The London 1665 – An Explosion at Sea

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The warship London sank in the Thames Estuary on 7th March 1665 while preparing for the second Anglo-Dutch war,  which had been declared by Charles II only three days earlier.

One of the cannons recovered from the London Wreck
One of the cannons recovered from the London

The ship was en route from Chatham to Hope, awaiting the arrival of the Admiral, Sir John Lawson, when it was torn apart by an internal explosion attributed to the mass detonation of the gunpowder in the magazine. Samuel Pepys, the noted diarist and at the time a naval administrator, recorded the loss in his diary entry dated 8th March 1665.

‘This morning is brought me to the office the sad newes of ‘The London’, in which Sir J. Lawson’s men were all bringing her from Chatham to the Hope, and thence he was to go to sea in her; but a little a ‘this side the buoy of the Nower, she suddenly blew up. About 24 [men] and a woman that were in the round-house and coach saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned: the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance. She lies sunk, with her round-house above water. Sir J. Lawson hath a great loss in this of so many good chosen men, and many relations among them. I went to the ‘Change, where the news taken very much to heart’. 

The site was re-discovered in 1962 and was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 in 2008.  Cotswold Archaeology has worked on the site since 2014.

The sudden loss of the ship and crew (and others on board) means that the archaeological remains have the potential to answer many research questions about life on a seventeenth century ship. In four seasons of excavation CA, working alongside the licensee Steve Ellis and his team, has recovered a whole host of exceptionally well-preserved artefacts.

Detailed studies of five of the bronze guns recovered from the site have revealed that three were fully loaded and had tampions (stoppers placed in the muzzle when not in use) in place, one was partially loaded, and one was empty. This suggests that the master gunner was preparing the ship for battle at the time of its loss.

The large number of used clay pipes recovered from the site may hint at the cause of the explosion of the ship, heavily laden as it was with gunpowder…

A wooden powder box
A wooden powder box
Clay tobacco pipes – was one of these responsible for the explosion?
Clay tobacco pipes – was one of these responsible for the explosion?
Bandoliers were leather straps hung from the shoulder across the body, from which wooden powder boxes were hung
Bandoliers were leather straps hung from the shoulder across the body, from which wooden powder boxes were hung