This article was originally published on my WordPress blog – March, 2017.
A photomosaic of the Fame wrecksite. (C) Bournemouth University
The Swash Channel leads to the main entrance of Poole Harbour in Dorset, and this is where the Swash Channel Wreck lies. The original name of the ship has been lost for close on 400 years.
The Swash Channel Wreck is a Protected Wreck Site, one of 62 in the UK. This means that it has been designated by the government under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 on account of the historical, archaeological or artistic importance of the vessel, or of its contents or former contents.
The wreck of this 17th century armed merchant ship was first discovered by accident in 1990 and then rediscovered in 2004 by Wessex Archaeology. Subsequent work, led by Bournemouth University, has uncovered the structure and raised many artefacts. It’s a vulnerable site as well as an important one, and its condition is monitored.
Bournemouth University commissioned me to undertake a research project to see if it was possible to identify the ship. The subsequent hunt led through more than 15,000 manuscript pages in Dorset and London. It’s a bit of a cliché (to say the least) to compare historical research with detective work, but this project certainly felt like it. Many of the paper trails didn’t go anywhere, a few led to ‘possibles’, and one took me to what I believe is the right answer.
The Swash Channel Wreck is at a depth of between 7 and 9 metres on the edge of the Hook Sands. The hull is carvel-built and about 40 m of the port side survives. This is remarkable, because it includes some of the upperworks, though the structure is split into two pieces. Tree-ring evidence suggests that the hull contains some wood felled between 1619 and 1639 in the Netherlands or Germany, with at least one timber from a tree cut down in the year 1628. The hull had an outer plank sheathing, designed to help protect the main planking from marine organisms. This indicated that the vessel might have been on a voyage to or from the tropics.
Judging by the number of surviving gunports, the ship carried 26 or more carriage-mounted guns, though most of the weapons themselves are no longer there. No cargo was found in the hull, but some Dutch domestic pottery was discovered which dated to the years 1625-1650 (1).
So, the ship was probably Dutch and operated between c 1620 and 1650, or a bit later. With this sort of timeframe, you might think that finding the right ‘candidate’ for the wreck should have been easy. No problem.
For one thing, there was no systematic government recording of shipwrecks in Britain until the Victorian era. For another, the period 1620-50 predates the first English newspapers by a long way.
Map showing wreck incidents listed in my 1625-1642 wreck survey: Dutch wrecks are marked in red, and many positions are approximate only, e.g. ships identified as wrecked ‘on the Isle of Wight’. (C) Ian Friel 2013
This is not to say that there are no records of wrecks. The archives of the 17th-century state are full of letters, accounts, legal proceedings and other material concerning sunken vessels, some of it very detailed. As part of the search for the Swash Channel Wreck I pulled together as many wreck references as I could find in British sources (mainly for England and Wales) for the years 1625-1642. First and foremost I wanted to identify the Swash Channel Wreck, but also needed to get a sense of the nature and scope of the evidence and to set the Dorset wreck in context. The year 1642 was chosen as the end-date for the survey because the English Civil War started then, and a lot of central government record-keeping went to pieces until the 1650s.
The survey turned up 142 references to losses of specific ships. These were mainly merchant vessels that were important enough to generate paperwork. No doubt there were also many losses of fishing boats and small merchantmen which went unrecorded, but in this case ‘important’ generally meant ‘valuable’.
The single most common reason for reporting these wrecks (in 74 of 142 cases) was that they were lost property, not that they were disasters that endangered life and limb. The loss of a ship could be a huge financial blow for the owner and for anyone who had goods aboard. Small wonder that they made a fuss about it. The fuss was frequently caused by illegal salvage operations.
By law, a sunken ship could only be declared a ‘wreck’ if no-one escaped alive from it. If there were no survivors, the remains of the ship and cargo belonged to whoever owned the ‘right of wreck’ on the stretch of shore where the incident took place. In many cases, this was the local lord of the manor. However, if there were survivors, then the ship and its contents were deemed to be the property of its original owners.
This all sounds straightforward enough, but coast dwellers and others often disregarded the legal niceties and just grabbed anything they could. The vast majority of rural inhabitants were very poor, and a wreck could dump vast wealth virtually on their doorstep.
People could go to extremes to get hold of such booty. One Dutch wreck on the Essex coast in winter 1633, for example, was picked over by three different groups of salvors. One party extracted goods worth at least £5 million in modern terms, but a man in one of the other groups died because he and his companions had to work deep inside the hull in freezing water up to their armpits (2).
The port of Hoorn. (C) Ian Friel 1980
Dutch wrecks were fairly common around the English coast in this time, a reflection of the rising power of the United Provinces of the Netherlands at sea. Their ships travelled the globe, and in January 1631 one particular vessel set sail from its home port of Hoorn, near Amsterdam, on a voyage to the West Indies. The ship was the Fame, an armed merchantman owned by two men, Hercules Garretson and Cornelius Veene. The vessel’s master was called John Jacobson Botemaker, and in all there were some 45 people on board. The Fame must taken a course through the Dover Strait and along the south coast of England, because at some point in February it anchored off Poole.
It is not known why the Fame stopped off Poole, but the English Channel can be an inhospitable place in winter and perhaps the crew were seeking to shelter in Studland Bay. If this was the case, it didn’t work, because there was a storm, and the ship seems to have dragged its anchor (that is, the anchor would not hold). The Famewas ‘overset and overwhelmed’, driven on to a sandbank and ‘broken in pieces and torn up’. ‘Overset’ meant that the ship was knocked on its side, or capsized. Fortunately, the master and crew all escaped alive and got to land – so no way was the ship legally a ‘wreck’ – but people from the Poole area still came out and filched tackle, gear, victuals and other items from the stricken vessel.
Former merchants’ houses in Hoorn, decorated with 17th-century ship carvings. (C) Ian Friel 1980
On 2 March 1631, soon after the incident, Garretson and Veene made a complaint about the looting of the Fame to the English High Court of Admiralty (HCA: the HCA was the central court for maritime cases). They wanted the HCA to put together a commission to recover the stolen goods and arrest the people who had taken them. As there were survivors, the owners had a claim in English law to everything that had been stolen, and all that was left in the ship. This was also backed-up by an international agreement. In 1625 the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of Southampton specified that the remains of any Dutch ships and goods wrecked on the British coast had to be restored to their original owners. The Dutchmen had a cast-iron case, but despite this, it seems that the HCA did nothing.
Fortunately, there is a local source that adds to the story. Poole had its own Admiralty Court from the Middle Ages, and records of its proceedings survive from 1550. The Court was meant to meet about once a year, with the Mayor serving as ‘Admiral’ and ’24 honest seafaring men’ acting as the jury. The boundaries of Poole haven extended from the border with the port of Wareham, to North Haven Point, and then as far out to sea ‘as a man could discern a Humber barrel to float upon the ocean’. This distance has been estimated at about three miles, and would have taken in all of Studland Bay and the site of the Swash Channel Wreck (3).
The Poole Admiralty Court had jurisdiction over a wide range of issues within its small maritime empire. These included matters such as theft, piracy, derelicts, flotsam, valuables found on dead bodies, accidental death, impressment for royal service, as well as the regulation of fishing and the fish market (4).
In practice, most Court meetings were taken up with workaday discussions of harbour management and the enforcement of rules. Wrecks were seldom mentioned in the 17th-century proceedings, but in the Court record for 24 June 1631 there is an entry regarding a ‘Mr Newland’ who had undertaken for a ‘Fleming to clear the harbour of the wreck of the Fame of Hoorn’ (spelling modernised; ‘Fleming’ was a catch-all English term for anyone from the Netherlands or Flanders). Newland had also agreed to place two marker buoys on the site by 1 August, on pain of a colossal fine of £200 – millions, in modern terms (5).
It didn’t happen.
Nearly a year later, on 21 May 1632, the Admiralty Court noted that ‘Mr Robert Newland the Younger of the Isle of Wight’ had still not cleared the channel of the ‘Flemish wreck’. He was ordered to do this, and to put two buoys on it by 25 July, or face the fine (6).
These two entries place the wreck of the Fame ‘before Studland’ and in a ‘channel’. The highest single fine that the Court normally levied was £2, so the figure of £200 shows just how serious a problem the wreck was thought to be.
The clear implication is that the sunken vessel was situated on the main approach to Poole Harbour and represented a real danger to shipping. The evidence fits very well with the position of the Swash Channel Wreck, lying right on the channel leading to the modern harbour entrance. Also, the Wreck lies on its side on the edge of Hook Sand, and this corresponds to the statement that the Fame capsized on a sandbank.
The head of a classical warrior, carved on the rudderhead of the Fame of Horn, as displayed in Poole Museum. (C) Bournemouth University 2017
The Fame, of course, slots right into the 1620-1650 timeframe for the Wreck derived from the archaeological evidence. There are other things about the archaeology that also tie in with the documentary sources. The wooden hull sheathing would certainly be consistent with a vessel en route to the West Indies, as the Fame was. No cargo was found in the Wreck, and none is mentioned in the HCA complaint about looting, suggesting that the Fame was sailing out in ballast – i.e. empty of cargo on the first leg of the voyage.
It’s also very significant that a lot of the Wreck’s guns are missing. Cannon are heavy, expensive items that tend to stay put when they hit the sea bottom. It may be that they were removed by local looters, but the problem with this idea is that the missing guns included most of those on the port side, which was nestled into the seabed and would have been very difficult for opportunist salvors to access. There is another possible explanation, though. Modern archaeologists might not be the first people to dive on the site.
Robert Newland ‘the Younger’ of the Isle of Wight must have been one of the sons of Robert Newland Senior, a wealthy merchant and shipowner (died 1637) who had wharves and warehouses on the island at Newport and East Cowes (7). Four years prior to the loss of the Fame, Newland Snr was involved with a celebrated Dutch salvor called ‘Jacob the Diver’ in the salvage of cargo, gear and weapons lost in the Dutch Eastindiamen Kampen and Vergulde Draeck on the Needles in 1627 (8).
Jacob the Diver’s real name was either John Jacob Janson or Jacob Johnson. He worked in this country, France and Ireland between 1620 and 1633, and was perhaps still operating here in 1636. Jacob had some kind of diving apparatus, which he used to descend on wrecks, and seems to have been very successful at recovering sunken goods and equipment (9).
The ‘Fleming’ who was working with Robert Newland Junior could well have been Jacob the Diver. If this was the case, it means that the Swash Channel Wreck was worked on by one of the most accomplished divers and salvors in Europe. This would account for the disappearance of so many guns, particularly those on the port side, which would have been very difficult to reach.
Presumably, too, Newland and ‘the Fleming’ eventually also cleared the Fame out of harm’s way, breaking it up – the starboard side of the Wreck is long gone. The Court proceedings do not refer to it again after May 1632, and the shipwreck was eventually forgotten.
The links between the historical and archaeological evidence lead me to believe that the Swash Channel Wreck is the Fame of Hoorn.
Unfortunately, research by historians in the Netherlands has not so far turned up any references in the Dutch archives to the Fame or those associated with it. However, given its declared destination, it is possible that the Fame belonged to the Dutch West India Company (WIC), a body set up in 1621 to control Dutch trade with the Americas, the Caribbean and West Africa. Run in true 17th-century Dutch fashion by a body of merchant oligarchs, the Heeren XIX, it had power to make both war and peace, as well as to trade. Like the contemporary Dutch and English East India Companies, the WIC had a terrifying reach (10).
Many of the records of the WIC were destroyed in the 19th century, so identifying the Fame as a ‘Westindiaman’ in this sense may be very difficult. There is an alternative possibility, though. The Fame may have been an ‘interloper’, a vessel on a private trading voyage under the noses of the WIC.
What gives this credence is the lack of any real follow-up to the complaint made by Garretson and Veene to the HCA. Dutch shipowners with real political and economic clout – like anyone backed by the WIC – often used diplomatic channels to pursue matters of wreck looting in British waters. The case of the Salmon of Amsterdam, wrecked and plundered on the Dorset coast in 1632, even reached the English Privy Council, King Charles I’s own advisory body. Years later, during the short-lived English Republic, goods were taken from yet another Dutch ship sunk off Poole, the St Adrian of Middelburg. The owners of the cargo were important people, and included a Dutch ambassador. The Dutch raised so much hell about the matter that the dispute eventually landed on the desk of the dying Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (11).
The apparent lack of any HCA follow-up to Garretson and Veene’s complaint may well indicate that they were interlopers, and lacked the corporate pull needed to get what they wanted. It’s also significant that the Poole Admiralty Court made no reference to the looting of the wreck. Perhaps some of the ‘honest seafaring men’ of Poole were not so honest, but even they would have been forced into action if an HCA commissioner had turned up from London. Commissioners had real power. The Dorset landowner involved in pillaging the Salmon in 1632 was threatened with being dragged before the HCA in order to explain himself. Only by pleading extreme old age was he able to avoid an unpleasant, and possibly terminal, trip to the capital.
Whatever the full facts of the Fame affair, the ship and its remaining contents joined all of the other lost property lying on the seabed around England.
Future research may uncover more about the stories of this ship, its owners and crew. For now, the Swash Channel Wreck at least has its name back.
The Fame of Hoorn.
Very special thanks are due to Bournemouth University and Dave Parham, Associate Professor in Maritime Archaeology, for commissioning me to research this ship, and for allowing me to use the Swash Channel Wreck images in this piece. Thanks are also due to Tom Cousins of Bournemouth University for his help with the images.
The discovery, excavation and conservation of the Fame have involved the efforts of maritime archaeologists, scientists, conservators and others over years. Without their skill, commitment and scholarship the loss of the ship would only be known now as one incident among many others. Their work has made it special, and made it accessible to an international public.
I would also like to thank the staff of The National Archives, Kew and the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester, for their courtesy and assistance. The DHC staff were especially helpful in locating the Poole Admiralty Book, not then listed in the main DHC catalogue, which was of enormous significance for this research. The Admiralty Book is an important document, and deserves to be published in full. It is one more demonstration, if any was needed, that local record offices are treasure-houses of history.
The upper part of the rudder from the Fame, with its distinctive rudderhead carving, is now impressively displayed in Poole Museum along with other items from the ship, and is very well worth a visit.
DHC Dorset History Centre, Dorchester
TNA The National Archives, Kew
(1) https://www1.bournemouth.ac.uk/news/2016-04-01/beach-find-may-be-historic-swash-channel-wreck; https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000082; D Parham et al. 2012 D Parham et al., Swash Channel Designated Wreck Site, Bournemouth University. This present piece is based on my report for Bournemouth University, ‘The Mercy of the Sea’ – Identifying the Swash Channel Wreck, 2013.
(2) HCA 24/89, nos 187, 193 and 202.
(3) HCA 24/87, No 171, ff 1-2v; H P Smith, ‘Poole’s ancient Admiralty Court’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society, Vol 49, 1928, pp 125-31; DHCDC/PL/CLA 24, Poole Admiralty Book 1550-1834.
(4) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, unnumbered folios at the beginning of the volume.
(5) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, f 60.
(7) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, f 61.
(8) TNA PROB/11/174, will of Robert Newland.
(9) A Roddie, ‘Jacob, the Diver’, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol 62, 1976, pp 255-69, pp 259-60.
(10) C R Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800, London 1977, pp 24-26 and 48-50; a translation of the WIC’s charter can be found online at:
(11) The Mercy of the Sea, pp 38-47.