A chance encounter that led me to the fascinating world of maritime archaeology

By Steven Ellis
The London by Van de Velde in 1660
National Maritime Museum.

It was a lively September evening at Gatwick airport, where my wife Carol and I were excited to board our plane to the Maldives. We had just finished checking in when I noticed someone wearing a Princess Channel Expedition t-shirt across from us – it was Professor Nigel Nayling. As a keen wreck diver, I was intrigued to hear more about his recent work so I introduced myself. We spoke about Nigel’s recent work on the Gresham Wreck, when the conversation turned to my passion for history, and our hobby of diving the murky depths of the Thames at weekends for fun. A fact most can’t believe, including Nigel. He was so inspiring to talk to that we left for our trip with an even bigger spring in our step, not knowing that this chance encounter would change our lives forever…

A few months after our encounter, I found out that Nigel was working in my favourite dive spot, the Thames. He was using his skills as a dendrochronologist to take wood samples from the wreck of a ship called the London. Working alongside Alison James, a representative of English Heritage at the time, they later told me of a discussion they had around finding a willing licensee for the London, which proved a hard task due to the difficult conditions of the estuary. According to Alison, “I know just the man” was the response that she received from Nigel.

Typical Thames conditions

I was given a visitors license, and just like that my love for the London began.

After reading some of the earlier reports, I had learnt that little was known about what remains on the site. This came as no surprise due to the very limited slack water, vast currents and almost zero visibility of the Thames Estuary. And so a project was born for the team to record as much information as possible. This was a very exciting moment for us, and an ideal opportunity to put into practice the training that we received from the Nautical Archaeology Society.

Our first dive

Our very first dive led to an exciting new discovery, and the start of many more to come. I landed straight on top of an iron cannon! This surprised the archaeologists who had previously been working on the site, as all we knew until then was that the London only had bronze ordnance onboard. Archive evidence later confirmed that she received a consignment of worn out cannon for use as ballast.

One of the many ships that pass close to the site

I was so eager to begin learning all about the wreck, that I had already started a sketch plan of the site. This proved useful when we were invited to the site with the professional team from Historic England and Wessex Archaeology, using it to guide the divers to the cannon. This also led to my license being upgraded to a survey one.

After a year of diving site one (where the ballast cannon were found), the team decided to brave diving close to the very edge of the shipping channel to explore the second site. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly nervous diving that close to the enormous cargo ships, but it was worth it.

An Underwater Museum

It soon became evident that this site hosted even more artefacts than the first. It was fascinating to see so many historical objects laying on the surface, like an underwater museum or time capsule. We found parts of muskets, a complete leather shoe, and sadly the remains of those poor souls were on board at the time.

We arrived on our next dive to find most of these items gone, as if they had vanished into thin air. It was a horror to see these precious artefacts disappear before our eyes, but it was also a real privilege to be the first ones to have seen them in over 350 years. It was becoming more likely that no one would ever see them again.

It quickly became clear that the site was severely unstable; as although underwater artefacts are known to disappear in tides or through erosion, it’s not normal for them to vanish in a matter of weeks. Though there are many reasons why this might happen, it’s thought that the recent dredging activity to deepen the channel has had an impact in uncovering the site, exposing it to the mercy of the Thames.

Rescue & Recovery

Thankfully Alison James of Historic England was sympathetic to our concerns. She approached Southend Museum Services, asking them to be the receiving museum for any recoveries from the wreck, and they kindly accepted. This was fantastic news as it meant the artefacts could stay where they belong, in the London’s final resting place of Southend.

To me, the difference between archaeology and salvage is that archaeology is all about recording as much information as possible and learning from it, which is what we set off to do.

Wessex Archaeology and Historic England produced the London Recording Protocol. This meant that we had an agreed approach to record the site, and ensured that everything we did was in-keeping with archaeological best practice.

Historic England then funded further training to recover artefacts deemed at risk, with Angela Middleton, Historic England’s specialist conservator, giving us ‘first aid training’ for the recovered artefacts. She also kindly offered to conserve the finds for us. The team was then granted a Surface Recovery License. We could now save artefacts that would otherwise disappear into the Thames, and continue our mission to learn as much about this wreck before her artefacts are washed away forever.

This was a great experience – not many people could say they were given training by professional archaeologists on how to record and save 350-year-old artefacts from the depths of the Thames Estuary!

After many dives, we were certain that the wreck was suffering from localized erosion. We knew this due to the sheer amount of artefacts that we were recovering from the shifting silt, and from witnessing the currents taking away wooden fragments of the wreck on each tide. Recovering these artefacts allowed me to develop the site plan more with each dive, which was both a blessing and a curse.

The Mary Rose & The Vasa Musuems

There are many parallels between the London and one of the UK’s most well-known conserved shipwrecks; which is of course the Mary Rose.

Ever since I was a child I have had an interest in underwater archaeology – I remember watching Jacques Cousteau on the TV; then in later years, seeing the Mary Rose as she was raised. This explains why I simply couldn’t refuse when Alex Hildred and Chris Dobbs of the Mary Rose Museum invited me to a behind-the scenes tour!

Seeing the results of all their hard work, and learning more about the history of the Mary Rose, made me realise how similar they are in historic importance. I never thought I’d ever have a chance to be a licensee of such a historically significant wreck with a site plan which looked very similar to the Mary Rose!

The team and I later also joined the Nautical Archaeology Society on their annual trip to the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, where Dr Fred Hocker gave us a guided tour. Getting first-hand accounts into the work put into these two famous ships really helped my hypothesis of the wreck of the London, as we were able to visualise many parts of the ship in ‘real terms’. With the Vasa being a contemporary ship to the London in terms of size, structure and date, it was fantastic to see it in all its glory in the museum, and I could imagine the London being similarly displayed for all the world to see.

Cotswold Archeology

Working with Cotswold Archaeology, we put our new HSE diving techniques into practice on the site. I was given the opportunity to choose the positions of where three trenches would be placed. From the creation of these trenches, I was then able to confirm my theory of the layout, which led to the exciting discovery of a complete gun carriage. These are about as rare as hen’s teeth, and so it was recovered to ensure protect it from further erosion or even loss. Seeing this being lifted, knowing that we had saved it from disappearing into the Thames, was a very proud moment for us. 

Complete gun carriage. Image courtesy of Historic England.

Alongside the work with Cotswold Archaeology, we continued to recover a multitude of artefacts as volunteers. This included the surprising discovery of yet another gun carriage, this time along with its associated gunner’s implements – another extremely rare find.

Funding cuts

Despite the huge volume of pristine artefacts being saved from the site, the funding from Historic England sadly ended.

We were no longer able to recover artefacts for conservation, and our Surface Recovery License was revoked. Due to the current lack of government funding we were out of options, the site continued to erode, and both of these things were beyond our control. But we just couldn’t give up.

We continued to dive the site for a year, though this time we were not all allowed to save anything. We monitored the intact gunner’s implements, watching them slowly erode into darkness. The artefacts we saw on our exploration of site two had disappeared within a matter of weeks; you can imagine how much was lost in that year. Pieces of this historical ship were being dissolved into the Thames channel, taking their stories with them, and we were powerless to save them. 

It was a difficult year for us, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Bournemouth University had heard of our plight and kindly offered to temporarily conserve some of the artefacts. We got our Surface Recovery Licenses back and were finally able to continue our mission to save the London.

The London Shipwreck Trust

The London Shipwreck Exhibition
Courtesy of Southend Museum

We got in contact with Councillor Georgina Phillips, who thought the London would be a great asset for the town, but felt embarrassed that little support was given to us as self-funded divers. To remedy this, Georgina and her husband Richard kindly helped us to set up the London Shipwreck Trust, of which my wife Carol are I are trustees.

Georgina’s thoughts of the London becoming an asset to the town became a reality, and a temporary exhibition was opened to the public by Southend Museum Services.

‘The London Shipwreck: A Sunken Story’ was held at Southend’s Central Museum. It was fantastic to see the recoveries out on display for our everyone to see, some of which even made their way to the new galleries at The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The artefacts were so beautifully presented in the museum, and were to the credit of the Conservation Find Specialists who conserved all of the vulnerable artefacts – we owe them a huge thanks for everything they have done for us.

Launch of the Save The London campaign

Before the exhibition closed, we launched the Save The London Campaign amongst the artefacts in the museum. The campaign aims to raise money to save the London and its artefacts for future generations, and was set up thanks to our current Nominated Archaeologist, Mark Beattie-Edwards, CEO of the Nautical Archaeology Society. You can find out more about how you can support and get involved with the Save The London campaign here.

Save The London campaign launch at Southend Museum

It’s been a rollercoaster of a ride, but it’s far from over. I hope to continue to save the artefacts from the London and keep telling her story to the world. From growing up in Leigh-on-Sea, falling in love with diving the Thames and uncovering the story of the London, I’ve gained a huge love for underwater archaeology and for saving this significantly historic ship.

I’ve worked in the fish trade for the last 38 years. I started straight from school as an apprentice, to running my own business, but now I think it’s time to hang up my filleting knives and swap them for a trowel as I focus on the London – I don’t see myself giving it up anytime soon.

Steven Ellis – Trustee and Licensed Diver