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Collections blog

Cannon and Balls – Maritime defence in Poole Museum’s collection

User AvatarPosted by Penelope Lovesy at 05/03/2021 18:43:15

This month’s blog explodes on to the scene with a look at some of our maritime defensive material. It will come as no surprise that Poole Museum has cannon within its care. We also have numerous munitions from the age of sail, including many from the famous Studland Bay Wreck and Swash Channel Wreck. 

Cannon, or cannons if you prefer, were the mainstay of defence for ships of a bygone era, and even merchant vessels used them to protect their valuable cargo. First utilised on ships around 1340, they were eventually considered so important that gun positions were spread over two decks. Of course, being metal, cannon don’t tend to remain in their original state once a ship goes down, as the water and salts corrode the surface. Conservation is a painstaking process and depends on the level and depth of the change to the structure. Once conserved, the guns, like all marine iron, must be kept in very strict conditions. If you have ever made use of a dehumidifier, you will be aware that the humidity is displayed as a percentage. Marine iron will start to react to its environment if that humidity level increase above 15%. This presents challenges to both storage and display, as such low humidity levels would be catastrophic to other items. In October, the Studland Bay Wreck cannon went on a little trip to Maritime Archaelology Sea Trust’s (MAST) conservation laboratory, where, under the guidance of York Archaeological Trust, it is currently undergoing additional conservation. This unique piece wasn’t the easiest object to move and required a HIAB truck to lift the crate. The crane extended into our stores and just lifted it gracefully, like a bizarre mechanical ballet! The Studland Bay cannon is unique as it has a partially metal carriage; no other examples are known. 

Cannon balls are often more robust and are regularly dredged up by the marine aggregate industry. The cannon balls lying on the seabed don’t necessarily indicate a wreck. They may have fallen off a ship, been fired during some exciting battle, or even be evidence of a coastal defence battery on land. Old maps of Poole Harbour indicate that an artillery piece once resided at Brownsea Castle. How much of cannon shot found in the harbour originated from this is anyone’s guess. Before 1450 cannon balls were made of stone, but French artillery engineer Samuel J. Besh introduced the iron shot to destroy English castle walls more efficiently. 

Shot takes on many forms. The most commonly found examples are Round Shot. Round shot could be explosive and filled with gunpowder, but all our examples are solid. Our collection contains many different sizes, as seen in the image above. Each would have been fired from different calibre cannons, ranging from the 6 inch ‘Demi Culverin’ to the 3 inch ‘Minion’. Round shot was effective at penetrating the hulls of ships or, if heated, could catch the enemy vessels on fire. The other two examples shown above would have been used to disable an enemy ship, enabling its capture. Chain Shot, on the left, and Bar Shot, on the right, span in the air and would break masts or bring down rigging. 

One of the wonders of shipwrecks is the amazing level of preservation possible because of the waterlogged nature of deposition. Organic materials, such as wood often survive superbly well, having been submerged in the silt and protected from chemical and biological degradation. The Swash Channel Wreck highlights how it isn’t just the munitions themselves that provide evidence of cannon aboard ship. The ornately carved gun ports of the wreck survived and provide a magnificent record of the position of the defensive armaments. The cannon pictured above was recovered during the excavation of the Swash Channel Wreck and was displayed in the museum during a past exhibition. Ongoing research and examination of the gun has since concluded that it is more recent date than the wreck. The reason for its surprising proximity to the wreck remains a mystery. 

That’s it, I gave it my best shot. Before your interest fizzles out like det chord, I’ll shoot off to prepare the next blog. It’s been a blast! 


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