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The Ancient Vessel of the Rother

The Ancient Vessel of the Rother, The Mirror, Saturday, January 18, 1823.

The Mirror, Saturday, January 18, 1823.

Our Engraving this week gives a correct representation of an object of singular interest and curiosity, now exhibiting in London—the ancient vessel which has been recently found buried in an old branch of the river Rother, in Kent. This river, formerly called Lamene or Lemen, takes its rise in the parish of Rotherfield, Sussex, and enters Kent in the parish of Sandhurst; passes round the North side of the Isle of Oxney, and flowing into Rye Harbour, passes thence into the sea. This river was diverted from its ancient stream so far back as the reign of King Edward the First—a circumstance Which is thus recorded by Camden, in his Britannia. Speaking of the town of Romney, he says, 'The sea, driven by violent winds, overwhelmed this track, and made great havoc of men, cattle, and buildings; and having destroyed the little populous village of Promhill, changed the channel of the Rother, which here emptied itself into the sea, and filled up its mouth, making it a new and shorter course by Rhie, so that it gradually deserted this town, which from that time declined and lost much of its populousness and dignity.'

This ancient ship was discovered at Malham, a short distance from the present navigable river Rother, at the West corner of the Isle of Oxney, and about two miles from Rolvenden and Newenden, the site of the ancient Roman city of Anderida.

As this vessel was discovered in a spot which the convulsion of nature to which we have alluded, overwhelmed, we have an assurance that she must have reached that point previously; and it is more than probable that her destruction is ascribable to that event.

There are some persons, however, who are of opinion, that Iroin the decayed state of the river towards the haven at Romney, for many years before that tempest happened, she could not have got to the place where she was found within at least these six hundred years. Others have, indeed, given the vessel a much higher antiquity, and suppose it to be one of the fleet abandoned by the Danes, after their defeat in the reign of Alfred, Without, however, professing any extraordinary knowledge on the subject, we feel no hesitation in expressing a decided opinion, that naval architecture had not made such progress in the time of the Anglo Saxons, as this vessel, dilapidated as it is, now displays.

This point, though one of interest to the antiquary, and a fair subject for discussion, we shall not dwell upon; but proceed briefly to notice the discovery of the vessel, and to give a description of it, and of the articles it contained.

About six years ago, when the old channel of the Rother was nearly dry, and a part of the bank had given way, the proprietor's steward or bailiff, Mr. Elphee, observed the ends of some planks projecting out of the side of the bank, some of which he drew out, without taking any further notice of the circumstance until a few months back, when getting up another plank, he observed some ship fastening in it. He then began to suspect that what he had before considered as an old tank for sheep washing was really a vessel.

Having obtained permission of his employer, J. B. Pomfret, Esq. of Tenterden, he shut out the water, and opening the bank, was astonished to find the upper part of a vessel.

The ancient vessel was then dug out, and has since been removed to Waterloo-Road, where it is now exhibited, and is attracting the attention of the curious. It is sixty-three feet eight inches long, and about fifteen feet broad. At the time it was discovered, the upper part of it was buried ten feet below the earth's surface, which, added to nine feet, her entire height from bottom to gun-wale, make on the whole an accumulation of nineteen feet of sand and mud upon the river since she was lost. For the following more minute description of this vessel, we are indebted to an interesting account of it which is sold at the place of exhibition:

'She appears to have been single masted, with a round stern; and bears much the resemblance of the Dutch or Flemish vessels, as they are mostly (as she is) flat-floored, and without a keel, in order that they may skim over the shallows, or flats, which abound along the coast. She is fitted in the following manner:—There are two cabins in her stern;—the after one is decked over, with a hatchway for entrance; the other, adjoining it, was covered over with a caboose, which fell in on being exposed, and the sand taken from under it; there is also a short deck forward, with an enclosure beneath it, but, the midship part is entirely open. Her bulwarks and washboards, manifest that she has been a sea vessel; and her beams, which are much stronger than would be required for a vessel for inland navigation, prove that our forefathers were not ignorant of apportioning a due strength to the stress upon timber, from the circumstance of their being three times as deep as they are broad: her timbers and planks are remarkably sound and hard, and so completely saturated, as to have become, in many parts, quite black;— she is caulked with moss, which is considered by shipbuilders as very remarkable;—there is much singularity also, in the method of steering, which Mr. Elphee states, was discovered by a gentleman (whose curiosity led him to the vessel several times during the progress of the excavation) who fixed the beam, and explained how the rudder was acted on; it appears there were rudder-bands,* which yoked it, and by an alternate motion of the ropes, which were fixed to the back of the rudder, it was made to revolve on the pinions as a centre of motion, the breadth of the rudder being the leverage; the rudder is, certainly, very broad, which makes the power more effective, and hence, the vessel the easier to steer:—ropes have been properly fixed on board her, so that persons may have an opportunity of fully comprehending the plan.

'There is a very curious windlass on the aft deck, which shows, from its contrivance, that they had not much idea of getting rid of friction; and at the fore part of the vessel, there had evidently been another fixed from side to side; there are many other curious specimens of rude architecture in her, well worthy of observation, but we must not enter too much into detail;—her planks are immensely broad, and of a close and hard texture, and said, by some persons, to be of oak, and by others of chesnut; we should rather lean to the former opinion, but we leave the decision to those who are well acquainted with the nature of woods.

'The wreck of a Small boat was discovered by the excavators, near the stern of the vessel; but, the iron fastening being in a very corroded state, she could only be removed piecemeal; between the edges of the planks were layers of hair, some of which is to be seen, together with the wood, which is uncommonly sound.'

In this vessel were found a variety of articles, which are also exhibited with her, namely, a large flint and steel, which, although much worn, will still elicit sparks, part of the blade of a sword, with a hollow ball or hilt of yellow metal attached to it, four vases, several bricks of red and yellow colour, the corroded remains of two locks, &c.

In the cabin, or cooking room, were discovered a leathern ink-horn, curiously marked, but very similar in shape to those now used by school-boys; part of a brass cock; a sounding lead; several shoes and sandals of curious shape ; several bricks and fragments of tiles, bound together with iron; a small glass bottle, erroneously and absurdly supposed by some to have been an hourglass; a small stone, used as a whetstone; several hooks; an oak board about eighteen inches long, and twelve broad, with some curious lines cut on it; and a circular wooden board of oak, perforated with about twenty-eight holes, which was most probably a calendar, by which the progress of the lunar month was marked.

'Of the mortal remains,' says the printed description, to which we again refer, 'that have been brought to light, we observe a human skull, that of a man, with a hip bone, several ribs, and other parts of a skeleton of an adult; part of the skeleton of a child. The hip bone, thigh, and several smaller bones have been preserved, together with part of the skull; parts of a skeleton of a dog, which from the roundness of the skull, and length and shape of the upper jaw, is conjectured to be that of a greyhound; the lower jaw of a boar, with its teeth and tusks; parts of two skulls, with the horns of sheep or goats; also the breast bone of a goose, with several bones of some large animals; the skulls, and many of the bones, are much discoloured, and some of them quite black, particularly those of the skeleton of the dog.'

Such is a brief notice of the Ancient Vessel of the Rother, one of those curiosities which the antiquary and the philosopher may love to contemplate, and which cannot fail of gratifying all who feel the slightest veneration for the remains of antiquity.

*We read in the narrative of St. Paul's shipwreck; of 'loosing the rudder, bands:' it may, perhaps, then be an interesting query in naval mechanics, to know when the tiller was first used?

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