The Thames Tideway is one of London’s largest engineering projects. As workers dig a new sewage tunnel beneath the city, they have the opportunity to find long-buried pieces of history. Now, one newly discovered skeleton is shedding light on those who lived, and died, working on the river hundreds of years ago.
In a field just a few miles from the Gloucestershire town of Cirencester, a stone marks what is generally considered the source of one of the U.K.’s most important rivers. From its birthplace in the Cotswold Hills, through the capital of London, into the Thames Estuary and out into the North Sea, the Thames is a vital part of the area’s history.
The Thames is 215 miles in length, making it the second-longest river in the U.K. after the Severn. The early part of its course is gentle, through low-lying fields. As it enters London, freshwater encounters the waters of the estuary. There, the presence of the sea causes the tides to deepen and strengthen.
The strength of the tides is one reason that in 1982 the Thames Barrier was built. Its purpose is to protect central London from floods. In previous decades, people had died because of the combination of high tides and high rainfall. All things considered, the river has always been a dangerous place.
When the Romans first built a settlement on the Thames, they built it as a port. For hundreds of years, people from the Saxons to the Normans to the Tudors continued to use and expand it. It grew into a center for trade and for building ships. The Roman settlement was originally called Londinium, and now it is London, one of the most recognizable cities in the world.
London’s history is intimately tied to the Thames. Its importance as a capital is predated by its importance as a port. Before the railway became popular, the river was a road in its own right. People and goods would be carried by boat not just from one bank to another (for many years there was only one bridge), but across the length of the city.
In 1858 the population of London had grown to more than 2.5 million, and nearly every one of those people disposed of their waste by dropping it in the Thames. Consequently, everything from food to chamber pot waste to bodies (both animal and human) could be found in the waters. So it’s no wonder it became known as the Great Stink
Many people also used the Thames as their main source of drinking water. Diseases such as cholera and typhoid spread rapidly because of the poor hygiene. For MPs, the stench in the House of Commons was so unbearable that they suspended parliament.
Future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli addressed MPs by saying, “That noble river… hitherto associated with the most noblest feats of our commerce and the most beautiful passages of our poetry, has really become a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors.” It took only 18 days to debate and pass a bill to fix the problem.
The bill gave funding to the Metropolitan Board of Works. It was by this means given the authority to begin a major engineering project, one unmatched by any other work that century. The man chosen to lead the project was Joseph Bazalgette, who designed London’s first ever sewer system.
This was not the end of the river’s problems with sewage. By the 1950s, much of the wildlife of the Thames was endangered or already dead. A series of major repair works in the 1960s ensured that at least 125 species of fish could live in the Thames, along with other marine animals such as seals and otters.
Today, the only way to prevent the sewers from flooding the streets when it rains is to empty the waste into the Thames. After all these years, people still use the river as a dumping ground for whatever they don’t want.
Since the days of Bazalgette, London has grown bigger still. Consequently, its 150-year-old sewer system is struggling to cope, which is why the Thames Tideway project was begun. The project aims to build a new tunnel, a “super sewer” under the Thames that can deal with the excess waste.
Stretching across 24 construction sites from east to west London, the predicted finish date for building the tunnel is in 2024. It will be nearly 16 miles long and will help remove millions of tons of waste that would otherwise pollute the river.
Removing sewage is not the only intent. Indeed, the designers want to benefit London in as many ways as possible. This means connecting people and engineering from the past to the present. From art projects to education programs, from helping river wildlife to human communities living and working on and around the river, the Thames Tideway has ambitious aims.
The Thames Tideway itself may be modern, but the builders are also looking to London’s history to help them construct it. To avoid furthering congestion and pollution on London’s busy roads, they aim to transport as much material as possible by river, just as people did in ages past.
Archaeologists from MOLA Headland Infrastructure are just one of the groups helping with the Thames Tideway. They specialize in the archaeology of urban areas and helping with construction sites. Their previous work includes the site of the Olympic Park in 2012, as well as a range of major roads and railway lines.
Archaeological mitigation is the process of minimizing damage to important historical sites during construction works. It ensures all significant buildings and artefacts are recorded and if possible preserved.
MOLA began its involvement in the Thames Tideway Project when it contributed to its Environmental Impact Assessment, specifically regarding the historical environment. Through field and geological surveys, it located the significant archaeological sites along the proposed tunnel route and helped advise on archaeological mitigation.
In 2016 MOLA was then chosen to carry out the mitigation work itself. It surveyed the shore, recorded any historic buildings and began a series of archaeological excavations. The aim was to investigate the river’s history in a way that had never been done before, including how it had been shaped by the humans who have lived there through the centuries.
On the day of the discovery, workers were digging a shaft at the Tideway’s Chambers Wharf site, ready for further tunneling. Nearby is what was once the Bermondsey Wall, formerly a construction of wood supports holding up a muddy embankment.
As work on the tunnel often takes place on the banks of the Thames, it’s not surprising to find things washed up or buried by the river. This is part of why archaeological mitigation is important. This particular discovery was more than a piece of pottery or a Roman coin – it was a human skeleton.
The skeleton was found lying on its front, with its head turned and one arm bending above it. The position could mean that the man had fallen into the water, perhaps while standing on Bermondsey Wall. It could mean he was pushed, but we may never know for sure. If the mud trapped him, it would have been difficult for him to escape the tide before he drowned.
One thing the experts do agree on is that the man hadn’t been formally buried. If he had been, he wouldn’t have been lying in such a strange position. Also, there was one particular aspect of the skeleton that drew attention. It was the rarest part of the find, and it was not something that they would have expected to find in a grave.
It’s not the first time a body has been found by the Thames. Drowning accidents and suicides are not uncommon. This body, however, carried an unusual level of historical significance, and it came from an unlikely source. The man’s boots had outlasted all his other clothes, and their design and quality were of particular note.
The boots allow archaeologists to date the skeleton, since the flat, single-soled design has no heel, and the extra “clump soles” at back and front work as reinforcement. This style of boot is most likely to have been created in the 15th or 16th century, during or just before the reign of the Tudors. Despite this evidence, they are not typical of footwear found at the time.
The boots are primarily made of leather; the flax thread that sews the leather quarters together is waxed, and there are no buckles. What makes them rare is that they reach up to the knee. Archaeologists have discovered shoes from the same era, and they have found ankle boots, but knee-high boots are truly unusual.
Experts know how rare the boots are because when you glance at portraits and illuminated manuscripts from hundreds of years ago, you see hardly any images of people wearing them. They think that this man may have worn his boots as waders, like people wear wellingtons today. This suggests he was involved in some kind of marine profession.
The boots are simple but durable, so they were probably working boots for everyday use. Plant lining in the bottom is probably moss, used for warmth and comfort while wading in the river’s cold waters.
The reason that the archaeologists don’t think it likely that he was buried in the boots is that such useful footwear made of such valuable leather would probably have been highly sought after. Someone else would probably have claimed them for themselves if they had seen a dead man wearing them.
There is one place the archaeologists know Tudor men were wearing knee-high boots. From 1510–1515, the Tudor king Henry VIII greatly expanded the English navy. His favorite of his new ships was one of the largest: the Mary Rose. Unfortunately, she was pushed onto her side by a heavy gust of wind and sank in 1545.
In 1982 the final remains of the Mary Rose were finally raised from the seabed. Among its many preserved treasures was a plentiful supply of knee-high boots, presumably worn by sailors. This supports the idea that the skeleton found at Bermondsey worked in or around the water.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that he was a sailor. Other options are that he was a fisherman or a mudlarker. Mudlarkers are people who spend their days wading through the mud of the riverbank, searching for potential valuables.
Mudlarking really became popular in the 19th century, when scavengers would try to make money off anything they could find on the Thames’ foreshore. Discoveries could range from ancient flint tools to Roman coins to 16th century pottery to a 19th century padlock. Of course, there is also the risk (or thrill?) that you might find a skeleton.
Even today, mudlarking is a popular hobby around the Thames. The main focus is no longer on making a fortune, but on finding artefacts of historical significance. All you need is a permit from the Port of London Authority, a bucket and trowel and clothes (including boots) that can stand up to the mud.
Analysis of the man who wore the boots himself comes from an osteologist, or bone expert. Her research suggests that the man led a physical life. He had a degenerative disease of the joints that affected both his left hip and his spine. Some old injuries, including a healed broken nose, may have been from his childhood. Meanwhile, there was evidence of trauma to his head.
His teeth were also damaged. They showed grooves that may have been caused by holding or pulling something in his teeth. This is something that fishermen might do to carry a rope, again supporting the marine worker theory.
It’s difficult to tell whether the man was older or younger than 35. For a Tudor man, 40 would have been old age. As many as 14 percent of babies died before they were a year old because of poor conditions. The skeleton was lucky to live as long as he did, and he obviously didn’t have an easy life.
The experts don’t know whether fatigue or drunkenness or carelessness caused the man to fall into the river, or if he was already on the shore when the tide caught him. Whatever the cause, it seems that the same river that gave him his livelihood was at least partly responsible for his death.
The team still plans to learn as much about the man as possible, and keep studying him. Work on the Thames Tideway is planned to continue until 2024. Even without the construction work, modern-day mudlarks still hunt for the river’s historical treasures. Who knows what other parts of London’s story are still to be unearthed from the muddy shore?