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St. Johns Church, Stratford (church memorials), STRATFORD, London Borough of Newham, TQ38998444, Historical site only
Historical site only
St. John's Church on Stratford Broadway, constructed in 1834, is a well-known landmark in the centre of Stratford, next to the main shopping centre. The church commemorates two Essex amateur geologists - John Gibson and Sir Antonio Brady - who, during different periods of the 19th century, collected bones of Ice Age mammals such as rhinoceros and elephant and from the Ilford brick pits. Of these two collectors, Brady was the most successful and was responsible for saving vast numbers of these 200,000 year old fossils from destruction by the operators of the brick fields and ensuring that they were preserved, the majority now residing in the Natural History Museum, London.
History of the collectors
The earliest of the Ilford elephant hunters was John Gibson (1778-1840), a partner in a chemical firm in Stratford. Gibson was a native of Yorkshire and is thought to have moved to London at the beginning of the 19th century. There are records of him living in Plaistow in 1805 and later in West Ham and Bow. Gibson’s main claim to fame is the discovery of the famous fossil ‘hyena den’ at Kirkdale Cave, Yorkshire which he found when on a trip visiting relatives in 1821, causing a media sensation at the time. Shortly after his discoveries in Yorkshire there is a record of him collecting Ice Age fossils from Ilford. An edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1824 has an account of his discovery of the entire skeleton of a large mammoth at Ilford. Gibson donated bones from Ilford to the Yorkshire Museum, and in his will he left a large collection to the Royal College of Surgeons in London where they were catalogued by Britain’s most famous Palaeontologist, Richard Owen.
By far the most active and successful of the Ilford fossil collectors was Sir Antonio Brady (1811-1881), a senior civil servant from Stratford and a well known and respected local figure. He aided many social, educational and religious causes and played an important part in preserving Epping Forest. He was knighted by Queen Victoria at Windsor in 1870 for his public service. It appears that he first started collecting fossils from Ilford in about 1844 and continued for 30 years, making friends with the owners of the brickworks ensuring that he would be notified when something important was found. Brady would reward the finder and compensate the labourers for loss of earnings while work was stopped to allow the find to be carefully excavated. Brady supervised the painstaking excavation of an enormous number of fossil mammals but his greatest moment came in 1863 when the skull of the ‘Ilford mammoth’ was unearthed which had tusks nearly 3 metres (10 feet) long. Brady devoted considerable time and money to ensuring that all the important finds were preserved, and his magnificent collection of over 900 specimens was finally donated to the Natural History Museum in London. The collection contained the bones of more than 100 mammoths and at least 77 rhinoceroses. There were also bones of straight-tusked elephant, bison, lion, brown bear and giant deer. A catalogue of the collection was published by Brady in 1874. Brady was an original member of the Essex Field Club which he attended and promoted; in 1880 he led a field trip for the club to the Ilford brick pits.
Brady died in 1881 and is buried in St. John’s churchyard. His funeral was attended by an immense congregation of friends and neighbours including between 400 and 500 persons in the churchyard. The chancel of the church was erected in his memory in 1884 and a brass commemorative plaque to Brady can be seen on the south wall of the chancel near the organ.
John Gibson died in 1840 and he was buried in a vault beneath the church. A white marble memorial tablet to him can be seen on the wall of the North Aisle.
Brady is thought to have started actively collecting fossils from Ilford about four years after Gibson’s death and there is no evidence that these two famous collectors ever met. However, when Brady first came to live in Stratford in 1837 Gibson was living nearby at Bow. Both men attended St. John’s Church and it is interesting to speculate that they may have met there, thus sparking Brady’s interest in fossil bones - an interest that was eventually to lead to him assembling the greatest collection of Ice Age mammal fossils in Britain.
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Reference: George 1997b, George 1998, George 1999.
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