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Six millennia of remarkable resilience

By Alexis Haslam, community archaeologist

The theme of this year’s London History Day aptly concerns London’s ‘resilience’ – a term defined as ‘an ability to recover quickly after something unpleasant, such as shock or injury’. In the coming weeks we will certainly see how resilient this great city is. Vague as everything may seem at the moment, the world of archaeology has in many instances continued to operate throughout this pandemic. As part of the construction industry, excavation has carried on. Sites which were shut down are now reopening and previously furloughed archaeologists are returning to work.

At the Palace we have continued behind the scenes with much reduced staffing. We have been operating a rota system with individual staff members coming in once a week. The garden team have of course been working incredibly hard and have very much been missing their volunteers. Elowyn, our front of house supervisor, has been in almost every day opening up the shutters throughout the Palace, watering the Tudor courtyard and checking for any issues, along with writing blogs and editing videos for the website.

Spring at the Palace, before COVID-19 forced our grounds to close.

When I was asked to write this piece I started to wonder what I could possibly focus on. Bishop Sarah Mullally gave a speech on ‘Rethinking Resilience’ at the Church of England Education Conference last year. So I thought I could perhaps focus on Bishop Aylmer who had been a tutor to Lady Jane Grey. He was too much of a divisive figure however. Then I thought maybe Catherine Tait, wife of Bishop Archibald Campbell Tait, would be a suitable subject. She was heavily involved in investigating the appalling conditions of Britain’s workhouses in the mid to late 19th century and established an orphanage in Fulham for girls who had lost their parents from the cholera epidemic in 1866. However, this dialogue veered towards philanthropy as opposed to resilience.

The more I thought about it, the obvious answer to the theme of resilience lies within the Fulham Palace site itself. Throughout most of this pandemic I have been working on the Palace’s forthcoming publication on the archaeology and history of the grounds. This has involved numerous email exchanges with specialists at our archaeological contractor, Pre-Construct Archaeology (PCA), as they undertake the final analysis of material recovered from the site. Just yesterday I learned that the various excavations at the Palace have recovered some 1,800 pieces of struck flint. To quote the lithic expert Barry Bishop:

The lithic assemblage recovered from Fulham Palace is one of the largest ever recovered from the London region and indicates intense and persistent occupation from the Mesolithic and through to the Bronze Age at this riverside locale.

Barry Bishop
Polished axe, possibly from the Great Langdale valley in the Lake District. Found in the garden of the vicarage of All Saints Church. Flint, Neolithic (4,000-2,200 BC)

In short, people have been visiting the site for some 6,000 years and they have returned time and time again. The Late Mesolithic to Neolithic transition (4,000 BC) marks a particularly intense period of activity on the site. Although what we refer to as ‘features’ from this period (such as pits and ditches) have yet to be discovered, the sheer amount of struck flint tells us that the land on which Fulham Palace sits was very busy at this time. This may have been due to the presence of a ford close to Putney Bridge which meant that the Thames could be crossed, as well as the possibility that the land was surrounded by a natural channel creating an attractive island, or ‘eyot’. The Late Mesolithic to Early Neolithic period is certainly intriguing as society shifted from a nomadic pattern of hunting and gathering towards a more static populace as people began farming.

By the Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age (1,000 – 600/550BC) agricultural intensity along the Thames Valley had significantly increased, and Fulham Palace is no exception to this phenomenon. Although we may not have as yet discovered the field systems and animal droveways usually associated with this period of widescale pastoral activity, the identification of a potential barrow during the excavation of 2018 suggests that the land was valued and settled: prime location on the River Thames which functioned as a main arterial route.

But then occupation along the valley ceases. Dave Yates has described the extent of collapse during this period as:

‘…so widespread it suggests a general crisis’.

The reasons behind this are unclear: a possible collapse in the bronze economy or a decline in the quality of farmland? Just as everywhere else, the site of Fulham Palace was abandoned – in this instance for some 800-900 years.

Yet the locale of the site has always been its trump card, the main facet that makes it so resilient. It may have been left vacant for centuries, but towards the end of the Roman period human settlement returned, possibly in the form of a small villa. Since then the site has continued to be highly valued and hence permanently occupied. The end of Roman Britain is generally viewed as taking place with the British revolt in AD 410 and the subsequent Rescript of Honorius in AD 411 when it was declared that Rome could no longer protect Britain. There was a return to an agrarian economy as urban life vanished. Londinium was abandoned, tax and the money economy disappeared and the mass production of goods ceased. Yet the presence of early Saxon pottery (AD 400-600) at Fulham Palace indicates that this site wasn’t abandoned at all. It continued to be occupied, either by the Roman inhabitants, newcomers from the continent or perhaps a mixture of various peoples as acculturation began. We know that the Bishop of London acquired the site in AD 704, and there has been a palace of one form or another on the site since at least the 11th century.

It would take far too long to analyse the various highs and lows that Fulham Palace has experienced through the centuries, the complexities the nation has faced and the role of the Bishops of London within these crises. Yet if we are to see a more recent period of decline then we have only to look at the 20th century. A reduction in church finances made it more and more difficult to maintain the site. Areas were rented out as offices from the 1950s onwards and the last Bishop left in 1973. By the turn of the century the Palace was in terrible shape. The roof leaked horrifically, the grounds of this once fantastic garden were overgrown and the vinery within the walled garden had completely collapsed. Visitors were few and far between.

The derelict walled garden vinery during PCA Fulham Palace Restoration and Revival excavation (photo courtesy of PCA 2010)
The walled garden vinery in its restored glory (photo courtesy of Matthew Bruce 2019)

The establishment of a museum in the 1980s and the creation of Fulham Palace Trust in 2011 and three restoration projects funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Hammersmith and Fulham Council and many generous individual donors, trusts and foundations, have resulted in a transformation.  The  gardens are well on the way to a return to their former splendour, the vinery and bothies have been rebuilt, Bishop Sherlock’s room and the Palace buildings have been restored, along with the establishment of an education centre and a new museum.

Above the door in Bishop Porteus’s library hangs a somewhat pertinent sign which reads:


This was hung up when the Palace was used as a hospital in World War I as the recovering soldiers and nurses were encouraged to take courage in adversity.

'Spot of tiffin, chaps?' Freemasons hospital No.2: soldiers and nurses having lunch in the Tudor courtyard during the Palace’s time as a war hospital in WWI

The history of Fulham Palace is incredibly long and complicated, but it still stands today, a testament to the Bishops who cared for it, the council and then the Trust who restored it, the volunteers, staff and trustees who take great pride in it and the general public who appreciate it. I don’t think there are many buildings and grounds in London that have endured so much yet remain so unaffected. Resilient indeed. Hopefully we will be open again soon and we can welcome everybody back to the wonderful botanic gardens and our brand new museum.

Tudor knot garden in spring (Photo courtesy of Matthew Bruce 2019)

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