Early stocked anchors
The Anchor, or first named by the Greeks as “Ancora” – meaning curved or hooked, would have been the vital piece of sailors equipment. It is known that the Phoenicians, the Chinese, the Greeks and the Romans all used anchors as a means of saving a vessel caught on a lee shore. The importance has been demonstrated by a great many shipwrecks from antiquity and one wreck near Taranto dated to AD 100 even had five anchors each weighing 600 kg’s.
1st century AD Roman anchors recovered from Lake Nemi in Italy when the lake was drained between 1929 and 1931, revealed that the Romans manufactured both wooded anchors with lead stocks as well as iron anchors. The only Roman type anchor recovered from British Waters was found near Aberdarewllyn in Gwynedd in Wales. Discovered in 1974 this anchor is now on display at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.
Little is know of medieval anchors as no examples have survived however some illustrations can be seen on the Bayeux Tapestry, in illuminated religious works and on wax seals. The late 13th century seal of Portsmouth in England clearly shows an anchor and ring provided for the rope.
16th-17th century anchors
The earliest drawings of an anchor with details of its weight and dimensions appears in “Fragments of Ancient Shipwrightry” attributed to Matthew Baker, dated to the late 16th or early 17th Century. Most anchors during this period had curved arms, but as larger anchors were required the straight arm anchor was introduced to English vessels. The flukes were generally the shape of equilateral triangles and half the length of the arms. The anchor ring was slightly smaller diameter than the fluke. The anchor stock was roughly the same length as the shank, made from timbers bound with iron hoops. Wooden pegs or treenails were used to secure the timbers in the stock, which was straight on the top and tapered on the other three sides.
In 1627 Captain John Smith published “A Sea Grammer2 which provided a list of the different types of anchors carried by ships at that time. It listed:
- The kedger anchor - the smallest of the anchors used in calm weather
- The stream anchor – only a little larger used in an easy tide/stream
- The bow anchor – larger - 4 in total
- The sheet anchor – the largest and heaviest of all used in emergencies
Anchor weight was in proportion to the size of the ship. A ship of 500 tons would have a sheet anchor weight 2000 pounds of 907 kg’s.
18th century anchors
In the 18th century an account of anchor types, including their dimensions and shapes appears in William Sutherland’s “Britain”s Glory or Shipbuilding Unvailed” published in 1717 . Sutherland states that the Royal Navy stipulated that the length of the shank of the largest anchor on a naval vessel was two fifths of the vessels extreme breadth.
The Admiralty issued lists of the dimensions fixed for each rate of Royal Navy ship called the “Establishment”. Another crucial document from this time that tells us about the rules surrounding the use of the anchor was “A Treatise on Anchors”, which was published by Richard Pering in 1819.
The Admiralty pattern anchor – and other 19th century anchors
The Admiralty pattern anchor is the most recognisable as a typical anchor of a sailing ship. Developed in 1841 under the guidance of Admiral Sir William Parker it had a wooded shock, later to be wrought iron and with curved arms. The Admiralty pattern anchor with its superb construction it represents the final stage in the development of the fixed are anchor. However the 19th century great steps were also being taken in new anchor design. The long shank anchor of the 17th century and the admiralty pattern anchor of the 19th century both had issues when it came to recovering them from the seabed which required the use of a rope from a davit off the side of the ship. In 1832 Lieutenant William Rodger patented his small palm anchor which remained in use until the 20th century, and in the late 19th century anchor designers like Porter, Honiball and Trotman all developed anchors with differing fluke shapes and even with swivelling crowns
The end of the 19th century saw the patenting of the new type of anchor – the stockless anchor. The type that remains in use on board sailing ships to this day.
Wooden Stocked Anchor
A Porter anchor in Portsmouth Dockyard
note the swiveling crown
A Trotman anchor in St Roc, Canada
again note the swiveling crown
The Big Anchor project will be developing
more text and images on anchors of
different types from around the world
so if you would like to add to these pages please contact the project at