Fame and Disaster: Swash Channel wreck update

Back in July 2014, we posted an article on this blog about Poole at the time of the Swash Channel wreck. Now with the release of the likely identification of the vessel by the wreck team (see News and video), more details can emerge.

Lying in 7-9 metres of water at the entrance to Poole harbour for nearly 400 years, the wreck has been excavated by a team from Bournemouth University. The investigation revealed a large carvel-built merchant ship of around 300-500 tons lying on her port side and broken in 2 pieces. The harbour mud had preserved the port side right up to the forecastle and stern castle rails as well as parts of the rigging. Below what would have been the waterline, the hull was covered with a layer of hair and tar sheathed with thin planking, a device used by Dutch ship builders to protect the hull from tropical ship worm. The main timbers are of Dutch or German origin and are thought to have been felled around 1628.

The number of gun ports on the ship indicates that she may have carried at least 26 guns although only 7 cast iron cannon and 1 gun carriage have been found, suggesting that many more were salvaged. There were also no signs of a cargo or of the possessions or remains of passengers, suggesting that the ship could have been operating as a warship or sailing in ballast. The many high quality carvings on the wreck around the rails and gun ports and on the rudder now on display in Poole Museum indicate an important, high status ship.

Many ships were wrecked off the Dorset coast in the early decades of the 17th century as merchants vied for the profits of long distance trade, but the most likely candidate for this wreck, based on date, location and nationality, is a vessel mentioned in the records of the Poole Admiralty Court in 1631. The court met, in theory, every year, to regulate all matters to do with the port and harbour including moorings, the channel, buoys, fishing, pilotage, pirates, felonies and shipwrecks. At the meeting on 24th June 1631 under Thomas Smedmore as Mayor and Admiral of the port the following item occurs: ‘Item: wee present that Mr Newland doth undertake for the ffleming to cleere the harbour of the wracke of the ffame of Horne castawaye before Studland, we do therefore enioyne him to place a coupple of boyes on that wracke by the first of August next on payne of forfeiting of two hundred pounds.’

 This suggests that the wreck was partially submerged and dangerous to shipping entering the port. A year later it appears that this massive fine had not been effective (if in fact it had been extracted) because at the meeting of 21st May 1632 before Mayor George Skutt there was a further mention of the wreck: ‘Item we present that Mr Robert Newland the younger of the Isle of Wight hath not cleered the channel of the fflemish wracke and not placed the two boyes thereon and therefore he is enioyed to doe it viz to cleere the channel thereof and to place two boyes thereon by the xxxth of Julye next on payne of forfeiteing CCli.’

Either Newland then complied with the ruling or the ship sank into the harbour mud out of harm’s way, but no more is heard of the wreck in the records of the court.

The ship’s home port, Hoorn in North Holland on the Martermeer is about 35 km north of Amsterdam. During the 1600s, it was a major trading port, an important base for both the Dutch East India Company and the West India Company and a prosperous centre of trade. On a voyage of 1616, an explorer from Hoorn, Willem Corneliszoon Schouten, rounded the stormy tip of South America and named it Kaap Hoorn after his home town. Hoorn is also credited with developing the Dutch fluyt, a very successful type of broad beamed merchant ship with a large cargo carrying capacity.

According to High Court of Admiralty records, the Fame was not owned by a trading company but by merchants Hercules Garretson, Cornelius Vene and their associates. She set sail from Hoorn in early 1631 bound for the West Indies. Anchoring off Poole in February, perhaps to take shelter in Studland Bay, the ship was overtaken by a storm, dragged her anchor and was driven on to the sands where she began to break up. The captain Jacob Johnson Botemaker and the crew of about 45 had to abandon their splendid new vessel to the sea, but at least they managed to get ashore safely. Their survival meant that the ship was not a wreck in the legal sense and still belonged to its owners. However, the presence of such a large vessel so close to the shore was too strong a temptation for the locals. As soon as the seas subsided, small boats started to go out from Poole and other places nearby, plundering victuals, tackle, munition and whatever they could find from the ship.

Newport from Speed’s map of 1610

The owners of the Fame were quick to petition the High Court of Admiralty for the recovery of their goods and the arrest of those responsible for plunder, but it is notable that they made no mention of a cargo. The Poole court records indicate that they also appointed Robert Newland to salvage the ship. The Newlands were an important merchant and shipbuilding family on the Isle of Wight with warehouses, yards and wharves at Newport and East Cowes, well placed to serve ships travelling out to the new settlements in the Americas. In the early seventeenth century, investment in Virginia was a fashionable business venture and Robert Newland senior was a member of a consortium to set up a plantation in the area of the James Rive under Captain Christopher Lawne. Newland was not one of the settlers but opened a new shipyard at Cowes and built a ship, the Bonnie Bess of 90 tons, to support the colonisation efforts, winning praise for his practical support of the venture: ‘This man (Mr Newland) an honest sufficient & a moste indevoring man for Virginia is he that cann & will searve you for victualling or maning or any other imployment to further ye plantacon, he is so well reported of, & his late indevors for Capt: Lawne (who had ells sunck) hath approoved him a ventrous charitable marchant…’ He was also given five shares in the Virginia Company in gratitude for his services and Robert junior acquired ‘lands and estate in Virginia’ as his will, of 1642 shows.

Besides having important contacts, the Newlands were also experienced in salvage operations. In October 1627 seven ships of the Dutch East India Company loaded with Dutch silver daalders and Spanish ‘pieces of eight’ were caught in a gale, near the Needles. One of them, the Campen, sank just south of the Needles and Robert Newland joined forces with a Dutch salvor, John Jacop Jansen, known as ‘Jacob the Diver’ to recover five cannon, 6,660kg of lead, and 2,635 coins from the ship. In 1631, Robert junior and William Newland were involved in the salvage of a wreck at Chale Bay in the south of the Isle of Wight and in 1635 William Newland would help to salvage the Bird Phoenix, wrecked in Compton Bay. Given their background and expertise, it was therefore natural for the Newlands to be called in to salvage the Fame.

It is possible that Robert Newland again joined forces with Jansen to work on the Swash Channel vessel. The Dutchman’s special skill was ‘a playne and manifest way of diving deepe under water’ to bring up ‘sunck ordinance, wrackt goods and moneys upon His Majesty’s Coastes of England and Ireland’. The precise details of salvage operations at the time are a mystery but they probably involved weakening the structure of the ship so that the hull could be forced apart to give access to the gundecks and hold. In deep water, primitive diving bells may have been used, as they were later in the century to salvage guns from the Swedish warship, Vasa. It was a difficult and potentially dangerous process. In the case of the Fame the salvors had the advantage of relatively shallow water and the fact that the vessel was already damaged by being battered on the sands.

In the absence of cargo, the most salvageable items were probably the guns, particularly bronze guns, sails and tackle, tools, instruments, victuals for the voyage and the clothing and belongings of the crew. The relatively small number of items found on the wreck suggests that the salvage process was quite thorough. Objects found in the excavation include a ceramic drug jar, leather shoes, pewter spoons, a skillet, cattle bones, barrels, the remains of a galley, ballast, a lead for sounding, a small bell and different kinds of shot, beside the 7 iron guns. Presumably these items were either of small account or inaccessible to the 17th century salvors.

Assuming that the identification of the Swash Channel wreck as the Fame of Hoorn is correct, there are still many unanswered questions about the vessel. What was the purpose of her voyage to the West Indies and what if anything was she carrying? What can she tell us about ship-building, maritime equipment and daily lives on board ship in the early 17th century? Whose image is carved on the head of the rudder? More information will emerge in the next months and years, but some questions will probably never be answered.

Jenny

Main sources: Minutes of the Poole Admiralty Court  DC-PL/C/F/1/1/1 (Poole and Dorset History Centres) / Will of Robert Newland 1637 PROB11/174/100 (National Archives) / Will of Robert Newland (junior) 1642  PROB/11/192/104 (National Archives) / Friel, Ian: The Mercy of the Sea: Identifying the Swash Channel Wreck 2013 Unpublished (Poole History Centre)

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