Last July I dived with a team from Atlantic Scuba on the wreck of HMS Primrose, a Royal Navy sloop that struck the Manacles rocks east of Falmouth during a winter gale in 1809. Of some 126 crew and passengers aboard, only one person survived. The wreck has been extensively salvaged by divers, and today only a few artefacts are visible among rocky fissures and gullies at about 12 to 15 metres depth, under dense growths of kelp. Our dives were carried out in conjunction with an evaluation of the site for Historic England by Wessex Archaeology, and in this video by Jeff Goodman of Scubaverse you can see footage taken during our dives. The photos by Mark Milburn below show cannonballs heavily accreted to the seabed, and illustrate the difficulty of identifying wreck material at this site (click to enlarge).
HMS Primrose was a Cruizer-class brig-sloop built at Fowey, Cornwall, by Robert Nicholls, and launched on 5 August 1807. She measured 100 feet 6 inches in length, 30 feet six inches in beam and 384 tons burthen, had a crew of 121 and was armed with sixteen 32-pounder carronades and two 6-pounder bow-guns. No depictions are known of Primrose herself, but the Admiralty Collection in the National Maritime Museum contains a number of plans of the Cruizer-class including the one shown at the top of this blog of vessels of Primrose’s batch, ordered by Admiral Barham’s Board and launched in 1806-7.
The Cruizer-class were the most numerous Royal Navy vessel built during the Napoleonic Wars, with 110 vessels being built to the original 1797 design. At a time when the Royal Navy was suffering severe manpower shortages, the Cruizer-class was attractive because the brig-rig – with only two masts, the fore and the main, by contrast with the three masts of a ship-rig – required fewer men to manage, as did the carronades compared to conventional cannon. These features were also the ships’ main drawbacks: the carronades were devastating at close quarters, equalling the firepower of a frigate, but with their shorter range they left the ships vulnerable to cannon fire at greater distances, and whereas a ship-rigged vessel could survive the destruction of one mast and still manoeuvre adequately, this was not usually the case with a brig.
Under Commander James Mein, Primrose sailed for Spain on 3 February 1807, and took part in an action on 14-18 May in the Tagus river in which she rescued the crew of another brig sunk by a shore battery. She sailed again for Spain as a convoy escort in early 1809, leaving Portsmouth on 5 January and was wrecked in a snowstorm against Mistral Rock in the Manacles at about 5 am on 22 January. ‘She struck on the outer rock of the Manacles, drove in on the shallow ground and sank.’ Despite the efforts of the Manacles Signal Post officer and a boat manned by six local fishermen, none of those on board could be saved except for a seventeen-year old boy, John Meaghan. The newspapers reported on the following day that ‘His majesty’s brigs Swallow and Sparrowhawk, sailed last night to endeavour to save what remained of the crew and stores of the unfortunate Primrose, and returned this evening, nothing remaining above water; the Primrose’s mast heads are just above the high water mark; the poor little boy, who is the only survivor, was taken off from the royal mast head.’
Among the six passengers were two brothers, Lieutenant Colonel George Tucker and Captain Nathaniel Tucker, two of five brothers serving in the army at that time, and both returning for service in Spain. On the same night another ship was lost on the Manacles, the Dispatch, containing a contingent of the 7th Dragoons returning from Spain. Many bodies from both wrecks washed up on shore, and more than a hundred were buried in St Keverne churchyard where the memorial stones can be seen today.
A number of artefacts attributed to this wreck are on display in one cabinet in the Charlestown Shipwreck and Heritage Centre in Cornwall. The caption states that ‘The items in this case have been recovered from the wreck site in the last few years with the help of the Northampton Sub-Aqua Club, and they largely relate to the two 32 pound carronades displayed outside. The smaller items here were either concreted to the guns or formed part of the carriages, which, being wood, are still undergoing conservation.’ It seems likely that this display was created at least thirty years ago, as the main period of salvage by the Northampton club was in the late 1970s. At some point in recent years the two carronades disappeared from outside the museum, and their whereabouts now are unknown.
The cabinet contains finds from other wrecks, in the vertical display above the caption and on the lower shelf. Among the unlabelled artefacts on the two shelves that would appear to be associated with the Primrose, those that may be of questionable attribution are two intact onion bottles, a form of bottle shape that would normally be dated to the 17th or early 18th century. Of the other artefacts, a small copper-alloy gun found by diver Reg Dunton at or near the site in 1963 may well be from the wreck - it may be a boat gun - but more detailed study is needed to establish whether it can be independently dated and its place of manufacture established ( the caption identifies it as of Danish origin, but the basis for that identification is unknown).
In the absence of any published report on the salvage work carried out on this wreck, the comment in the display cabinet caption about the gun carriages and artefacts begin found in concretion is evidence for site formation and preservation. During my dive on the site I saw only a few places where extensive burial of artefacts in stable sediments might be expected; most of the site was a highly variegated seabed of exposed rock, with much accretion. The rapid formation of ferrous concretion from the iron carronades over the gun carriages, preserving both the wood of the carriages and other artefacts nearby, including organic materials, may explain the survival of materials in such an exposed site. Along with contemporary news reports that the ship was resting upright on the seabed, the mast-tops exposed above the surface, this suggests that the wreck before salvage may not only have retained a wide range of artefacts preserved in concretion, but also a degree of distributional coherence that may have reflecting the dimensions and layout of the ship. As with all such wrecks that have been salvaged without recording, it is a pity that this information is lost.
The artefacts below, from left to right in the upper part of the display cabinet, include a pewter plate, copper or copper-alloy pins, a name plate for a 32 pound carronade, two onion bottles (one still stoppered, and both of questionable association with this wreck), a lead-lined copper bowl (perhaps for lading gunpowder), wooden pulley and sheave blocks, an intact leather shoe and another bottle. Click to enlarge.
The gallery below, left to right in the lower cabinet, shows lead shot for pistol and musket as well as grape-shot, weights, cast-iron slewing wheels for the carronades, metre-long copper or copper-alloy hull-fastening pins, a small copper-alloy gun with a three-inch bore, a photo of Reg Dunton with the gun in 1963, pieces of breeching rope for the carronades and a wooden tompion with its spunyarn plug found in the muzzle of a loaded carronade. Click to enlarge.
These photos show a carronade being raised from the wreck of Primrose, perhaps in the late 1970s; a carronade and cannonballs after cleaning; two carronades said to have been from the wreck at the Charlestown Shipwreck and Heritage Centre (now missing); and a cannonball said to be from the wreck.