The Fame

Fame at last - visualising the splendours of a 17th-century Dutch ship.

In January 1631, the Fame, an armed Dutch merchantman set sail from her home port of Hoorn, Amsterdam heading for the lucrative markets in the West Indies. Unfortunately she never reached her final destination, for while sheltering from a raging storm in Studland Bay, off the Dorset coast, the Fame dragged her anchors and foundered, close to the entrance to Poole Harbour. There she lay buried in sand for over 350 years until dredging works exposed her timbers. Following an archaeological evaluation in 2004 the wreck, now known as the ‘Swash Channel wreck’ because of her location, was protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973).

Close-up detail of the conserved head. We’ll probably never know the identity of the man, but at least we know the name of the ship, which is often not the case with many of our historic wrecks. Photo credit: Dick Raines

Close-up detail of the conserved head. We’ll probably never know the identity of the man, but at least we know the name of the ship, which is often not the case with many of our historic wrecks. Photo credit: Dick Raines

It soon became evident that the timbers were at risk from shipworm and other marine borers and therefore the best way forward was to excavate the wreck - a task ably carried out by maritime archaeologists under the direction of Dave Parham, Bournemouth University, with funding from Historic England and the HLF. Some of the most stunning finds included several 17th-century Baroque style timber carvings, including ‘mermen’, cherubs (that may have adorned a gun port) and the pièce de résistance the 8.4m long rudder, the top of which was adorned by a moustachioed male head surmounted by a laurel wreath.

Weighing almost four tonnes, the rudder was brought to our Conservation Lab in York where it was placed in a PEG wax solution for over two years, after which it was dried in our largest freeze-dryer - a process that took 6 months.

The final journey for the rudder was in late January 2017 when it was driven to Poole Museum for display. After a long and fraught day the rudder was carefully manoeuvred into an upright position for the first time since that fateful day in February 1631 when the Fame sank.

Cherubs recovered from the wreck, their position indicating that they could have adorned a gun port. Photo credit: Jessica Berry / MAST

Cherubs recovered from the wreck, their position indicating that they could have adorned a gun port. Photo credit: Jessica Berry / MAST

We have no idea of the identity of the man’s face on the rudder, perhaps one of the owners of the Fame: Hercules Garretson or Cornelius Veene? And how do we know the name of the ship? That was down to painstaking research in the archives. But for now people can appreciate the size and detailed craftsmanship that went into constructing the rudder - surely not just a functional part of the ship, but also a fine work of art?

ConservationDavid Scott