Historic Shipwrecks

Historic Shipwrecks

The shipwreck details and pictures are taken from Peter Marsden’s booklet The Historic Shipwrecks of South East England. The booklet is available from The Shipwreck Museum, Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings, Sussex. TN34 3DW. Tel: 0142 4437452

Shipwrecks as History

One of the greatest known concentrations of historic sunken ships lies off the shore of south-east England, particularly where it borders the English Channel, one of the busiest seaways in the world. The enormous wealth of historical information preserved in these wrecks is incalculable, and they form part of the ’new frontier’ of archaeological exploration:  underwater.

There are records of about a thousand ships having been swallowed by the Goodwin Sands off east Kent alone, and many of these will be well preserved since the geology of the region especially favours the preservation of shipwrecks, which are often buried in soft sands and silts. Wrecks as old as Roman and prehistoric times are known, but the bulk of discovered wrecks date from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.The detail from an Admiralty chart shows some of the known shipwrecks.

Ships are the buildings of the sea, and it is by studying their surviving remains as wrecks that we can better understand and illustrate the history of mankind’s long association with the sea.

This is particularly so in the south-east region where there is an exceptional shoreline concentration of historic shipwrecks that can be visited by non-divers at suitable low tides. Between Camber in the east and Cuckmere Haven, just west of Beachy Head in the west, there are preserved the substantial remains of large ships of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This range of age for ships visible at low tide has no known parallel in Britain, and may be unique in Europe.

Visitors can trace in at least seven wrecks the development of ships from wood and sail to steel and engine. The extraordinary nature of this group is underlined by the fact that two of the three protected historic wreck sites that are visible at low tide in the whole of the British Isles lie in this area.

The Historic Shipwrecks of East Sussex

The historic shipwrecks of the last four centuries which have survived in the tidal zone of East Sussex, between Camber in the east and Cuckmere in the west, form a unique record of international seafaring history.  Until recently the sites were plundered for the valuables that they contain, but nowadays, with two of the shipwrecks protected by law as historic monuments, it is appreciated that they are as much worthy of preservation, research and display as are historic sites on land.

This group of maritime casualties may be unique in Europe; nowhere else between the tides is such a concentration and range of age and variety known to exist.

It is hoped that in the future these parts of the tidal zone of East Sussex will be officially adopted as a conservation area.

The geology of the zone, which has been primarily responsible for the excellent state of preservation of the shipwrecks, is equally important and unusual for it provides a fascinating window on the coastline in the distant past. In particular it concentrates around the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century wrecks in the Hastings area, and includes the extensive remains of a now-submerged prehistoric forest 5000 years old, and rocks of about 120 million years old which contain important traces of dinosaurs.

The Anne was named after Princess Anne (1665-1714). Launched at Chatham in 1678, she was 150 feet long, 40 feet wide, armed with 70 guns, and was one of Samuel Pepys’ ‘standard’ warships, of which 30 were built.

On Monday 30th June 1690 the Anne, with her captain John Tyrell and 460 men went into battle against the superior French fleet as part of the Anglo-Dutch fleet under Lord Torrington. By 9.30 a.m. on that day the Anne was engaging the enemy, and the battle continued all day until 9 p.m. when the combined Anglo-Dutch fleet found itself so seriously damaged that it had to retreat eastwards to anchor. Several Dutch ships were lost, but of the English ships only the Anne had suffered extreme damage.

On Thursday, 3 July, the wind returned and the York reported that in the afternoon ‘it blew so hard we could not tow her so we took all the soldiers from them [i.e. the Anne] and then stood in between Farlee [i.e. Fairlight] and Winchelsea Castle, and run ashore the ship.’

After beaching the ship at high tide, the crew had to wait until the evening low tide before they could walk ashore. That evening Tyrrell wrote to the Admiralty: ’I lie within pistol shot, at high water, of the shore, and at low water one may walk round the ship. If the French fireships do not come in and burn me I hope to save her, though the water comes into her as the tide ebbs and flows.’

The French ships attacked Hastings and Rye on the next day, Saturday, 5 July, and that afternoon Tyrrell reluctantly decided to burn the Anne so that she could not be taken as a prize. Curiously, it was soon after this inconclusive stage in the battle, when the French were winning, that they sailed away back to France.

The burnt-out remains of the Anne faded from memory, though around Fairlight local people never forgot her name.

She was photographed in 1913 and later, but in 1974 treasure-hunters took a mechanical excavator out to the ship at low tide and dug into her remains.

In order to stop further vandalism she was that day protected as an historic monument, and ten years later the Ministry of Defence transferred her ownership to the Nautical Museums Trust, which also owns the Shipwreck Museum where the Anne’s story is told.

The Dutch East India Company ship Amsterdam, with 54 guns, has been entombed in the beach at Hastings since February, 1749. She was run ashore by a mutinous crew during a severe gale whilst on her maiden voyage from Amsterdam to Java. There was good reason for the mutiny, for in two weeks disease had killed 50 of her complement of 335 and her rudder had been torn off.

Captain Willem Klump beached his ship between Hastings and Bexhill on 26th January, 1749, and the Mayor of Hastings took charge of the survivors and guarded the ship from plunderers. When salvage eventually commenced, the ship was found to be sinking rapidly into the beach, and the cargo was inaccessible.  Today two-thirds of the hull survives, with the keel about 30 feet (9 metres) deep in the beach, and inside is most of her cargo and the possessions of the people on board.Discoveries in 1969 of bottles still full of wine, bronze guns and a great variety of other objects, drew attention to the wreck, and an archaeological and historical study followed.

The ship was found to be the only known well-preserved example of an East Indiaman in the world, and was definitely worthy of preservation.  In 1973 she was protected as an historic monument under a new law, and in 1975 a ‘Save the Amsterdam Foundation’ was established in the Netherlands, to study how to excavate, raise and preserve the ship and its valuable contents, and return them to the city of Amsterdam.

The Foundation decided to undertake the first archaeological excavation in 1984 by using a Dutch- British team of archaeologists and divers to uncover part of the lower gun deck.   Although all discoveries  leave Britain for the Netherlands, the Foundation has offered to return a representative selection for permanent display in the Shipwreck Museum in Hastings.

First posted in Maritime Rye on 4th October 2009
Last updated: 7th December 2012
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