The diver unearthing HMS Invincible’s secrets from the Solent

Uncovering artifacts from underwater is an intricate job

Uncovering artifacts from underwater is an intricate job - Credit: Archant

In 1979 a fisherman snagged his net on one of the most significant finds in maritime history – the wreck of 18th century warship HMS Invincible. We talk to the diver unearthing its secrets from beneath the Solent

Giles Richardson with his favourite discovery

Giles Richardson with his favourite discovery - Credit: Archant

There are thought to be 75 wrecks on the seabed of the Solent. One of the UK’s most historically significant ships, the Mary Rose, was raised in 1982 and now her hull has been fully restored at her new home at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Wrecks of such significance are monitored by dedicated divers who regularly check they are not under threat from changing conditions underwater. It was diver and maritime archaeologist Dan Pascoe who became licensee of the HMS Invincible wreck and it was on one of his survey dives he noticed it was actually moving along the sand bank - what was 200 years ago quite shallow, the sand and wreck were now merging. If they didn’t do something soon, there would be no more opportunities to explore the wreck and excavate any items still onboard and scattered around the site.

In 2016, the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST) working with Bournemouth University and The National Museum of the Royal Navy, were given a £2million grant for the rescue excavation, recovery, conservation and public display from the wreck of HMS Invincible.

One of the maritime archaeologists still working on the project is Giles Richardson. He was approached by MAST CEO Jessica Berry to assist, “I mainly work on Victorian naval wrecks, so with the Invincible being older than that, I jumped at the chance,” he says.

Giles recalls the first time he saw the wreck, “I saw her on the very first day of the project in 2017, I’d not dived the site before. She is really special because she is so well preserved; in some areas as good as the day she ran aground, you can even see the mason’s mark on the timber.

“She was stuffed full of artifacts and fully stocked in the stores because she was basically carrying an army to Canada. Everywhere you look there are personal possessions, weaponry, everything you need for a mid-18th century warship.”

661 dives took place in 2018 to explore HMS Invincible

661 dives took place in 2018 to explore HMS Invincible - Credit: Archant

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This isn’t the first time the Invincible has been investigated, John Bingeman headed up a volunteer organisation for about 20 years.

“They did really good work,” explains Giles, “They effectively stopped in the 1990s so we already knew what the Invincible looked like by the end of that decade.” Almost 30 years later, in 2017, MAST undertook 350 dives in total and last year they managed 661. “I personally have done around 140 dives at the site. Because it’s so shallow you can stay under for a long time so we were able to spend between two to three hours underwater. It’s not like an archaeological site on land where you can turn up at five in the morning and keep working all day. When you’re underwater obviously you have a limited window – three hours is a huge amount of time for us.”

Over the last two years the team have excavated thousands of artifacts, and there is still more to go.

“Not counting the thousands of musket balls, of which there must be 2,000, there are items ranging from the really big things like the sections of the mast, right down to little things like regimental buttons which have symbols on so we can even tell who was on the ship,” he recalls. Giles’s favourite however is something he discovered, “I’m completely biased but it would have to be a tiny little hourglass that I recovered. The larger ones would tell you how long a watch would last, most likely an hour but my miniature timed 28 seconds, which is how they could tell how fast the ship was going. Most vessels had a one minute hour glass but the Invincible was a little bit smaller and faster than most of her enemies which meant they had to make a smaller hourglass to be able to keep up with it.”

Clay pipes, wine bottles, tankards and shoes are among some of the artifacts excavated from the Invincible. The huge job of cleaning and conserving some of the items all takes place at the conservation lab in Poole.

“Everything that comes out of the sea is normally very fragile, particularly if it’s made from organic material like wood, leather or rope. The most important thing is to get rid of the salt from the water it’s been in for so long and then to try and dry it out. The glassware only needs a good wash, but other things could take up to a year to conserve.

“Take rope for instance, when you bring it out the water it is covered in tar, which we think is American pitch pine. It smells just as it did 200 years ago, really strong. We have basins full of them in the lab in Poole.”

And there is still more work to do, as the team recently discovered they have been awarded a further grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund which means their dives can continue this spring and summer. “We’re very fortunate. Being able to dive for another six weeks means we can be working back along the ship, to see the stern area.

We will be able to tell the story of the ship so much better, and get more people involved.”

Plans are already underway for an exhibition to showcase the work of the team and their discoveries. Giles reveals it will be taking place at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, “The artifacts will be transported there this year and the idea is to open in 2020. There will be a summer exhibition and then they will be on permanent display so everyone can come and see what we uncovered.”

It’s difficult to contemplate what life must have been like onboard the 18th century warship but thanks to the collaboration of MAST, Bournemouth University and the National Museum of the Royal Navy we will all soon be able to get a little closer to finding out.

“You don’t normally get the chance to do something like this, to save something that was going to be lost. You look out into the Solent and you know very little of its stories. It’s a chance to show the public what naval history was truly like.”

How did she sink?

Invincible was built by the French in 1744 and captured by the British on the 3rd May 1747. Her 74-gun capacity and extended deck design was copied globally and her class became the backbone of the Royal Navy up to the end of the sailing navy and the start of the age of steam. She sank in 1758 after hitting a sandbank in the East Solent. It’s said she remained upright for about three days so unlike those of the Mary Rose, the crew managed to escape before she sank beneath the waves.


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