The Fenna was a two-masted sailing schooner of 172 tons, built in 1862 (probably in Hoogezand, the Netherlands) by J. A. Hooites. The vessel was also owned by Hooites, possibly in conjunction with T. A. Hoviks, and registered in Amsterdam. The Fenna was one of forty-nine ships under Hooites' ownership at various times between 1851 and 1896. The vessel carried a crew of six and from 1871 the master was J. H. Mulder.
In March 1881 the ship was en route from Antwerp to Messina, Sicily. The fullest account of the ship's sinking on the 10th March comes from the local Bournemouth newspaper report, which recorded that following heavy gales the Fenna began to take on water. The crew decided to abandon the vessel and she foundered off the Dorset coast. The crew and skipper were able to save themselves by rowing to Poole. The Lloyds List account of the sinking records a similar sequence of events; that it foundered 24 miles off the Needles before drifting and sinking. It goes on to record that the crew and master survived but that following sinking, the mastheads of the vessel could still be seen above the surface and posed a danger to navigation. It can be surmised that by the time the vessel sank, conditions were relatively calm, leading to the upright deposition of the vessel on the seabed.
The Fenna was therefore nearly twenty years old at the time of sinking and similar vessels must have been a common sight around the shores of Northern Europe, engaged in the shipping of raw materials and manufactured goods. The historical records indicate that the final intended voyage of the Fenna (from Messina to Trieste) was by no means an unusual distance for such a vessel to have been trading on.
The wreck of the Fenna lies around three nautical miles west-south-west of the Needles. The site was first noted in 1981 by the UKHO (the UK Hydrographic Office) during soundings in the area. It was examined again in 1988 using an echosounder, when it was concluded that it was a small wreck or obstruction. The site was first dived on in 2000 by Dave Wendes (Wight Spirit Charters and maritime historian). Wendes informed the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology of his discovery and in July 2002 they conducted a baseline survey of the extant remains.
On-going research into the site, by both the HWTMA and by Wendes has concluded that the site represents the remains of the Fenna.The identification is based on the correlation between the location and nature of the vessel remains with the known history of the Fenna. In particular, the good state of preservation of the cargo has allowed accurate comparison with historical records of the Fenna's known cargo manifest.
The extant remains of the Fenna measure 30m in length by c.10m in width at the widest point. The vessel still sits upright on the seafloor in 18 metres of water, although parts of the hull of the vessel above the seabed have now degraded away. Although the upper elements of the wooden hull have disappeared, parts of the lower hull of the vessel are preserved. It is very likely that further hull elements are preserved beneath the cargo. The bow of the vessel is indicated by the presence of surviving anchor chain at the south-western end. No evidence for mechanical propulsion has been observed during diving on the wreck. Evidence for the fastening of the hull survives in the form of copper nails that are distributed around the edges of the site, deposited in this position as the upper works of the vessel degraded.
Lying on a flat gravel and sand seabed the remains of the vessel form an oasis for marine life. The site plays the role of a reef, within an otherwise featureless seabed. As a result the site has been colonised by a range of marine life, much of it recorded under the Offshore Aggregates and Species Inhabiting historic wreck Sites (OASIS) project. Of particular relevance to the archaeology is the noted presence of both Shipworm (Teredo Navalis) and Gribble (Limnoria Lignorum), recorded during the OASIS environmental survey. A large number of lobsters were also been noted on the site. Additionally, Bib (members of the cod family that grow to around 40cm in length) are common. The site does not lie in any areas of current environmental designation.
The most striking feature of the remains is undoubtedly the cargo of the vessel, which even after deposition on the seafloor has retained its locational arrangement and contextual relationship within the vessel. The cargo rises 2.5m from the seafloor and consists of railway lines, glass sheets and barrel-shaped concreted objects. Although the original packing boxes of the glass sheets have degraded, the sheets themselves still remain in-situ. These are overlain with a consignment of railway lines that are stacked just aft of amidships. The barrels are located in the port and starboard quarters and in the bow. The staves have degraded in many cases, leaving just the concreted remains of the contents. Only a very small number of objects have been raised from the site and declared to the Receiver of Wreck. These consist of twenty-three wrought iron nails and a heavy brass object. The latter is thought to be associated with more recent minesweeping equipment, rather than the shipwreck itself.
The highly-coherent, contextualised remains of the Fenna have led to it being incorporated into the Solent Maritime Heritage Assets Project. This allowed the HWTMA to continue to monitor, research and manage this potentially important site. The first stage of this process was the production of a formal Site Assessment of the Fenna, on behalf of English Heritage. This assessment highlights the unique nature of the site and the potential to inform on the day-to-day use of vessels such as the Fenna, which were an integral part of 19th century maritime trade.
The assessment also draws attention to the fragile nature of the wreck site. Although the cargo remains are well preserved and in a stable environment, they could easily be damaged by unintentional human interference such as fishing or anchoring boats.This could disturb the highly coherent nature of the site which is the source of its high archaeological value.
Sailing schooners such as the Fenna comprised a significant part of the north European merchant fleet during the late 19th century, particularly that element engaged in short/medium distance trade routes. Such vessels would have been ubiquitous in most of the ports of Europe, North America and the Mediterranean. As with any shipwreck, it is highly likely that the remains of the Fenna will be representative of the local or regional tradition in which the vessel was built and used. As such, the Fenna represents a potential insight into the archaeological reality of north European shipbuilding practices at this time and Dutch merchant building in particular. Similar Dutch vessels retained a distinctive hull form (at least according to historical documentation) during this period. Opportunities to compare construction methods or techniques with examples of schooners from the UK and other countries (eg. the Danish built Thomas Lawrence), wrecked in English waters may offer a particularly fruitful line of research. Looking further afield it may also be informative to compare the wreck of the Fenna with the well preserved schooners that have been located in the Great Lakes of North America.
The mid-19th century was a period of relatively rapid innovation and change in terms of the way that merchant ships were constructed. The main theme of this is the continued development and integration of iron as a building material into naval and merchant building. Although these changes are seemingly well-documented by historical sources, archaeological remains are poorly represented. The limited investigation that has taken place on the site so far gives no indication that any iron elements were used in the construction of the Fenna, or if the vessel was sheathed. This may provide a direct contrast with contemporary British merchant vessels of this period and area of operation that were reinforced with iron elements and carried hull sheathing. Similarly, comparison with contemporary schooners from other nations (eg. the Thomas Lawrence) would be of interest. The Fenna may represent an important example of the ongoing use of purely wooden hull construction in the mid-19th century. It may also serve to illustrate the differing rates of adoption of iron shipbuilding in the various European maritime powers of the 19th century.
The most striking feature of the Fenna is the well-preserved cargo that still retains the position in the ship in which it was originally stowed, to a height of 2.5m. This preservation has the potential to be hugely informative about aspects of maritime activity that are usually poorly represented in both the archaeological record and historical sources. In particular the way in which cargo is stowed in relation to hull shape, deck hatches, cargo dimensions/weight and intended ports of call. These are all areas of investigation for which the Fenna can provide an almost uniquely detailed record. The nature of the cargo itself also has the potential to provide information into the type of materials being shipped around Europe at this time. Additionally it can inform us of the distances, potential locations and reasons for shipping specific materials/products to specific places. The type of cargo carried on board the Fenna and its intended destinations can inform us of the types of material being shipped around Europe in the mid/late 19th century. Additionally, the intended final voyage of the Fenna indicates the practice of requisition and shipping of cargoes between specific points, rather than a coasting or tramping trade. The Fenna may therefore be considered against the background of the emerging 'global economy' that was taking place at this time.