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Newsletter, January 2014 (Issue 194)

Peter Bruff and the mammoth


When researching for my talk "The First Railway to Ipswich and Beyond " about Bruff building the Stoke Hill Tunnel, I read that woolly mammoth remains had been discovered during the excavation work in 1845/6. I spoke to Bob Markham, a fellow member and distinguished geologist, about this and he kindly sent me some notes on the subject which I have reproduced in slightly revised form and "illustrated" below.

The Stoke Bone Bed

This fossil bearing site has been known since Victorian times. The original Ipswich Railway Station, opened by the Eastern Union Railway in 1846, was in St Mary Stoke parish, south of Ipswich town centre. When the approach cutting to the southern (London) end of the railway tunnel through Stoke Hill was excavated; the workmen could hardly have expected to find the remains of fossil elephants.

The Ipswich Journal of the 4th December 1847 recorded tusks, teeth and bones of elephant from Stoke Hill donated to the newly opened Ipswich Museum (then in Museum Street) by Mr Girling. The Suffolk Chronicle of 18th May 1849 recorded; 'in a glass case in the Museum was a group of mammoth teeth, found at the site, of various sizes, showing that animals of all ages had died.'

The Ipswich Journal later that month reported a lecture given by Mr John Brown of Stanway in which he said that they were 'so plentiful that the teeth were carried about and offered for sale - two were purchased in Colchester'. John Brown presented specimens to the British Museum in 1852 and a Norwich man called Robert Fitch had specimens in his collection.

In 1908 Nina Francis Layard, an English poet, prehistorian, archaeologist and antiquary, opened up a small section at the side of the cutting, leading into the tunnel, for examination. Remains found included an enormous tusk of an adult mammoth, an uncut tooth of a baby mammoth and part of the claw bone of a lion. The tusk was in a fragmentary condition and fell into hundreds of conical pieces.

In 1919 a large portion of cliff to the east of the cutting at the south end of the tunnel was removed to enable construction of new railway sidings. Mr Woolford, Mechanical Engineer of the Great Eastern Railway, acquired bones and teeth from the workmen. He then granted permission for Nina Layard to excavate. On the 2nd March 1920 she picked up the bone-bearing bed; an extremely tenacious deep purple clay. The bones were in a good but fragile condition and comparatively few in number. They could be removed successfully. Twenty-two mammoth teeth were recovered, in some cases still retained in the jaws and also the foot bones and teeth of a large lion. Members of the Ipswich and District Field Club visited the Stoke Bone Bed excavation in April 1920. They found Nina Layard working in wet clay, with an umbrella in one hand and a knife she used for excavation in the other hand - quite a character. She eventually donated her finds to the Ipswich Museum.

Dr Smith-Woodward, a world expert on fossil fish, visited the site in June 1920 and discovered portions of the shell of a freshwater turtle. More fragmentary bones were found in 1975 by archaeologist John Wymer in a small excavation at the north end of the wagon repair works close to the main railway line.

What a most interesting vista would have greeted a visitor to the Stoke Hill area in those far-off days of pre-history.

Bob Markham and Merv Russen

    Front cover of issue 194 Cover, issue 194

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