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Hackney Crocodile (precise location of find not known), HACKNEY, London Borough of Hackney, General information
Site category: London Clay, Claygate or Bagshot Beds
Historical site only
Although outside the old county of Essex (i.e. west of the River Lea) this site is included because of its historical interest as the first discovery of a fossil crocodile in the London Clay.
The fact that we know anything about this discovery is due entirely to James Parkinson (1755-1824), a London doctor who first described the disorder of the nervous system now known as Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson acquired a very large collection of fossils and played an important role in the development of palaeontology with his three volume work ‘Organic Remains of a Former World’ published between 1804 and 1811. He was also a founder member of the Geological Society of London which was formed in 1807.
The discovery of the Hackney crocodile is described in a footnote in Parkinson’s ‘Outlines of Oryctology’, published in 1822. He described the find as follows:
“It is with peculiar satisfaction that whilst this part of the work was in the printer’s hands, I was favoured by William Rhodes Esq. with some fossil bones which had been found in a pit dug in the London Clay, at a depth of eighteen feet from the surface, in Hackney Fields. Finding these to be the remains of a crocodile, and being aware that no such remains had hitherto been found in the formation, I immediately repaired to this pit, with the hope of securing the remaining parts of the skeleton; but too late; all the other fragments were irrevocably lost, except a few broken vertebrae. On perceiving the skeleton which, I was informed was lying in a curved position, the workmen had rushed on it with their pickaxes and shovels, each striving to obtain a portion of the supposed monster, until its demolition was accomplished.”
Parkinson obtained twelve vertebrae, two pieces of leg bone and fragments of the upper and lower jaws. He described the remains in some detail and stated that the teeth cavities were “beautifully encrusted with bright pyrites”.
Nearly thirty years later the well known palaeontologist and zoologist Richard Owen examined the remains for his Monograph on London Clay reptiles but concluded that they were not sufficiently perfect or characteristic to determine the species.
Unfortunately Parkinson did not give the exact location of the pit. It is thought that Hackney Fields was a local name given to what was then a very rural area but is now a large part of central Hackney.
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Reference: Parkinson 1822, George 1976.
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