Stortford (G-B): Archaeological finds in South Street reveal smelly past

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Decorative bowl
A reminder of Bishop's Stortford's smelly history has been unearthed by archaeologists investigating the site of a new retirement home in South Street.

Experts from Oxford Archaeology East, working with developer Churchill Retirement Living, have spent four weeks evaluating and excavating the Swan Dock area.

The dig uncovered previously unknown clay-lined leather tanning pits from the late 18th century, when previously the area was considered to be inhabited.

The findings suggest that the pits could have started as a cottage industry and developed into a co-operative or small business on the site.

Archaeologists think that more tanning pits could have existed in the area, but that the construction of the docks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries may have damaged evidence of this.

The digs also showed the history of the docks themselves, and findings reveal a previously undiscovered phase, again suggesting construction could have started earlier than was originally believed.

A number of interesting artefacts were found, including tools relating to the tanning industry which are not often found in situ. A 1st century Roman brooch was also discovered at the site, revealing Bishop's Stortford's earliest roots.

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Roman broach

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Tanning tools

Dennis McNamara, site manager at Churchill Retirement Living, said: "While we are investing in Bishop's Stortford's future, it is also incredibly important for us to preserve the site's history.

"We are grateful to Oxford Archaeology East for their professional and helpful work at the site, and are incredibly excited about the findings and what they show about the history of the area. Once they have been analysed by a specialist, we hope to be able to display the artefacts for all to enjoy."

Churchill Retirement Living's new development will consist of 53 private, self-contained apartments designed especially for the over-60s. The first residents are anticipated by July next year.

There are other reminders in the town of Stortford's tanning past.

The large, three-storey building at the top of Market Square is currently Zizzi restaurant, but according to historian Paul Ailey it was once the Curriers Arms pub.

Its name was derived from the leather trade that once flourished in this area, carried out, perhaps, in either of the adjacent yards. A currier dressed and coloured tanned leather.

In his online archive, Mr Ailey writes: "In the 15th century Water Lane was the centre of the town's leather industry, at one time accommodating no fewer than 13 tanneries.

"The importance of the trade in the town can be judged by the number of times the surnames Tanner and Skinner occur in past court rolls and churchwardens' accounts, as well as in the naming of two public houses. Market Square was once home to the Curriers Arms and in London Road ... the Tanners Arms.

"The only downside to this industry was the foul stench emitted from the tanning pits, which in Stortford's case was compounded by the constant smell emitted from the kilns of local maltings. Together, they created odours so revolting that the district was best avoided."