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South Coast Harbours 1698
report by Edmund Dummer and Thomas Wiltshaw

Dummer's Charts, Historical Context
Adrian Webb: February 2002

The defeat of the English by the French at the Battle of Beachy Head in June 1690 left England in a vulnerable position. Louis XIV of France took full advantage of the fact that the English army at the time was almost entirely occupied in Ireland and the possibility of an invasion was a real one, so he sent a fleet of 80 sail and 30 fireships to attack the English fleet. Unfortunately the main body of the English fleet completely missed this French armada who went on to inflict some very heavy casualties on the smaller part of the navy, and thus gaining control of the English Channel. The French did come ashore but only in small numbers but this was something which was not easily forgotten, or forgiven and the English fleet had been heavily out numbered so the need for more vessels and improved harbours was ever more apparent.

The wheels were put in motion and when King William III delivered his speech to Parliament on the 3 of December, 1697, he could proudly boast that the naval force of England was nearly double to what it had been at the time of his accession. It was also worth noting that the number of vessels lost between 1688 and 1697 by the English was only 50, compared to the French who had lost 59 ships, but twice as many guns. So with Britain becoming an even greater naval power and as the Dutch were being overtaken in the race for supremacy, to continue the dominance of European waters Britannia needed the logistics to achieve a prominent position. As part of the planning process, all of the coast of Southern Britain was to be surveyed to see if any expansion could made in the number of harbours suitable for the use of the Royal Naval. The men chosen to undertake this survey were Edmund Dummer and Captain Thomas Wiltshaw.

On the 25th of June 1692 Edmund Dummer was appointed to the position of Surveyor of the Navy at Portsmouth. This position was held by a man who was not a naval officer, but one who described himself in 1698 as a commissioner of His Majesties Navy whose official capacity put him in charge of the dockyards, stores and ship maintenance at Portsmouth. As Surveyor of the Navy he would have been responsible for any hydrographic surveying which was needed to be undertaken, at any of the dockyards under his charge, to insure the safe transit of any vessel within his jurisdiction. Dummer had been working for the Admiralty at least since 1689, when he was ordered to go to Plymouth to select a site for a new dry dock, which he contracted Robert Waters to build in 1690 at Point Forward, having overruled the objections by the local agent who wanted to build it at the Slate Quarry.

In 1698, under orders from the Lords of the Admiralty, he undertook a plan to survey various harbours along the south coast of England, at a time when a new war with France was a real threat, and Portsmouth would have been a major target. To survey all of the south coast was not something that could be undertaken by one man alone, as the title page testifies the work was undertaken with three others, Captain Thomas Wiltshaw or Wilshaw, Captain James Conoway and Captain William Cruft. Conoway and Cruft were two officers from Trinity House at Deptford, who were presumably assisting the Navy because of their navigational experience, which Dummer may not have had. Wiltshaw on the other hand was very different as he was serving as a commissioner at Portsmouth in 1690, then in 1693 he was commissioned as a lieutenant, followed three years later by his captaincy. He kept the post of commissioner until at least 1698 which would have made him the more senior commissioner, in length of service, if not in age.

The surveying was completed in the months of July and August of 1698 which was rather quick to say the least, as eighteen harbours were visited, and the resulting charts appear to be rushed. On closer examination they appear to be incomplete as in most cases they show few soundings, only the high and low water lines, and few, if any, navigational features making it difficult for any large vessel to enter one of these so-called ports, but this was not the purpose of this undertaking. Dummer and Wiltshaw were looking for sites for new dockyards, and also to see if any of the existing smaller ports could be improved to accommodate larger vessels. The charts were rushed because they were only superficial to the main task in which Conoway and Cruft played a crucial part. As captains of Trinity House they would have had access to the vast records of that well established organisation, which along with their practical experience, presented the Navy with the means to gather all the information they needed.

Another reason for the relatively short time it took to complete the surveys is clear when you compare their work with what was commercially available in 1698. In 1693 the first attempt to chart the whole of Great Britain by an Englishman was brought into print under the title of Great Britain's Coasting Pilot, based on the surveys of Captain Greenvile Collins, RN. This published work took Collins almost eight years and it naturally included a reasonable coverage of ports on the south coast of England. Dummer and Wiltshaw clearly copied Collins survey for some of their charts, sounding for sounding, rock for rock, but when they presented their charts in portrait, instead of landscape as Collins had, they made some subtle changes. They added a crude depiction of the relief, changed the scale slightly, used a key to show names of features, orientated the chart with north to the top and one strickingly obvious advantage was the use of colour, which Collins did not use because his charts were all copper pulls and not individually hand drawn.

The descriptions of the ports contain amongst other things observations of the state of the tide, adjacent land, draughts of vessels and the problems of silting. The entry for Falmouth tells us a survey had been undertaken in 1693 which proved the Cornish port did not
abound in those Qualifications which are proper for the Improvement of the Navy
Other entries, such as the one for Helford, give an indication of local commerce mentioning trading vessels
convenient for Small Coasters
used in the export of tin and corn, and at Lymington
Ships of good Bulk may be here Built for the Merchants Service
When all the surveys were completed and the critique written up, the work was addressed to the Principal Officers and Commissioners of his Majesties Navy and sent to the Lords of the Admiralty some time after 19 November 1698, just over four months after it was started. It was suggested in this report that the only ports worth considering were the ones in the area around Portsmouth and Isle of Wight!


South Coast Harbours 1698 logo, button to main menu
South Coast Harbours 1698
report by Edmund Dummer and Thomas Wiltshaw

© Jean and Martin Norgate: 2002
with information courtesy of Hampshire CC Museums Service
images © Jean Norgate: 2001