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Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute

Chain pump from 17th century warship deconstructed using latest x-ray technology

Published: 29 July 2013Origin: Engineering

Engineers from the University of Southampton are working with the archaeological charity Seadive to ‘virtually’ examine the mechanism of a chain pump from a 17th century warship.

The project, funded by English Heritage, has used the high-energy micro-focus CT scanner at the University's µ-VIS Centre for Computed Tomography to peer inside the entombed remains of the pump. It was recovered by Seadive Director of Operations Robert Peacock, who is licensee of the protected wreck of Northumberland (1679) which sank on the Goodwin Sands off the coast of Kent.

University of Southampton Engineer Dr Mark Mavrogordato says: "The section of pump we have examined is physically very large and dense - a challenge in terms of x-ray penetration. Thanks to our 450kV micro-focus source and highly sensitive detector array, we have been able to do this successfully and reveal the individual working parts of the pump without physically altering it."

The Northumberland is one of 47 wreck sites in England protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.  English Heritage Maritime Designation Advisor, Mark Dunkley says: "English Heritage funded the work because archaeological evidence of ship pumps from the 17th century is extremely rare. This work presented a unique opportunity for us to better understand how ships would have functioned at sea without having to dismantle the pump itself. English Heritage will now commence the process of conserving this important artefact at our laboratory in Portsmouth, prior to it going on public display in Ramsgate."

The chain pump was used to remove water from the bilge of the warship, raising it up to and discharging it out through the scuppers on the gun deck - then into the sea. Chain pumps were fundamental for safety, as all ships leaked and without operational pumps they could be in severe danger of sinking.  Northumberland's pump consisted of a pump tube made of oak, which ran vertically up through the ship from the bilge. A chain on a continuous loop, with leather valves located every 30 inches passed through this tube, drawing the water upwards.

Seadive archaeologist and project leader Daniel Pascoe explains: "The Northumberland's chain and valves are entombed in concretion - a hard deposit made up of sand, shell and corosion products from the iron chain.  This encasement makes it impossible to identify, by conventional means, the construction, size and shape of the individual working parts of the pump."

Daniel, who is also a former Southampton student, continues: "Chain pumps are generally quite well documented, but historical information lacks detail on the shape and size of their component parts.  However, the CT scanning at Southampton has given us precise measurements for Northumberland's chain pump mechanism - a first for this type of pump.

"The scans clearly show the chain is S-shaped, with the eyes at 90 degrees.  The valve is made up of three leather discs situated on top of a swivel that attaches to the chain.  Crucially, the scanning has provided us with a level of detail where a reconstruction could be made."

The equipment at the University of Southampton's µ-VIS Centre for Computed Tomography works in a similar way to a medical CAT scanner, but is more powerful and capable of much greater resolutions.  The high-energy micro-focus scanner rotates samples through 360 degrees, taking thousands of 2D images, which are then used to build a detailed 3D virtual representation of the original object.  This can then be viewed from all angles and positions inside the object.

 Northumberland was a 70 gun ‘third rate' warship launched in 1679 as one of the thirty ‘great ships' of Samuel Pepys shipbuilding programme. Northumberland took part in some of the most major and infamous battles of the late 17th century, including the defeat by the French at Beachy Head in 1690, victory at Barfleur/ La Hogue in 1692 and the second bombardment on St Malo in 1695.  She was then rebuilt at Chatham and was back at sea by 1702 for the Battle of Vigo Bay.  Tragically, she wrecked with all hands on the Goodwin Sands, famously known as the ‘ship swallower' during the Great Storm of November 26th 1703.

In 2008 with a surface recovery licence, the charity Seadive recovered a section of the Northumberland's chain pump from the seabed.  The wood of its exposed surface was being attacked by marine boring organisms and recovery was essential to ensure its survival. After conservation, the chain pump will go on display at Ramsgate Maritime Museum, hopefully accompanied by the recently produced visual imagining from the CT scanning at Southampton.

Imaging of the pump

Notes for editors

1)   For images of the chain pump and scanning visualisations of its interior, please contact, Peter Franklin, Media Relations, University of Southampton  023 8059 5457 

2)  The µ-VIS Centre for Computed Tomography is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.  More information about the centre can be found at:

3)  Seadive has been in existence for over 15 years and is dedicated to heritage diving and advancing the cause of maritime heritage in the UK and in mainland European waters.  It is a non-profit making organisation and has full Charitable Trust status. 

Daniel Pascoe is an independent archaeologist, who graduated from the University of Southampton in 2002 in Archaeology and in 2007 with a Masters in Maritime Archaeology. 

4)  For more information about English Heritage visit:

5)  The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship across a wide range of subjects in engineering, science, social sciences, health and humanities.

With over 23,000 students, around 5000 staff, and an annual turnover well in excess of £435 million, the University of Southampton is acknowledged as one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine. We combine academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research, supporting a culture that engages and challenges students and staff in their pursuit of learning.

The University is also home to a number of world-leading research centres including the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Institute for Life Sciences, the Web Science Trust and Doctoral training Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute and is a partner of the National Oceanography Centre at the Southampton waterfront campus.

6)   The Northumberland is one of 47 wreck sites in England protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.

For more details on the Protection of Wrecks Act, 1973 please see:

For more details on the Northumberland please see:

For further information contact:

Peter Franklin, Media Relations, University of Southampton, Tel: 023 8059 5457, email:

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