London Gateway

DP World London Gateway has completed one of the largest dredging projects ever planned in the UK – to widen, deepen and in places re-route the existing commercial shipping channel in the Thames Estuary. The estuary holds thousands of years of archaeological evidence – from mammoth teeth and environmental remains related to the last Ice Age, to the wrecks of ships, submarines and aircraft, and defensive structures from the two World Wars. For over a decade Wessex Archaeology has been supporting DP World London Gateway to protect these sites – before, during and after work offshore. 
 
2081

The Development

Deepening the channel is essential to accommodate the very large container vessels that will come into service in the next few years. These vessels are longer, wider and have deeper draughts than those that currently serve the Port of London. New port facilities are also under construction and material that has been dredged from the estuary has been used to reclaim the land on which these will stand. Given the high archaeological potential of the estuary seabed, every phase of this process has been designed to minimise the impact on our submerged heritage.
 
Where possible the dredged channel was routed around known archaeological sites and most of them remain intact on the seabed. For a few sites, however, this was not possible and the archaeological material was recorded in situ, lifted under supervision, and is being stored until an appropriate museum is found for their long-term care.
 

Our Role

2082

Wessex Archaeology’s long term role in this project has included desk-based research which identified known wrecks within the development footprint, and geophysical survey which was used to ground-truth the archaeology and identify other potential sites. Sites on the bed of the estuary were then dived by teams from Wessex Archaeology Coastal & Marine and the Port of London Authority, often working in zero-visibility.
 
Once work offshore began, our archaeologists were stationed on dredgers during key phases of the development to help identify and protect discoveries, and a reporting Protocol was put in place to allow unexpected finds and sites to be rapidly reported and protected. 
 
The challenges, results and history of all of these investigations were published in 2013, and a TV show, Thames Shipwrecks: a race against time, which really captured the public imagination, was broadcast in 2008.
 

The Archaeology

2087

Sites found included historic wrecks, and evidence for crashed aircraft and defensive structures dating to the First and Second World Wars. The potential was well known – earlier investigations by the Port of London Authority had identified a 16th century armed merchant vessel with cannons bearing the crest of merchant and entrepreneur Thomas Gresham who served Henry VIII, Edward IV and Elizabeth I. The ‘Princes Channel Wreck’, as it is known, is investigated here
 
Work for DP World London Gateway included the investigation of a currently unidentified late 19th century wreck dubbed ‘The Brick Barge’ – a vessel involved in the local trade of building materials along the estuary. It also involved the investigation of the Dovenby, built in 1891, which travelled as far as Sydney and San Francisco on her first major voyage in 1892, but which sank in the estuary while under tow, after colliding in heavy fog with the Dutch Steam ship Sindoro
 
There are also important archaeological remains in the estuary dating from the Second World War. For example, evidence was recovered of the submarine boom that was built from Shoeburyness in Essex to Sheerness in Kent. The estuary also holds the remains of vessels sunk during the conflict, including the SS Letchworth, sunk by a German aircraft whilst transporting coal, and the MV Ryal which was mined in 1941. 
 
The remains of aircraft have also been found during work. In August 2011, 45 pieces of aircraft wreckage were recovered, and further work at the site revealed an intriguing story of secretive Luftwaffe units, a rare prototype reconnaissance aircraft flown by veteran test pilots, and the decorated Norwegian fighter ace that sent it to a watery grave. This story has been published by DP World London Gateway and is now available online.