The Maritime History of Wales 3: The Bronze Bell Wreck

November 2021

In this our third episode on the maritime history of Wales we find out about the mysterious ‘Bronze Bell’ wreck, an early eighteenth-century wreck c.1700, discovered off the coast of Tal-y-Bont, Cerdigion, in 1978. The wreck is very distinctive due to the 65 tonnes of Carrera marble and heavy armaments found on board, as well as the bronze bell for which it was named. The wreck has been investigated as part of the Welsh Climate Change and Coastal Heritage project ‘CHERISH’.

To find out more Eirwen Abberley-Watton spoke with Dr Julian Whitewright and Alison James. Julian is the Senior Maritime Investigator at the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. Julian is responsible for overseeing the maritime archaeological parts of the National Monuments Record within Wales, as well as advising on marine planning for offshore development. He works closely with colleagues from CHERISH, and his archaeological interests cover all boats and ships from the earliest remains to the 20th century. Alison is a Director and Project Manager at MSDS Marine with extensive experience in the management of historic shipwreck sites, volunteer involvement, community engagement and education initiatives. This summer she has been managing work on the Bronze Bell wreck on behalf of MSDS Marine for a project funded by CHERISH, including a recent dive on the site.

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    Master Mariners Mirror – The Bronze Bell Wreck

    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Hello, everyone. Welcome to the third episode of this mariners mirror series on the maritime history of Wales. My name is Eirwen Abberly Watton and I come from the Brecon Beacons, which is a stunning part of Wales. Today, I’m going to be finding out about the work of CHERISH the climate heritage and environments of reefs, islands and headlands, and about one specific shipwreck of the coast of Wales called the Bronze Bell wreak. CHERISH is a fantastic project which brings together four organizations across Wales and Ireland, including the Royal Commission on the ancient and historical monuments of Wales and Aberystwyth University. The project is designed to raise awareness on the past, present and future impacts of climate change and extreme weather on our coastal and oceanic heritage. Here to tell me more about CHERISH’s important work is Dr. Julian Whitewright, the senior maritime investigator at the Royal Commission. Julian is responsible for overseeing the maritime archaeological parts of the national monuments record within Wales, as well as advising on marine planning for offshore development. He works closely with colleagues from CHERISH and his archaeological interests cover all boats and ships from the earliest remains to the 20th century. One of the wonderful sights that CHERISH has been working on is the Bronze Bell Wreak. It was discovered off the coast of Tal-y-Bont, Ceredigion in 1978, and is very distinctive due to the 65 tons of Carrera marble, and heavy armaments found on board as well as the Bronze Bell for which it was named. Joining me today to tell us more about the Bronze Bell rack is Allison James. Allison is a director and project manager at MSDS Marine with extensive experience in the management of historic shipwreck sites, volunteer involvement, community engagement, and education initiatives. This summer, she has been managing work on the Bronze Bell Wreck on behalf of MSDs marine for a project funded by CHERISH including a recent dive on the site. Let’s find out more. Hello, Allison and Julian. And thank you so much for speaking to me today.

    Allison James
    Thank you for having us. Hi.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    So let’s get started. Julian, could you tell me a little bit about CHERISH and its wonderful projects.

    Dr Julian Whitewright
    Of course. The CHERISH project is a joint project between heritage agencies in Ireland and Wales. It’s headed up by the Royal Commission really in in Wales, but it’s its own project. And what it really aims to do is to understand climate change and coastal change and the impact that that is having on both sides of the Irish Sea, but particularly on the coasts, headlands, islands and reefs. Which are all the words that come together to make the acronym of CHERISH. What it’s really doing is, rather than trying to look at the whole of the Welsh coastline that faces Ireland or the whole of the Irish coastline, which is probably impossible, but to pull out sort of individual case study sites. All around the coast to demonstrate and understand how our changing climate and things like storminess, for example are affecting the coast and the heritage sites that are on the coast. And out of those sites in certainly on the Welsh side, we’ve got promontory forts in Pembrokeshire and Anglesey. We’ve got a few shipwreck sites, one of which we’re going to talk about today, the Bronze Bell site, another one the Albion, a paddle steamer down in Pembrokeshire. So there’s a whole range of different sort of site types. Basically, it’s trying to understand what’s happening.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Oh, very interesting. Could you say a little bit more about how climate change does interact with the coastline? Any specific examples?

    Dr Julian Whitewright
    I think, most obviously, probably through erosion. I think that’s the thing that probably springs into most people’s heads where we think of particularly of one of the CHERISH sites of Dinas Dinlle in north Wales on the north of the peninsula there where there’s an enormous Iron Age hill fort half of which is eroding, you know, the cliff is eroding off into the sea. And the same at other places where there’s seemingly quite a hard cliff, you know, made of big rocks is very tall and everything but actually most a lot of these monuments are disappearing off into the waters. The shipwreck side of it is also, you know, quite heavily impacted. We have increasing storminess, I think everyone appreciates that the storms that are always described as being 100 year storms or 50 years storms are seemingly happening every two years or three years. And they cause huge sediment movements on the beaches. So things are becoming exposed that we you know, people have never seen some of the wreaks before but then also in, in the sort of the offshore zone where are much harder to monitor because we can’t see them a lot of the time. How much are things being exposed? How much are things moving around, being moved around? And then I guess the final part of it that we really don’t often think about is as the ocean is sort of warming and changing the extent to which things are the pH levels are changing within the season, how that impact on particularly iron work and wood in this kind of stuff,

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Of course. And as I understand with offshore wrecks, they are very time sensitive when it comes to dives etc. Anyway, so it sounds like this hugely exacerbates that issue.

    Dr Julian Whitewright
    Yeah, I think, I guess the public always thinks so people always think that as archaeologists, we’re really excited when a wreck becomes exposed, and we can go and work on it and study it. But in some ways, from the point of view of managing that shipwreck, it’s a nightmare. Because when it’s buried under the sand, it’s protected effectively, because the marine organisms that like to eat wood, and cause iron to corrode in this kind of thing. Can’t you know those chemical processes and biological processes can’t happen for the most part in the sand? So yeah, once something becomes exposed, it does become a sort of a race against time to record it, and understand it. And that’s true. That’s as true on the beaches actually, as it is in the sort of the fully underwater. So

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    If we move on to the Bronze Bell wreck, then could you tell me a little bit about that, Alison?

    Allison James
    Yeah, of course I can. The wreck was discovered by a local man called Geraint Jones back in the 70s. And I was lucky enough to meet him recently. And he told us all about the discovery. He regularly metal detected on the beach with his brother. And one day they uncovered a small metal medallion, and he was really interested in that, as you would be. He researched it, and he basically found other examples and could see it was an early 18th century date. And that really led to him going to the beach a lot more often where he started to see wreck material was regularly washing up, he started mapping it to see if he could work out where it was all coming from. To cut a long story short, he subsequently learned to dive and got involved with some local divers from the Cae Nest Group who then went out, they put everything that he’d sort of worked out in his head into theory, dived on the site and actually located it in 1978. The site was subsequently designated and protection of wreck site. It got its name for the Bronze Bell, but the divers reportedly found on their very first dive on the site. I should say, as well just to stop any confusion, t’s also sometimes called the Tal-y-Bont wreck, which comes from its location near the village of Tal-y-Bont. When they found the site, the team continued to work on the wreck, they recovered material that even taught themselves conservation skills to conserve the finds that they brought to the surface. We don’t really still know the name of the wreck. It’s got a large cargo of Carrara marble blocks on it. And there are other finds as well that have led archaeologists to believe the wreck is early 18th century, and most probably Genoese in origin. There was a map that was published by the hydrographer Lewis Morris in 1748, which identifies as Genoese wreck dating to 1709 in the location of our wreck, so the evidence does seem to fit. It is interesting, though, is there’s a number of early 16th century guns and a group of 16th century coins that were also found on the wreck, and which are earlier than the date of the wreck quite significantly. So some people have suggested that maybe, in fact, two wrecks on the site. It’s an interesting theory, but not one that we can really prove one way or another at this time. It’s one of just six protected wreck sites in Welsh waters. So I think you could say it’s fairly significant. It’s just one of six special ones. And having spent so much time learning about the wreck recently, and meeting people who spent their lives working on it, and then having had the opportunity to visit it on field work. I think it’s rather special and quite significant too

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Definitely. And it’s such a fascinating story that the man who discovered the original signs of the wreck was able to be so involved in the process of then kind of unearthing it and conserving it, which is fantastic.

    Allison James
    Yeah, groups like the Cae Nest Group who sort of came together to find these wrecks that were found in the early days for protection of wreck sites. They are a unique breed of diver who were focused, committed, and had the time and skills to actually take these things forward. And we know a lot more about wrecks such as the Bronze Bell because of their work.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    That’s fantastic to hear. I’m quite interested in the marble that was found on the ship, and I think it makes it quite distinctive. Could you tell me a little bit more about maybe where that might have been going what it might have been intended for?

    Allison James
    Yeah, absolutely. To be honest. There’s lots of theories out there. I have heard 1000 and one theories from lots of different people over the course of the last year and the marble itself is Carrara marble. So it fits that it was generally a ship that was sailing round to wherever it was going, it got wrecked on the way. And the blocks themselves are huge they really are sort of two meters long, in some cases, the’re huge blocks. I’ve heard theories as it might have been going to help build St. Paul’s Cathedral that it was going to the Palace of Versailles, was blown hugely off course, or that it was even going over to Ireland. And to be honest, I don’t think at this time we can say anything conclusively as to where it was going at all. It was certainly going somewhere. What I would say is, if anyone wants to see the marble, you don’t have to dive on the site to see it, because if you visit Barmouth, one of the great big blocks was raised by the dive team, and it was actually carved as part of a project to celebrate the millennium. So a local sculptor carved it, and it’s sat in the middle of Barmouth, so it’s well worth going to see.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Wow, that sounds incredible. So just an extension of the previous question, but I’d like to direct it at. Julian. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about the kind of trading relations that Wales would have had with other areas where other countries at this time.

    Dr Julian Whitewright
    In terms of that ship, it’s really difficult to fit it into what we understand about, I suppose Wales trade at that point, because we’re in a period. I mean, if we believe Lewis Morris’s chart of sort of 1709, of this ship being lost, and I think a few people have commented that the chances of two ships with a cargo of marble being lost in almost exactly the same place are from, you know, this kind of date are really, really slim. So the ship on the chart is probably almost certainly the, you know, the Bronze Bell wreck. It’s a 700 ton ship is clearly really heavily armed, as a lot of merchant ships were at that time. And I think bearing in mind, it’s sailing from northern Italy, from Genoa, so it’s got to say it out of the Western Mediterranean. Past the famed Barbary pirates and up the Western sort of approaches, so you can understand why it is having this extent of armament on it. But it’s, yeah, it’s way bigger than, you know, the what we understand that the sort of the Welsh trading ships at that time. Which are mostly operating out of smallish sort of ports, and mostly engaged in kind of coastal trade. Maybe a little bit of trade of materials across to Ireland, corn, stone, coal, and these kinds of things go into places like Dublin and Bristol and agricultural products. So Wales is not a it’s not a place at this point in time that is producing vast amounts of exotic material, or neither are there places that are bringing that material in. But as in the 18th, the later 18th and 19th century, there’s tons and tons of things going past Wales, because everybody going to Dublin and Liverpool, and maybe a bit further north up to say Lancaster, maybe Glasgow, are going up the Irish Sea. So the chances of ships sort of ending up on the west coast in a period before, you know, the lighthouses at the Smalls were built. And this kind of thing is quite, quite strong. I would think. So. I think it’s one of these vessels that is sort of has sailed into the Welsh coast by accident, and has, you know, tragically got stuck, if you like, in the top corner of Cardigan Bay there, in amongst St. Patrick’s causeway. And, as Alison says, I think, for finding where, you know, the origins of the ship, somewhere in Genoa, there’s probably an old historical document, of a shipping record from this period, you know, is just about recent enough that we might expect this kind of thing to survive that will say, you know, this consignment of stuff was shipped off somewhere, maybe to London, I mean, I find it really interesting on the chart that the rest of the cargo is paper, because some of the early understandings of the site before the chart was found was that it was quite a small ship, because there were only 60 tons of marble and that was considered to be the whole cargo. But now we understand that the cargo was marble on the one hand and paper on the other, and now paper is not very heavy, but it’s quite bulky. So you could fill a ship up with, you know, I say it’s not heavy, you know, relative to marble. So, you’ve got this big sort of bulk of stuff in the bottom of the ship as that’s ballasting it, I guess, and then you’ve got the rest of this cargo. So, I suppose destination wise, we’ve kind of got to ask, well, who wants marble and paper in, you know, 1709 and it’s probably not Pwlheli or Carnarvon or something like that. It’s got to be a fairly big, you know, major city, I would have thought so I think you either look at its heading for Dublin or Liverpool or something like that. Or there’s been some kind of catastrophic navigation error and they’ve kind of gone the wrong side of Cornwall and just got lost basically in a storm or something.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    And finding those kinds of records and that there was new pieces of information is that a big part of CHERISH’s work?

    Dr Julian Whitewright
    Um, not so much with the CHERISH project. I mean, I think the chart in this case the chart was found in I think it was 1999. It was sort of found in in one of the archives of Gwyneth, whereas CHERISH is more really sort of focused on the archaeological processes of material itself. And lots of the sites that are forming a big part of the CHERISH project are by definition prehistoric. So there’s not a huge amount of this, this other material, but I think the Bronze Bell wreck is a is a brilliant example of the sort of the meshing together the historical material and the archaeological material and, and really demonstrates why you’ve got to sort of balance them both together, you can’t just rely on, you know, one or the other that the two together tell you so much about the other half if you’d like.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    And speaking of finding new information, I understand Alison that there was recently a new dive the wreck.

    Allison James
    Yeah, so we were lucky enough to go spend a weekend working out on the site on behalf of CHERISH in early September this year. The site’s be visited by quite a few people in the past and Wessex Archaeology were there in 2004. More recently, Ian Cundy and Malvern archaeological diving unit have visited the site quite regularly. But our visit was the first to use really high tech data tracking equipment in combination with high resolution multibeam from the site. So we’ve been doing a lot of work recently, using a Sonadyne Tracking System to basically go and position our divers on the site alongside the multibeam and really accurately tie the two things together. So there was an existing site plan for the site. And it was originally hand drawn by divers from that original group in the late 70s and early 80s. And it’s remarkably accurate. However, advances in technology have allowed us to really refine the accuracy of the site plan. And we were able to show the orientation of some of the guns was incorrect. So facing the wrong way off, they needed realigning slightly. And we’ve been able to really overall, increase the accuracy overall of that site plan. And as well, for the first time, we were looking at the site for indicators of climate change, we’ve undertaken a baseline assessment of the site for the first time to look at key features of climate change to allow future archaeologists to monitor the site and see how climate change is affecting the sites in years to come. We think we’ve identified a species that shouldn’t be in Welsh waters, but we’re waiting to have that confirmed at the moment. So it’s, it’s been really good piece of work from that point of view. But we did also find a really interesting new feature that we haven’t seen previously on any site, but also hasn’t been spotted on the Bronze Bell site. It’s a feature made up of a number of rings, there may be more that we didn’t spot, and the rings are each about 70 centimeters across. We spotted three on the seabed when we were diving on the site. But when we went back through the photos afterwards, we could see that there were at least five if not more of these features. The visibility, I should say on the site was really poor. And it was easier to identify the features bizarrely on the photos, that when you were diving. The rings aren’t linked, like chain but they do you see to be concreted together and connected. So we’re really stumped as to what this feature is, I’d love to be able to go and see it again and actually investigate it on the seabed in future. But I did think perhaps if your listeners have any ideas, they could get in touch with us. And it might be that I can share a photo somehow for people to have a look at.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Yeah, that’s a fantastic idea. And I was going to ask actually how this information and recordings of the wreck can be accessed by the public.

    Allison James
    So on the CHERISH website, that there is a blog post and also the CHERISH YouTube page. And there’s a whole series of dive diaries that we recorded during the course of the week. And as a maritime archaeologist, I’m really lucky to be able to go underwater and see this stuff. But it’s really nice to be able to give it to people who can’t as well. So we’ve done a lot of work during our fieldwork actually recording the site underwater and recording interviews with the team involved. So I would suggest everybody has had a look at those dive diaries.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    My final question about the wreck in particular is the name of the wreck, which is of course based on the bronze bell that was found. And I was just wondering if you could tell our listeners a little more about that maybe the significance of the bell?

    Allison James
    Yeah, absolutely.I mean, I’m not a bell expert. I think I should say that before we start, but the bell itself is really interesting. Its how the site got its name and it’s also quite beautiful. The date on the bell, so 1677 And if anyone goes on Sketchfab and you can see there’s a photogrammetry model that was created by the NAS and Modo and with some funding from Caddy, so you can have an explorer of the bell yourself there. Or you can see it in the museum in Barmouth. So at one time, the wreck was thought to be French but the bells one of many things that meant that view has been readjusted. French vessels often had Fleur de Lys decorations on their bow’s. And they also had slightly different yolks, they were more like the ones used by the British Navy. So the bell from the site is much more consistent with Spanish or indeed Italian bells, which sort of fits with the marble as well. It’s not clear if the bell was cast for the ship. And if it was, and the ship did sink 1709, then the ship would have been 32 years old, when it sank, which isn’t impossible. But there’s nothing to say the bell wasn’t part of the cargo or was on the ship for some other reason. We have recently been in touch with a bell foundry who we think might have made similar bells, who are based in Italy. And we’re waiting to hear back from them. And I think it would just be fantastic if we could actually locate a link to the foundry that made the bell that was located and gave the wreck site its name. So that’s one for the future.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Definitely. And it’s great that there is still more to be found out about the wreck and still exciting things coming up for people to hear about. So thank you both very much for speaking to me today. It’s been really interesting to hear about.

    Allison James
    Thank you. Thank you for having us.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Thank you so much for listening. I hope you enjoyed learning more about the fascinating work of CHERISH and the Bronze Bell, Wreck, we appreciate all of your support. So do go and find us on social media. Search the mariners mirror podcast on Instagram and on YouTube. I particularly love the recent YouTube video using artificial intelligence to bring ships figureheads to life. You can also get in touch and give us your thoughts on the episode via the free forum on the Society for Nautical Research Website, or by leaving us a review on iTunes. If you want to be part of the community dedicated to exploring and cherishing our maritime past, please consider joining the Society for Nautical Research for a small annual subscription. Join me and Dr. Julian Whitewright next time to hear about the fascinating work of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales and their collaboration with the Lloyd’s Register Foundation to discover more about our world shipwrecks.

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