Yesterday I went all the way to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets to mudlark at Trinity Buoy Wharf, the site of London’s only lighthouse, sitting at the confluence of the river Thames and Bow Creek, the mouth of the river Lea. One of the things I love about mudlarking is the challenge of taking myself out of my usual SW London/Southbank/City of London comfort zones and going further out to the Isle of Dogs and the old London Docks to breathe in the atmosphere, take photos and try my luck in the Thames mud. This place is steeped in maritime history and doesn’t disappoint. A recent flux of new builds and development have breathed much needed life into a previously deprived and ignored area and brought about huge changes to the surrounding landscape.
Turning left out of East India DLR station I walked in the direction of the East India Dock Basin. I’m going to blog about the East India Company on another occasion but couldn’t help thinking abut the transient nature of history; a once massive trading beast with a complex and controversial history, the dock where its ships (East Indiamen) were the largest merchant ships in the British marine is now transformed into a wildlife sanctuary. You could see the effects of the recent prolonged heatwave in the photo below as the mud of the former basin was cracked and dry but it’s a beautiful space – coots, mallards, herons, grebes, greater spotted woodpeckers, green and goldfinches, sparrowhawks and countless other varieties of birds can be seen on or around the water. A woman sitting on one of the benches overlooking the reserve told me she’d seen a kingfisher here earlier that morning.
The photo below is all that’s left of any visible trace that the basin was once home to ships bringing in precious cargo of teas, silks, saltpetre, Madeira, wine and countless spices. I’d like to say you could still smell these in the air but that would be fanciful although I did pick up the scent of coffee beans being ground and wafting out from the open window of a nearby kitchen. Someone had clearly leant over the rail a bit too far to take a photo as I could see a mobile phone bobbing about in the bubbling waters below the entrance to the dock. Well, we’ve all done it…
Below is Orchard Place, now flanked by Industrial Units, but once hugely important in the history of shipbuilding from 1803-1987. It was home to the great shipyards of Perry, Wigram & Green, the Samuda Brothers, Ditchburn & Mare and the Thames Ironworks. Eventually shipbuilding migrated north from the Thames to the Tyne and the Clyde although some repairs continued here till the 1970s. HMS Thunderer was one of the last ships built in the Thames Ironworks in 1911.
Trinity Buoy Wharf at its shipbuilding height employed hundreds of engineers, riveters, platers, pattern makers, smiths, carpenters, painters, chain testers and office staff. The Wharf was responsible for every lighthouse, lightship and buoy between Southwold in Suffolk and Dungeness in Kent.
The lighthouse on this site isn’t the original one and nor was it specifically built to aid river traffic, but its main function was as a base for conducting experiments with different coloured lights, the results monitored and checked at Charlton across the river. It was here that scientist Michael Faraday discovered a way of clearing the residual gases produced by the huge oil lighthouse lamps and which obscured the light rays. The shed in the photo was installed to commemorate Faraday’s work at Trinity Buoy Wharf although his actual workshop was at the top of the lighthouse. There’s no doubt that Faraday’s experiments saved the lives of countless numbers of those working and travelling on ships, boats and barges on the river and out at sea. After the war, the lighthouse was used to train lighthouse keepers.
There’s a darkness to this place too and on an earlier visit a shiver ran up and down my spine as I read the information board below. Directly across the mouth of the river Lea stood the magnificent Italianate building that housed the main office of The Thames Ironworks & Shipbuilding Company, that built and repaired sizeable ships. 120 ships were launched from this site including HMS Warrior in 1860 (now berthed at Portsmouth) and the battleship HMS Thunderer in 1912. However, in June 1896, spectators, dignitaries and employees of the Ironworks looked on in horror as the wave from the launch of HMS Albion washed thirty seven onlookers from a pontoon to their deaths. Shipbuilding and maintenance was dangerous work and health and safety regulations were not the priority years ago that they are now. I’ve often wondered how many others might have died on this and adjoining sites in the course of their day’s work due to industrial accidents.
I’d mentioned the East Indiamen earlier and my first finds of the day reflected that part of this foreshore’s history. As the tide went out I pottered about in some rockpools and noticed a piece of grapeshot and then a musket ball washed up by the Thames. Grapeshot (below, left photo) consisted of small round balls, usually of lead or iron, used as an antipersonnel weapon. Usually these were grouped in clusters of three (like a cluster of grapes, hence the name) and broke up when a gun was fired, spreading out in flight like a shotgun charge, spraying the target area and causing significant injuries. Grapeshot was widely used in wars of the 18th and 19th centuries at short range against massed troops.
Musket balls (below, right photo) were used in battle from the early 17th century onwards. Also made from lead and, unlike grapeshot, these are not usually dark gray but cream or light tan due to being buried in preservative Thames mud for centuries. This results in the musket ball developing a coating of lead carbonates, sulphides and oxides, hence the colour. On a previous visit to the Trinity Buoy Foreshore I found some much bigger canister shot. Smaller than a naval cannon ball (designed to blow a hole in the side of a ship) canister shot was also designed to be fired at short range against troops. It was a lethal weapon, capable of blowing a large hole in a man’s skull.
It’s almost impossible to walk more than a few yards on the foreshore here, or other parts of the Isle of Dogs, without coming across signs of World War Two combat and damage. I recently read that the Luftwaffe had been conducting reconnaissance over the London and other key cities of the UK for at least five years prior to the outbreak of war. These reconnaissance flights resulted in the taking of thousands of aerial photos of key installations such as power stations, docks, gas works and factories. When the Germans began their infamous bombing offensive, known as The Blitz, on 7 September 1940, the intelligence gleaned from these aerial photos helped the Luftwaffe pilots locate vital targets. The easiest shape for bomber pilots to recognise from the air as they swooped over the capital was the distinctive U-shaped loop in the Thames, ie the Isle of Dogs, so this was also why the area was principally targeted.
West India and Millwall Docks sustained maximum damage in a matter of days. The East End at that time was densely populated with families and dock workers. Badly misplaced bombs that veered off target fell on surrounding residential areas such as Canning Town, Cubitt Town and the streets of Millwall causing horrific numbers of casualties. On the first night of the Blitz, 430 civilians were killed and over 1500 wounded. In another raid on the Isle of Dogs, it was estimated that 2000 Eastenders died while 47000 houses were completely destroyed. Eventually The Blitz ended on 11 May 1941 after eight months and 5 days of sustained bombing and leaving behind it immense damage and unimaginable numbers of casualties.
I’m always conscious of this when mudlarking on the foreshore here and so it’s no surprise to find a range of World War Two bullets, or shrapnel from anti-aircraft fire, lying in rock pools that become visible as the tide goes out. The most common type of bullet find is the 303 round (see middle photo). On this visit I found a total of four spent bullets, all with the case but minus the shell.
Further along this part of the foreshore a range of concrete fortifications and barge bed timbers indicate that this spot was once a hive of activity at low tide. Here I found someone’s brass PORT LOCKER key tag and also a brass button with the distinctive word ‘INTERNATIONAL’ clearly visible. The joy of mudlarking is getting home, cleaning up your finds and then sitting in front of your computer with a cuppa trying to identify them. Any words, names and logos help but I haven’t as yet been able to discover much more about either of these items. However, clumsy fingers have always dropped things into the river, especially on sites where they would have been busy loading and unloading goods from barges to the shore, so I’m always grateful for anything interesting that turns up.
But the absolute highlight of my day mudlarking at Trinity Buoy Wharf was definitely the moment when I found what looked like half of a Ten Franc clipped coin from 1965. As a general rule, mudlarks are less interested in modern coin finds than they are old ones but I was intrigued as to why this coin had been cut in this manner or who might have dropped it here. Returning to the same spot fifteen minutes later I was staggered to find what looked like the other half to the same or similar coin and the words ‘Republique Francaise’ plus ‘Égalité.’ The chances of two pieces of the same coin turning up within a few feet of each other on the Thames Foreshore was nothing short of staggering and I was intrigued as to how they’d ended up here, tossed up on the low tide by the river.
Coin clipping is illegal in most currencies unless as a result of a Government directive so my initial theories were of a more romantic nature and I was convinced that a coin had been deliberately cut in half as a love token, one piece being held by each of two lovers about to separate until one day they’d be reunited again. As often with some of my wilder mudlarking suppositions, this turned out to be complete tosh.
One of the wonderful things about social media is that very often a more experienced and knowledgeable mudlark, or mudlarks, will see what you’ve posted on Twitter or Instagram and get in touch with you to provide a more accurate and sensible explanation for the provenance of a find. I’m therefore indebted to Flo who directed me to an interview given by a well known mudlark called Steve Brooker, nicknamed Mudlark Mud God, who was interviewed by a newspaper some years ago:
“After several years of finding the coins -roughly the size of a two pence piece and cut with a serrated edge” – on a stretch of river adjacent to a former smelting works close to the Millennium Dome, he (Brooker) met a former docker who provided the answer to the riddle. “I mentioned how I kept on finding these odd coins. It turned out that he had worked on that stretch of the river during the fifties/sixties when the French Government was sending excess coinage to London to be melted down. The dockers would cut loose a few cases from each shipment so it would fall into the mud and these guys would come back later under cover of darkness to recover the coins. They would then use the money to take their families on holiday to France. You have this lovely image of Greenwich dockers all going off on holiday to Brittany or whatever with their pockets full of this coinage they’ve nabbed. The French obviously caught on to this because they then started cutting all the coins in half before they sent them off to London.”
So there you have it. The Mystery of the Clipped Coins solved
The tide comes in very fast on this stretch of the foreshore and you need to keep a close eye when it turns. There’s not enough exposed foreshore to mudlark on unless the low tide is at least 0.50m or less, and when the low tide point has passed you have approximately 45 minutes to make sure you’re back by the steps near the boat called the ‘Knocker White’. You don’t have the indulgence of lingering here for another hour and a half as you might on other wider parts of the Thames Foreshore so please don’t get caught out on a pinch point otherwise you’ll find yourself in serious difficulties.
So, with the tide coming in, it was time to grab my rucksack and trowel and head off up onto the embankment and to the gloriously named ‘Fatboy’s Diner’ (see below) for a well deserved cup of tea and cake. Trinity Buoy Wharf delights at every corner with a wealth of interesting art installations and surprising buildings, and Fatboy’s is no exception. It’s a genuine 1940s Diner brought over from New Jersey in the USA. Eager-eyed movie fans might just recognise it from the film ‘Sliding Doors’ (starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah) and it’s also featured in many other music videos and glossy magazine photoshoots.