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Archaeology Watching at our London Site

Much of the RAF Museum London site is currently being redeveloped as part of a major Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) funded project to mark the Centenary of the Formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1 April 1918.

Part of this work involves major ground works to change the layout of the external parts of the site. To this end the contractors have excavated a number of machine-cut trenches to check for services and ground conditions.

On the western part of the site this involves the replacement of a large grassed area by car parking. This area served for many years as an occasional visiting helicopter landing pad and events area.
An artist's impression of what our new site will look like in 2018
The Museum's Curator of Aircraft, Andrew Simpson, suggested that the opportunity be taken to investigate the excavated trenches for any archaeological features or finds of interest.

Until creation of the original aerodrome from February 1910, the area occupied by the RAF Museum and former RAF Hendon appears to have been low-lying and fairly boggy pasture land with many trees. The nearest major archaeological evidence lies to the east on the area of Greyhound Hill and Hendon Burroughs, where work by HADAS and others mainly since the 1960s has established evidence of undefined Romano-British occupation of first-fourth century date, possibly of agricultural/farming nature, plus evidence of Saxon occupation from at least the seventh/eighth century and Saxo-Norman occupation then virtually continuous through to the modern day other than a possible hiatus around the time of the Black Death.

In November 1992, a professional archaeological watching brief by Museum of London archaeologists covering five machine cut trenches cut to a depth of 50cm  on the site of the new Colindale Police Station within the former RAF Hendon East Camp  immediately adjacent to Hangar One (the former Battle of Britain Hall)  found only underlying London clay,  modern field drains and 17th-18th century pottery and clay pipe. (Site code GPW92; NGR TQ2193 9011). This was reported in HADAS Newsletter 261, December 1992.

It was suspected that similar material might be found at the museum site. Andy Renwick, Curator of Photographs and writer of ‘RAF Hendon The Birthplace of Aerial Power’(Crecy, 2012)  suggested that field drains dating to RAF improvements to the site drainage in the summer of 1926 would be likely to be found. The London Aerodrome was created on land leased by the Brinckman family with the area now occupied by the museum and its grounds forming part of one large field in the main, with a field boundary, as indicated by contemporary maps, running SW from roughly the centre of the current main building.

The investigation.

An afternoon was spent investigating three machine cut trenches and their adjacent spoil heaps and disturbed ground around the edges of the trenches, using a hand trowel only.
One of the trenches used in the investigation
The first trench investigated was the long one running N-S at the centre of the former helicopter pad. The west-facing section was cleaned and showed a top turf humic layer some 5cm thick; all recovered finds appeared to originate from this context, 001. It overlay a hard-packed clay subsoil some 20cm thick, context 002, which appeared to be virtually sterile other than one or two very small flecks of red brick or tile. This in turn overlay natural London clay, 003. Contexts 002 and 003 were cut by two lines of field drain running approximately east – west across the trench (presumed to be those laid in 1926 as referred to above) lying in an ash/clinker lined cut, the ash/clinker including some fragments of modern pottery (not retained). The field drain sections in unglazed red earthenware fabric varied slightly in length, but a recovered example is 298mm in length with an external diameter of 11cm and a central bore of 75mm.

Recovered finds from this trench include three short lengths of updateable clay pipe stem and a selection of modern stonewares and earthenwares. This was the trench with the least evidence of recent ground disturbance.
One of the trenches examined during the investigation
The second trench investigated, to the north adjacent to the main gate showed much more evidence of recent disturbance, with a thick (20-25cm depth) but unevenly spread layer of ash/clinker running across the trench just below the turf/topsoil  line (which was noticeably deeper in this trench – average 20cm)  and overlying the natural London clay. Andy Renwick points out that in 1926 the little-used former railway spur running around the site boundary from Silkstream Junction on the Midland Railway main line across Aerodrome Road  to sidings fronting the Edgware Road was lifted and its ballast used to fill an area of boggy ground near the former Aerodrome Hotel; this may be more of that same material, lying just below the current turf line. Finds from this trench were limited to just three small sherds of pottery. Investigation was limited by waterlogging of much of this trench after recent heavy rainfall.

The third trench as the southern-most, just to the north of Hangar One. This again showed considerable evidence of recent disturbance with much ash/clinker forming a layer between the topsoil and natural clay, containing modern pottery and glass including bottle necks. Site manager Steve Johnson suggested this may be redeposited rubble from the London Blitz. Certainly very similar material was used to backfill an uncompleted air raid shelter at Martin School, East Finchley investigated by HADAS in 2013. Investigation was again limited by waterlogging of much of this trench after the recent heavy rainfall.

A brief check was made of two or three very small square trenches to the east of these three main tranches. These had been dug over the line of services and no features or finds were noted.

The Finds

A selection of the recovered finds were kindly examined by Jacqui Pearce FSA, pottery specialist for Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA)

There was a good selection of Victorian and later pottery from the central trench. This included a ribbed body sherd of stoneware – possibly a marmalade jar; a rim sherd of a bone china serving dish with floral decoration; part of a stoneware bottle; part of a redware lid, probably from a teapot;  a section of handle from a Victorian Rockingham type earthenware teapot originally made near Rotherham in South Yorkshire (MOLA code ROCK, 1800-1900); and refined white ware body sherds. There was also a single piece of partially fire-melted green bottle glass and a similarly fire-damaged sherd of stoneware, the latter two possibly analogous with the material from the Hangar One trench.
A selection of the pottery found from various trenches
The three small sherds from the ‘Bloodhound Trench’ include two of Refined white earthenwares (MOLA code REFW, 1805-1900) – one a section of foot rim-  and a rim sherd of Transfer Printed Ware (TPW, 1780- 1900)

The trench nearest hangar one yielded a selection of relatively recent material including a complete small brown glass screw-top jar and a white glazed and almost complete possible salt shaker with hole at base for adding the salt. There were two glass beer-type bottle necks in clear and brown glass, part of a stoneware jar/bottle base and several fragments of white glazed plates both plain and decorated. All of this could well match the suggestion of dumped ‘Blitz Rubble’ in this area. There was also a small white ware sherd with the transfer printed maker’s mark ‘Grindley England’ – W.H. Grindley were a Potteries-based manufacturer based in Tunstall; this ‘sailboat’ makers mark being dated 1936-1954; see


This was a useful exercise in confirming that in this part of the site at least there appear to be no significant archaeological features; it is interesting that the small selection of finds recovered are virtually all of Victorian or later date, with no sign of the earlier pottery recorded just next door on the Police Station site. Only the clay pipe stems may be a little earlier, but clay pipes did remain in fairly general use until the Great War period when supplanted by cigarettes. Any further site observation may be taken as appropriate, and the finds retained for possible formal/informal display to various museum stakeholders and audiences.

This work was undertaken by Curator of Aircraft and Exhibits and member of local group Hendon and District Archaeological Society (HADAS) Andrew Simpson.

Site access via the contractors (SDC builders Ltd ) was arranged by RAFM Centenary Programme manager Rebecca Dalley and Steve Johnson, SDC Site Manager, to whom thanks.

The provisional site code RAFMH17 was allocated. NGR TQ22079039. This report has also gone to the Greater London Historic Environment Record (GLHER)

Andrew Simpson : Curator, Department of Aircraft and Exhibits
About the Author

Andrew Simpson : Curator, Department of Aircraft and Exhibits

I am a keen amateur archaeologist and vintage transport enthusiast, I have worked at the RAF Museum since 1989 and I have been in my present post since 1992. I am a great fan of Propliners and pretty much anything with lots of piston engines, I wish I could have seen (and heard!) the Brabazon, Princess, and B.36. I also produce all the detailed RAFM aircraft histories as seen on the RAFM website.

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