Thames shipwrecks: a race against time – programme 2

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The Dovenby

This summer the Port of London Authority and Wessex Archaeology is clearing a collection of shipwrecks from the Thames Estuary as part of a continuing programme to ensure that the river channel remains open to the world’s largest ships.

TV company Touch Productions has been on hand to capture the events as they happen, and the first of two Thames shipwrecks: a race against time programmes was shown on BBC a few days ago. For those who missed it I thought it would be good to mention some of the material here at

The first programme focused on how the Thames has been fought over for centuries, and some of the ship wrecks that these struggles have left behind. In Programme Two, the TV company turned to the story of the British Empire, trade and shipping, with the Thames packed with thousands of ships and working boats.

The Dovenby

The Dovenby was sunk on her way back to London carrying guano. She was one of thousands of trading ships that made Britain the greatest trading nation the world had ever known. She and her self-made shipowner captain travelled the world, from Peru to Australia, San Francisco to Canada, at a time when 80 per cent of ships launched worldwide were built in British yards.

The programme examined the geophysics of the wreck, examined parts of her lifted from the sea bed, and showed the programme-makers having some fun sailing a Dovenby-like sailing barque.

Unknown Wreck 5051

This is a mystery ship, and one of hundreds that lie beneath the Thames. Various finds suggest that she sank in the mid-Victorian era, but what she was, what she was used for and who manned her remain unknown, although it is established that she had strong ties to the port of Woolwich.

The brick barge

The Thames barge is an icon famous in literature and paintings. For centuries, the barge was the main way of moving material from London to the smaller towns along the river. There were so many of these vessels that it was sometimes possible to walk across the Thames by stepping from barge to barge.

The programme looked at the lives of the people who lived and worked on these ships, the lightermen, the wherrymen and the thousands of others who lived on the river, and also the archaelogy of barges in general.

All that is known about the brick barge is that she sank on her way into London at the turn of the century, but the programme-makers took the opportunity to explore the history of barges on the Thames, for which we have some classic archaeological examples, including the 2nd century Blackfriars barge from the Roman era, a 15th century barge also found on the Thames, and the 17th century Shakespeare barge, which was also carrying bricks on the day she sank – although in her case the bricks were to be used in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666.

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