The Groundbreakers

Excavating history at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

When visitors to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park admire the spectacular architecture of the London Aquatics Centre, the Arcelor-Mittal Orbit, the Lee Valley VeloPark and the London Stadium, or stroll through the gardens and meadowland, it must be difficult for them to imagine that this site has a rich social, cultural and industrial heritage. It includes industrial history and archaeology of international, national and local significance. Originally the area was marshland surrounding the River Lea, which provided navigation and tidal power. The mills here were well established in 1066 and in succeeding centuries the area attracted a whole host of industries. It was the site of the Great Eastern Railworks which employed thousands to build locomotives and carriages and an engineering school; numerous factories including gasworks, chemical processing, calico printing, drug making, soap production, oil and candle making and early plastic manufacturing. Other parts of the site have a rich social history including playing fields (the 1948 Olympic running track was moved from Wembley to the Lea Valley shortly after the 1948 games) and 100 year old allotments.

The built heritage includes some surviving buildings such as the Bryant and May match factory, the Three Mills tidal watermills and the waterway and lock system that transported goods for industry and provided local people with opportunities to swim, walk and fish. Local labour history includes the ‘Green Camp’ set up by the unemployed after the First World War, the Stratford Co-operative Society, the National Union of Gas Workers and union campaigns in the inter-war period.

Most traces of industries and the communities that served them are now almost entirely underground. These included lost streets, roads and railways, a tannery, a calico printshop, a distiller, an engineering workshop, a chemical factory, the Yardley factory and the Stratford railway works. They were recorded and uncovered in archaeological excavations made on the site and the history that was uncovered – and destroyed – in the construction phase of the Park. Today under the Park visitor’s feet, two tunnels run in parallel across the site for six kilometres carrying power lines and fibre optic cables comprising a whole networked infrastructure that keeps East London plugged into the global information flow, alongside Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s famous (and still visible) Northern outfall sewer which relieved the city of cholera and did much to clean up the pollution of the river Thames.

Our project will produce three audio heritage trails, including an adventure trail for children, and one for people with learning difficulties. The trails bring together local history research, oral history recordings, photographs and memories of the site and draw on accounts of the archaeological discoveries made in the excavations, drawing on both archaeological reports and interviews with the archaeologists concerned. We would also like to draw on the more recent history of the Olympic plans and their impact on the site, making use of the British Olympic Association archive which is held at the University of East London and oral history recordings collected by UEL researchers with the ‘Groundbreakers’ – those who worked on breaking up and clearing the industrial remains and transforming the site to its current use. Many were amateur geologists and archaeologists and whose findings can also help us to construct a rich memoryscape of the Olympic Park.

The theme of groundbreaking as both a material and metaphoric element provides the main connecting thread in the trail narratives, embedding the site’s archaeology and industrial heritage in a narrative which gives it contemporary relevance for both adults and young people. The recent flooding of parts of the site and controversy about the construction of a new sewage system in East London highlight the continuing relevance of environmental issues first raised over a century and a half ago. Similarly the historical association of the site with dirty and dangerous work was reiterated in local attitudes to the Olympic Park tunnellers as a ‘race apart’. The documentation of the contribution which the manual workforce made to the building and transformation of the area also raises long term issues about the status of manual work and civil engineering in the age of the knowledge economy. The waterways provide a thread of ‘liquid history’ connecting the industrial heritage to the present configuration of the landscape.

We see this project as making a major contribution to the 2012 Olympic legacy narrative, in providing an easily accessible tool for visitors to the Park, and consolidating the position of the Park as both a popular ‘lieu de mémoire’ and an international heritage site.

There will be an accompanying volunteer and community engagement programme aimed at key local audiences including local residents, school and university students and older members of the community. This will include pioneering multi-media work with (and for) people with learning difficulties.

The project will be developed in partnership with the Building Exploratory, recognised experts in engaging communities with local heritage.