Digging up King Johns Court, Crossrail excavations in Stepney Green

A couple of weeks ago I took part in my first archaeological dig courtesy of the Museum of London Archaelogy (MOLA) and Crossrail. The dig, in Stepney Green, was to uncover the remains of an old Tudor mansion known as King John’s Court which once stood on the site near to that now occupied by Stepney Green City Farm.

For those who don’t know, Crossrail is the massive cross London train line that is currently boring it’s way quite literally through the heart of the capital. It is Europe’s largest engineering project and is due to increase the rail capacity of London by 10 percent. Along the way it is cutting through areas of archaeological interest and when it does a survey has to be carried out by the professionals. If they find anything then work stops and the archaeologists step in. It’s a great commitment to history in London and the digs prompted by Crossrail are coming up with some cracking finds.

Volunteers and archaeologists beavering away on the dig site

Volunteers and archaeologists beavering away on the dig site

King Johns Court which later became known as Worcester House falls along the route of the railway so the area needed to be excavated. Back in the day particularly around Tudor times, Stepney Green was a well off area with lots of mansions and was an attractive place to live. It was relatively close to the Thames and close to the city yet far enough away from both to avoid the not so nice sights and sounds that city and river life may have had to offer.

Built between 1450 to 1550 King Johns Court was surrounded by a walled moat and eventually went on to play an important part in the political and religious life of East London. It was seized by the parliamentarians during the English Civil War in 1645 and the house became a meeting place for early protestant non-conformists and puritans. After that the area around it grew with the house having already been remodelled and a church, school and a college added.

The uncovered section of Tudor wall which was hidden under a Goats field for years

The uncovered section of Tudor wall which was hidden under a Goats field for years

As London grew however the college moved out and the urban sprawl of the city took over as housing encroached and the village of Stepney was swallowed up in the 19th century as the power of influence of London grew and the East End become ever more vital as an area for trade with the rest of the world. The area saw some major change and the once leafy village was transformed with many of the earlier housing and developments lost in the name of advancement.

Further change occured as with so many other places in the East End during the second World War with the church and the school destroyed. The redevelopment of the area afterwards meant that Tudor Stepney would be further hidden from view, only revealed once more because of the encroaching nature of another massive period of infrastructure development.

The place of work

The place of work

Despite only helping out on the dig briefly, there were enough clues to discover some of the history of the area. A thick Tudor wall was revealed under the Goat field of the Stepney City Farm. Around the wall was evidence of many other periods of occupation, in particular the foundations of the 19th century terracing that had been built on top, prior to itself being destroyed by bombing from World War 2 the clues of which were revealed in layers of burning in the soil. The area I excavated was probably not from King Johns Court itself, more likely it was contemporary with the mansion and would have likely been a neighbouring property, home to some form of Tudor noble.

In terms of finds, around the foundations of the wall I discovered lots of Oyster shells and clay pipes. Oysters a delicacy now, were common food for early East Enders and the Clay pipes, another common find, revealed that they like a smoke in the east end. A true glimpse of real life amidst the layers of soil.

A treasure trove of finds from the Stepney Green dig

A treasure trove of finds from the Stepney Green dig including Oyster Shells

A Clay Pipe, a suprisingly common find

A Clay Pipe, a suprisingly common find

For more information on the Stepney Green dig try:

Crossrail- Politics and Puritans
Time Out – Digging for more than dirt at Stepney City Farm

For more Inspiring City Historicals posts try:

The Seven Gates of London
The Old Roman City Wall of London
Walking the Walbrook, London’s Lost River
The Great 12 Livery Companies of London