The Stirling Castle was one of 30 great ships of the line built as part of Samuel Pepys 1677 shipbuilding programme. The programme consisted of one 1st rate ship of the line, nine 2nd rates and twenty 3rd rates. The initial design of the new ships agreed by Parliament was found lacking so the King himself, Charles II, proclaimed that he would pay for the needed alterations to the size of each vessel from his own purse. To simplify maintenance the King insisted the masts, spars, rigging and fittings of each rate be standardised, whilst Pepys ensured the ordnance was too. This marked the first steps in the control of naval architecture by the naval administration. The size of the building programme strained the resources of the Royal Dockyards and meant that the new ships were ordered in two instalments. The first instalment consisted of three 2nd rates and twelve 3rd rates; the second instalment of one 1st rate, six 2nd rates and eight more 3rd rates.
The Stirling Castle was a 3rd rate laid down as part of the first instalment of ships in 1677. It was built by John Shish, completed in two years and launched at Deptford on the south bank of the river Thames in 1679. At 1,114 tons the Stirling Castle was slightly larger than the average 3rd rate as laid down in the specifications of the 1677 programme. It was amongst the 3rd rates listed in the Revolution Fleet of 1688. During 1699 the ship was rebuilt, and in 1701 was refitted and commissioned back into the Navy.
Its career came to an end in the early hours of 27th November during the Great Storm of 1703, when it wrecked on the Goodwin Sands, losing four fifths of the crew. The storm also claimed two other 3rd rates of the same fleet, Northumberland and Restoration. The current licensee for the Stirling Castle, Robert Peacock, is also undertaking work on these two sites.
The wreck lies in a very dynamic environment responsible for the original burying of the site, preserving it for the past 300 years. After the initial discovery in 1979, the wreck was rapidly re-buried by the shifting sands. In 1998, the wreck became exposed again. This trend of burial and re-burial has become continuous and has been accentuated by the scouring effect of the sea.
In May 1980, the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO) confirmed the position of the wreck. By June 1980, the Stirling Castle was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. Following a survey undertaken by the UKHO, the designation was amended in September 1980 to redefine the centre of the site. The site was re-designated in 2004 to increase the size of the restricted area. In December 1980, the wreck was purchased outright from the Ministry of Defence by the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Unit (now the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society).
The archaeological components of the wreck site, located towards the north-west side of the Goodwin Sands, about 8.5 kilometres north-east of Deal in Kent, consist of a partially exposed hull and internal structure. The site is unstable and the structure of the vessel has been collapsing through the years due to changes to the environmental dynamics of the area. Therefore, a natural degradation affecting the physical integrity of some areas of the Stirling Castle site is occurring, with an increased sediment reduction from midships to the starboard side
The dynamic environment of the Goodwin Sands buried the vessel, preserving it until the sand shifted and the wreck was discovered by the local Ramsgate Dive Club in 1979. Following the discovery of the site, and prior to designation in 1980, extensive work on the site was undertaken, including photo and video surveys and the recovery of several artefacts. The work was undertaken by local amateur divers who joined the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Unit to form an underwater research group. This work was carried out in association with local fishermen, providing an example of collaborative work amongst various interested parties. These activities were undertaken to the best of the team's ability but with scarce support.
In June 1980, the Stirling Castle was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. By August 1980, while the remains of two similar vessels located nearby were being investigated (Restoration and Northumberland), it was noted that the wreck was disappearing beneath the Goodwin Sands again. David Perkins, formerly Director of the Trust for Thanet Archaeology, stated that the wreck was thoroughly examined and many 'easily found' artefacts were recovered with the intention of exhibiting the material at both local and national levels. In the 1980s work included a photographic survey; the raising of some artefacts; and investigations carried out in the locality by the Goodwins Archaeological Survey. In 1986, the first field assessment of the Stirling Castle was undertaken by the Archaeological Diving Unit (ADU), which confirmed the deterioration of the wreck after its first exposure.
Since 1993, the Licensee has been Robert Peacock. He also leads and supports a team of volunteer divers known as 'Seadive' and maintains links with the Trust for Thanet Archaeology, the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society and the Ramsgate Maritime Museum. In 1996, Seadive undertook investigations on the site revealing that the starboard side of the wreck was completely covered with sand. In 1997, the ADU undertook magnetometer and bathymetric surveys across the site, concluding that a slight increase in sediment cover over the wreck provided some stability to the site. The wreck remained largely covered by sand until 1998. Subsequent UKHO surveys have identified elements of the vessel as local shifts in sand allowed.
In 1998, a brief video survey undertaken by Seadive indicating that significant quantities of sand moved away from the site leaving it as exposed as when found in 1979. This resulted in the identification of an area of hull that may have been sheathed in copper. It is important to note that copper sheathing was introduced into the Royal Navy in 1761. It is known that the Royal Navy experimented on copper sheathing prior to 1761, therefore, the remains of the Stirling Castle may represent the earliest recorded incidence of this. In 1999 Operation Man O' War comprised Seadive, Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS) divers, the ADU and a team of US divers participating in further survey work. During Operation Man O' War, a decision was made to protect in situ or recover significant exposed artefacts at risk of loss or damage. Fragments of a log reel, a brass candlestick and a probable traverse navigation board were recovered by the ADU, and they undertook an acoustic and bathymetric survey. In 2000, the fieldwork continued during this time, an intact gun carriage with cannon and truck wheels attached was exposed. The decision to recover this gun was made by the licensed team; the recovery was overseen by the ADU.
In 2001, work was undertaken by Seadive, reporting that the bow area of the port side of the ship was covered with sand. During this year, another geophysical survey was undertaken by the ADU. In 2002, they undertook a multibeam bathymetric, sidescan and magnetometer surveys. Fieldwork was supplemented by the presence of RDF Media filming for the Channel 4 'Wreck Detectives' series. Since 2003, the work undertaken by Wessex Archaeology comprised archaeological monitoring including visual inspections and geophysical surveys. Wessex Archaeology has also been progressing on a new site plan. In 2006, a methodology was trialled which involved ground-truthing upstanding features identified in multibeam swath bathymetry surveys of the site undertaken by St. Andrews University (2005), and then undertaking detailed baseline offset surveys of smaller archaeological features between them. This drawn and measured survey data was then combined with the absolute and relative 3D positional data obtained from the bathymetry to produce a detailed archaeological site plan. Surface recovery of vulnerable artefacts has also taken place.
Between 2003 and 2007, Seadive undertook diving activities on the site observing a natural degradation affecting the physical integrity of some areas of the Stirling Castle. Seadive also observed an increased sediment reduction from midships to the stern port side. The sediment reduction resulted in the exposure of artefacts, which were at immediate risk of loss or damage from tidal movement. During 2005, ADUS and St Andrews University through the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (ALSF) Rapid Archaeological Site Survey and Evaluation (RASSE) project undertook a geophysical survey on the site. Sediment level reduction with gradual increase in some areas was observed when comparing both 2002 and 2005 datasets. Another geophysical survey was undertaken during 2006 through the ALSF RASSE project and the same conclusions were reached when comparing 2005 and 2006 geophysical data.
Wessex Archaeology dived the site in the summer of 2008 as part of their PWA contract and a geophysical survey was undertaken that year. An earlier report of theirs is available on the Seadive website. Recent activities on the site have addressed that the wreck is still actively deteriorating and shows no sign of stabilising. Bryan and Ann Smith, who have been involved in the site as researchers and site divers, continued their research about the Stirling Castle site and the archaeological recording of the artefacts recovered, including artefacts sheets and drawings. In 2008, Bryan Smith was compiling a detailed specialist report on the navigation equipment from the Stirling Castle aiming for forthcoming publication. Sadly, he passed away in 2009. The Stirling Castle gun, after being requested by the Ramsgate Maritime Museum, has been returned to the Mary Rose Trust to finalise its conservation. The Mary Rose Trust has written a report regarding the conservation and remedial treatment of the Stirling Castle gun. Furthermore, there are approximately 400 digital images registering the conservation procedures that have been undertaken on the gun. At the time of writing, the HWTMA understands that the gun carriage is awaiting conservation at the Nucleart Centre in Grenoble (France).
The Trust for Thanet Archaeology currently holds the Society's archive, which includes paper and photographic records in addition to boxes of artefacts. A large number of artefacts are on loan to Ramsgate Maritime Museum which is the primary display of material from the site. However, the future of this material is now uncertain since there is a possibility that the museum will close in the near future. Therefore, the future of a significant number of the Stirling Castle artefacts is currently under review.