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A Rhino in the Thames: The Material Culture of Gentrification, Modernisation and Colonial Activity

Hanna Steyne

This article explores the social and economic impacts of the Chelsea Embankment construction in the 1870s through a small porcelain Rhino discovered on the Thames foreshore during my PhD fieldwork. In contextualising Rhinos in Victorian London and connections to colonial activity in India and Africa, I use this object as a lens through which to present my interdisciplinary, GIS based methodology, and the narratives I created about real people, places, and things in the past. By embracing post-humanist approaches, I have explored the lives of marginalised groups living with my study area.

This article discusses aspects of my PhD research and a significant, unique object found during fieldwork on the Thames foreshore carried out as part of my research. I am an archaeologist within the Department of Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology, and Egyptology (CAHAE), but my work straddles the disciplines of historical geography and digital humanities.

I used a multidisciplinary assemblage approach to weave together historical sources & archaeological remains to investigate the social & economic impacts of the construction of the Thames Embankment at Chelsea in the 1870s. Ostensibly, the embankments were built to house the low level sewers of the Metropolitan Board of Works’ main drainage system, designed by the celebrated Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette, and which took London’s sewage east, beyond the city, before being discharged into the tidal waters of the Thames. Traditional historiography around the Embankments are upper-class and male centred, dominated by celebratory narratives about the design and engineering. My research aims to challenge these narratives with diverse stories about the people whose lives were disrupted by the embankment construction, including women, children, immigrants from Europe and Africa, citizens of Empire, poor families, the elderly, and queer people, all of whom are represented in the census records for my study area. My research embraces ambiguity in historical and archaeological research, acknowledges the power of map making, and the value of creative mapping and storytelling as methodology and interpretation, and as part of the assemblage with which I work.

The object at the heart of this paper is a small porcelain rhino, which was found within one of a number of discreet artefact scatters that I identified on the Thames foreshore, many of which are associated with the remains of jetty piles, barge beds or historic wharves. The rhino was absolutely unique amongst the many hundreds of artefacts we saw on the foreshore, most of which were small pieces of decorated ceramic, clay pipes, and broken glass or stoneware bottles.

My research looks at the 40 year period of transition around the construction of the Embankment in 1871-4. I begin in 1851, 20 years prior to Embankment, when the Chelsea riverside was a busy waterfront with wharves, jetties & piers, serving businesses such as boat yards, coal wharves, & breweries.

Part of the methodology includes digitising a range of historic, archaeological, pictorial and secondary sources to create a series of deep maps that are indicative of each of the three periods under study: 1851, 1871, and 1891 (see figure 1). These maps integrate information about the economic landscape, wealth of residents, population density, activity on the foreshore, road layouts, open and green spaces -- all of which come together to provide an indication of the character of this area.

In 1851, the area is a mix of poor back streets and fairly comfortable households on the main street – which is a mix of residential and commercial properties, with families living above businesses, and a small number of well-to-do households. The waterfront is occupied by businesses, and there are large areas of open land -- some of which seems to have been used by the wharves as storage yards.

The Embankment at Chelsea was built between 1871 and 1874, and replaced the working waterfront with a wide, tree-lined road linking Chelsea to central London. The Embankment included the reclamation of huge areas of foreshore, wharves, jetties, and demolished housing – all of which were occupied by poor households. New mansions for the very rich were built facing the water, and a section of Bazalgette's sewage system was contained within the Embankment.

In the years immediately prior to the construction of the Embankment, the waterfront was filled with businesses, with extensive areas of activity indicated by the remains of a number of jetties and records of wharves within historical documents. Poor areas of housing remain on the back streets, whilst the well-to-do remain on a single street with a small number of houses. There are almost as many businesses as residential properties on the main street, and the amount of open land gradually reduced as more buildings, particularly houses, are built in the area. Population density is at its highest at this time, with large numbers of labourers and bricklayers living in the area, likely to be working on the embankment.

My research investigates the ways in which the social and economic landscape of the area changed through time, taking 1891 (20 years after the construction) as the final point of study. Victorian embankment of the Thames was part of an improvement & sanitation agenda, but also a wider modernisation of London into a 'worthy' capital of the Empire. The loss of the working waterfront, working class housing, and construction of new mansions meant that post-Embankment Chelsea had a very different physical, social, and economic landscape.

Figure 1: Deep Mapping of 1891 (Base Mapping OS county Series 1:25in 1st Revision 1894 copyright Edina Digimap) (Image by Author)

By 1891, the landscape had changed dramatically. As shown in Figure 1, there are no areas of activity on the waterfront or foreshore -- that area is now dominated by housing occupied by Upper Middle, and Upper Class households. One of the poor streets – Calthorpe Place – has been replaced with the well-to-do area of Tite Street. George Place, which was classed as fairly comfortable, has been replaced by mansion flats, which are unoccupied at this date, but are shortly occupied by the Well-to-do. Additionally, there is much less commercial space and open land, and the population density is much lower than in previous periods.

Turning back to the Rhino; the first point to make is that rhinos were rather uncommon decorative motifs on English Victorian ceramics & unusual subjects for figurines.

Figure 2: The porcelain Rhino in situ on the Thames foreshore at Chelsea (Photograph by Author 2016)

This small rhino was found on the Thames foreshore, close to the Royal Chelsea Hospital in April 2016. It measures 5.5cm in length and is made of porcelain. It has a faint line along its tummy and back indicating it was made in a mould, suggestive of mass production and industrialisation. It is not possible to tell whether it lost its legs during manufacturing or if it was broken later in its life.

Intact examples of the Thames rhino were found on eBay & Etsy, allegedly excavated from woodland behind houses of Kister Factory workers, in Scheibe-Alsbach, Germany. The Kister Factory produced animal figurines from 1860, whilst the eBay and Etsy sellers dated the Rhinos 1880 – 1910.

The porcelain rhino may allude to new cultural experiences in London, perhaps celebrating the expansion of Empire through places such as London Zoo, which first opened to the public in 1847. Whether the Rhino was a child’s toy or an adult’s trinket, the ownership of such an exotic animal could been seen as a statement on the owner’s worldliness, their embracement of globalisation through knowledge of exotic animals, and perhaps claiming a place, in a small way, within the expanding empire and imperial world which dominated political, social and economic life in Britain at the time.

The Thames Rhino embodies the changing cultural landscape of Londoners as trade and colonisation reached around the globe, into Africa, India, & Asia. Using an assemblage approach, it is possible to see how the relationships with Indian rhinos vary in scale from local relationships between the porcelain Rhino, an individual in Chelsea and the Thames, to global relationships between Londoners, London Zoo, colonial systems of power in India, Asia, and Africa, indigenous peoples and the natural environment of colonised lands, and the maritime networks and vessels which transported people and animals across the globe to create and maintain these relationships.

But what might the story of the Thames Rhino have been? Within my research, I have tied people, places, and things recorded within historical documents and archaeological material together to create narratives about their lives and relationships in the past. This is a story of the rhino:

Mother gives good cuddles, but it wasn't enough. Connie was so angry and desperately sad for her loss. She had watched open mouthed as her precious rhino tumbled out of her fingers, rolled across the granite of the Embankment and then off of the side, splashing into the river below. She heaved a deep breath and shuddered with the deep grief that is unique to 5 year olds. She was so angry with her little sister Vera for trying to snatch her Rhino again, thinking back to her visit to London Zoo with Daddy. She had been so excited to see all the animals, but when she learnt that there were two Rhinos at the zoo, one from India and one from Burma, her imagination took hold. She had imagined the rhinos roaming in the heat of an exotic jungle, as bejewelled maharajas and explorers silently tracked and captured them for transport to London. She had been told that it was a great thing for the brave men to have brought the rhinos to London, but she did wonder what the rhinos thought of their new home. She remembered how magical the zoo had been, but thought back to the brick home and yard that the rhinos now lived in, and how strange it must seem to them, being so different to the lush green and heat of the jungles. She still remembered the heat of her old home in Bermuda, where Vera had been born, and wondered if the rhinos felt as cold as she still did sometimes. She sighed, squeezed her eyes shut, and held on to Mother tightly. With Daddy away with the navy again, the little rhino he had given her had been a lovely reminder of him. It had felt like a piece of exotic India, and a connection to Daddy as he sailed across the seas. It had linked her to a place beyond the cold of London, but now it was gone. Lost in the river. She really did hate her little sister sometimes.

Archaeology is an object-focused discipline, but taking interdisciplinary approaches to material culture and archaeological sites offers more detailed and varied data sets from which to work. My research uses one such approach to create diverse and alternative narratives about 19th century riverside London. The objects I use, such as this Rhino, give us a glimpse into the rapidly changing world of late 19th century Victorian Britain, in the midst of industrialisation, colonisation, and globalisation that would go on to change the world.



Recent PhD graduate, Department of Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology & Egyptology (CAHAE), University of Manchester

Hanna Steyne is a maritime archaeologist who has worked in commercial archaeology and heritage management in the UK and Australia. They are currently working as a TA at University of Manchester and as a Heritage Management Specialists at Wessex Archaeology. With an interest in industrialisation, globalisation, and colonial legacies, their research is usually multidisciplinary, GIS based, embraces ambiguity, and likes to centre maritime connections, watery places, and post-humanist perspectives.


Twitter & Instagram: @hlsteyne


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