Just downriver of Tower Bridge you have Wapping on the North bank (Middlesex, as was) and Bermondsey to the South (Surrey). To generalise a bit, the Wapping side has traditionally been about docks and wharfs – logically goods needed to load and offload near the consumers and manufacturers – that’s to say the City of London and what we know as the East End. The Bermondsey side tended to be where ships were manufactured, fitted out and repaired. Here were the homes and neighbourhoods of shipwrights and associated trades craftsmen.
Before the modern docks were built from the beginning of the 19th Century, this section of the Thames was choked solid with thousands of vessels – an unbroken forest of masts and rigging of merchantmen with service vessels, river taxis, lighters and the like weaving between them as best they could.
Today at low tide, archaeologists go down to the river’s beaches and try to make sense of past from the valuable but shifting clues left behind. Last Thursday professional archaeologists and volunteers from Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) hit the mud on the Bermondsey side to study a section. All tape measures, clipboards and wellies. One of their number, Eliott Wragg, gave a public tour of the area and the operation to about 20 of us “civvies”. We kicked off with a nice surprise: some ruins of an ancient manor house or possibly a hunting lodge dating from around 1350 . I knew of this building but not exactly where it was. Now I do.
Fellow LH Member Hannah Renier and I really enjoyed our outing with the TDP as we did at Vauxhall a few months ago. We managed to squeeze in some mudlarking while we were at it. I was very excited to find my first clay pipe stem; an hour later we’d amassed dozens. Obvious, really, that “finds” should be more plentiful just down from the City.
The Thames Discovery Programme is an archaeological group comprising around 300 volunteers and a tiny complement of full-time staff (2.5 members, to be precise). Its mission is to record, measure, monitor the largest archaeological site in Britain: the Thames foreshore. A major part of its remit is public engagement: walks, talks, site visits. With a little training, you can join them as a FROG (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group), i.e. volunteer. Or just tag along for an outing as we did. It’s all on their web site.