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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Recovery of Ship's Timbers at Sandwich, Kent.
by R E Trussler.

During the course of laying a main sewer at Sandwich, Kent a quantity of ship's timbers were uncovered. These were not at first easily recognisable as such but were, nevertheless, identified by Mr W Honey, Director of the Deal Maritime Museum, as the remains of a clinker built ship, tentatively dated as early 15th century.

The location of the trench, in the Parish of St Clements NGR TR 335 581, was in the remains of the outer defensive ditch in the area known as the Bulwarks, part of the medieval earthworks surrounding the town. At this point both wall and ditch are approximately 50 metres from and at right angles to the river Stour. The trench followed the line of the old defensive ditch and, at the outer or eastern side of it, was some 1.5 metres wide and 3-3.5 metres deep, the timbers being recovered over a distance of approximately 33 metres, giving a vessel of perhaps something approaching this length.

DRAWING: area of recovery of ship's timbers.

Plan of Sandwich to show area of recovery of ship's timbers.
Plan: The Big Picture (69k).

Ground conditions here necessitated the use of close sheet piling making it impossible to observe or record those fragments remaining in the walls of the trench. Similarly the disposition of the timbers as deposited on the spoil bank gave no indication of their relative positions in the trench, although a series of photographs were taken of them in sequence. Subsequence information has revealed that the existence of these timbers was known in the 1930's when the original sewer was laid, a fact largely borne out by the curious dog leg in the sewer, which, of course, was hand excavated at that period.

In view of the relatively small quantity of timber recovered and its disjointed condition, it seemed debatable whether it would be possible to gain any clear conception of the original form and construction of the vessel. Nevertheless the apparent age and construction rendered the remains of considerable importance not only for the present student but also for any future excavators. For possible further remains, therefore, a programme of recovery and recording was undertaken.

Permission for the removal of these timbers was delayed (it was believed that the contractors were seeking compensation for the extra labours involved in the removal of the timbers which they wished to retain until the cost could be assessed), and because of this delay some deterioration took place.

Subsequent removal to the Deal Maritime Museum and initial clearing of the heavy coating of mud revealed that the mechanical digger had cut longitudinally through the vessel removing parts of the rudder, a number of frames and sundry pieces of planking, but missing the stern-post and not being sufficiently deep enough to recover any portion of the keel.

Altogether there are some 30 constructional members and about 50 fragments, ranging in length from 3.25 metres to 0.5 metres. Damage to the ends of the frames suggested that the vessel had been robbed of all timber down to the unladen water line at some period in antiquity. To minimise further deterioration a rudimentary soaking tank was constructed and it may be of help to others if a brief description of the tank is given. This consisted of covering the floor of a brick shed with a thick layer of soft sand, over which some sheets of hardboard were laid. A sheet of heavy polythene, covered the hardboard and was fastened to the wall. By this means all the timbers could be immersed and allowed sufficient room for manoeuvering, albeit very carefully.

Drawing to reduced scale had to be abandoned owing to the time the timbers would have been out of the tank and a system of direct tracing on to polythene sheeting was resorted to. From these tracings reduced scale drawings will be produced. Extensive photographic work has augmented the drawings. Samples of caulking and iron nails are being subjected to tests, the results of which are not as yet to hand.


It is not intended to give a full technical report at this stage, but merely to report a few of the most apparent features of the timbers. The most impressive piece is the rudder, despite the fact that it is in two pieces and the trailing edge is missing, but nevertheless, from the once iron-shod base a definite angle of 117 degrees between keel and stern-post has been established. 82 centimetres. above the base of the rudder there remains an iron pintle and gudgeon, 96 centimetres above this is the housing for a second pintle, here the transverse break occurs. 100.5 centimetres above the second housing is situated the third housing, the portion above is missing, probably removed during the early demolition. The piece of the stern-post which was recovered had on its after face two marks incised for the acceptance of the gudgeon. These were 100.5 centimetres apart. Its lower end was cut for a flat scarf 80 centimetres long which had been fixed with eight spikes 12.5 centimetres long by 1.5 centimetres square, in two rows, one driven from each side of the scarf, and a trenail running through the centre. Like the rudder, the stern-post timber was in good condition and had two pieces of overlapping planking still firmly attached to it, the lower plank being set at an angle of 9.5 degrees to the centre line of the vessel, and the upper was set at 12 degrees to the centre line. This would appear to give a vessel of very fine exit at a considerable height above the keel.

Planking appears to have been riven and was approximately 30 centimetres wide and some 4-6 centmetre thick. They were fastened to the frames by 3.7-centimetre trenails driven through the centre of each plank and wedged at each end. The clench nails had a head measuring 5 centimetres, a square shank 1.5 centimetres and were clenched on a rectangular rove or washer measuring 5 centimetres by 7 centimetres. The corners of the roves turned down slightly into the planks and the clenches were set at intervals of 15-23 centimetres along the planking. The planking was luted with a loose twist of black hair running the length of the plank which on the stern-post consisted of three yarns laid side by side across the run of the planks at approximately right angles.


Many suggestions and theories have and will be advanced to try and explain the remains of a ship in this particular situation.

  1. The remains of the medieval walls are largely of bank and ditch construction but here, at the vulnerable North-East corner, a more substantial wall of masonry was required. An existing inlet or creek from the Haven served as an outer defence.

    If this assumption is correct it is possible that when peaceful times once again prevailed, the creek would have formed an excellent repository for a hulk that had become a navigational hazard, man and nature in due course sealing it over.

  2. A record dated 1493 states that the Mayor and Jurats ordered a substantial dam to be built "to keep out the sea in rages", between the Bulwarks and Sandown Bridge in order to stop water flowing into the Delf at New Gate (the southern entrance to the town) and thereby eliminating one source of pollution to the town's water supply. From this it is reasonable to suppose that a hulk already there or placed there would form the base of an effective dam, the voids being filled with mud from the Haven. These are but two suggestions but the correct answer can only be obtained by further excavation of the site.

Here I would like to acknowledge the assistance given by members of the Sandwich and Deal History Societies in the task of removing and transporting the very heavy timbers to the Deal Maritime Museum and especially to Mr W Honey who has borne the brunt of the recording and research work.

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