A new exhibition opens this month at Chatham Dockyard, but archaeologists are still unsure why valuable timbers from the hull and decks one of the Royal Navy’s most active warships were buried and not reused.
The artefacts, which were discovered by chance beneath the floor of the Wheelwright’s Shop at the dockyard in 1995, were hidden beneath four unrelated layers of wooden flooring. At first it was unclear which ship, or ships, they belonged to, so in 1997 a team of maritime archaeologists set to work looking for clues.
Led by Robert Prescott of the University of St Andrews, the team measured, photographed and pored over each of the 169 beams, futtocks and deck planks looking for fastenings, paint flakes, indents, and timber marks. Further research and investigation over the last 19 years has culminated in the most recent phase of work led by Dr Dan Atkinson (a member of the original St Andrews team) from Wessex Archaeology. The culmination of this exciting research identified the timbers to a second-rate ship of the line, thanks to documentary research and the measurements of several of the hefty deck beams and hull frames. Red paint on one of the beams indicated the ship was active before the turn of the 18th century and the Royal Navy’s archives revealed that the building in question had been repaired in 1833 – the same year the HMS Namur had finally been broken up at Chatham Dockyard.
HMS Namur was built at Chatham in 1756 and was involved in the Battle of Havana in 1762, the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797 and the Battle of Lagos. She was reduced from 90 guns to 74 in 1805 and remained in harbour at Chatham until she was broken up in 1833. Sir Charles Austen, younger brother of the novelist, Jane Austen, was her captain between 1811 and 1814, and one of the ship’s black slaves, Olaudah Equiano, who was aboard at the battle of Lagos, went on to become active in the abolitionist movement of the early 19th Century.
Preservation of the timbers, and the story of their discovery and identification, is the centrepiece of the £8m ‘Command of the Oceans’ project funded mainly by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Homes and Communities Agency. It also includes artefacts recovered from the seabed from the wreck of HMS Invincible, built in 1758.
However, there is still no conclusive evidence as to why the timbers were laid to rest under the wheelwrights workshop. The Navy typically recycled old timbers for its own buildings or sold them off, but Namur’s bones served little structural purpose at Chatham. One of the theories is that the Admiral Sir James Alexander Gordon, the commanding officer at Chatham when Namur was dismantled may simply have been fond of the old ship, deciding to lay her bones to rest in peace all together, rather than put them to work separately.
But we may never know.
For more nautical mysteries, see: 5 of the greatest undiscovered shipwrecks.