Friday, 4 June 2010

"The Thames at War"

TDP launches initiative to record wartime damage to London's artery

On Saturday 22 May the Thames Discovery Programme ( hosted a one day seminar at UCL on the subject of "The Thames at War" - a main theme of the group's Riverpedia research programme this year.

A keen and attentive audience - crossing all ages - were treated to a series of informative presentations in the morning and the choice of three workshops in the afternoon.

First up, Project Director Gustav Milne set the scene. He advised that the research was aimed at recording "London's war as seen from the Thames by those who worked by or on the river".

Interesting imagery and anecdotes gave a clear view of the importance of the Thames and the many threats it faced - and not only during wartime (I certainly wasn't aware of the 1928 flood and the damage caused). A result of this was the appointment of a new LCC Chief Engineer in 1930 - the remarkable Thomas Peirson Frank.

With war looming, Frank prepared the capital for protection against the effects of flooding - one of the four main threats envisaged (invasion, aerial bombing and gas attack were the others). After much preparatory research (done in secret so as not to alarm the populace or give 'the enemy' notice of weak points) one of the resultant actions was the setting up of four Thames Flood Depots at Battersea Park, Southwark Park, the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich. The depots' role was to provide personnel and materials for the swift repair of any damage caused to the Thames riverwall by enemy action. With 121 such strikes recorded between 1939 and 1945 (80 during the 1940-41 Blitz alone), they were kept busy. Despite their sterling work during the war they have been largely forgotten since.

However, the recent discovery in the Metropolitan Archives of a logbook recording each incident and description of the repairs undertaken (either Emergency, Temporary or Permanent) meant that their works could be researched and given the acknowledgement they rightfully deserve after so many years. This set the stage for one of the afternoon sessions.

TDP's Sue Harrington then described the work of the Museum of London archives - a valuable resource for the TDPs research. During her presentation she made a call for images and recollections of women at work on the Thames - a little explored area of research.

TDP Archaeology Outreach Officer Lorna Richardson then expanded on this theme by talking about women at work on the Thames during wartime. I'm sure it came as a surprise to many of those present to learn that - despite not being allowed to serve in combat roles - women did serve in the Home Guard (under the guise of the Womens' Home Guard Auxiliary) and an organisation called the Womens' Home Defence League.

If anyone can help unearth more about these remarkable women then please feel free to contact either Sue or Lorna at

Andy Brockman (Project Director of the Digging Dads Army (DDA) project) then gave an insight into the military related goings-on on the Thames around and just past Woolwich. The Woolwich Arsenal was a major munitions plant in WWII and at one point the largest factory in Europe, employing over 70,000 workers. It was therefore obviously a major target for the Luftwaffe.

One particular area of interest that Andy noted is around Tripcock Ness (also known as Margaret Ness). This is an area of interest due to its relationship to the Woolwich Arsenal. It was here that large armaments and munitions were loaded on to barges (most remarkably the 'Gog' and 'Magog') to be taken down the river for unloading and testing at Shoeburyness. The reason that this will be of interest to DDA members is that Andy is working hard to get a DDA event for late summer in place. News of progress will be posted on the DDA blog (

Another DDA stalwart, Guy Taylor, then took us on a mystery tour of the lower Thames in search of the "missing Great War bridge". Guy first stumbled across mention of this bridge whilst researching another project in the National Archives. Such is Guy's inquisitive nature that it didn't take him long before he was off on its trail.

He narrowed its possible location to around Tilbury / Gravesend. He then found out that it was a floating bridge made from 70 lighters and 14 inch timbers (the width dimensions being demonstrated during the presentation with the willing participation of various members of the audience!) and was originally envisaged as a 'short cut' for troop movement between Essex and Kent - circumventing the London metropolis.

Recent unearthing of photos of this temporary structure (it only remained in place for the duration of the war before being dismantled) has led Guy to accurately place its location. His next objective is a visit to Gravesend to see what, if any, evidence remains of its existence. In case you were wondering (as we all were on the day) - a 600 foot centre section of bridge could be moved to allow vessels through. Very helpful given the location!

Gabrial Moshenska (UCL) gave the day an academic view of the work we were there to understand. His overview introduced us to the different types of archaeology we were getting involved with - from battlefield to conflict to industrial to public to heritage & commemorative. Even rescue archaeology! It certainly opened my eyes to the sheer variety of disciplines that our research will touch upon.

He promoted the variety of resources we could call upon - citing Civil Defence infrastructure as one that has been little used. One real example he gave was the recent survey of flood doors on the tube network. Something else I had never considered but once mentioned was obvious. What else was out there?

With his academic viewpoint he made the supposition that the Thames at War theme would lend itself perfectly to a formal research programme. Even, at some point in the future, to some form of commemoration of the people and events it reveals.

After enjoying the beautiful weather outside of the lecture theatre during lunch, DDA's UXO (unexploded ordnance) specialist Rod Scott gave an overview of what to be aware of whilst on the foreshore. However, as an experienced archaeologist, Rod was keen not only to raise our awareness of the dangers of UXO but also to educate us as to why such collections (aka assemblage) can play a key role in dating a site and understanding its use. (He also kindly introduced us to the correct definition and usage of word ‘spalling’.)

Following Rod’s talk, three workshops were offered:

  • "Military litter - its place in the archaeological record" – lead by Guy Taylor
  • "Why bother with concrete when we've got the documents: What can Conflict Archaeology contribute to the TDP?"– lead by Andy Brockman
  • "Thames Flood Emergency Repair Units: what evidence still exists?" – lead by Gustav Milne
I attended Gustav’s session.

Following on from his presentation in the morning, the group set about determining a plan of action that would enable research on river wall incidents around each of the four Thames Flood Depots to be undertaken. After poring over bomb damage maps annotated with estimated locations of each incident, each attendee of the group volunteered to be a member of a depot (Battersea in my case). Each group will attempt to find and record what evidence still exists at each identified event site. I will keep you posted!

The event concluded with a Q&A session.
In summary, another great TDP day. Thanks to Nathalie, Lorna and Gustav for arranging it and continuing to advance the objectives of the project.

1 comment:

  1. Does anyone know why a Cold War underground bunker was built here

    So close to the River, the water table must be very high there, not to mention the risk of flooding. Can't find any reference to it on bunker web sites or on lists of MoD property sold. (The street address is 3 Herringham Road, Charlton SE7.)