In Conversation with John Broomhead: Finding ‘Invincible’
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Hampshire-based amateur diver John Broomhead for over 20 years and have a huge respect for the work he (and a small group of fellow enthusiasts) undertook in connection with the excavation of the wreck of HMS Invincible, which they did without any government funding. Invincible was originally a 74-gun ship of the line of the French Navy launched in October 1744. Captured on 14 October 1747, she was taken into Royal Navy service as the third rate HMS Invincible. She was wrecked in 1758 after hitting a sandbank. A number of very important contributions to our knowledge of the Wooden World are directly attributable to John and the group. Recently, with a substantial government grant, the work has been taken over by Bournemouth University in their Poole-based facility. Currently, there are two exhibitions of the finds to date – a permanent archive at Chatham Historic Dockyard; the other, a one-year temporary exhibition at Portsmouth Naval Dockyard.
How did it all begin?
In April 1979, local fisherman and friend Arthur Mack, told me that whilst trawling with a fellow fisherman they had caught their nets on a solid sea bed obstruction. This was puzzling because they had trawled the same area for many years and had never snagged anything before. They had used the power of the engines to rip the nets free; when they were hauled back on board there was a large piece of timber tangled up in them. Now most fishermen would have sworn and cursed their ill luck before throwing the timber back over the side but Arthur had a feeling about it and kept it.
But Arthur felt he knew exactly where it was. He was so confident and enthusiastic that I got my diving gear and out we went. Unfortunately, we did not snag Arthur’s trawling gear on the wreck that day.
We intended to go back as soon as possible but we could not find the wreck again mainly due to misty conditions making it impossible to see the land transit marks taken previously. After some discussion, I said that when he snagged it again, he should leave his trawl gear tangled up on the wreck. He should put a buoy on the rope and I would make sure that either Jim or I would come straight out and free his nets. At the same time, we would take better land transit marks in order to locate the wreck more easily at any time in the future.
We came across the remains of a very large coil of rope lying on firm timber decking and lying at an angle of about 40 degrees. Later in the project this rope was removed and identified as tarred hemp cable-laid rope in extremely good condition.
What has been your role over the years?
In your view what have been the most interesting items recovered?
I suppose the most historically important and fascinating to work on, has to be the grand magazine. There were no examples to show how these magazines were made anywhere in the world. Nelson’s Victory at Portsmouth did not have one and the curator and archivist was at a loss to know how to build a replica on board for visitors to see until he was made aware of the one we found. As well, the racking in Victorys fore and aft hanging magazines were modelled on our discovery.
Tell us about Phil Rumsey’s model of ‘Invincible’
Pine from some deck cladding to make the masts
Lignum vitae from one of the gun pulley blocks for the 74 guns
Animal bone from the galley area to make the figure head, the gingerbread around the stern and the stern lanterns
As for the rigging, Phil used his wife Hazel’s hair! The construction materials used make this model unique in ship models the world over. The model is just like Invincible herself when she was launched from Rochefort in 1744, the finest fighting ship afloat at that time. After her capture in 1747 the Admiralty heaped praise on her: ‘A Prodigious fine ship and vastly large’ Admiral Anson
National Museum of the Royal Navy Invincible temporary exhibition
Permanent exhibition of Invincible artefacts (closed for winter)
Old Man of the Sea by Brent Piniuta and John Broomhead
details the story of Arthur and John finding the wreck and excavating the site. The book also explains how Invincible artefacts today play a significant interpretative role aboard HMS Victory. All proceeds of the sale of the book will be split between RN Museum Portsmouth, Portsmouth City Museum and Chatham Historic dockyard for maintenance of the national Invincible archive.