The Gloucester – Meet the men who sat on diving’s best kept secret for 15 years

Historians are calling it Norfolk’s Mary Rose – A 17th century royal shipwreck, hidden under the waves of the Norfolk coast for 340 years. The disaster claimed the lives of at least 120 people, with one notable survivor – The Duke of York, the future King James II. This makes the shipwreck one of the first of its kind, a convergence of maritime and royal history. A once-in-a-lifetime archaeological discovery that was made, perhaps unexpectedly, by a pair of printers from Great Yarmouth.

The Barnwell Brothers with a selection of their discoveries. © UEA

The Gloucester’s discoverers are brothers, Julian and Lincoln Barnwell; Printers by day, explorers by night. The brothers, who grew up on the Norfolk coast, have been amateur divers from a young age, following in the footsteps of their father. Julian recounts the start of their diving journey:

“Both our parents were very adventurous, so we grew up going out to sea. Our first dives were in the Norfolk Broads, I was about 12 and Lincoln would’ve been 8. At 16, we couldn’t wait to get qualified for our local dive club, and started diving in the North Sea off Sheringham!”

Their love of diving soon kindled an interest in exploring shipwrecks. “There’s lots of shipwrecks off our coast,” Julian says. “Lots of history, and lots of adventure.” This love of shipwrecks then led the younger of the Barnwell Brothers, Lincoln, to start researching HMS Gloucester in 2003:

“I had a book, that had an index of the 40,000 wrecks around the British Isles. I went back to a wreck which sank in 1672, The Gloucester. The thing that got me really interested in it, I’ll admit, was the word ‘Cannon’. That night, I rang up my brother and asked him if he fancied looking for this wreck, and now here we are today!”

Fast-forward to 2007 – 4,000 nautical miles of exploration later – and the brothers finally struck gold; and dived down to the wreck they’d been searching for, for 4 years.

“I was privileged with the first dive” Lincoln tells us. “Julian would normally be the lead diver, but this particular day he was injured.” Julian was desperate to be the brother that saw the shipwreck first. “He was still trying to get his kit on to investigate the wreck, but he was just in too much pain. It was a windy day – we thought about calling it off – but I soon convinced myself to take the moment, seize the opportunity. So I went over the side, going from noisy wind and rough sea to peace and quiet. All I could hear was my breathing – you’re at one with the sea. Then I saw these shadows appear in front of me, which I could soon identify as huge cannons.”

The brothers, measuring one of The Gloucester’s cannons on the sea bed. © Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

“It was every diver’s dream” Lincoln says. “I just knelt there for 4 minutes or so, in awe.”

The Barnwell Brothers had found their royal shipwreck, but their adventure was only just beginning. All involved in investigating and researching the wreck have been sworn to secrecy for the last 15 years- To give time to secure the site, recover artefacts from the wreck, and properly identify the ship.

The ship was finally confirmed to be the Gloucester in 2012.“It took a number of years to get the right dates,” says Julian. “It wasn’t until we recovered the ship’s bell – with the date 1681 – that we had 100% proof that was the Gloucester.”

The bell recovered from The Gloucester, inscribed with “1681”. © UEA

“The key thing when dealing with something so historically important is to get the right people around you. We now have the Norfolk Museums Service, the University of East Anglia – some fantastic people have helped us which means we’re now in a position to share our discovery with the country.”

The brothers told us about some artefacts already recovered from the shipwreck. These include a selection of pots and bottles for holding food and drink, including a number of unopened wine bottles. Julian also tells us of the orchestra on board the ship. “The Royal Court were on a big party, celebrating the Duke’s return to Scotland. We’ve found a small trumpet – a mouthpiece – so potentially there are more instruments to be found. We’ve only scratched the surface so far, there’s a lot more to be discovered.”

Further archaeology on the site will be funded through a charity. The 1682 Foundation, chaired by General The Lord Dannatt, will financially support work at the wreck of the Gloucester in future. The Barnwell Brothers have now trained as underwater archaeologists and professional divers; They will continue to work on the site alongside the Maritime Archaeological Trust.

We asked the brothers how it feels to be part of this discovery – a part of British history. “We’re just there for the adventure,” Julian says. “We’re so lucky to be a part of it. Now we’re sharing it with so many people, and it’s up to us to look after this shipwreck.”

“There’s still a lot of work to do. In my mind, the mission is not complete yet,” says Lincoln. I’ve never dreamt that I’d be remembered in history – I don’t know what to say about that. It’s unbelievable, and to share it with my brother. It’s lovely to do this as a family.”

Artefacts recovered from HMS Gloucester will be shown in an exhibition at Norwich Castle from February 2023, with hopes that the 1682 Foundation can eventually fund a static exhibition in Great Yarmouth. The Barnwell Brothers hope that their discovery inspires other people to take up undersee exploration – the same way they were inspired by the raising of the Mary Rose in 1982.

“The sea is a dangerous environment, but it can be managed. I’d love to see people get out there more. It’s a well kept secret, what’s out there – a whole playground waiting for people to explore.”

Julian and Lincoln after their dive to recover the ship’s bell. © Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

Interview conducted alongside Aimee Dexter.

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