Above: View looking east at the archaeological site excavated 1974-76 on the west side of Trig Lane.
– Upper Thames Street –
Today Trig Lane is just the name of a modern street that was laid out, probably in the 1980s, after considerable land clearance to the west of the inlet in the river bank called Queenhithe. Sadly the new street does not lie on the line of the original one, in fact it is in a different place (being further east) and it now runs E-W whereas the original one led from the old narrow Upper Thames Street and ran N-S. So, although the ancient name Trig Lane lives on, it is the name alone that survives and not the ancient street.
Above: View of Trig Lane Stairs from Google Maps.
Having said that, all is not entirely lost. Near the western end of the present Trig Lane, leading onto the Thames shore at low tide, are a flight of modern concrete stairs with wooden steps below them. The ancient Trig Lane also led from the old narrow Upper Thames Street to the side of the Thames and also had stairs leading to the beach at low tide. Although the stairs are modern, they are still known as Trig Lane Stairs and they are in the same position as the original ones.
So what is all the interest in Trig Lane ? It is quite likely that you have never heard of this little street and it is unlikely that you have never walked along the modern version. When the old Trig Lane existed it was also a street that almost everyone ignored even then. Its fate in history would have been to be completely forgotten – apart from the name appearing on maps from past centuries.
However, Trig Lane had its ‘moment of glory’ when the old Upper Thames Street and most of the old warehouses to the south were swept away in the 1970s. Upper Thames Street was made into a dual carriageway and the land on the southern side – between the street and the Thames – was completely redeveloped with new buildings and new side streets.
Ahead of all this upheaval, the Museum of London was allowed – under regulations related to planning – to conduct a dig in the area, starting in 1974 and lasting until 1976. The dig was to see if there were any significant archaeological remains on the site. It was conducted on the land crossed by Trig Lane and a large square site on its western side. It should be mentioned that, as a ‘rule of thumb’, the land level has risen in the City of London by about a foot for every century. So 16th century remains are found about four feet below the modern land surface, Norman remains are about 10 feet deep and Roman remains are nearly 20 feet deep.
The archaeologists set to work in 1974. The site proved to be so interesting that they were still working to discover more finds right up to final deadline which was some time in October 1976. Having explained about the level at which archaeological remains are most likely to be found, it should also be mentioned that, over the centuries, the riverfront on this site has been extended, by many generations, further and further south into the Thames. The Roman riverfront was roughly on a line with old 1960s Upper Thames Street. The medieval riverfront was found to be about 50 feet from the present day riverfront. The Victorian riverfront was found about 20 feet from the present one.
As the dig progressed, a large stone wall was found which was part of the old Victorian river wall. Remains from the 13th to the 17th centuries were found at various levels. Near the line of old Upper Thames Street there was evidence of the Roman riverfront, with the remains of a few quay-sides.
Above: The timbers of the quayside, almost as good as when they were constructed -about seven centuries ago.
What proved to be the most visually interesting, especially for those interested in the history of the City who were not archaeologists, was the unexpected find of a complete quay-side, dating from around 1300-1450. It is shown in the picture at the top of this article. It was some 10 to 12 feet below the 20th century land surface. The picture shows the large planks of oak, placed vertically into the ground to form a quay-side for mooring small vessels. The structure demonstrated the problems the medieval craftsman had to overcome with regard to being beside a tidal river. The Thames rises and falls about 15 feet twice each day. As the tide came in, it pressed the oak boards against the infilled land. As the tide went out, water that had seeped through the oak boards oozed out, pushing against the timbers. Hence, twice each day the timbers of the quay-side experienced strong forces from the water, first in one direction and then in the other.
Above: Close-up of the timbers shown in the previous picture.
After removing the soil back-fill, stout timbers were revealed that held the vertical planks in place, along with a specially jointed horizontal wooden timber beam running along the tops of the vertical planks. As the timbers were uncovered, the whole structure was revealed. Because it had been buried in very wet land over the centuries, most of the quay-side was perfectly preserved. Oak timbers are an ideal wood to survive in wet conditions – which is why timber ships were always built of oak and also of elm.
As the dig progressed, the foundations of buildings that had once stood on the quay-side were also revealed. Being humble dwellings, some of the walls were just made of chalk which quickly crumbled when exposed to the atmosphere by the archaeologists. One such house had a gully or small drain leading from the building. It is believed that it was worked in by those who gutted fish and the gully was used to drain water from the floor surface which been used in cleaning the fish. This house could have been worked in by the original Trigg family, who were fishmongers, and whose name gave the modern Trig Lane its name. Trig Lane is also shown and labelled on London earliest complete street, the Agas map of c1561.
For those of us who were not archaeologists, explanations by the on-site workers were very welcome but the evidence in the ground was so visual that it was possible for almost anyone to work out what they were looking at.
The site was accessible to the public every day and and so it was interesting to go back time and time again to see what new features had been uncovered. The brick floor of a small room was uncovered, along with charring, making much of the brick-work black. This was at the appropriate level to conclude that it was probably late 17th century and therefore part of a building that had been destroyed in the Great Fire. It was all very exciting stuff ! Almost every period in history from (and including) the Romans was revealed on one of the most amazing and diverse archaeological digs ever undertaken within the City of London.
The story does not have a happy ending. After so many months of toil by the archaeology team, through one of the driest and sunniest summers on record, as the autumn of 1976 came, the project had to end. On a fateful day, the bulldozers arrived and the whole site was levelled. Within a week no trace was left of any of the remains from Trig Lane. If it was painful to watch by the general public, it must have been even more agonising for those who had worked so hard to reveal almost two thousands years of London’s past.