Two weeks ago I returned to the Thames Foreshore for the first time in nearly four months. A beautiful day, dry and warm, the most perfect conditions for being near the river. Other mudlarks had returned to the foreshore almost as soon as the first lockdown restrictions were lifted but I’ve had to be more cautious. The Mayor of London continues to advise that public transport is only used for essential travel and so I knew I could only go to a part of the Thames that wasn’t too far from my home, and therefore one that I knew I could get a lift to. Fulham/Putney, north and south banks of Putney Bridge, a very special part of the Thames Foreshore for me, was the perfect place for a mudlarking return.
It was a relief to stand at the top of Bishop’s Park river steps and see that to all intents and purposes nothing had changed much since my last visit here five months ago at the end of January 2020. But stepping carefully down the stone access steps to the river it was clear that things were different. There was gloopy green mud everywhere, far more than was normal before lockdown, and I knew I literally had to tread very carefully.
There are always patches of mud on every part of the Thames Foreshore as well as stones, gravel and rocky hardcore but there was far more mud on the Fulham foreshore than normal, and this was due to the lack of river traffic as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown.
The Thames Clippers had stopped running mid March – the lack of tourists and people using them to get to work (so many folk now advised to work from home if they could) meant that the usual ‘churn’ of the river wasn’t taking place. This had therefore inevitably resulted in much more thick gloopy mud in certain places than would normally be the case, and it had built up steadily during the months of lockdown.
On the positive side, as I walked up and down the foreshore on my return, I noticed that the Thames Clipper at Putney Pier was doing a trial run on the river, this a hopeful sign of boat activity beginning slowly to return to some sort of normal.
While being stuck at home and not being able to go out mudlarking I’d used the time to sort out my extensive river-based photo collection, read, research and write. I’ve particularly enjoyed re-reading, and highly recommend, ‘The River’s Tale’ by Nathalie Cohen and Eliott Wragg, and also engrossed in the newly published ‘The Thames At War: Saving London From The Blitz’ by Gustav Milne with the Thames Discovery Programme. This book is especially timely as this year we commemorated the 75th anniversary of VE Day on May 8th, when Britain and its Allies formally accepted Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender after almost six years of war.
At the beginning of 2020, when the world was still normal, I was mudlarking on this very same stretch of the Fulham Foreshore on a bitterly cold and windy day when I found a mystery stone object the size of a large brick but made of concrete. I didn’t know what it was, nor did other mudlarks nearby, and I initially wrongly identified it as a lead token mould before realising it couldn’t possibly be. Token moulds have a clear design and also a channel for molten lead or other metal to be poured into the stone before setting. When I looked at my mystery find again, whatever it was, it clearly wasn’t a token mould. So, what was it?
I posted the photos (see above) on social media and very quickly a stonemason got in touch with me. He’d recognised this as a stonemason’s tool specifically for making plugs needed to make a quick, temporary repair to either a wall or building and was a method in common usage during the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s.
Other mudlarks who are regulars on the Fulham Foreshore have found similar carved brick or concrete, more or less in the same area, and it’s likely these would also have been used by stonemasons for the same purpose, often recycling a range of stone materials for quick repairs.
The location of these in this particular area is interesting. In ‘The Thames At War’ there are photographs showing bomb damage done to the river wall at the upstream end of Craven Cottage, home to Fulham Football Club, while on 16 October 1940, following further bombing raids by the Luftwaffe, a hundred foot of the river wall at Bishop’s Park collapsed onto the foreshore. Semi-permanent repairs were made involving pitched tiers of 5,000 concrete bags while arguments raged about which local authority should pay for permanent repairs.
My stonemason contact believed that in the light of the wartime history of this area, as in the rest of London, repairs would have been made to other bomb damaged structures using stone plugs fashioned quickly from these concrete bricks. There would have been no time for carefully cut masonry so shortcuts were necessary, and it looks as though small stone plugs would have been part of the repair process.
The first bombs fell on the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham on Monday 9th September 1940 with a number of high explosive devices landing on St Dunstan’s Road in Fulham and Hamlet Gardens in Hammersmith. During the night there was a direct hit on Fulham Hospital, the current site of Charing Cross Hospital, and also to Fulham Power Station in Townmead Road, which caused blackouts in much of West London. There were many more raids to come with September 13th 1940 being a particularly grim night when 38 people died as a result of a direct hit on an air raid shelter in Bucklers Alley, Fulham. There was considerable damage to houses and other buildings and structures. Fulham Power Station and Gasworks, riverside industries and factories were important targets for Luftwaffe Bombers.
Records show that a total number of 419 high explosive bombs were dropped on Hammersmith and Fulham from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941, 12 of them on Fulham Broadway. Stonemasons therefore would have been busy carrying out a constant stream of emergency repairs to the more important buildings in order to try to keep them functioning.
I didn’t find a huge amount this time on my June return to the Fulham Foreshore – some fragments of 17th Century tin glaze pottery sherds, a couple of 18th century clay pipe bowls and a blue marble. But it felt so good to be back and that’s all that matters. The restrictions on using public transport remain in force as I write this blog so my mudlarking trips will continue to be limited for the time being, but I’m hoping to be able to get to the river at least once a month, and I’m grateful for that.