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Diving Deep – HMS Invincible

Diving deep - HMS Invincible

HMS Invincible is one of the Royal Navy’s most famous ships. The original Invincible was an innovative Georgian war ship which originally belonged to the French Navy. This famous ship revolutionised warfare at the time with many ships in the Royal Navy being modelled after her and a total of seven carrying on her name.

L’Invincible as she was known in the French Navy was built in Rochefort in 1744. She had two long decks with widely spaced gun ports for 74 guns. Her forward thinking design meant that she could sail faster, turn quicker and load a more powerful gun battery than her British Counterparts, making her the perfect balance between size, speed and gun power as she could hold her own against a three decked, 1st rate ship of the line with over 100 guns.

HMS Invincible

Invincible was captured at the battle of Cape Finisterre on the 14th May 1747 and the Royal Navy immediately sailed her to Portsmouth Naval Dockyard where they measured every inch of her. They used these measurements and ideas to start building faster British 74’s starting with the HMS Valliant built at Chatham. The design was so well received that Invincible became a blue print for all future Royal Naval 74 gunships (though British adaptations were added) forming the backbone of the Royal Navy. By the time of Admiral Nelson and the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, 16 out of 27 ships in Nelson’s fleet were Invincible’s descendants.

However, in February 1758 a series of technical calamities developed on board Invincible and the crew lost control of her. The great ship ran aground on Dean Sands in the Solent, taking water on board. The crew spent several days trying to re-float her but in the end had to give up and begin to salvage anything of value.

After her demise, Invincible became a forgotten national treasure, lying silently at the bottom of the Solent for over 260 years.  However, on the 1st May 1979, fisherman Arthur Mack caught his nets on a ‘fastner’- an underwater obstruction in the Solent just off Hayling Island. Over the next few weeks Arthur returned with longtime friend and diver, John Broomhead to investigate what had caught his nets. At first John thought they had found an old, washed out pier but they soon realised that this obstruction was HMS Invincible.

HMS Invincible - diving deep

A little while later, archaeological excavations began on her in the 1980’s and continued from 2017-2019. Many things found on Invincible look almost brand new as they have been preserved in the mud that lies underneath the layer of shifting sand at the bottom of the Solent.  As the mud contains little oxygen the type of bacteria which cause rot cannot survive. This is why you can find perfectly preserved woollen clothing and leather shoes on the invincible. In 2019, the archaeologists recovered one of Invincible’s main stays, which is one of the giant ropes that hold up the ship’s main mast. This is the only original, completely preserved main stay from this period in the world, it’s over 260 year old and looks almost new.

However, as the sands of the Solent move, more and more of the wreck is being exposed to the sea water. Creatures that live in the sea, like shipworm and gribble are gradually eating Invincible causing her to be at risk.

Thanks to the incredible generosity of Lottery players and a LIBOR grant and others, the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust and Bournemouth University were able to begin excavations again in 2017 and the National Museum of the Royal Navy will be bringing Invincible’s incredible story to you. Over the next few months we will be revealing more and more of her secrets first of all online but then in a captivating travelling exhibition which will open at both the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth and at Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kent.

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