In February and March 2019, Thurrock Museum held a vote to decide which object from their collection would be featured in a travelling exhibition. One of the candidate objects was a Samian ware dish found on the Thames shore at Tilbury.
The Thames became tidal at Tilbury during the Neolithic. At that point or shortly after, a natural salt marsh was established, replacing the previous woodland landscape of oak, alder and hazel. This salt marsh was exploited during the Bronze and Iron Ages for salt making and (probably) fishing and grazing.
The Tilbury marshland was sufficiently remote that it attracted at least one hermit – Thomas the hermit was there in 1161. The hermitage was eventually suppressed by Henry VIII in the 1530s, although it is not clear whether there was actually a hermit continuously on the site throughout the period from 1161 until 1540.
However, between the early and late Roman period, the river level dropped by about 1.5 metres. Since by this stage there was a mature salt marsh that only flooded at the highest tide, a drop of river level of this magnitude took the marshes well above the level of the high tide. These 3rd century water levels, significantly lower than now, made it possible to establish a settlement in what later reverted to salt marshes. This permitted prolonged occupation and probably arable farming.
Evidence for a Roman settlement in Tilbury was found while the docks were being built. The archaeological evidence illustrates life during the Roman period. Roman tiles and pottery, with bones and food refuse, oyster and snail shells, tiles and flint blocks were all observed. These finds were on a “mossy and grass-grow surface” at a depth of 7 feet (just over 2 metres). This is almost exactly the depth at which Devoy notes a peat layer which he dates to 1750 BP (roughly AD 200). Peat is not produced in a salt marsh. Romano British occupation of the marshes is supported by Jonathan Catton who noted that in 1920, 3 hut circles (dated to 1st or 2nd century AD) were discovered on the East Tilbury foreshore below the current high water mark. Unfortunately, the location is now lost under a land fill site.
Cambridge University has a collection of aerial photos taken at various times after the 2nd world war. They are beginning to make digital versions available on-line. The first of these have been released and contain some images of Thurrock. For example, here is a link to the aerial photo of Tilbury Fort, taken in 1964 and shown below.
The initial release covers approximately 1,500 of the 500,000 images in the collection. Low resolution images can be downloaded through the site for research or educational use. There is more information about the project here.
The 7th century saw the conversion of Essex (including Thurrock) from Paganism to Christianity, but it took three attempts. At the beginning of the 7th century, London was part of the Kingdom of the East Saxons – the people, not the geographic area. King Saebert converted to Christianity at the behest of his overlord, King Æthelberht of Kent. Saint Mellitus became Bishop of London and his see included Essex. Essex reverted to Paganism on the death of King Saebert and Mellitus was forced to leave.
Around AD 655, St Cedd undertook a successful mission to re-convert the East Saxons and built churches at Bradwell and Tilbury. The building of the Tilbury church (on the banks of the Thames) was described in Bede’s History of the English Church and is the earliest written reference to a location in Thurrock. St Cedd became Bishop of the East Saxons, in effect, Bishop of London. He died on 26th October, AD 664. However, on the death of King Sigeberht II (the Good), Essex again reverted to Paganism.
West Tilbury church, possibly on the site of St Cedd’s church.
The final (and lasting) conversion of the East Saxons to Christianity took place following a mission by Bishop Jaruman of Lichfield sent by King Wulfhere of Mercia, who was overlord of the East Saxons.
TLHS recently announced that as part of its HLF funded project, it will be working with Blatella Films. Blatella will produce a number of short videos that promote Thurrock’s heritage. The subject of one of these videos will be Margaret Jones who directed the Mucking excavation between 1965 and 1968. At the time, this excavation was the largest ever undertaken in Europe and uncovered an Anglo-Saxon settlement and two associated cemeteries. The graves dated from the 5th to the 7th century, but appeared to stop around AD 650.
One possible reason that these pagan cemeteries went out of use at this time may be the missionary activities of St Cedd. Bede’s History of the English Church records that Cedd built two churches in Essex – one at Bradwell (which survives) and one just down the road from Mucking, at Tilbury on the banks of the Thames.
The newly Christianised Anglo-Saxons may have decided to abandon their pagan cemetery and establish a Christian cemetery close to Cedd’s newly built church. We don’t know the location of Cedd’s Tilbury church, but it may have been on the site of the present East Tilbury parish church.
Although separated by thirteen hundred years, both Margaret Jones and St Cedd made important contributions to Thurrock’s heritage. Neither currently has a Thurrock heritage plaque; perhaps they should have.
One of the bugbears of the late Randal Bingley was metal detecting. He would often add some derogatory remarks about dectorists when talking about something else. (Although there was a rumour that towards the end of his life, he tried it himself.) I wonder how he would have felt about the next meeting of the Local History Society which is Steve Newman talking about Metal Detecting.
Randal’s objection was that important finds could go unreported and even if they were reported, the archaeological context would be unknown or even destroyed. To some extent, these concerns have been addressed by the portable antiquities scheme which was instituted in 1997 to encourage reporting by metal detectorists and others. It is certainly the case that the Staffordshire Hoard was found only as a result of metal detecting.
Nonetheless, it is still the case that local historians are less well aware of the results of metal detecting than they should be. There is a “productive site” in (East?) Tilbury that deserves greater study and investigation, but for which the details are little known. It could be an interesting evening.
The meeting is at 8.00pm at the Adult Community College, Richmond Road, Grays on Friday 20th November.