Plymouth Archaeology Society

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The Wreck of The Firebrand &

Sir Cloudsley Shovell’s Fleet

Kimberley Monk

5th November 2007

Throughout maritime history, the treacherous seas and coastline surrounding the Isles of Scilly have caused a considerable number of shipwrecks and great loss of life.On 22nd October 1707, a fleet under the command of Sir Cloudsley Shovell was returning from the .....................

Mediterranean via the Bay of Biscay, when it encountered adverse weather conditions. Intending to sail into the English Channel – thence to Plymouth, a longitudinal miscalculation of 180 degrees sent the fleet off course. Low visibility and heavy fog resulted in the fleet grounding on the rocks off The Scillies with great loss. Of the 2,000 men in ships such as the Rodney, the Eagle, and the Association, only a total of 24 men survived, 23 of these from the Firebrand.

In the 1960’s the Eagle was the first ship to be identified by its cannon. The Association was also identified and was the deepest wreck found at a depth of 130 feet. In 1981 divers discovered 6 anchors and 8 guns from HMS Firebrand. At that time, the ship’s bell and many other items were removed, but sadly not catalogued! The removal of artefacts from wrecks concerned local people and by 2005 there was a big movement to protect the site.

In 2006 pre-disturbance work began when surveying and mapping of the overall site was carried out. Cannons and anchor were identified, along with confirmation of the outline and dimensions of the timber structure. The position, in which the ship lay, enabled archaeologists to consider what might have happened during the ship’s last moments before it floundered.

Divers worked in good weather and exceptionally clear water and the project enabled them to learn new methods and techniques. In fact this was the first ever structured survey on a site thought to have immense potential with regard to maritime history.

The Firebrand is the first fire ship to be located in this area. The characteristic of such a ship was that of a wooden structure covered with pitch and tar. The ship would be deliberately set on fire and aimed at an enemy, the crew first escaping through the sally ports and into the long boats. Tall chimneys were another feature enabling a good down-draught into the ship to aid propulsion, and port lids which opened downwards would also remain down for airflow. The main action of a fire ship took place in the Fire Room, an area that was surrounded by a framework packed with combustible material in air spaces between pitch and tar. Fire ships had already been used for hundreds of years by the Greeks, but in England, this practice didn’t occur until the sixteenth century, as for example, during The Armada.

The Firebrand initially had a number of functions, including a run between the Lizard and Portsmouth as a cruiser, protecting the Crown. During the War of Succession, it worked in the Mediterranean between Malaga and France under Sir Cloudsley Shovell.

In 2007 the wreck site was again revisited when items such as the ship’s ballast and the position of the rigging were investigated and the structure has subsequently turned out to be of very great interest.

In 2008, archaeology will determine just how much of the apparently well-preserved timber is intact. For one week, a team of eight maritime archaeologists and divers will return in an endeavour to perhaps identify more personalised items.

This ship is very important in terms of maritime history and perhaps, in unravelling more of the human element of the mariners. It will help us to better understand – not just the physical features of the fire ship as such – but the men who sailed in them.

Janet Cambridge


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