By Maev Kennedy - The Guardian
A major underwater rescue excavation is being mounted this summer by English Heritage to solve a 349-year-old mystery: how warship the London managed to blow itself up without firing a shot at the enemy, in broad daylight, within sight of the Southend seafront.
Cotswold Archaeology and local divers hope to recover as much information as possible before the ship’s splinted timbers finally disintegrate.
Much of the wreck has been preserved in pristine condition on the bed of the Thames Estuary, sealed within a deep layer of silt and mud, but it has been on the national inventory of heritage at risk since it was realised that timbers were being scoured bare and quickly destroyed by changing tidal patterns, including the dredging for the huge new London Gateway port development.
In 1665 the explosion was a humiliating disaster.
The London was blown in half, and sank almost instantly. At least 300 people died, perhaps many more: a surprising number of the human remains recovered so far have proved to be female, suggesting that as well as the 350 crew, plus extra gunners for the newly mounted artillery, the 17th century ship was carrying many of their wives and sweethearts.
“It’s a good question why there were so many women, and one on which I wouldn’t care to speculate,” archaeologist and diver Dan Pascoe said.
Only 24 men and one woman survived the disaster, clinging to the ornately carved stern which the archaeologists believe was left sticking vertically out of the shallow water.
A few hours later the London’s new commander, Sir John Lawson, would have gone down with the ship: as it was, several of his children and other members of his family died.
The London had been refitted at Chatham, and was sailing to Gravesend to collect him and become his flagship in the second Anglo-Dutch wars.
The ship was carrying 300 barrels of gunpowder and it is believed that a 21 gun salute was being prepared. “Clearly there was some hiccup,” Mark Dunkley, maritime archaeologist at English Heritage said.