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London’s top ten weird things in the water

Posted at 2:15 pm, April 21, 2013 in Fun London

The Battersea Shield

This beautiful chunk of bronze battlewear was found by Chelsea Bridge in 1857 and may date to the fourth century BC. Rather than being used for full-on fighting (it’s too short and thin to offer much protection), the shield was meant for bombastic display. So more bling than battlefield – imagine its Celtic owner as an Iron Age Dappy, swaggering along the Battersea shore, giving the river gods verbals before appeasing them with this high-status offering.

Body parts

How many corpses has the Thames borne away? It’s a secret only the river knows. But over the centuries, almost every body part you can imagine has been dredged up from its murky waters – including a nose, a chin, a left forearm and a pelvis. Today, at least one cadaver is washed ashore somewhere along the Thames every week.

Clay pipes

When Sir Walter Raleigh came back from a 1584 American trip with a pouch of a new health-giving herb, Londoners went mad for tobacco. But Raleigh failed to discover Rizlas, so smokers were obliged to use disposable clay pipes. By 1619, there were 100 pipe-making companies in London, which means there are thousands of pipes in the river for Amelia Parker to fish out and recycle into jewellery. And Raleigh? He stopped smoking in 1618. When he was beheaded.

Tropical fish

The chill waters of the Thames make an unlikely home for the red-bellied piranha; and sure enough the only one to have been found in the river, at Dagenham in 2004, was dead. But the short-nosed seahorse has been luckier. Although known for its elaborate courtship rituals, the male pregnancies that follow those rituals and for setting up its colonies in the crystalline, warm waters of the Mediterranean, a live one was found at Dagenham in 2008. And they didn’t stop there: in 2011 a particularly plucky short-nose forced its way upstream through heavy traffic and the native detritus of crisp packets and condoms (not easy if you’re a five-centimetre-long fish) to Greenwich. Where it was caught.


The Thames has swallowed many things over the centuries, and once even engulfed its hometown. On January 7 1928, the highest ever recorded tide peaked at an astonishing 5.5 metres – enough for the river to burst its banks and swamp parts of the City, Southwark, Putney and Westminster. This meant misery for thousands of Londoners, although spirits revived when the House of Commons flooded.

Ancient timber

It would seem that 2011 was a good year for pulling things out of the river. As well as short-nosed seahorses, wooden wharves, fish traps and ships’ timbers carbon dated to 4790 and 4490 were found at Vauxhall along with the jumbled remains of what might have been a jetty. An inexplicable structure that baffles onlookers? Nope, that’s Terry Farrell’s MI6 building next door.

Ball and chain

The Museum of London’s Society of Thames Mudlarks is a group of specialists licensed to comb London’s riverbanks for artefacts. Usually they come up with days-of-yore bric-à-brac such as coins and Georgian jewellery. However, in 2009 they pulled an altogether more macabre object from the riverbed: an iron ball and chain used to shackle prisoners over 300 years ago. Still, good for this captive – he got away? Sadly not: the manacle was still locked.

Wilma the Whale

In January 2006, Londoners more used to watching those aforementioned condoms and crisp packets come in with the tide were startled to see a 16-foot northern bottlenose whale swimming upstream. Crowds flocked to Battersea Bridge to glimpse Wilma (as The Times christened her), but it soon became apparent she was in distress. Despite efforts to save her –which included rescuers removing rocks from the riverbed and putting the cetacean on a raft to float her back down the river – Wilma died just outside Margate.

Roman sex token

Putney has long had a reputation for slap and, indeed, tickle. It only became clear how long in 2012, when amateur archaeologist Regis Cursan’s metal detector bleeped and he pulled a Roman brothel token from the Thames at Putney Bridge. Dropped centuries ago by a hot-for-it legionary in search of local leg-over, the credit is the only one of its kind to have been found in Britain. Should be called Rutney…

Time bombs

The SS Richard Montgomery sank in the Thames Estuary near Sheerness-on-Sea during World War II, but the ship survives, its ghostly masts clearly visible above the water line, serving as a warning to any vessels foolish enough to approach. They would do well to heed it: beneath the waves the Montgomery’s fragile hull is a watery home to 1,400 tons of highly explosive and extremely unstable ordinance.

London’s top ten weird things in the water was compiled by the winners of the Your London competition: Pauline Bock, Aisha Gani, Saira Niazi, Joel Witter and Robbie Wojciechowski. Your London was a partnership between Time Out, Media Trust and The Jack Petchey Foundation, giving young people the chance to get their voices heard and unlock their potential.

See more of our London top tens.

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