Featured image: The London, drawn by Willem Van de Velde the Elder in 1660. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
“This morning is brought me to the office the sad newes of “The London,” in which Sir J(ohn) Lawson’s men were all bringing her from Chatham to the Hope, and thence he was to go to sea in her; but a little a’this side the buoy of the Nower, she suddenly blew up. About 24 [men] and a woman that were in the round-house and coach saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned: the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance. She lies sunk, with her round- house above water. Sir J(ohn) Lawson hath a great loss in this of so many good chosen men, and many relations among them. I went to the ‘Change, where the news taken very much to heart.”
Samuel Pepys’s writings upon hearing of the loss of The London, on 8 March 1665.
Ordered for construction for the Cromwellian Navy on 19th June 1654, the London was one of just three completed wooden Second Rate ‘large ships’ of the ten ordered for the first Anglo-Dutch War. All three ships were built between 1642 and 1660 and the London, built in Chatham Dockyard in 1656, is the only one now surviving. Her title is not preceded by the term ‘HMS’ due to the fact that she was built during the Republican Era.
In the British Royal Navy, a Second Rate ship usually had two gun decks. The term in no way implied that they were of inferior quality. They were essentially smaller and hence cheaper versions of the three-decked First Rates. Both categories of warship fought in the line of battle, but First-Rates were considered too valuable to serve overseas, so Second-Rates were dispatched instead as the flagships.
The London, drawn by Willem Van de Velde the Elder in 1660. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
Launched in June of 1656, as built the London measured 123ft 6in keel length x 40ft 0in x 16ft 6in. 1,050 bm. Upon completion, she had thirteen pairs of Lower Deck gunports, twelve pairs on the Middle Deck and ten pairs on the Upper Deck (three forwards and seven aft of the unarmed waist). She is recorded as having carried 64 guns in 1660 and 76/68 in 1665.
Her glorious career saw her commissioned in 1657 under the Rear-Admiral Richard Stayner and then, in 1658, under Captain William Whitehorn, as commander-in-chief in the Downs. In 1659 she was again under the command of Rear-Admiral Stayner, for operations in the Sound.
During the Restoration period, under the command of Admiral Sir John Lawson, the London played a significant role in British history. In an attempt to end the anarchy following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, she formed part of an English squadron sent with peaceable intentions to the Netherlands in 1660 to collect Charles II and restore him to his throne. The First Rate flagship for the squadron had been the Naseby, which carried the Commander of the Fleet and brought back the King. The London herself carried James Duke of York, the brother of future King Charles II.
Following the Restoration of Charles II, the London served under Captain Jonas Poole as the flagship of Admiral Edward Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, between June of 1664 and 22nd February 1665. On 23rd February 1665, she returned to service under Sir John Lawson who, by this point, held the rank of Vice-Admiral.
The London’s illustrious career was cut short on 7th March 1665, whilst she was serving as the flagship of the Vice-Admiral Sir John Lawson. It had been intended that she would participate in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665 – 1667) and had been on her way from Chatham to the Hope, near Gravesend in Kent, when she blew up at her anchorage at the Nore near Southend-on-Sea, the traditional fleet assembly point in the Thames Estuary.
The colossal internal explosion killed around three hundred members of the crew, many of whom were Scots who had been recruited for service that year. Among them were also thirty women and children who had come aboard to see off their loved ones, as well as twenty one members of the extended family of her embarked admiral, Sir John Lawson, who had not been on board at the time. Had the tragedy not occurred when it did, the women and children on board would have been put ashore when Lawson’s fleet sailed against the Dutch.
According to Samuel Pepys, around twenty four people survived, including one woman, who are recorded as having been in the round house and coach during the explosion.
Various theories exist as to the cause of the explosion, the most popular of which is that sailors reloaded old cartidge papers with gunpowder into the magazine – a common practice. Alternatively, historian Richard Endsor has suggested that the blast could have been caused by a candle lighting an accumulation of methane gas from rotting organic matter that had built up in the ship’s bilges.
An initial recovery attempt later that same year saw men descending in a diving bell to retrieve eighteen of the cannon, with four more raised in 1682 and another two in the 1690s.
To date, the London now lies in two parts off of the end of Southend Pier, with the two areas of wreckage being some 400m apart.