The Maritime History of Wales 4: Locating Welsh Shipwrecks

November 2021

In this our fourth episode dedicated to the maritime history of Wales, Eirwen Abberley Watton finds out about the work of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales who research and record Wales’ history from the tip of Snowdon to the depths of the Welsh coastline. Today we discuss their collaboration with the Lloyds Register Foundation in their hunt for Welsh shipwrecks.

There are many processes involved in the discovery and collection of maritime history, which has been revolutionised thanks to the advancement of technology and the unending curiosity of the Welsh public – many old wrecks are still appearing due to constantly changing tides, and being discovered by surprised dog walkers.

Lloyd’s Register’s records are crucial in filling in the gaps when unearthing a ship’s story and matching new finds to existing knowledge.

Eirwen speaks with Dr Julian Whitewright, 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. Julian joined the Royal Commission in June 2021 having previously worked in the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton. His archaeological interests cover all boats and ships from the earliest remains to the 20th century but he has a particular love of small craft and is a keen sailor and rower. He lives in Pembrokeshire, a short distance from the sea.

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    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, and welcome to our fourth episode of the mariners mirror series on the maritime history of Wales. My name is Eiwen Abberley Watton, and today I’ll be finding out more about the fascinating work of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales. They conduct important research to record Wales’s history from the tip of Snowden to the depths of the Welsh coastline, but I will be learning specifically about their work and shipwrecks and their collaboration with the Lloyd’s Register foundation. There are many processes involved in the discovery and collection of maritime history, which has been revolutionised thanks to the advancement of technology and the unending curiosity of the Welsh public. Many old wrecks are still appearing due to constantly changing tides, and are being discovered by surprised dog walkers. Lloyd’s registers records are crucial in filling in the gaps when an unearthing ships story and matching new finds to existing knowledge. Here to tell me more about his work as the senior maritime investigator at the Royal Commission is Dr. Julian Whitewright. He is responsible for overseeing the maritime archaeological parts of the national monuments record within Wales, as well as advising on marine funding for offshore development. Julian joined the Royal Commission in June 2021, having previously worked in the Centre for maritime archaeology at the University of Southampton, because archaeological interests cover all boats and ships from the earliest remains to the 20th century. But he has a particular love of small craft and is a keen sailor and rower; he lives in Pembrokeshire, just a short distance from the sea. I hope you all find the interview as interesting as I did, who knew there was so much involved in recording and celebrating Wales maritime past?

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    Hello, Julian, and thank you so much for talking to me today.

     

    Dr Julian Whitewright 

    Hello it’s lovely to be able to contribute.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    So please tell our listeners a little bit more about the Royal Commission on the ancient and historical monuments of Wales and what you do.

     

    Dr Julian Whitewright 

    Okay so I work for the Royal Commission on the ancient and historic monuments of Wales, which is probably one of the longest organisational titles that you can get. And we are responsible, I mean, primarily for maintaining the national monuments record in Wales. And this includes pretty much everything actually. So we are right up on the tops of the mountains in Snowdonia, and then we go right out to the edge of the territorial waters of Wales. And we actually go a bit beyond that in terms of our remit, because one of the things we also deal with is marine planning. So if somebody is building an offshore wind farm, or laying cables, we deal with the work that goes ahead of that to ensure that nobody is damaging a shipwreck or a submerged landscape or something like that. So I mean, it actually goes out quite a lot further than the territorial waters. So within that, what we have been tasked with doing by our royal charter is to gather together and maintain a record of all the monuments in the country. A lot of this has been done, so we’re in happy position now of really maintaining the record and enhancing it, adding more to it as we go through. And in the maritime bit, which is what my job is, we are still discovering new sites, which is quite exciting. So we have material that emerges on beaches, after storms, sand gets washed away, and sediment levels get lowered. And we have wrecks that nobody really knew were there before sort of appear. Work is done in the offshore zone, as I’ve just said, laying cables, building wind farms, that kind of thing, most typically, and the survey work that goes on in front of those to make sure that the infrastructure, I guess has been put in the right place as our underwater survey techniques have got better and better, more and more wrecks are being found. So the maritime bit is one of the areas of the Commission’s where we are still adding in new sites and monuments. Whereas things like 20th century buildings or old houses, that kind of thing, we kind of know where all of those are.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    Yeah, of course, it must be really interesting to be at the forefront of kind of new discoveries. So I’d love to hear more about what’s involved in finding those discoveries and then the process of recording them and then displaying them for public viewing or whatever it might be.

     

    Dr Julian Whitewright 

    I mean, probably now the most typical site that will come out as being a new site would be something in the intertidal zone. So that area between high water and low water, which around the Welsh coast is quite extensive. We’ve got some quite big areas of mud flats down on the south coast and the North Coast and quite big estuaries. And some, as I’m sure many of your listeners would be aware some really beautiful beaches, sandy beaches all around the coast. And Wales has quite a big tidal, regime in it. So there’s where I am in in west Wales and Pembrokeshire, we have a sort of a seven metre or so tidal range. So we get some really, really big expanses of the intertidal zone uncovered, we also get lots of bad weather, we get a lot of storms straight of the Atlantic, which can move sediment and you can go down on the beaches in the winter. And they look very unlike the beaches that you might go to in the summer, for your paddling and your picnics and playing on the sand, because the sand gets moved off the beaches in the winter. And sometimes after some of those events, we could go down there and members of the public will often phone us up and say, Well, I’ve been down to the beach walking the dog, as I do every day, and there’s a shipwreck on the beach, I’ve never seen it before. And I’ve been doing this for years and years and years and years. So that in a lot of senses is our best way of discovering things, is the eyes on the ground of the of the public, who are always curious and always, I think, are always really interested in, in maritime heritage. So they might phone us up, send us an email, that kind of thing. Or we can then go and look at a site. And then I guess we’re into a sort of a detective game of trying to work out is this a site that we know about is it one that’s emerged before, and that’s where we can go back to the national monuments record, and sort of look at the location the site is exposed, go into our sort of GIS systems and see while they’re actually in 2013, or 1980, or whatever it might have been, this material has come out. And we know it’s there. And we have a little bit of an idea of what it might be. But we still get ships that come out, and we have no real I guess knowledge of what that what that vessel is. It’s a completely new site, which is always I suppose the most exciting thing. But it also means you’re starting with a blank canvas, I guess in terms of trying to understand what this is. So we can go and do some sort of initial survey work of measuring the site, just the sort of basic length, breath’s that types of things that we use to classify shapes, what’s it made of, a lot of the older ones that appear are wooden, the ones that we don’t know about. So we can look at that we can look at the arrangement of the framing, the way it’s built, the types of fastenings that are used on the ship. Are they made of wood, or iron, or copper, all of these kinds of things that can give us an idea about the date of the ship, the size and the shape. And sometimes, I mean, some of the ones that have been in the sediment for a long time are amazingly well preserved. And because there’s no, they get deep enough down into the material, particularly the mud, actually, there’s nothing in there that can eat the wooden remains. So some of the features that come out of some of these ships and some of the fittings on them, like the capstans and windlass is this kind of thing, features that we often don’t see on the more submerge sites. So that gives us sort of a starting point to say, well, we’ve got a little bit of idea about this vessel now. And it allows us to then go to some of the documentary sources and see the losses in the area, and which of those kind of fit together. And then if we have a little bit more time, and time is always the problem in the intertidal zone, because some of the sites are only exposed for maybe an hour.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    Wow, that’s a real rush to get things uncovered.

     

    Dr Julian Whitewright 

    If you’re working on a site, there’s a really long way down a down a beach might be an hour. And it might only be an hour on some of the really low spring tides that we have some maybe once a month. So it can be a bit of a hurry to do the work. So you might go and do your initial visit. And then you might have to wait a month and go back again. And it might be that the site is buried by that point. And you might not see it again. Or it might come up the following year. So it’s all a little bit you it’s quite difficult sometimes to plan exactly what you can do. If  we get lucky, I suppose. And we can go back to the site the next day, the day after. Nowadays life is so much easier than it used to be. In the past. We used to have to do everything by hand with hand tapes and longer tapes and drawing boards. And you know, you’re sort of battling this on the beach in the in the mud or on the sand and the wind. Nowadays, we can just take a drone down, for example. And that will you know, we can pre programme that to fly a survey over the site, take loads of photos, we can bring that home, run it through the computer and create a cell to 3d model. Sometimes if we can’t fly a drone because of the weather conditions or because of where the site is we can just take the photos by hand camera on a long pole is a pretty good substitute for drone or even in some examples, take a laser scanner down onto the site and We can sort of position that on the mapping really, really accurately with a GPS now that allows us not the sort of the handheld GPS that you might use on a sailing boat, or in your car, but one that allows us to get down to maybe five millimetres of accuracy, you know, globally in three dimensions. So we can record the sites really quickly, and we can position them really, really accurately. So our ability to do something useful in our one hour on the site is now you know, brilliant. And the great thing about those 3d models is that we could go back to that site A month later, and we could create another model. And we could compare the two together really easily. And we could see how the sediment has changed. Or we could go back a year later or two years later, and we could see if any of the ship is missing, how the sediment has changed, which bits are a bit more is exposed than there was before. So they’re, they’re really great tools for recording the sites, but also managing them in a way that is much more efficient than it was in the past, we could kind of have the same understanding in the past, but it would be a much more laborious process. And to some extent that is the same in the in the offshore zone in the fully submerged sites, the process now of recording the seabed, with things like Swath Bathymetry systems, which gives you this kind of overview of the whole of the seabed, rather than just individual lines of, you know, sidescan sonar, something is a much more, I guess, dynamic way of viewing the seabed that can be repeated, and we can understand where sediment is missing and more things are exposed or things that are buried. Having said all that, there’s no excuse for putting, you know, a diver down to eyeball things if the wreck is shallow enough. So this week, as we’re talking in September 2021, we’ve got a team up on a site called the Bronze Bell wreck in north Wales in the north of Cardigan Bay, which is one of the protected wreck sites in Wales. And they are doing a condition survey of the site to compare it to the last time that was done, which was back in about 2006. There’s been lots of Geophysics done on the sites, we have quite a good record of, sort of, if it’s changed over the years, and they’re really trying to assess whether or not any increase in storminess that’s happened that we read a lot about in the press with climate change, if that’s impacting the site, and the early indications are that it doesn’t seem to have the ability to move, cannons and anchors and the cargo of that ship was actually a big load of marble blocks from Italy to Genoese ship the sank in the early 1700s. But actually, it seems to be quite stable, to the sediment is probably going up and down a bit. And there’s probably more bits of getting exposed and buried. And we can understand that from the geophysics. But actually having people who know what they’re looking at, dive down and sort of ground check  things and check things is still the best way to sort of understand the actual detail of the sites, I guess.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    It’s amazing that you have all of the new technology there, it sounds like a huge asset. So we’ve heard about kind of the initial process that happens when you discover something like a wreck, can you tell me a little bit more about how Lloyd’s registers records then come into play to kind of build up your information databases,

     

    Dr Julian Whitewright 

    Everybody likes to know the name of a shipwreck, right? It adds something to the story behind the wreck if you can pin a name on it. And you can understand where it’s gone and where it’s going to and what the cargo was and who owned it. And these kinds of things. And while as an archaeologist, that is not the be all and end all because we have, you know, the archaeological record itself tells us so much about that individual vessel. If it’s possible to sort of fuse it together with the historical material, it gives us such a, you know, a much richer view of things. So, one of the things that we are, again, more and more able to do because of the internet and digitization of things is to go into the Lloyd’s registers, in that’s kind of the first port of call I suppose. And to look up the details of individual ships, so we might have a set of remains is a appeared on a beach, we’ve gone and recorded it and we understand what the archaeology of it looks like. We have our own set of known losses, if you like from all of the casualty returns that people have documented and databased over the over the years, which even the national monuments record. So the National Monument record is not just archaeological sites, but it’s also the documented losses of shipwrecks and a lot of those we don’t know where they are. But we know that the ship has been lost at some point. So we could go into that for the area around the beach, say, and look at the 10 or 15 known ships that have been lost. And in a lot of cases, they are going to be ships that have been lost in the last maybe 200 years, maybe 250 years, it’s that big, just because of the way that recording has improved. And then using, say, in the first instance, the Lloyd’s Register, we can go back in hopefully find the identification of those ships within the registers, they’re not always included, particularly some of the smaller ones. And that then gives us information like the tonnage, the dimensions of the ships, and some of the later registers some of the construction details. So they tell us if it’s been fastened with the iron belt, or copper bolts, or copper sheathing, lots and lots of these kinds of details, and we can kind of go through a process of matching the historical documents on the one hand with what we’re finding, archaeologically, and quite often, it’s possible to then say, well, this wreck on the beach, in all probability relates to this vessel that we can find in the documentary sources. And then we can go into the sort of the, the wonderful rabbit hole of the information that Lloyd’s holds, if you like, and start to hunt, the survey reports and the records of the ship in the Lloyd’s list and the casualty returns and, and all of these things that allow us to put more flesh on the bones if you like, of the of the archaeological remains that we have to embellish that story and to fill in lots of the details and to some extent to put the people, the ship owners, the captains, the crew back into the story. At the same time as Lloyd’s materials become increasingly digitised over the certainly the last decade. Also, we have lots of newspapers around from Wales have also undergone that process. And the National Library of Wales keeps all these we can search these online. So once we have this identification of the ship, or we know a rough date, we can often go and find the accounts of the losses of the ships in those newspaper reports, which in in many cases are really accurate, because they’re the eyewitness accounts that are coming through and there’s several of them to sort of corroborate so we can get a lovely sort of set of stories if you’d like about how these ships sort of get wrecked and meet their meet their ends. And the newspapers then tend to bring in things like the lifeboat services that might have been launched to assist people or whether or not people were taken off the ships using rocket apparatus. So you know, all of these kinds of little details that it’s nice to, to know about, I guess, at the end of things.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    That’s, that’s fantastic. That sounds like it must be a hugely useful collection of information to have both for academic research and also on the other side, education for the public and making sure that we do remember all of the important history that Wales has.

     

    Dr Julian Whitewright 

    Yeah, I think it’s, it’s one of those things that we forget when we have our head in a dusty pile of papers or the cemetery plot or even, you know, a muddy, muddy set of timbers on an estuary somewhere that the public is and are. I’m sure we’ll be totally fascinated by maritime heritage, I mean, all heritage, but shipwrecks in particular, and ships have this sort of romantic pull to them. I think that that attracts people even though in many, many cases, they are, you know, tragic events in which people have lost their lives and families have become bereaved. I mean, many of them happily actually, when you’re doing the research on them, everyone survives remarkably. But yes, it’s very much about allowing people to understand those stories. And I think the fascination of people with them is shown by I mean in the lockdown last year. The Malvern archaeological diving unit, which has done a lot of work around the Welsh coast in the past, had a sort of a lockdown wrecks research project run by a chap called Ian Kennedy, who has done huge amounts of work around the Welsh Coast. And and they had I can’t remember the numbers but they dozens and dozens and dozens of people volunteer from all over the world to take these documented losses from in in that particular project. He’s mainly from the north of Cardigan Bay. And to go into all of the historical documentation, particularly the Lloyd’s registers and the casualty returns and these kind of things to essentially produce a better understanding of those sites. And in some cases actually demonstrate that there’s they’re not shipwreck sites because you have instances where ship runs aground. People take the cargo off it, salvage the cargo, they might be able to repair the ship. And then they re-float it, and it’s taken away. So there’s to understand that there’s actually sites in our monuments record where there’s nothing there anymore. There wasn’t event but now the ship is, you know, the ship never actually wrecked there, it continued its, its service. Quite what we do with those sites, because you don’t ever really like to delete things from a record or remove them, you kind of have to shunt them sideways into a different category. But that I mean that that record, the Welsh wreck research project was amazing in just demonstrating people’s appetite for contributing. And in the past, I think that kind of archival research, which is so critical for getting the most out of the archaeological record, you have to look at these two things in parallel, is often quite restrictive, because people have to go to archives in you know, it might be the National Archives in London, or Aberystwyth or even the local archives, I mean, where I am in in Pembrokeshire is in Haverfordwest. But for some people, that are an hour’s drive away, and that, you know, they can’t, they can’t do it, they can’t get there. So the more things that are put up on the internet, the better on it, it sort of demonstrates that we hear a lot of bad things about the internet, and all the you know, the trouble and damage it does in some places, but in this case, it demonstrates what it was designed for is this kind of thing to disseminate knowledge and allow people to access knowledge and, and then send it back the other way. So it’s, it’s brilliant when you can, when you can have people doing the sort of citizen science if you’d like. And that comes to the, you know, it goes right back to where we started the beginning of our conversation with the reporting of things on beaches, you know, modern telephones that everyone carries in their pocket, can take a photo with a GPS location to within a couple of metres. And they can stand on the beach or when they get home and send that off to us. And we can know about those, you know, those sites and coming into that starts that whole, that whole process off. So yeah, modern, modern communications technology, digitization is changing how we not really what we’re trying to get from the shipwrecks and from the maritime record, but just our ability to make it better, I suppose. And do it, do it quicker and more efficiently. And just join everything together in a way that makes it I think, are hopefully more interesting for the public.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    Of course, that’s fantastic. Thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s been really great to hear more about all of the work that does go on to discover these wrecks and make sure that they are recorded and are accessible to the public.

     

    Dr Julian Whitewright 

    It’s a pleasure and always happy to talk about shipwrecks, and how we do maritime archaeology and the amazing maritime heritage of Wales.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    Thank you so much for listening. I hope you found this episode informative and interesting. If you would like to learn more about Britain’s maritime past, you can follow the Mariners Mirror on Instagram and YouTube. Every single LIKE and SUBSCRIBE is appreciated. And we always love to hear from our listeners, so feel free to get in touch. Tell us what you think or leave a review on iTunes. To get even more involved. Join the Society for Nautical Research and become part of a community dedicated to preserving and celebrating our maritime history. For a small annual subscription fee, you receive four copies a year of our mariners mirror journal, which has been published for over a century, as well as access to all of the existing publications online. Tune in again for our final episode in this series, which is about Wales’s U-boat project, a fantastic research project sharing information on underwater wreck and the lives of diverse communities in Wales affected by the First World War.

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