Exhibition of assorted Thames junk through the ages

Trawling the River Thames, you might expect to find a few shopping trolleys, broken beer bottles or even propeller blades.

But hundreds of mediaeval clay pipes? Roman figures and roof tiles, World War Two bottle tops and anti-aircraft shells are some of the other objects that form a new exhibition at the The River & Rowing Museum in Henley.

The objects are presented in themed photographs, taken by artist Michael O’Reilly, who has collected more than 4,000 fragments during 15 years of kayaking along the Thames.

This is the first time the photographs have been displayed.

Examples of things found include:
1. A Fragment of a ‘Bellarmine’ jar, a type of alcohol filled vessel imported from Germany and sometimes used as witch bottles to ward off evil intentions of a supposed witch. Urine, nail clippings and bits of hair were mixed in the jug and heated up. This was meant to cause the boiling of the witch’s blood and water. The bottle would then be buried under the threshold of the victim’s house, or cast into the nearest river. Pins, iron nails and fabric hearts could also be added. Bellarmine jars were imported between the 1500s and 1600s and named to ridicule Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1621) who was widely disliked in Northern Europe for his persecution of Protestants and opposition to alcohol. The jars bear distinctive faces on their necks, meant to represent a burgher (German civic) dignitary and symbolise prosperity. (example image attached)

2. A cattle bone toothbrush which would have contained coarse bristles from the neck of a boar is just one of the objects in the ‘buttons and bones’ photograph. The boar bristles would have been pulled through holes in the bone handle and secured by wire – Nylon bristles were only introduced in 1938. The brush, together with copper boat nails, a Victorian lead soldier, porcelain doll’s legs, washing pegs (made and sold by poor East End families following the decline of the weaving industry in 1700) provide a colourful cross-section of everyday objects discarded or lost in the Thames.

3. A graceful picture of the clay pipes captures the country’s smoking habits from 1558 when tobacco was first introduced into the UK. By 1650 there were at least a 1,000 pipe makers in London alone. Their round shape helps enables them to roll in the water protecting them from the ebb and flow of the tide. Some still bear the maker’s decoration from Royal crowns and coats of arms, to decorations of thistles, roses and hoofs. At low water O’Reilly can hear the water tinkling and chiming on the pipes before he sees them. Some can be found in perfect condition, protected by the Thames’ mud and silt since they were thrown away or lost over 200 years ago. (example image attached)

Other photographs display objects as diverse as rubber glovers, a 1950s hot water bottle, fragments of French and British china, old bottle tops and workings from Greenwich Power Station.

O’Reilly collected the majority of his fragments on the foreshore of the tidal Thames between Gravesend and Richmond.

He said: “‘The Thames is liquid history,’ said John Burns an MP in 1929. This statement is powerfully true. I kayak along the river to explore and understand what the Thames really means to the urban and rural communities it passes through.

“My interest is driven by the excitement of discovery and finding items that inspire me. I am fascinated by the frequency with which certain kinds of objects keep appearing, for example clay roof tiles can often be found in one location and have turned the foreshore a rusty red colour as they are slowly broken down by the river.”

Fragments of the Foreshore is on show at the River & Rowing Museum until 4 November 2007.

Full details can be found at: www.rrm.co.uk