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-
Three amateur geologists were primarily involved in collecting fossils from Ilford. John Gibson (1778-
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 -
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 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.