts to mention the ship, from 1447-52, describe it as ‘sunk in the sea (sic) and in this way broken’.   As the Holy Ghost never went anywhere after 1426, this phrase most likely means that the ship and its supports had collapsed into the dock, and by 1452 the vessel was mostly underwater (8).

Bursledon was also the last resting-place of the biggest of the great ships, the Grace Dieu.  The ship stayed afloat at least 14 years, moored in the Hamble from 1420 to 1434. Part of the ship’s giant mainmast was removed in 1432, probably to lighten the vessel, but it was finally laid up in a dock on the mud at Bursledon on 1 August 1434. The dock for the Grace Dieu does not seem to have been anywhere near as deep or elaborate as that for the Holy Ghost – there is no record of stocks or shores, for example – though it was surrounded with a security hedge (probably thorn bushes, natural barbed wire) and an enclosure designed to deflect the water current from the hull. Tellingly, no shipkeeper was left aboard.   Just under five years later, on the night of 7 January 1439, the ship was hit by lightning. It caught fire and probably burned to the waterline.   Large amounts of ironwork and timber were salvaged from the wreck, but then the derelict was left alone, to re-emerge in public consciousness in the 19th century (9).

The end for the other two great ships was less dramatic.   At first, the Trinity Royal was moored at Bursledon. At some point between 1 September 1429 and 31 August 1430 (8 Henry VI), its single great mast, shroud, top and various other items of gear were removed. Taking out the mast was a difficult job, and a man was sent from Southampton to Sandwich to recruit a team of 15 ‘discreet and wise’ foreign shipmasters, led by a man named Peter Johnson. These men carried out the work, assisted by a number of other mariners. The ship was then towed from Bursledon to Hamble. It was emptied of mud and ballast, and laid up in a ‘digging’ (fossura) in the mud (le Wose – ‘ooze’), because of its decay. It is probable that by ‘Hamble’, Hamble-le-Rice (modern Hamble) was meant rather than Hamble Hook on the other side, which was normally called either ‘Hook’ or ‘Hamble Hook’ (10).

The mention of a ‘digging’ rather than a dock, and the lack of any expenditure on wooden stocks and shores to support the hull, may mean that its deterioration was too far advanced to make it worth preservation. It looks as if the Trinity Royal was simply dumped.

The reference that it was towed from Bursledon to Hamble in order to be laid up is pretty conclusive evidence that the Trinity Royal was at Hamble.  However, additional confirmation is offered by the 1437-39 payment (mentioned above) for taking iron chains out of this ship and the Holy Ghost.   Likewise, a payment account for removing cabin boards from the Trinity Royal between 1439 and 1442, says that the ship was at Hamble (11).

The planned fate of the fourth great ship, the Jesus, was at first similar to that of the Holy Ghost.   Like the Trinity Royal, the Jesus was initially moored at Bursledon. Its mast, shroud, top, yard, bowsprit and various other pieces of gear were taken out there in August 1432, and transported to the king’s storehouse in Southampton.   The ship was subsequently towed by stages to Southampton, where it was docked. The dock was built between 1 September 1432 and 31 August 1433 by a group of labourers, and the ship was put on the stokkes within it for ‘remaking, repairing and renewing’. The intention of the king’s Council at the time was for the ship to be ‘made and repaired’ at some future date, which explains the care and no doubt expense lavished on the dock. However, there is no record of any refurbishment work being carried out on the Jesus, though it does not seem to have been mined for timber, boards and nails in the ways that the other great ships were (12).

On 3 December 1446 ‘one feeble and perished ship called the Jesus… lying at Southampton’ was granted to Christopher Barton and Richard Greneacres, servants of Cardinal Beaufort.  The subsequent fate of the ship is unknown. The remains of a large ancient vessel were uncovered off American Wharf at Southampton in 1848, and it was suggested in 1971 that this might have been the hull of the Jesus, though some doubt has been cast on this identification (13).

Whether the ship-shape that I spotted on the aerial photograph in 1982 proves to be the remains of the Holy Ghost or not, it does not alter the fact that the official records of the king’s fleet show that the great ship was docked at Bursledon.   Anyone travelling along the Hamble in the years between the summer of 1434 and early January 1439 would have been confronted by the spectacle of three enormous derelicts, the Trinity Royal at Hamble and the Holy Ghost and Grace Dieu at Bursledon. Even in their decay, the great ships must still have made most contemporary shipping look like minnows.

© Ian Friel 2015

(1) Historic England, 12 October 2015: http://historicengland.org.uk/news-and-features/news/historic-wreck-identified.

(2) H. Steyne 2003. An integrated investigation into Henry V’s warships the Holigost and Trinity Royal, and the Bursledon II wreck site in the River Hamble, Hampshire, University of Southampton: unpublished dissertation

(3) I. Friel, Henry V’s Navy – The Sea-Road to Agincourt and Conquest 1413-1422, The History Press Stroud, 2015, pp. 99-157 (passim) and 164-66.

(4) S Rose, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and mutiny at sea: some new evidence’, Mariner’s Mirror Vol 63, 1977, pp. 3-6.

(5) Friel 2015, pp. 138-41.

(6) S. Rose (ed.), The Navy of the Lancastrian Kings. Accounts and Inventories of William Soper, Keeper of the King’s Ships 1422-1427, Navy Records Society Vol. 123, London 1982, pp. 122-24.

(7) 1426 docking: Rose 198, pp. 122-24; Titchfield Abbey was on the same side of the river Hamble as the ‘ship-shape’ site at Burseldon; Jordan Brownyng’s job to 1430: The National Archives, Kew (TNA) E364/69, S m 2r.

(8) 1439-42: TNA E364/76, C m 1r; 1437-39: TNA E364/73, N m1r; TNA E364/86, G m 1r.

(9) I. Friel, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and the wreck in the R Hamble near Bursledon, Hampshire’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 1993, Vol 22, pp. 10-11.

(10) TNA E364/69, S m 2r.

(11) TNA E364/73, N m 1r; TNA E364/76, C m 1r; E101/53/7; E364/81, G mm 1r-2r.

(12) TNA E364/69, S m 2r; E364/81, G mm 1r; 30 iron chains from the Jesus, were sold off in December 1443, but these had probably been removed back in 1432 and taken to the storehouse.

(13) TNA E364/81, G m 2r; Rose 1982, pp. 55 and 247 and notes. 195 and 345; F.T. O’Brien, ‘Was this the Jesus?’, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 57, 1971, p. 325; reply by R.C. Anderson, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 59, 1973, p.48.

The Great Ship of Snargate

DSCF8278 - Version 2

The Great Ship of Snargate, late 15th/early 16th century (colour enhanced for greater clarity)

Why does a medieval church in a small Romney Marsh village contain a large and very old painting of a warship?

The village of Snargate is about seven miles inland from the English Channel, a few miles north of the port of Rye. The painting was uncovered in the north aisle of St Dunstan’s church when old whitewash was removed in the 1960s. It is a big image, measuring roughly 1.5 by 2 metres (around 4 x 4¾ feet). The artist used red paint, now faded to a shade of terracotta.

Expert opinion in the ‘sixties dated this picture to the period 1480-1520, based on the type of ship, and I would agree with this. According to local tradition, the painting of a ship on the north wall of a Marsh church, opposite the main door (as at Snargate), meant that it was a safe place to hide smuggled goods. This may be true, but the heyday of smuggling in the Marsh came a long time after 1500 and it is likely that the painting was made for a different reason (1).

The ship is shown almost in silhouette. It was clearly not the work of a professional artist, and resembles a large, painted graffito. Despite this, the vessel was very carefully delineated: either the artist understood how real ships were put together, or was advised by someone who did. Parts of the ship are missing, due to lost plaster and the proximity of a later memorial, but a good deal remains, more than enough to make it possible to identify the type of ship and how it was rigged.

The ship is a four-master, with tall superstructures, consisting of a two-deck forecastle at the bow and a four-deck aftercastle at the stern. The mainmast (centre) and the foremast (right) have topcastles (fighting and observation platforms) and topmasts.   The yards and sails on these masts are shown facing the viewer, at right-angles to their normal orientation, and they carry four-sided square sails. The mizzen and bonaventure masts (left) have slanting yards designed for triangular lateen sails.

The bow of the ship is higher than the stern, one of the defining features of a carrack, the biggest ship-type of the 15th century.   The multiple arches shown in the castles are gunports, designed for small swivel guns – man-killers. By counting the gunports its possible to estimate that a ship of this kind would have had around 90 guns in the castles on each side of the ship, 180 in total.

It’s usually very difficult – and often questionable – to make a link between a ship depicted in a medieval art and a documented vessel. There is some reason, however, to link the great ship of Snargate with a specific ship.

One of the unusual things about this late 15th/early 16th century painting is that it shows a huge, heavily-armed, four-masted carrack. Ships of this kind were not common in England, but in the 1480s two royal carracks of this type, the Regent and the Sovereign, were constructed for Henry VII, the first Tudor king. The 600-ton Regent was built at Reding, around four or five miles from Snargate, in the years 1487-88 (2).

OS 1813 Snargate - Version 2

Snargate (to the right) shown on the First Edition Ordnance Survey 1-inch map, published 1813. Reding Street and Smallhythe can be seen to the northwest, just above the Isle of Oxney.

The choice of Reding as the building site was probably influenced by the proximity of the great medieval shipbuilding centre at Smallhythe, a couple of miles to the west. Henry himself visited Reding in August 1487, to view the construction work. The Regent was set afloat in the autumn of 1488, and towed down the River Rother to have its masts and rigging fitted at Rye.   This was completed in the spring of 1490, and the ship was ready for sea by July of that year. The Regent saw relatively little action for most of its service life, but in 1512 it was destroyed by fire during a battle against a French carrack off Brest, with heavy loss of life (3).

There are a number of reasons for linking the great ship of Snargate with the Regent:

–       the dating of the ship type;

–       the type of ship – a very large war carrack;

–       the rarity of such vessels in England in the late 15th/early 16th centuries;

–       the proximity of the Regent’s building site at Reding;

–       the scale of the construction project, important enough to warrant a royal visit;

–       aftercastle size: the Regent had at least three decks in its aftercastle (the Sovereign had four);

–       rig: the rig of the Snargate ship is virtually identical to that of the Regent.

DSCF388415th-century swivel guns on replica stocks, on display in the Museo Storico Navale, Venice

There is also the matter of armament. The Snargate ship had enough gunports to mount about 180 guns in its castles. This figure may sound fanciful, but we know that the Sovereign carried 141 swivel guns in its castles, plus 20 guns in the waist (the open deck between the castles) and four at the stern. In other words, about 85% of its ordnance was in the superstructures. The layout of the ordnance in the Regent is not known, but it had 225 guns in total. Allowing for a similar disposition of weapons to that of the Sovereign, we would get a figure of about 191 guns in the castles, not many more than the number of castle gunports shown on the Snargate painting (4).

Absolute proof is impossible, but I think that a good case can be made for seeing the great ship of Snargate as a representation of Henry VII’s Regent.  If this is the case, it could also be the earliest-known English ship-portrait.

Blog and ship photo © Ian Friel 2014

Do visit St Dunstan’s church at Snargate, but check opening and service times first. Don’t forget to leave a donation for the church!

(1) R S Sharman, A Guide to the Parish and Church of Snargate, Kent, 2nd Edition 1974, pp 8-9: the most recent edition of the Guide reproduces the earlier section on the Ship; Ian Friel, The Good Ship. Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520, London 1995, pp 157-70; there is a brief piece on the ship in G Nesbitt Wood, ‘Church painting of a 16th-century great ship’, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol 58, 1972, p 134.

(2) Figures for the tonnages for these two ships given in various books vary from 450 to 1000 tons, possibly reflecting different tonnage calculation methods. However, the original order for building the Regent specified a ship of 600 tons, and this is followed here.

(3) M M Oppenheim (ed), Naval Accounts and Inventories of the Reign of Henry VII 1485-8 and 1495-7, Navy Records Society Vol VIII, London 1896, xxi-xxii; G J Mayhew, ‘Rye and the defence of the Narrow Seas: a 16th-century town at war’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 122, 1984, p 108; Susan Rose, England’s Medieval Navy 1066-1509, London 2013, pp 178-90; A Spont (ed), Letters and Papers Relating to the War with France, 1512-1513, Navy Record Society, Vol X, London 1897, xxiv-xxvi, pp 13, 49-50, 52, 59-60 and 63; Rose, op. cit., 189 reproduces a vivid contemporary illustration of the disastrous end of the Regent and La Cordelière.

(4) Oppenheim, op. cit., pp 187-96 and 254-91.

 

 

 

 

 

For those in peril…

St Winnow bench-end ship - Version 2

 The St Winnow ship carving, late 15th/early 16th centuries

The storm is violent, and eternal. Clouds like thick folds of cloth gather over the ship. A demon’s face looks out from one corner of the sky, its bulging eyes fixed on the vessel and the terrified sailors.  The ship surges up on the waves, which are so high that the rudder lifts clear of the water.

The perpetual tempest and the ship are carved on a wooden bench-end in the church of St Winnow, near Lostwithiel in Cornwall, which has some of the finest carved bench-ends in the county (1).

The St Winnow ship carving is well-known to those who study medieval ships. Like several of the other bench-ends in the church, it seems to date from the late 1400s/early 1500s.   The ship is a square-rigger with three masts, sailing towards the left of the bench-end.   The three-masted square rig was developed in the 15th century, by combining the four-sided square sails of North Europe with the triangular lateen of the Mediterreanean. It produced a much more maneouvrable type of vessel, which took Columbus and others across the Atlantic – something that happened at around the time this carving was made (2).

A ship of this kind normally carried a large square mainsail hung from a sailyard on the mainmast (centre), similar in shape to the foresail (on the left of the photo). The mizzen sail is on the mast near the stern (right), a triangle stiff with wind. If the carver had shown the mainsail in place, it would have obscured most of the praying crewmen, who are a crucial part of the design.

The church of St Winnow stands right by the river Fowey, a few miles upstream from the port of Fowey, which in the Middle Ages was a busy harbour. Seafarers must have worshipped at St Winnow in the 15th and 16th centuries, and to anyone who knew about ships at the time, the omission of the mainsail would have looked decidedly odd.

It is possible that the missing mainsail was not the result of an artistic decision. This carving could be a representation of a real event in which a ship lost its largest sail during a storm, leaving the crew with just the fore and mizzen sails to make some headway against the wind and waves. We can never know for certain. The artistic explanation might still be the right one, as rigging fore and mizzen in a real situation of this kind could be suicidal, leading a ship to capsize.

Even though as a ship image the carving is somewhat crude, it has a 3D quality – the artist tried to show both sides of the ship – and a lot of detail is shown. It has superstructures, a forecastle at the bow and an aftercastle at the stern, and the rudder is depicted realistically.   The basket-like structure near the top of the mainmast is the topcastle, which served as both a lookout post and a fighting platform. Its military function is underlined by the presence of the bundle of long ‘sticks’ leaning on the right-hand side of the topcastle. These are gads, spears that could be thrown down on an enemy’s deck in battle, reputedly able to skewer a man from head to foot.  The presence of these fearsome weapons is a reminder that there were also manmade dangers be found at sea in the Middle Ages – piracy and war.

But why does this ship appear on the bench-end at St Winnow? The most likely explanation is that it was a votive offering, commissioned by a sailor in thanks to God and the saints for surviving a storm.   The man was perhaps a shipmaster, and may be represented by the sailor’s head on the aftercastle (right).  As the historian Eamon Duffy writes, votive objects were powerful, ‘immediately intelligible claims that here was a power to heal and rescue’. Votive artefacts could take all kinds of forms, such as paintings or carvings, but could also include models of various kinds or even graffiti scratched on church walls (3).

Whatever the technical aspects of the carving, the spirit it conveys is the same as that expressed in the refrain of William Whiting’s Victorian hymn, ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’, also known as ‘The Navy Hymn’:

Oh hear us when we cry to thee,

For those in peril on the sea.

Daily facing the most violent elements known to humankind, medieval seafarers would have understood this sentiment.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014; photo © Ian Friel 1993

 (1) St Winnow or Winnoc was a 7th/8th century saint, venerated in Cornwall and Brittany: D H Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford 1987, p 409.

(2) I Friel, The Good Ship. Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520, London 1995, chs 5 and 9.

(3) E Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars. Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Newhaven and London: Yale University Press 1992), p 197.

 

 

The Ghost of Reginald Hine

Minsden Chapel 1973

Minsden Chapel in 1973 – a rather out-of-focus photograph taken with my old Instamatic camera.

‘And what is the use of it all, anyway?’ That question must have been posed to most historians at one time or another, forcing them to justify their preoccupation with the past.   In my case, the question has come in the form of something like ‘It’s all so long ago I can’t see that it matters’ or – stingingly – ‘Isn’t that a bit self-indulgent?’

The ‘what is the use of it?’ question was addressed to the historian Reginald Hine ‘by a fellow-townsman as I sauntered beside him through the streets of Hitchin with a fragment of this History underneath my arm’.   The ‘History’ to which Hine referred was his magnificent two volume History of Hitchin, published in 1927 and 1929 (1).

Hitchin, in North Hertfordshire, is about 30 miles north of London.   It originated in the Anglo-Saxon era as the home of a tribe called the Hicce (to rhyme with ‘itchy’, and yes, I’ve probably heard all the jokes) (2). It was a royal manor by the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, and developed into a small market town, like thousands of others across England.  Hitchin played a big part in my life – I was born there, grew up in Preston, a small village just outside, and attended the Boys Grammar School in the town.

Hine was a solicitor by profession, but a writer and historian by vocation, and much more interested in the past than the Law.   He was a prolific writer, mostly on Hertfordshire subjects, and wrote well.  Hine had a strong sense of place and knew how to follow the evidence.  Although an ‘old-school’ historian in modern terms, in the 1920s Hine’s focus on local history was seen as something very new. The History of Hitchin was received with rave reviews. The medievalist T F Tout described it as ‘a noble book’ and  the famous historian and left-wing activist Sidney Webb wrote this:

‘It is only by the publication of such local records that we can get a general view of what the history of the nation has been – I mean the real history of the people as distinguished from the doings of kings and parliaments and armies and navies’ (3).

Many years later, W G Hoskins, founder of the groundbreaking Department of English Local History at Leicester, would write of Hine’s work as ‘first-class’ (4).  As Richard Whitmore’s engaging biography makes clear, Hine himself was a complex man with some strange ideas (5). He became obsessed with a small ruined medieval chapel at Minsden, a mile or so from my home village.   He took on the guardianship of the chapel and even wrote that he would offer supernatural protection to its walls after his death.

As a cursory googling of the term ‘Minsden Chapel’ shows, a ghost legend has grown up around Minsden, helped not a little by the photograph of a ghostly robed monk standing in the ruins, which Hine published in Volume 2 of his History. The photo was taken in 1907 by Hine’s friend T W Latchmore, a noted professional photographer (6). Apparently, Latchmore later admitted that the ‘ghost’ was a hoax, the fruit of an experiment with double exposure, and there is a strong suspicion that the robed ‘monk’ was none other than Hine.  Tragically, Hine’s life ended in suicide, under the wheels of a train at Hitchin Station in 1949. His ashes were scattered at Minsden.

I was fascinated by Minsden Chapel from an early age. My village primary school had a copy of the History of Hitchin and as children we used to take wondering peeks at the picture of the Minsden Ghost.  I remember an adult laughingly telling me that Minsden was haunted by the ghost of Reginald Hine, so the story of his posthumous commitment to the place was evidently well known by the early 1960s.

However, it wasn’t just the ghost story that impressed itself on me. Hine showed that it was possible to find out what things were like in the past, and that this could be an interesting thing to do.   These simple childhood lessons impressed themselves on me, and are probably at the root of why I became a historian.

So how did Hine answer the question ‘what’s the use of it all?’.   He identified a number of reasons for studying history.   First among these was ‘the pleasure of it… the romance of research, the pure delights of discovery, the joy of a tale that is told’.   Secondly, he claimed that a parish history could be instructive, ‘a little mirror of the world’, a microcosm of human experience.   His third reason is perhaps the most controversial, the ‘usefulness’ of the study of history.   He agreed that the study of the past might help us to understand the present, he did not see this as the real ‘usefulness’ of the pursuit: ‘History is not an epic, not a philosophy, but a pageant…the study of History… does at least endue us with understanding, patience and equanimity… In my judgment its is those who have been scornful of the past who are the first to miss their footing into the future…’

A lot of people would quarrel with his third point: aside from anything else, the word ‘pageant’ conjurs up faded photos of 1920s people (badly) dressed up as Saxons and Normans, history at its cheesiest.  Personally, I think that in a lot of ways history can help us to understand the present, even if only to make clear the extent of change.  Still, that’s just my opinion.  Hine delivered a salutary warning about historians, though in this case he meant the Big Names of the history world (Thucydides, Gibbon, et al.): ‘let no one be misled by the pronouncements of the historians: for when they pass judgment on History they do but pass judgment on themselves’ (7). By this he meant that they looked coldly on the people of the past, and projected their own concerns on to it.

So that’s us historians told.

To Hine’s three reasons I would add a fourth: by studying history and writing about it well, you can inspire others to look at the past. That is my debt to Reginald Hine, and I offer my thanks to the smiling ghost of Minsden Chapel, whether he is real or not.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014  

(1) Reginald Hine, The History of Hitchin, 2 vols., Hitchin 1927 and 1929 (republished by Eric T Moore, Hitchin, 1972).

(2) I Friel, ‘The regio of the Hicce’, Hertfordshire’s Past, Autumn 1982, pp. 2-13.

(3) Quoted in Eric T Moore, Hine’s History of Hitchin. Proposals for a Reprint, Hitchin 1972, p. 3.

(4) W G Hoskins, Local History in England, 2nd edition, London 1972, p 6.

(5) Richard Whitmore, The Ghosts of Reginald Hine: An Uncommon Attorney, Hitchin 2007.

(6) History of Hitchin, Vol 2, facing p 39.

(7) History of Hitchin, Vol 2, pp 437-41.

The Lost Lands

DSCF6578

Modern-day Climping Beach – once part of the village of Atherington

From tales of Atlantis to the Arthurian romance of Lyonesse, there is no shortage of legends about land that has sunk beneath the waves, but inundations of this kind are not just fantasy.  Towns and villages really have been lost to the sea in the past; the current bad weather and fears about the climate have brought coastal change into the headlines as perhaps never before.  In England, the most famous ‘sunken’ town is Dunwich (the subject of a fascinating research project), but the West Sussex coast also has its lost places, one of which is the village of Atherington, near Littlehampton (1).

Strictly speaking, though, Atherington is not ‘lost’ at all.  You can still find it, a place with a few cottages lining the road leading south from the pretty village of Climping to the beach.  However, a detailed map of 1606 shows that Atherington was larger 400 years ago, with sixteen buildings and a  small crossroads in the centre.  The map is credible, partly because it was drawn by the surveyor John Norden (c 1547-1625 – one of the greatest cartographers of his day), but also because some features can still be traced on the ground, such as the line of the road from Climping (2).  Nowadays, about half of the 1606 area of Atherington is still on land, covered by the open fields of the modern car park.  The other half is now a beach, quite a bit lower than the land behind, suggesting that this part of old Atherington was largely rubbed out by the English Channel (3).

Atherington was not the only place in the vicinity to be attacked by the sea.   There was another settlement nearby called Cudlow, which really is lost.   Cudlow was a small port in the Middle Ages, and even contributed a couple of ships to a royal fleet in 1343, but eventually it succumbed to the waves.  The last record of someone living at Cudlow comes from 1620 (4).

Records suggest that the decline of these places was not due to sudden cataclysms, but to the relentless chipping-away of the land by coastal erosion.  Fascinating though it is, the story of these two villages is also a disturbing reminder of Nature’s ability to erase our works from the face of the Earth.

Blog and photo © Ian Friel 2014

 (1) http://www.dunwich.org.uk.

(2) The Victoria County History contains a succinct and interesting history of Climping and Atherington: T P Hudson (ed), A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 5 Part 1: Arundel Rape: south-western part, including Arundel, London 1997 pp 126-47; the text can be accessed online for free at http://www.british-history.ac.uk.  Norden’s map is in the West Sussex Record Office, Add. MSS 2031: a discussion of it, together with a two tracings, can be found in P M Johnston, ‘Notes on an early map of Atherington Manor’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, Vol. 44, 1901, pp 147-66.

(3) The coast here may also have sunk some 40 cm (about 16 ins) since 1606, part of the long-term, post-glacial sinking of southern England, reckoned to be 1 mm per year on average: see www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/POST-PN-363.pdf

(4) For Cudlow, see the VCH entry;  1343 fleet: N A M Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea.  A Naval History of Britain, Volume 1: 660-1649, London 1997, p 495.