Archaeologists of the Thames foreshore are blessed with two enormous parallel ‘sites’ to work on: riverbanks stretching from Erith in the east, to Richmond in the west – essentially the entire tidal reach of the river, where the movement of water is constantly uncovering artefacts and features spanning much of human history. In one respect, this makes our work easy – as the Thames Discovery Programme’s Senior Community Archaeologist Helen Johnston told delegates at the most recent CA conference, ‘we don’t dig: the river does it for us’ – but the scale of the Thames foreshore and the speed of its erosion also presents challenges. Its expanse is way beyond the capacity of any small professional team to record and monitor – which is where the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) and its army of volunteers comes in.
Towards the end of 2018, the TDP celebrated its tenth year on the Thames foreshore – testament to the enthusiasm, skill, and commitment of our volunteers, who venture out in all weathers to record exposed archaeology before it is eroded away, and to help communicate the history of the river to as wide an audience as possible. The project is also endebted to pioneers of intertidal archaeology including, but not limited to, Mortimer Wheeler, Ivor Noël Hume, Geoff Egan, Gustav Milne, and Tony Pilson – their work, along with that of many local societies and the extensive surveys of our predecessor the Thames Archaeological Survey (TAS – see CA 343) in the 1990s, laid the foundations on which the TDP has flourished.
As with many community archaeology projects, our first funding came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which supported three years of work based at Thames Estuary Partnership and the Thames Explorer Trust (see CA 244). When this funding ended in in 2011, TDP joined MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), allowing us to benefit from the expertise of specialist colleagues across the organisation. TDP has also been able to contribute its own foreshore expertise to commercial schemes and the development of other intertidal projects, notably the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network (CITiZAN – see CA 306 and 324). Since 2016, we have also expanded our outreach, working with the over-75s and younger Londoners in an initiative supported by the City Bridge Trust and Tideway (the London ‘super sewer’ project). But how does the TDP operate?
The FROG chorus
To help explore what is effectively the longest archaeological site in Britain, over the past decade we have trained over 700 FROGS to act as our eyes and ears along the Thames. That’s not to say that we have recruited amphibians to help record riverine archaeology – these are our volunteers, the Foreshore Recording and Observation Group, whose members take ‘ownership’ of stretches of the river to document changes and any emerging and eroding archaeology through photographic and written walk-over survey.
In a dynamic and ever-evolving environment, these surveys are an invaluable help to our staff, who can then recognise which areas are eroding most rapidly, and which have newly emergent and fragile archaeological features that need recording before they are swept away. Each month during the summer, the TDP schedules a week of fieldwork to respond to threatened archaeology, and many FROGs join in, cleaning, planning, and recording features and deposits. Preservation by record is all we can achieve, as we have no budget for conservation, yet even this could not happen without the valiant and vital efforts of the FROGs.
Other volunteers research the documentary, cartographic, pictographic, and photographic backgrounds to sites and produce blogs for our website (www.thames discovery.org/frog-blog/), while undergraduate and postgraduate members have written site reports as their dissertations. We aim to involve our volunteers much more in the research and post-excavation process, and we hope that in future years we will see FROG publications and hopefully an article in CA.
So, what have we found?
Prehistoric peat deposits, human remains, and artefacts have been recorded along the length of the Thames foreshore in Greater London, with Chelsea, Putney, Brentford, and the area around Barnes being particular ‘hotspots’. But the greatest evidence of such activity comes from Vauxhall Bridge, where the ancient River Effra joined the Thames. There, the TAS (with UCL and the Museum of London) recorded a Middle Bronze Age jetty or bridge, and a Middle Iron Age causeway leading down to it. It is unlikely that the jetty was still in use by this later period. Rather, it is probable that the area endured as a significant place in the landscape – a theory reinforced by TDP’s discovery nearby of a possible riverfront revetment dating to the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition.
We found even earlier timbers 200m downstream: a series of piles of various sizes at the low-water mark, running roughly parallel to the river. Astonishingly, they dated to the very late Mesolithic, making them the earliest known structure in London. Their function is not yet understood, but the same spot has given up a wealth of other prehistoric finds: stratified peat and fluvial layers next to the piles contained early Neolithic pottery sherds, and recent work by Wessex Archaeology (undertaken as part of the Tideway project) also revealed four stakes dating to the Late Bronze Age. It may stretch credulity too far to suggest that this concentration of prehistoric evidence represents continual occupation from the late Mesolithic to the Middle Iron Age, but it certainly indicates that this place in the landscape saw at least episodic habitation from c.4,500 to c.400 BC.
One of the main reasons why the Thames might be a significant focus of prehistoric activity was that it was a rich source of food – animals and wildfowl would have been plentiful beside its waters. Fish, too, could have been easily caught, but while we have found extensive evidence of fishing from the foreshore, this all comes from much later periods. It appears, as has been suggested from many other sites, that fish did not figure significantly in the later prehistoric diet – perhaps due to some kind of cultural or religious taboo.
Fishing for finds
If fish was off the prehistoric menu, though, Romano-British Londoners certainly enjoyed ‘whitebite’ or garum, as fragments of containers attest. Sadly, no trace of Roman fishing has been in found on the Thames foreshore (perhaps because the river has changed and the Roman banks lie in what is now dry land). The contrary can be said for the Anglo-Saxons, though: 14 fish traps have been recorded by the TDP and TAS. These were made from roundwood piles, originally with wattle panels, that formed a V-shaped or linear structure possibly stretching between now-lost islands. They span the later 4th to 10th centuries AD, and range from Greenwich in the east to Isleworth in the west, while a 10th-century wattle hurdle was also recorded at Fulham. We have no definitive evidence for fish traps after this period, probably because Magna Carta, as well as statutes issued by Edward III, Edward IV, and Henry VIII, called for ‘fish weirs’ to be pulled up – as a result, line and net fishing may have become more common.
Wicker fish or eel baskets, akin to a lobster pot, do feature on the foreshore, however. The earliest known (15th-century) example was found on the Isle of Dogs by mudlark Nick Stevens, and TDP has recorded more fish baskets in that area, as well as in central London, and at least 30 by Surrey Docks Farm on the Rotherhithe peninsula. Of these, the baskets that we could date are from the later 19th century – not a time when anyone would want to eat fish from the Thames, due to appalling pollution, or indeed when fish would thrive in the river. It seems more likely that they had originally been used further down the Estuary, and were recycled for foreshore consolidation as they wore out.
Walls by the water
Other insights into riverside life come from historic flood defences. These became vitally important as London expanded along the Thames in the later medieval and post-medieval periods, spilling onto areas of marginal low-lying land. We have recorded numerous parts of the extant river wall, as well as earlier iterations – for example, at Strand on the Green in west London we documented a sloping wattle riverfront that had been replaced by a possibly 17th-century masonry bank, while on the other side of a drain (and therefore a probable property boundary) two phases of vertical timber revetment were also observed. Both of these seem to have been replaced in the 18th century by a vertical brick river-wall, itself rebuilt in the mid- to late 19th century.
The hotchpotch base of a further 17th-century stretch of river wall was recorded at Greenwich: this comprised two ill-matched and reused timber baseplates, back timbers that had almost certainly been recycled from buildings, and a variety of brick types. Lying on a different alignment to the present (18th-century) wall on the site, it appears to be a repair or rebuild of the defences lying immediately upstream of Greenwich’s long-demolished Tudor palace, birthplace of Elizabeth I.
The river was a vital artery of communication, navigated by boats both large and small. TDP has recorded numerous river stairs, causeways, and jetties, and a particularly interesting example was a huge jetty just 20m downstream of the 17th-century river wall at Greenwich, and of similar date. Measuring at least 40m long, it was made of sawn oak and elm piles and morticed baseplates, and appears to be the last phase of the palace jetty (depicted in Wyngaerde’s panorama of c.1544) used to access the royal residence. Meanwhile, eight roundwood elm-piles found at the Tower of London have been interpreted as the remains of a much smaller jetty pre-dating the 14th-century river wall. It is hoped that more information about these access points will emerge during a major new project by the City of London Archaeology Society (in which TDP and UCL are also involved), focusing entirely on this aspect of river infrastructure.
Ships on the shore
It is no surprise that London’s nautical heritage is well represented on the foreshore, being as it was the greatest shipbuilding centre in the world in the later 18th and early to mid-19th century. We have recorded 19th-century slipways in Deptford and on the Isle of Dogs, the most spectacular of which are the twin concrete and timber structures built to launch Brunel’s great folly, possibly the greatest engineering achievement of the Victorian age, the extraordinary SS Great Eastern. This was an enormous iron steamship that, at the time of her launch in 1858, was the largest passenger vessel ever built – her maiden voyage was marred by an explosion, but she later achieved transatlantic voyages.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, it is ship-breaking – an important but largely forgotten London industry – that has left most of a mark on the Thames foreshore. Broken nautical timbers were reused in construction (those fronting the central London department store Liberty are a good example – see CA 286), while smaller elements were turned into furniture, block paving for streets, or firewood. Many foreshore structures below London Bridge comprise reused nautical timbers, in particular rudders, keels, stemposts, and windlasses – precisely those ship elements least suited for construction.
Recycled ship timbers were also used to make barge-beds or gridirons, sat on by vessels at low tide, as we have recorded at Bermondsey, downstream as far as Charlton. A gridiron at the early 19th-century ship-breaking site at Hanover Stairs, Rotherhithe, meanwhile, comprises keel elements from a pair of Danish two-decked third- rate ships of the line, the Princess Carolina and the Danmark, captured at the second battle of Copenhagen in 1807, along with the slightly smaller Dutch Prince Frederick (captured in 1796), and the British sloop Hornet, which launched in Rotherhithe in 1794. All of these vessels appear to have been broken up around 1817, and rudders, keel elements, and windlasses from similar vessels have been identified in barge-beds and gridirons as far upstream as St Saviour’s Dock.
A somewhat later assemblage, dating to 1904/1905, at Anchor and Hope Wharf, Charlton, includes timbers from the Duke of Wellington, the largest warship in the world on her launch in 1852, as well as armour plating from the iron proto-battleship Ajax of 1880, and timbers from one or more of the mid-19th-century London-built second-rates Anson, Edgar, and Hannibal. This wharf is a fascinating and unique structure, eloquently demonstrating the transition both from sail to steam and from wood to iron.
Smaller vessels also survive on the foreshore. At Tripcockness, east of Woolwich, four vessels were hulked as river defences for the Royal Arsenal c.1900. One of these was a standard Thames lighter used for loading and unloading ships, but the other three, used for transporting gravel, were of a unique and extremely unseaworthy design, all missing either their bow or stern. Admiralty oversight of vessel construction had been removed in 1890, and the Arsenal’s Inspector of Machinery appointed a Superintending Engineer and Constructor of Shipping; it would seem that these unfortunate vessels were his work.
Brentford too has a vast assemblage of abandoned vessels, in many cases semi-broken up and stripped of anything of value, including Thames Sailing Barges and early 20th-century Royal Navy pinnaces that had been converted into liveaboard- or pleasure boats after the Second World War. Meanwhile, an even earlier military conversion lies upstream at Isleworth Ait. Originally known as ML-286, one of almost 600 motor launches built as submarine-chasers during the First World War, she was later renamed Cordon Rouge, then Eothen, and in this latter guise served as one of the ‘little ships’ at Dunkirk in 1940.
What of the Blitz and its effect on London? Gustav Milne has led a FROG team researching the work of the ‘Thames Flood Prevention Emergency Repairs’ programme, set up by Sir Thomas Pierson Frank, Chief Engineer of London County Council, to safeguard low-lying areas of the metropolis should the Luftwaffe breach the city’s river defences. Indeed, the wall was breached over 100 times, yet Pierson Frank’s teams were able to prevent London flooding – and it is gratifying that, thanks to this research, a commemorative plaque has been installed on the river wall at Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Houses of Parliament. More on the river and the Second World War will be published in the forthcoming TDP book, The Thames at War.
In this feature, we have only been able to discuss a fraction of the wide array of archaeological features recorded by the TDP and TAS, which would otherwise have been eroded away, unknown, by Old Father Thames. Yet many more will doubtless be revealed for us to document in the future, giving vivid insights into human activity on the river over millennia. The Thames foreshore is still eroding, and as old features are washed away, new ones are continually emerging. If you are interested in finding out more, or would like to become a FROG, please visit www.thamesdiscovery.org or contact the team directly by email at [email protected]
The authors thank their Thames Discovery Programme colleagues Helen Johnston, Will Rathouse, and Gustav Milne, and especially the hard-working and ever-enthusiastic FROG volunteers, without whose work and support the project would simply not exist. Our website has been hosted since its inception with LP Archaeology, to whom our gratitude is extended. The support of colleagues at MOLA is also very much appreciated – particularly those in the Fundraising, Engagement, Geomatics, and Specialist teams.
All images: Thames Discovery Programme.