17th century Marine Salvage Project: HMS London Guns

Why historical information is important before deciding the conservation treatment.

The subject of this blog is two recently acquired guns recovered from the wreck of the Royal Navy ship HMS London. They are interesting guns for several reasons and form part of a major conservation project at Fort Nelson known as the 17th century Marine Salvage Project. (There is a third gun in this project, a 17th century composite drake gun).

17th century gun recovered from the wreck of the ‘London’

Understanding the object’s history is important as it can affect the condition of the object and, in turn, the conservation treatments required. These guns are a very good example of how this works. The London guns have an interesting history. Divers began salvaging treasures from the wreck of the HMS London in 2007, however due to an incorrectly completed declaration there was a subsequent court case. The guns have since been acquired by the Royal Armouries with assistance from the Receiver of Wreck.

The first question to ask is where and which HMS London? This might seem an obvious question, however there have been 13 ships called HMS London. The guns were in fact recovered from the second HMS London, which is often confused with the first. The second HMS London was built in Chatham in Kent for the Navy and captained by John Lawson. She was a 76 gun second-rate ship of the Royal Navy, built in 1656, one of three second-rate large ships built between 1642 and 1660. She gained some of her fame as one of the ships that escorted Charles II from Holland back to England during the English Restoration. The huge vessel sank in the Thames Estuary after mysteriously exploding on a journey from Chatham, Kent. It is believed a sailor took a candle below deck, sparking an explosion in the ship’s gunpowder stockpile. Three hundred people died when she sank.

The famous diarist Samuel Pepys, who was also an administrator of the navy of England and Member of Parliament, recorded the loss of the London on the 8 March 1665 in his diary,   ‘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’.

On the 11 March Pepys recorded, after the results of an inspection of the wreck, that the hull was lost but the guns could be got. Treasury papers from May 1694 show that the guns were still a subject of some interest, almost 30 years after its sinking.

The wreck of the London was rediscovered in 2005 and the Port of London Authority changed the shipping route to allow archaeological investigation of the site. On the 24 October 2008 the site was given protection under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.

This information tells us that the guns have been underwater for over 300 years and out of sea water for approximately 10 years. During the past 10 years we are aware that the guns were not stored in desalination tanks. This puts the guns at an increased risk of bronze disease and alters the condition as it makes the details less sharp, for example any lettering on the guns (image 1).

Deterioration on the rim of the gun

The conservation treatment for these guns will be a diffusion process then a barrier treatment. This prevents oxygen entering into the gun after treatment reduces the risk of bronze disease, followed by a light polish and then a drying process. The conservation is expected to take about five years as the diffusion process alone will take approximately 24 months.

The ‘Peter Gill’ gun positioned in the conservation tank

Another area of information that the conservator will be interested in is the markings on the guns. Markings provide an indication of how important the guns are. This information can be used by conservators to aid in acquiring objects for the museum’s collection and to obtain funding for the required conservation treatments; this is particularly helpful when budgets are under pressure.

The marking on the London guns indicate that they are highly important. One of the guns is stamped ‘Peter Gill’ and the other has the harp of Commonwealth on the chase.

This gun is stamped ‘Peter Gill’.
Marked with the harp of Commonwealth on the chase.

The 17th century Marine Salvage Project focuses on three guns recovered from the river Thames and Goodwin Sands, off the Kent coast, all of which require technical conservation treatments. This project has been made possible with funding from The Arms & Armour Heritage Trust, The Radcliffe Trust and The Leche Trust.