MAST has just completed the first archaeological survey of the English East Indiaman Halsewell, wrecked on the Purbeck coast to the east of St Alban’s Head between Winspit and Seacombe 6th January 1786. She was starting a voyage from London to Madras. The work was part-funded by the National Trust.
She lost her masts in a violent storm in the English Channel, and was driven onto the rocks below a cliff on the Isle of Purbeck. Only 74 out of 240 passengers and crew survived. Launched in 1778, she was 776 tons, had three decks, was 42.5 metres in length and 11 metres beam. Throughout her career she was under the command of Capt. Richard Pierce who died with her.
Such was her fame and her fate that her wrecking inspired a number of odes, a William Turner painting, a Charles Dickens short story and even a royal visit from King George III himself who visited the scene shortly after.
In 1967 divers located one of the ship's cannons, as well as coins, cannonballs, lead shot, tackle and glass. Some artefacts are held at Dorchester museum. The Worth Matravers church in Dorset has a mirror from the ship hanging above the main door.
There have been cliff falls along this area of the Purbeck coastline in the last two years and it is thought, according to local divers, that these may have buried a part of the site which in itself is located in a high energy environment, artefacts thus at risk of dispersal and erosion.
At work on the Halsewell
MAST, in partnership with Bournemouth University, conﬁ rmed the position of the site using magnetometer diver searches and recorded the extent of the wreck to ascertain its complete distribution. This has never been done. This will be followed by archival research and combined into a report and a student Masters dissertation. The majority of the diving and research is being conducted by BU students.
Short seascape view
Small finds discovered in the wrecking area were raised that were at risk of dispersal from storms and tide. Some of them are pictured here. They include a possible marine service Brown Bess ramrod holder and some wrought iron chain link.