Ilford Excavations — history and timeline

Subfossil bone specimens from the Cotton Collection

Beginning in 1824, several thousand fossilised bones were uncovered by brick pit workers in Ilford, Essex. These excavations unearthed the remains of mammoth, straight-tusked elephant, woolly rhinoceros, lion, brown bear, horse, bison, ox and giant deer. These were purchased from the owner of the brick pits by the collector and antiquarian Sir Antonio Brady, a senior civil servant from Stratford, east London, and Dr Richard Payne Cotton, a doctor at the Brompton Hospital and a respected amateur palaeontologist.

In 1864–5, an almost complete mammoth skull was uncovered in the Ilford brickfields and purchased by Sir Antonio. A description of this unique find was published that year in the Geological Magazine. After Sir Antontio's death in 1881, his collection was subsequently purchased by the Natural History Museum (NHM). The Ilford mammoth skull is displayed in the entrance foyer of the NHM while a cast of the skull is displayed in the Mammals Gallery.

Redbridge Museum has its own small number of Pleistocene mammalian fossils that were unearthed in Ilford town centre during construction work in 1984. After being excavated by archaeologists and geologists from the NHM and the former Passmore Edwards Museum in Stratford, the finds were transferred to Redbridge Museum.

Ilford excavations timeline

A selection of sub-fossil bone specimens chosen for the exhibit

Nineteenth century: numerous reports by antiquarians and researchers throughout the century as the remains came to light.

1864: mammoth skull excavated in Ilford.

1914: an article in the local paper, the Ilford Guardian, in August 1914.

1951: as part of local Festival of Britain celebrations, the site of the Uphall brick pit was marked by Ilford Borough Council with the erection of a bronze plaque on the Ilford Methodist Church Hall,

1984: the report 'Another Day's Elephant Hunting in Essex: recently excavated fossil remains in Ilford' by Mark Redknap (Passmore Edwards Museum) and Andy Currant (NHM) was published. This relates to the Richmond Road finds unearthed on 7 March 1984 during the building of Winston Way, Ilford town centre (now in the collections of Redbridge Museum).

1986: a small number of fossil bones were borrowed from the NHM for a temporary display in the local studies and archives section of Ilford Central Library.

1998 – 2000: William George wrote pamphlets about John Gibson, Sir Antonio Brady and Richard Payne Cotton.

2000: the newly opened Redbridge Museum continues to feature a display about the Uphall area of Ilford, which includes seven fossil bones loaned by the NHM:

  • Bos primigenius: wild cattle dentary (M1605)
  • Castor fiber: beaver dentary (M1623)
  • Mammuthus primigenus: mammoth part mandible jaw (44948)
  • Palaeoxodon antiquus: straight tusked elephant upper molar (45194)
  • Panthera leo: lion left metatarsal (M9599a)
  • Stephanorhinus hemitoechus: rhinoceros skull (45206)
  • Ursus arctos: bear canine tooth (M34030)

These are interpreted using interactive displays on several touchscreen computers. They continue to be popular with visitors, particularly families and school groups. However, space in the permanent display is limited and the Museum has not been able to expand this display further.

2011: Caroline Juby (Royal Holloway, University of London, Department of Geography) published her PhD thesis, London Before London: Reconstructing a Palaeolithic Landscape. This paper contains a wealth of information about Ilford as well as the rest of London.

2012: Plaque unveiled to mark the site of Ilford prehistoric finds

2015: the Ice Age Ilford exhibition opens at Redbridge Museum, bringing to life the lost world of the mammoths. Replica mammoth skull unveiled in Ilford museum following five-year campaign.