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Ilford Brick Pits

Articles > Barking & Dagenham > What's beneath our feet?

The Ilford brick pits and Uphall Pit, TQ43718609.

Notes compiled by Gerald Lucy for Essex Field Club Website

In the early 19th century, when Ilford was a village on the London Road, a number of brick pits were in operation in the vicinity and occasionally the workmen came across the bones of large Ice Age mammals in and below the ‘brickearth  ?. The pits eventually came to the attention of local amateur geologists who, with the co-operation of the owners of the brickworks, obtained an enormous number of specimens of mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and other mammals which can now be seen in the  Natural History Museum and the Museum of London.

Three amateur geologists were primarily involved in collecting fossils from Ilford. John Gibson (1778-1840), an industrial chemist, was the first of the main collectors and was collecting at Ilford as early as the 1820s. Many of Gibson’s fossils  were bequeathed to the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Antonio Brady (1811-1881), a senior civil servant, was the most active and successful of the three, collecting from 1844 onwards. His huge collection of over 900 specimens was purchased by  the Natural History Museum. Gibson and Brady were local men and short biographies of them can be found under the entry for St.John’s Church, Stratford (London Borough of Newham) where they were buried and have memorials. Richard Payne Cotton (1820-1877)  a physician and surgeon, did not live in Essex but in Cavendish Square, London. Geology was his lifelong hobby and on his death his collection of 246 specimens from Ilford went to the Geological Museum, London. When the museum was taken over by the Natural  History Museum in 1985 the ‘Cotton Collection’ was transferred to the British Geological Survey HQ at Keyworth in Nottinghamshire.

Because of the huge number of specimens he acquired, Antonio Brady’s name is most closely associated with the Ilford brick pits. Brady made friends with the owners of the brickworks ensuring that he would be notified when something important was  found. He would reward the finder and compensate what was sometimes a whole gang of labourers for loss of earnings while work was stopped to allow the find to be excavated. Brady supervised the painstaking excavation of a great number of fossil mammals  and his Ilford collection includes the bones of mammoth, straight¬tusked elephant, woolly rhinoceros, lion, brown bear, horse, bison, ox and the giant deer Megaloceros, the span of whose antlers was a remarkable 3 metres (10 feet).  It is calculated that there are portions of more than 100 mammoths and elephants in his collection, representing individuals of every age and size. The catalogue of the collection was published by Brady in 1874. Most fossils from the Ilford pits were  in a very fragile condition which created great problems for the collectors. The catalogue gives a vivid account of the skill and effort required to remove the largest specimens, often involving wooden splints, iron rods and several coats of plaster of  Paris, which meant that a large tusk, for example, could weigh several hundredweight. Removing it from the pit was therefore no easy task - involving pulleys and ropes – and preserving it back at the museum was also difficult, the popular technique  of the day being to saturate the entire specimen in gelatine.

During their working life the pits received visits from organisations such as the Essex Field Club, of which Antonio Brady was an original member, and the Geologists’ Association. A visit by the Essex Field Club was reported in their Transactions  in 1880 under the title ‘A Day’s Elephant Hunting in Essex’. This amusing and informative article also describes a visit to Brady’s private museum at his home in Stratford where there was "a mammoth tusk ten feet in length"  and "on the shelves around was a startling display of gigantic skulls and monstrous bones". The report of another visit to a pit stated that "some very good and interesting specimens were purchased from the workmen, who had collected them in anticipation  of such a visit". It appears that the labourers in the pits often supplemented their income by selling fossils to visitors but it is not known whether the owners of the pits approved of this private enterprise.

The sites extend over a distance of about 2 kilometres (over a mile) between the banks of the River Roding to Seven Kings. At least three pits were in operation during the middle of the 19th century - the heyday of fossil collecting at Ilford –  but in the scientific accounts of the time it is not always clear which pit is being described, and to make matters more confusing each pit had several names. The most famous locality was the Uphall Pit, (TQ 436 861) between the Roding and what is now  Ilford Lane which is reported to have been producing fossils as early as 1812. Antonio Brady appears to have had almost exclusive access to this site during the years that he was collecting. Contemporary accounts state that the ‘brickearth' in this pit consisted of yellow sandy loam with shells and the bones were usually found at a depth of about 5 metres (15 feet). Uphall Pit was the site of the discovery of the skull of the ‘Ilford mammoth’ in 1863 which had tusks nearly  3 metres (10 feet) long and is regarded as the most complete mammoth skull ever found in Britain. The catalogue of Brady’s collection records in detail the excavation of the beast and describes how difficult the task was. It states: ‘You  must imagine the skull resting half exposed in compact brickearth, requiring a spade or trowel to remove it, but the fossil itself as friable as decayed wood or tinder, the ivory of the tusks being equally soft and shattered.’ Another spectacular  find was made in 1865 which was the complete skull of a woolly rhinoceros and it was expertly removed under Brady’s supervision. One of the most remarkable specimens from this pit, however, was a tiny, complete and perfect tusk of a very young  elephant, measuring only 22 centimetres (9 inches) in length.
The site of the Uphall Pit is marked by a bronze plaque on the front wall of the Ilford Methodist Church Hall (TQ 4371 8609) at 58, Ilford Lane (between Britannia and Bengal  Roads) which was erected by the Borough Council in 1951 to commemorate the Festival of Britain. All the pits have now been filled in and the sites developed and so this plaque is the only record on the ground of what was one of the richest sites for Ice  Age fossil mammals in the world.

The Ilford mammoth. It is the largest and oldest complete mammoth skull to have been found in Britain. The tusks are 3 metres (10 feet) long.  

The Ilford brick pits, Clements Estate Pit and Cauliflower Pit, TQ43718609

Notes compiled by Gerald Lucy for Essex Field Club website

Immediately to the east of Uphall Pit, on the east side of Ilford lane, was another important pit known as Clements Estate Pit (TQ 438 861) which was also reported to be in operation in 1812. This pit also produced countless fossils over many years including two enormous tusks and a large mammoth thigh bone. The fossils here were recorded as being about 7 metres (21 feet) from the surface. This pit had closed by the 1860s.

The third site was the Cauliflower Pit or High Road Pit (TQ 447 871) which was situated north of the railway line, east of the town centre. It first came to public attention when John Gibson tried to excavate a largely complete skeleton of an elephant in 1824 but unfortunately was unsuccessful due to the condition of the bones. In the 1830s the pit provided the clay for the bricks for the railway, which was then in the course of construction, and great numbers of bones were successfully exhumed by Gibson with the cooperation of Thomas Curtis, the then owner of the brickworks. One of the mammoth tusks recovered by Gibson was said to be ‘twelve feet six inches in length, following the outward curvature’. The Cauliflower pit was still in operation in 1898, long after the other Ilford pits had closed.

Opposite Cauliflower Pit, on the south side of the High Road next to the cemetery, was another pit (TQ 450 867) which appears to have been working at the same time as the Cauliflower Pit and is shown on the 1894 Ordnance Survey map. The pit was between the High Road and Green Lane, opposite the Cauliflower Public House, and on the site now occupied by the sports stadium. Rather confusingly this pit has sometimes also been called the Cauliflower Pit. There is no doubt that this pit must also have produced fossil mammals but no specific mention of this locality is made in the Victorian reports although some references to the ‘High Road Pit’ or the ‘London Road Pit’ may have been referring to this pit and finds attributed to the Cauliflower Pit may have included this pit as well.

The age of the fossils has been controversial for many years. Ilford sits at the junction of two Thames terraces, the higher and older one known as the Lynch Hill/Corbets Tey terrace and the lower and younger one known as the Taplow/Mucking terrace. The southern deposits at Uphall Pit date from a temperate, interglacial stage within the Taplow/Mucking terrace which is correlated with Marine Isotope Stage 7 (MIS 7) and is therefore about 200,000 years old. This is the same interglacial stage that is represented at Aveley further downstream (a site that has also yielded fossil elephants) and it has sometimes been referred to as the ‘Ilford Interglacial’. However, based on a recent reinterpretation of the sections drawn and described by early geologists it has been argued that the fossiliferous deposits in the northern pits, such as the Cauliflower Pit, belong to an interglacial within the Lynch Hill/Corbets Tey Formation and are therefore older. The reported occurrence of hippopotamus from the Ilford pits is now thought to be erroneous as this species was only present in Britain during the later Ipswichian interglacial stage.

The reason for the remarkable abundance of fossils is not known but we can make some assumptions. The bones were rarely found to be broken or damaged but it was not often that two or more bones of the same animal were found together. These animals did not therefore die in the place where they were found but were probably swept a short distance down river as floating carcasses and disarticulated bones. It is possible that the stretch of the Thames at Ilford at this time was wide and slow moving with a broad meander and a sloping bank allowing bones to accumulate in the shallows. Regular burial of the bones by silt and sand would have ensured their preservation. However, if the fossiliferous deposits from the northern and southern pits are of different ages it seems to be a coincidence that such a rich accumulation of bones occurred in the same area twice, separated by a time interval of perhaps 80,000 years.

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