Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Essex elephants


The great home county of Essex is less explored by strangers than almost any shire in England. Its margin, seen from the Thames, is so truly uninviting, and the way to it through the eastern limb of London, by Aldgate, Whitechapel, Mile End, and Stratford, is so dull, so flat, so poverty-stricken, and so redolent of odours, that persons who have travelled their country tolerably well, have left this material portion of it unvisited.

Yet Essex has its claims on our attention. It possesses decided beauties—its Chigwell Row, its Laindon Hills, and, till lately, its large and picturesque forests of Epping and Hainault. Within their shade rose Havering-atte-Bower, the residence of Edward the Confessor, and Wanstead House and Park, where a king, “out by rotation,” found a princely home. Within the last few years, alas! the woodcutter’s axe has been busy among the Hornbeams and other trees, and the deer-trodden thickets are fast disappearing before modern improvements.

To the antiquary the eastern kingdom is filled with interest. Who it was that embanked the Thames and the Lea, and by converting swamps into rivers gave large pastures to Essex and Hertfordshire, is a question still to be answered. Being done, the Danish snake-ships, entering the Lea at Barking Creek, sailed up to Hertford, as they probably sailed up the Fleta to Battle Bridge. The great street, proceeding due east from London, crosses the Lea and several of its branches; the latter having their origin in trenches and counter-trenches cut for strategic purposes. Stratford-le-Bow—i.e., the street-ford with a bridge (de arcu)—is memorable as the locality of the first stone arch, and is supposed to be the place intended in the ancient nursery song—

London Bridge is broken down,
Dance over my Lady Lea.

Adjoining Bow, the chapel of St. Leonard’s, Bromley, marks the escape from drowning of the Empress Matilda. Across the river commences Stratford Langthorne, where, in Mary’s reign, eleven persons were burnt to death. Looking northward from the road, which, through the lower portion of Stratford, is constructed on a causeway, Leyton Church is seen, planted on a slight elevation, the first from the river in a distance of about five miles. The site was probably taken for a Prætorium by the Romans, and a stone coffin, in good preservation, was here discovered in making the cutting for the Cambridge line of railway. Half a mile from the church, on the winding Lea, beloved by Izaak Walton, is situated Temple Mill. Corn-mills were property not at all despised by the lofty Knights Templars.

Still keeping our faces turned to the rising sun, three or four miles brings us to the village of Ilford, a word commemorating difficulties once experienced in crossing the little river Roden, which here opposed the traveller’s passage. An equal distance onward, another small affluent of the Thames imparts its name to the town of Romford. But our special business at present is with the former locality, and we dismiss our antiquarian guide and ask a geologist cicerone.

To “those who understand their epoch,” it is a result of exceeding interest to have witnessed a great science grow, in their own life of forty years, from stammering childhood to adolescence; to have seen almost the first uncertain beams of geology struggling in the morning sky, and then, from hour to hour, pouring in a flood of accumulating facts, and classifying them into a marvellous system. Persons born since the commencement of the present century remember geology in its prescientific condition, and will recal with a thoughtful smile the detached fact, the isolated mineral specimen, or remarkable local formation, which first drew their attention to the subject.

The long, grey, old church of West Ham, which stands half a mile riverward of Stratford, contained, in years past, some objects likely to attract the wandering eyes of a child during a sermon. The great silken colours of the West Ham Volunteers hung dustily and discoloured below the tall chancel arch. Below them, an elaborate lion and unicorn, the size of cubs, smiled ferociously on the preacher as he passed between them to his elevated pulpit; and at the east end of the church, leaning against an altar-tomb, two immense bones rested—one being a shoulder-blade, three feet in length, and the other a rib—concerning which relics the inquirer was shortly answered that they were mammoth bones. The spark of interest thus kindled in our own breast towards osteology might have easily died out again, had it not been followed, some two and thirty years ago, by a neighbour presenting to our youthful collection of curiosities a few pieces of fossillated ivory, exhumed at Ilford in a spot where the ground had been opened for brickmaking. Many persons visited the diggings daily; but until lately, when an enlightened curiosity has been established, the discoveries ceased to command attention; and, doubtless, great numbers of mammoth relics have been found, and then lost for ever. During the last two years, however, greater care has been taken. The proprietor of the brick-field gave to a gentleman in the neighbourhood, much devoted to geology, full powers over all the animal remains discovered—and, what was of the highest importance, left orders that his workmen should notify to Mr. Brady their having come upon any bones. Thus he was able to examine them in situ, and to prevent, in a great measure, their injury or destruction. In this one field (and there are two other brick-fields near it) the remains of at least eight elephants have been brought to light. A short account of their discovery was read by Mr. Brady at the meeting of the British Association at Aberdeen, in September last. The bones of the elephant (Elephas primigenius) are found associated with those of the rhinoceros, the Irish elk, the horse, and the ox. An immense tusk was discovered, fourteen feet below the level of the soil, to see which, before it was disturbed, Sir Charles Lyell and other eminent geologists were invited. The tusk was deficient of both extremities, but the portion rescued was nine feet long and of great thickness. Since that time a bone of enormous size belonging to a whale has been extracted.

The geological position of these relics is the Pleistocene, or latest tertiary formation. The vein in which they occur varies from five to ten feet in thickness, and consists of sandy gravel. It underlies the band of brick-earth already mentioned, into which some of the bones intrude, and thus attract the notice of the brick-makers. Above the brick-earth is the extensive and valuable bed of scarlet gravel for which this part of Essex is celebrated. This bed, with the vegetable mould which covers it in, is from four to six feet in depth at Ilford. In other spots the gravel has been worked as deep as twenty feet. Beneath all is the great deposit of the London clay.

Though the excavations at Ilford have been singularly productive in the discovery of animal remains, it is not to be understood that they exist in that site only. In other parts of Essex and also in Middlesex coming within the basin of the Thames, similar bones have been brought to light. Remains of the elephant have been met with at Grays, at Harwich, at Erith, at Brentford, at Kingsland, and, within a few months past, at Charing Cross. At Erith the lion and hyæna, and at Grays the bear, add the carnivora order to the list of animals given above.

A view of the circumstances leads to the plausible conjecture that, in its main features, the configuration of land and water was the same when these herds of strangely associated animals lived as it is now. The estuary of the Thames probably ran up farther inland; and the waters of the river, before they had cut themselves deep channels, and before the hand of man was at work to confine them within useful limits, spread widely in marsh and morass, till they touched the feet of the hills in Kent and Essex. Dr. Anderson has lately speculated on the condition of the Mediterranean, before a sinking of the ground-level between the Pillars of Hercules allowed the Atlantic waves to fill the depressed savannah through which the Eastern waters made their way to the ocean, and expatiated to great distances on either side their centre course. Thus, he accounts for the remains of hippopotami found there—the herds of which must have been counted not by thousands, but by tens of thousands.

But it must always be remembered in the case of the Essex deposits we have described, that they are in the drift—a name at once suggestive of the washing together, or other transportation of rocks and organisms, which may previously have been scattered, and distant from each other. Indeed, where carnivora abound, the weaker kinds among the other orders must necessarily disappear. To meet with traces of their association in one place would indicate a disturbance either of the surface on which they dwelt, or of their very natures. We can hardly conceive of “a happy and united family” on so grand a scale, and without the restraints of a cage or a keeper.

In all this search for bones in the drift, and it has now been long and extensive, no flint instruments or any presumptive remains of man have been discovered. This evidence is, it is true, negative only; but it has its significance, and must be allowed its due weight in the discussion proceeding as to the first era of mankind. The drift and the gravel are the concluding page of geological history. The animals found do not differ greatly in their construction from existing species; some of them are identical; the date of their disappearance does not require to be removed very greatly from our historic period. Therefore, if anywhere, we have here a right to anticipate the discovery of traces of human existence; but there are none—none up to the present time have been brought to light; nothing has been lifted from the ground to picture to our imagination the noble savage contending for existence with foes exceeding himself in passion and in strength—his whole armoury consisting of a sharpened flint, and the fires of his enkindled eye.

The fact that, still more recently, even within the last few months, a wrought millstone has been discovered near the bone deposits, does not militate against these remarks, for it was found in a peaty earth of yet more recent date, though undoubtedly very ancient, and in the society of remains of existing species. Thus, transported materials are likely, for the present, to create trouble and doubts amongst geologists, till science, advancing in its lesson, fits in these additional pieces to its puzzle.

Our inquiries as to the fate of the “mammoth bones” which formed the ossuary of All Saints, West Ham, are unsuccessful. Three things may have happened. They may have been decently interred in the churchyard before it was closed for sepulture; or they may have been crushed to manure the corn-lands of that parish; or they may have entered more immediately into our cereal food by being ground and mixed with flour.

Manley Hopkins.