In July a large group from our U3A took the opportunity to dig into London’s history and view some of the archaeological finds made during construction of the Crossrail tunnel. Words and photos by Val Arundel
After an early start and a fairly easy journey to London we met our Blue Badge guide, Martin, and walked to the Mayflower pub, reputedly the oldest pub on the Thames (1620), for coffee. To me and my husband this was a surprise as it was our haunt when we were courting more than 50 years ago.
It hadn’t changed much. It is situated in the middle of Rotherhithe which, as we learnt, means cattle (rother) port (hithe). The once busy East India Company warehouses are now expensive apartments. The Mayflower sits opposite a former granary, now a film studio and costume repository for Sands Films, and just across from St Mary’s Church (1710), whose pews were reputed to be made from HMS Temerare, Turner’s painting of which was produced near there.
Our first visit was to the Brunel Museum, within walking distance. Marc Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, had the idea of a tunnel in the early 1800s. The nearest crossing point of the Thames for carts carrying cargo to the Wapping side of the river was London Bridge, which at that time was very narrow and horses and carts could wait up to a week or more to cross it. The river at Rotherhithe was at that time too wide to build a bridge.
By 1824, during the reign of George IV, he was ready to begin. He had done his measurements and aimed to start tunnelling 40ft below ground level. He began by laying in place a 25-ton iron ring with a cutting edge and constructed on top of it a shaft which was 60ft above ground level. He topped it with another iron hoop and a steam engine to move the spoil. Brunel reckoned that the combined weight would sink down through the London clay. He was right. Just 20ft of shaft remains today above ground where Martin told us the story.
The tunnel was excavated by hand using a complicated shield, another of Marc’s inventions, through which miners dug out the soil. His shield device has evolved over the years into the powered machines used today. After many mishaps, including floods, illness, and money problems, together with the need to build a shaft on the Wapping side, in November 1841 the tunnel was finished; and in 1843 it was opened to the public to visit on foot. However, by the 1850s the novelty had worn off and the tunnel was closed. In 1865 it was sold to East London Railway for £200,000. Today it takes Transport for London trains under the Thames; we heard them whilst sitting in the shaft listening to our guide.
The Rotherhithe shaft was capped during the 1940s. It now sits by the engine house museum which originally housed the steam engine used in the tunnel’s construction.
After visiting the museum we looked out from a viewing area over the Thames and Martin pointed out the Prospect of Whitby, another old pub completely dwarfed by surrounding buildings 40-plus stories high.
Returning to the coach, our guided tour continued past the Rotherhithe tunnel, built in 1904 for horses and carts and actually used for them at the time but now a road tunnel. Then on through Bermondsey, home at one time of Peak Frean and Twiglets, and past the London Bridge to Greenwich Railway, the first built on arches for its full length. Then over Tower Bridge and past the Tower of London and the Mint (now moved to Llantrisant, although the security wall is still there).
We also passed Cable Street, where the battle took place in 1936 between anti-fascist protesters, police and Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. Then yet another tunnel, the Limehouse link, which brought us to Canary Wharf which reminded me of a porcupine with its small base covered with many tall buildings.
Martin pointed out a sausage-shaped building covered with what looked like white plastic near the base of some of the buildings. This was the top of the new Crossrail station. Some of us went there to see the lovely gardens covered by an Eden Project-type plastic roof with a walkway leading at both ends to eateries. As it was lunchtime, we joined the hundreds of young office workers to eat. Below the gardens were four floor levels, the bottom one of which in 2018 would be the Crossrail station at Canary Wharf.
Our final visit was to the Museum of London to see the exhibition of some of the thousands of archaeological finds that had been made during the construction of Crossrail. The railway itself will be at a depth far below any archaeology finds which only occur in the top nine metres. However, at certain points where stations were being built or where the line crossed existing routes many fascinating items were discovered.
The easternmost area turned up the oldest man-made finds, prehistoric flint flakes, whilst reindeer and bison bones pointed to a more rural landscape in the west. The finds included pottery, industrial items, wood, leather, coins and jewellery. One fascinating item was a pair of animal bones polished for use as ice skates from the 15th or 16th century.
In many areas, particularly near Liverpool Street station, many skeletons and skulls were found. The arguments are already raging as to why so many skulls. All in all, many years of work lies ahead for the archaeologists to interpret what these finds can tell us about early London. The exhibition also showed videos of how the tunnel was cut through modern-day London together with excavations and initial interpretation of finds.
After a cup of tea we boarded the coach, said goodbye to Martin and London, returning through another tunnel, the Blackwall Tunnel.
A long but fascinating day.