What lies beneath … the East End of London

What lies beneath … East End of London

London, with its two millennia of history, shows only its most recent past on the surface. Dig down a few feet and layer upon layer of buildings are uncovered. It’s an excavation job that the Museum of London and its predecessors have been doing for years – unearthing around 1,000 sites in Greater London. And Tower Hamlets, with its centuries of development as a port and borough hard by the old City walls, has more to reveal than most.

More than 70 historical digs pepper the borough. Most of them are clustered around Aldgate to the west – that’s unsurprising, because for the greater part of our history, Bow, Bromley, Stepney and Mile End were wild countryside. But they lie as far east along the river as the Limehouse Link’s meeting with The Highway – where a 1989 dig recovered many prehistoric ‘worked’ flints and located the remains of a c.18th century factory that produced Limehouse porcelain. This dig revealed the successive layers of industry too, also uncovering older brick buildings engaged in pickling and lime burning.

Roman quarry in Armagh Road

And in the north of the borough, a cluster of digs around Bow reveal treasures from the Roman occupation and later. A 1990 dig in Armagh Road not only uncovered a Roman quarry, supplying the rock for the invaders’ excellent roads, but evidence of ploughsoil – so farming was going on as well.

Many of the digs around the City walls reveal the grim legacy of the waves of plague that hit London from the Middle Ages onward. Digs in Artillery Lane revealed medieval plague pits, though interestingly there were also signs of Roman burials – so the same graveyards had been in use for many centuries.

Indeed, the piling on of layers of use and development can make the archaeologist’s job a brain-bending puzzle. A dig in Back Church Lane, E1, in 1988 revealed traces of Roman features, but the Roman strata had been much damaged by a post-medieval cemetery and more modern buildings. Adding to the confusion, the line of a Roman road cuts across the modern street plan.

Tudor garden in Stepney

Of course the plague and pestilence of medieval Aldgate began to drive people out to the countryside of Stepney and beyond. For those who could afford it, the answer was to build a manor house in what was then the Essex countryside. A dig in Butcher Row, E14, in 1975, revealed not just an ancient chalk-and-flint boundary wall, but three later buildings on top of it. These c17th century buildings were revealed by the remnants of their gravel yards. In another part of the site the archaeologists had to be even more clever – traces of Tudor garden soil betrayed the fact that homes had stood beneath the 18th and 19th century warehouses.

Peeling back the layers on the Butcher Row site reveals a microcosm of how Tower Hamlets has changed – agriculture, supplanted by grand homes, replaced in turn by industry. Perhaps in 500 years, archaeologists will be digging beneath the foundations of Wapping’s luxury flats and finding that wharves and warehouses once stood here.

Some of those Tower Hamlets digs

72a Armagh Rd, E3: 1990 excavation revealing early Roman gravelling, probably for construction of London to Colchester road.
37-39 Artillery Lane, E1: 1976 dig revealed remains of a plague pit.
East Tenter St, Scarborough St, E1: 1988 dig revealed shallow Roman deposits, eight burials (three in chalk) and fragments of a mortared flint structure which may have been part of a mausoleum.
36-44 Gower’s Walk, E1: 1989 dig revealed sandy layer beneath garden soil, dated to 16th century. Structures included a basement, well and cesspit. Also a small part of Dissenters’ burial ground.
Hooper St, E1: 1988 dig revealed extensive Roman cemetery lying alongside a road or track. Numerous burials of adults and children. Goods found included hobnail shoes, shale bracelets, glass beads and a possible jewelled casket. Also half of an inscribed gravestone.
Morville St, E3: Excavation in 1972-73 unearthed a ditch, burial pit and shallow gullies contain Roman pottery of the 1st or 2nd centuries.
Priscilla Rd, E3: 1977 observations recorded a flat-bottomed pit cut into gravel. Above was a layer of ploughsoil.
For more information read ‘Archaeology in Greater London 1965-90: a guide to records of excavation by the Museum of London, edited by Thompson, Westman and Dyson, ISBN 0-904818-80-2

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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