The History of the Royal Navy's first

H.M.S. Invincible

The 74-gun warship L'Invincible was captured from the French at the battle of Cape Finnisterre on the 3rd May 1747.  She was escorting a massive convoy of merchant ships when the British channel fleet of 13 warships sighted the convoy and gave chase.  L'Invincible took on six warships and only struck her colours when most of the crew either dead or wounded.  After capture she became the Royal Navy's first H.M.S. Invincible.  At the time most worships were much smaller than the 74 gun Invincible and France was ahead of Britain in ship development.

The Invincible design meant she was larger than other 74 gun ships and carried heavier armaments higher out of the water, while greater draft and low-centre of gravity allowed her to carry much more sail.  These features allowed her to handle well, sail faster and be equal to all but the largest 100 gun ships of the time.  Her design revolutionised British ship design and in 1747 there were no 74's in the British Navy.  By the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 three quarters of British ships of the line were 74's.  In February 1758, H.M.S. Invincible was part of a large fleet of warships and transports at anchor in St Helens Road off the Isle of Wight.  Early on the 19th the fleet sailed but unfortunately the Invincible struck the Horse Tail Sandbank.  The situation was serious but not desperate and she was re-floated at high tide, however the wind increased and changed direction and she dragged her anchor and struck the sand bank again.  Stores and guns were thrown overboard and under full sail they tried to drive her over the bank, however this only strained the timbers and she started to take in water.

Over the next days stores and many guns were taken off the ship but finally on 22nd February 1758 she rolled onto her side and was lost.

As she was starting a long voyage she was fully provisioned and many of these stores were still on board.  Over the next 200 years the ship and her contents have slowly been affected by worm action and decay but the anaerobic conditions found a few inches below the surface of the bank have kept many wood items in incredible condition which is unusual on a wreck, and why such wood artifacts are very rarely found.

The wreck lay covered and forgotten until May 1979 a fisherman snagged his nets and got a local diver to investigate.  Timbers of a recently uncovered wreck were found to be the problem and over the next 10 years the ship was frequently dived on by a small team.  After a number of years the wreck was finally identified to be H.M.S. Invincible.  The dives produced a wealth of store items in the preserved lower decks and most items were sold through London Auction House in the late 1980's for very high prices.

The wooden artifacts found on the buried lower decks include gunnery spares, cannon tompions which were place in the cannon muzzle when not in use and crow blocks which were used under a crow bar to lever the cannon from side to side.  Also found were wooden lids for gun powder cartridge carriers, parts of powder barrels and remarkably the complete hanging powder magazine which is now in Chatham Historical dock yard.  Other items included breeming brushes, deck bumpers, ligament barrels and bowls, also spares for the running of the ship, barrels, dead eyes, pulley blocks and spare pulley sheaves.  Sheaves are made from lignum vitae, a very hard dense wood, and many were cut from tree trunks, the size of which no longer grow today.

The ship also carried experimental flintlocks on the cannons and the large nicely knapped flints are thought to have been used in these cannon locks.  Cannon locks are very rare to find and highly sought after by collectors and to find flints for these amongst the gunnery stores on the lower decks were a unique find.  Also found were many lead musket and pistol balls.

The full story of the ship can be found in the book: The Royal Navy's First Invincible.  The ship, the wreck and the recovery, by Brain Lavery.

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