Vauxhall, the Oval and Kennington

Vauxhall: Prehistoric Sites

We are lucky, in one sense, that the Vauxhall foreshore is being eroded by a very aggressive tidal scour, in turn caused by changes to the river flow caused by new buildings encroaching into the river. Two major finds have been revealed - one on each side of Vauxhall Bridge.

London's Oldest Structure

London's oldest structure - now 6500 years old - lies in front of the MI6 building next to Vauxhall Bridge. There is a line of timbers parallel to the shore - the largest up to 30cm in diameter - see photo opposite. Like the Bronze Age structure described below, the timbers are only exposed at very low tide. Carbon dating suggests that the timbers were taken from trees around 4500 BC. This is known as the late Mesolithic period, or late Middle Stone Age. This was a period during which hunting and gathering was practised by small, often mobile communities. Britain had been severed from what is now continental Europe by around 6500BC.

The First London Bridge?

Vauxhall is also the site of what might have been the first London Bridge, built 3500 years ago in the Bronze Age around 1500 BC. The wooden remains of a 3 metre wide structure just upstream of Vauxhall Bridge were first noticed in 1993 when the remains of the supporting timber piles were uncovered by erosion of the foreshore. They are 600 m south of the Mesolithic site described above.

Channel 4's Time Team spent 3 days investigating the site in April 2001 for a programme shown in January 2002. They concluded that the structure was most probably a bridge to a gravel island in the middle of the river, although it might also have been a jetty. Their reasoning was as follows:-

First, Vauxhall is situated just south of the Thames at the point at which the river first becomes fordable. Also, it was close to the furthest point upstream at which the river was tidal. The combination of these two factors would make Vauxhall a sort of land/sea transport hub, and hence a very important centre for Bronze Age society. This is because the Bronze Age was the period - from about 2300 to 700 BC - when metal first began to be widely used in Britain, possibly as a result of the increase in contact with Europe. Society then appears to have been divided into chiefdoms based around a largely agricultural economy. Trade between these groups - and, indeed, more widely with continental Europe - was well developed. Transport by river and sea, using flat-bottomed boats that could be easily beached and navigate far inland, was in particular well established. Vauxhall may therefore have been a sort of Bronze Age port, reached by boats coming up on the tide.

Second, the Vauxhall/Waterloo area was then marshy - hence street names such as "The Marsh" down by Waterloo. Westminster Abbey, on the opposite bank, was later built on what used to be Thorney Island, which lay between two branches of the river Tyburn where it joined the Thames. The river itself was shallow and slow-moving, often consisting of a number of channels, as it still does further upstream. Crucially, two rivers joined the Thames at Vauxhall. The Effra was then a major river which came down (and still comes down in a pipe) from Brixton in the south. The Merflete was in recent times a minor tidal inlet on the north bank, but may once have been a branch of the Tyburn. The eddies caused by the confluence of these rivers may well have formed a gravel island in the middle of the Thames which would have helped the building of the bridge:- see the photo reconstruction opposite.

Two Bronze Age spearheads were found alongside the remains of the wooden structure. The way that the spearheads had been driven deep into the foreshore suggested that they had been placed there deliberately, probably as some sort of 'votive' or ritual offering, rather than simply lost or abandoned in battle. This in turn suggests that the structure at Vauxhall may have had both a practical and a more symbolic purpose. As well as serving as a bridge or jetty of some sort, it may well have been a ritual or religious site.

If you want to learn more about the archeology of the Thames, you should visit the Thames Discovery website.