IT’S been dubbed the Mary Rose of the Thames Estuary and now a major project is under way to find out what really happened to the London and salvage its treasures.

The London, a 64-gun, second- rate ship, was built in 1656 for the English Navy and escorted Charles II home from Holland during the English Restoration.

But in March 1665, as it was travelling along the Thames Estuary from Chatham to the Hope, Kent, it was said a sailor took a candle below deck, sparking an explosion in the ship’s gunpowder stockpile.

It split in two and sank to the bottom of the Thames, some way off the end of where Southend Pier now stands.

Some 300 on board died.

The exact location of the wreck cannot be revealed, to guard against illegal salvage operations, but English Heritage has embarked on a two-year project to explore and excavate the wreck.

Luisa Hagele, project curator at Southend Council’s Museums Service, said: “This project provides an incredible opportunity for local people to engage with their own heritage and a unique experience for the Southend community.”

Luisa has brought together a team of volunteers to catalogue all the finds from the wreck, with the aim of putting them on display at Southend’s Central Museum when the project is finished.

Scheduled to take two years, English Heritage’s main aim is to remove the wreck from their “at risk” register.

The London was designated under the protection of wrecks act in 2008, but Mark Dunkley, maritime archaeologist at English Heritage, hopes to soon remove that status after a full examination and excavation of artefacts has been carried out.

He said: “This is currently the biggest project of its type in England.

“The well-preserved and vulnerable remains of the wreck of the London are consistent with the historical records that she did, in fact, blow up.

“This project has been a long time coming, but dredging for the new port meant we had to wait for silt levels to even out and we are now excited to be progressing.”

YOU'RE HOLDING PIECES OF HISTORY MATTHEW Mint, 38, from Thundersley, heard about the project to catalogue artefacts salvaged from the wreck and could not wait to get involved.

With a classics degree and interest in history, Matthew signed up to help and is excited about what they might find.

Artefacts already salvaged include musket shots, fixtures and fittings from the wreck and personal items, such as pewter spoons and the leather sole of a shoe.

Matthew is one of a team of volunteers brought together by Southend Museums Service to sort, clean, wrap, label and catalogue the artefacts.

He said: “It’s interesting for me to see the more personal items that people had. If there was an explosion and it went down then it’s a frozen moment in time and exciting to see what things people in the 1660s were using as day-to-day items on a ship.

“The most exciting thing I’ve dealt with is probably a candle.

It was split in two, but still in remarkably good condition.”

STEVE'S BIG CHALLENGE STEVE ELLIS, a fishmonger by trade, is leading the divers’ exploration of the London.

Steve, 49, of Westcliff Park Drive, Westcliff, was granted a license by English Heritage to dive the wreck four years ago.

He and his team, which includes wife Carol, have been conducting fingertip searches of the wreck, but have been battling against the conditions.

Steve said: “Diving in the Thames poses challenges.

Visibility is not good and using lights often means they just reflect off the silt in the water and back into your eyes.

“Because of the currents even getting down to the wreck is difficult.”