UCL News


London's lost warships rediscovered

27 July 2009

The remains of some of the world's most powerful 19th century battleships are believed to have been found on the open foreshore of the River Thames (the part of the riverbank which is exposed to weather and the tides).

The discovery was made at Charlton, in the shadow of the Thames Barrier, by archaeologists working for UCL's 'Thames Discovery Programme' (TDP) which is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The timbers provide a link back to the days of HMS Victory, when the British Empire depended on the Royal Navy's 'wooden walls' for its defence all over the world.

At low tide (approx. 11am - 1:30pm) on the 28th and 29th of July the timbers will be examined and details recorded by members of the public who have been trained by the TDP to survey sites like this before they are washed away by the river.

The large ship-timbers, found on the foreshore at Charlton in the London borough of Greenwich, were once part of a shipyard. Between 1850 and the early 20th century the site was owned by a firm called Castles, which specialised in breaking-up ships at the end of their active lives before recycling the large quantities of timber.

Records show that among the last wooden warships broken up at Charlton was the 131-gun HMS 'Duke of Wellington', the largest and most powerful ship in the world when she was first launched in September 1852. The HMS Duke of Wellington served in the Crimean War and ended her active service as the flagship of the Commander in Chief at Portsmouth until 1891, when she was replaced by HMS 'Victory'.

The remains of three other large wooden ships are also believed to be among the remains discovered at Charlton. HMS 'Anson', 'Edgar' and 'Hannibal' were all broken up by Castles during the same period. Each ship had 91 guns and was built between 1854 and 1860 at Woolwich or Deptford.

These magnificent ships - once the pride of the Royal Navy - suddenly became obsolete within a decade because of the dramatic development of battleships clad in iron, rather than old-fashioned wood. Superseded and no longer seen as fit for active service, these wooden warships were consigned to the scrap yard from which they are now being reclaimed. The TDP team will be undertaking further research to find out which timbers belong to which vessel.

The UCL archaeologists working on the site might have also discovered fragments of the last of the ironclad battleships, HMS 'Ajax', launched in 1880. She too was overtaken by new technology, just like the wooden warships which went before her. In the case of HMS Ajax, it was the introduction of superior steel-hulled warships that sent her to the breakers yard.

The 'Thames Discovery Programme' was launched just one year ago. Since then, an ambitious public outreach programme has been developed. The team has also begun its detailed archaeological survey of the London foreshore which involved recording data from sites at increasing risk from river's daily tidal scour, an indirect consequence of climate change. To help undertake this mammoth task, the team is currently training a group of committed Londoners who will form the 'Foreshore Recording and Observation Group' (FROG). The ship-breakers yard at Charlton is one of the twenty key sites which will be monitored, recording an important chapter in our maritime history before it is lost forever.


Notes for editors

Contact details:

For further information, or to attend the picture opportunity, please contact Dave Weston in the UCL Press Office on +44 (0) 20 7679 7678 or d.weston@ucl.ac.uk

Picture opportunity:

The Thames Discovery Programme team will be working on the Charlton site between 11am and 1:30pm on Tuesday 28th and Wednesday 29th July 2009.

About the Thames Discover Programme:

The 'Thames Discovery Programme' (www.thamesdiscovery.org) is managed by the Thames Estuary Partnership, based in UCL's Environment Institute (www.thamesweb.com), in cooperation with the Thames Explorer Trust (www.thames-explorer.org). The project is generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Other partners include the Museum of London, English Heritage and the UCL Institute of Archaeology.

About UCL (University College London):

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. UCL is the seventh-ranked university in the 2008 THES-QS World University Rankings, and the third-ranked UK university in the 2008 league table of the top 500 world universities produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. UCL alumni include Marie Stopes, Jonathan Dimbleby, Lord Woolf, Alexander Graham Bell, and members of the band Coldplay. UCL currently has over 12,000 undergraduate and 8,000 postgraduate students. Its annual income is over £600 million. For further information see: www.ucl.ac.uk