Saturday, 26 November 2016

River of Death

The first time I found myself referring to the Thames as 'the river', without affecting it, I felt I'd become a proper Londoner. A rubicon had been crossed. For the Thames is the very heart of London. Without it there would be no London as we now know it. It weaves threadlike through the city telling its history and spreading out like the opening credits to Eastenders. This considered it's surprising how little we know about it.

With that in mind I'd got myself down to The Bell on Middlesex Street for another evening with the London Fortean Society. They were hosting Religion and Ritual by the River:Archaeology in the Inter-Tidal Zone which, wisecracked host Scott Wood, sounds like a Joy Division album title.

I'm not sure if speaker Nathalie Cohen is a Joy Division fan but she laughed gamely, and commented on how good it was to be able to deliver a lecture with a gin'n'tonic in one hand, before launching into an absolutely fascinating hour or so about the history of the river, what's been found in it, and why we think it got there in the first place - and if she didn't know she could simply claim it was 'ritualistic'.

Nathalie works for the Thames Discovery Programme at the Museum of London and she began her talk by asking the sold out audience to raise their arm if they'd ever thrown anything into water. Nearly everybody did. I'm not quite sure what sort of person hasn't thrown anything into water but before we could ponder this we were on to a list of things that have been found on the foreshore of the Thames by Nathalie, her colleagues (many of whom were in attendance), and assorted dog-walkers etc;

It soon became pretty apparent that a lot of the find had to do with death. Their were bones wrapped in twine, guns and more primal forms of weaponry, remnants of ritualistic cat burials, remnants of Hindu burials where the Thames had been used a surrogate Ganges, entire skeletons, and lots, and lots of skulls. No wonder some sandcastle architects have taken to sculpting sand skulls down by the Oxo Tower.

Many of the actual skulls date back to Neolithic times, some are more recent Saxon finds, and a few from the last 250 years. One example saw the police called. They searched the area and found no evidence of wrongdoing or, in fact, no evidence of anything whatsoever. The next day when the tide went out Nathalie and her team returned to the site and found an entire human skeleton, give or take a few toe bones.

Stuff's washing up on the shores of the Thames all the time and there are mudlarks out scouring the banks most days. Most of the detritus is fairly useless, mostly invaluable, but every now and then something of note will turn up. Most of the 'treasure' tends to be found in two sites. Around Tower Bridge and the Pool of London and further upstream in Brentford.

This probably relates to ancient crossing points where weapons were discarded either intentionally, accidentally, or lost in battle. It's worth bearing in mind that the Thames now is considerably narrower than it was before Joseph Bazalgette's 19c embankment was put in places. At some points it was up to a mile wide and, because of this, river finds have been made in places which now seem some distance from the path of the Thames.

Westminster once sat on an island and through the genius of photoshopping we can see what it would look like if the Houses of Parliament had been built at that time.

There are many reasons why the Thames, and rivers in general, have become associated with death. Some are down to simple hygiene. Dead bodies aren't healthy things to have lying around. Washing them out to sea seemed one of the best things to do with them. Foreigners, especially, were treated to this after their death. The logic seemingly being that it was as close as they could get to 'home' - and this was a few millennia pre-Brexit!

Other times the dumping of bodies in the murkiest, foulest stretches of the Thames was seen as a punishment for those who'd sinned or led immoral lives. I've lived in London for twenty years and, in my head, a walk along the South Bank has always been a delight, something you'd recommend to a visitor, but before the London Eye, Tate Modern, and Millennium Bridge all went up at the turn of millennium it seems things had, indeed, been very different. At least according to a quote Nathalie showed us, from 1996, suggesting the dank, filthy river held none of the attractions of the Tiber or the Seine and was simply an obstacle to be crossed. How things have, thankfully, changed.

It wasn't all death, destruction, and dirt though. There were oddities too - and even tokens of love. In the former camp the numerous shopping trolleys that wash up on the banks occasionally. Some of them representing supermarkets that are no more and, thus, of interest to social historians at least.

Another common find relates to booze. Both in the form of bottles made in the various glass factories that lined the river and in the form of beer tokens, coins that could be used to purchase ale in hostelries either in the capital, elsewhere in the country, or even as far afield as Paris.

The current big thing is padlocks. You've probably seen them. Lovers write their names on them, tie them to a railing, and leave them as a symbol of their, hopefully, eternal love. The chat digressed to where this began, Paris and Helsinki were both suggested, before Nathalie told the story of finding a broken padlock that had been chucked into the river with graffiti suggesting the eternal love had not held. She felt sorry for the spurned lover and threw the Chubb back into the wash. I'm sure she felt that satisfying splash that (almost) all of us get when we lob something into water. She deserved it.

The story of these Thames finds, necessarily, lacked a coherent narrative and I'd love to investigate further in the hope of making my own story. Probably the best way to make sense of it would be to join Nathalie and the other mudlarkers on a foreshore walk. I'm keen. Are you?

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