Warships on the Charlton foreshore

From the Greenwich Industrial History blog:

Thames Discovery is following on from the 1990s ‘Foreshore’ study, with small staff on a three year scheme to establish a continuing archaeological study of the Thames foreshore, which can change from tide to tide, eroding in some places or building up elsewhere. To do this they are training volunteers, both in the classroom and on sites – one of which is by the Anchor & Hope pub in Charlton.

There was a ship breakers yard there, where a square platform was built from scrap material. This was for boats to sit on between high tides for repair work. Map and pictorial evidence suggests it was built in 1904, a time when the yard broke up four warships built in mid-19C.

The 19C was a time of rapid change in warship design, going from: wooden sailing ships; through designs with wrought iron armour and steam engines driving screw propellers (though still with sails as early steam engines needed too much coal); iron ships, which could be made larger; to steel battleships such as the Dreadnaught. Warships could already be obsolete when they were launched. So few of a particular design would have been built – and the wood and iron used to make the boat platform is therefore of interest.

The Duke of Wellington, built at Pembroke in 1852 as the world’s largest and most powerful ship, probably contributed the timbers in the platform. The Hannibal, Deptford 1854; Edgar, Woolwich 1858; and Anson, Woolwich 1860, could also have contributed to the platform, which contains iron beams and some large lumps.

And from the Thames Discovery programme itself:

Not only are there ships’ timbers on the foreshore at Charlton; seemingly integral to the structure are large iron plates along with even bigger lumps of iron. In the same year as our wooden vessels were broken up, so was a ship built of iron and protected by armour plate similar in size to the iron on the site. Her name was HMS Ajax), launched in 1880 at Pembroke Dock and was the last British capital ship built primarily of iron. In 1885 she entered the Baltic as part of a squadron engaged in ‘gunboat diplomacy’ with the Russians.

So at Charlton we have archaeological evidence for one of the most revolutionary periods of naval development – in less than 40 years the ships of Nelson had been replaced by steel battleships, powered by steam engines and mounting huge guns. Apart from submerged shipwrecks, this may well be the only known evidence of vessels from this period in Europe.

There’s photos on Flickr of the team at work – and they’re looking for volunteers. If you want to join them and you’re free during the day next week, Greenwich Industrial History has more details.