HMS Northumberland

Historical background

HMS Northumberland was one of three of Samuel Pepys ‘Thirty Great Ships’ that foundered on the Goodwin Sands during the Great Storm of November1703.  She was a 70 gun third-rate ship built at Francis Baylie’s Yard in Bristol and launched in 1679.   The story goes that, unlike the other ‘great’ ships that were built in the Royal Dockyards, Pepys arranged for Northumberland to be built at Bristol.  This was because he was having an affair with the wife of William Bagwell whom he sent him down to Bristol to oversee the building of the get him out of the way.

Diver behind the concreted assemblage of swords which is covered in fishing gear. Pascoe Archaeology

Following her launch, Northumberland endured a decade of inactivity and she suffered considerable decay whilst lying idle at her moorings.  In 1684 £5,000 was spent on repairs and she subsequently saw action at Beachy Head in 1690, Barfleur / La Hogue in 1692 and the bombardment of St Malo in 1695.

This period of high activity also rendered the ship in a poor state of repair and in 1700 Restoration entered Chatham Dockyard for a two-year refit by shipwright Robert Shortlisss.  The cost of £9,000 was about the same as the original outlay to build her some 20 years earlier.  She was now 152 feet long, 40 feet wide and weighed 1096 tons.

The Shipwreck

After her rebuild, Northumberland saw further action at the Battle of Vigo Bay in 1702.  Returning to home waters in 1703, she was sheltering in The Downs from the Great Storm with the rest of the Mediterranean fleet when disaster struck.

The wreck was discovered lying in 14m of water in 1980 following an investigation into fishermen’s net fastenings by the Underwater Research Group of the Isle of Thanet, the same group that found the Stirling Castle a year earlier.  She was identified through the recovery of pewter plates bearing the initials J.G, presumed to be those of James Greenway her Captain and was designated a Protected Wreck in 1981.

Archaeological interest

Northumberland is of particular archaeological interest because no drawings, model or plans of Pepys’ shipbuilding programme have survived leading to a distinct lack of knowledge on how these 17th Century warships were built.

Multi-beam bathymetry showing the extent of exposed features on the main wreck mound. Pascoe Archaeology

The first survey of the site was carried out by the then licencee and his dive team in 1984.

Between 1995 and 2005 features identified included guns of different calibres with associated wood carriages, glass onion bottles, pewter containers, two copper cauldrons, lead sheeting, ceramics,  rope and a belt buckle.

The ship’s bell marked 1701 and cooking pot were brought to the surface and are currently on display with other artefacts at Ramsgate Maritime Musuem.

The site is currently considered to be at high risk because of significant reductions in seabed levels, exposing large areas of the structure and artefacts. 

As with the Stirling Castle, it is not known whether the removal of 10 million tonnes of sand in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s for infrastructure projects has affected the complex dynamics of the Goodwin Sands.  

Preservation of shipwrecks on the Goodwins is reliant upon them being  covered by sand, but when the sand migrates or is removed wrecks become vulnerable to the biological and physical environment.

Diver ground-truthing in 2018 of anomalies identified in the 2017 and 2018 geophysical survey data   identified a large assemblage of concreted swords (concretion is the melding together of artefacts on account of being in seawater for a long time), a lead scupper, a riveted copper vessel, pulley sheaves, iron shot from larger calibre guns, demi-cannons, a culverin and the remains of a gun carriage.


Funding had been granted and plans were underway for further surveys and diving of the site in spring and summer 2020.   It is hoped that the surveys can still go ahead this year but due to the narrow weather window of opportunity available for diving on the Goodwins, the actual diving will have to wait until 2021.

Photos: Pascoe Archaeology