‘He probably did not get the credit he deserved’ - 50 years since Hornchurch man’s ‘unique’ mammoth find
12:00 27 July 2014
Palaeontology is not a subject many will readily associate with Havering.
So the 50th anniversary today of one of the most significant discoveries in recent history - by an A-level student from Hornchurch - may come as a bit of a surprise.
On July 27, 1964, amateur geologist John Hesketh found a leg bone and pelvis of a woolly mammoth in a clay pit in Aveley, sparking an National History Museum-backed excavation that resulted in the discovery of two amazingly well-preserved elephant skeletons.
Sadly now deceased, 23-year-old Mr Hesketh at the time lived at the aptly named Rockingham Avenue, and passed the site of the find - near Sandy Lane - every day on his commute to college.
Twice or three times a week, he would stop at the clay pit, then owned by The Tunnel Portland Cement Company, to satisfy his fascination for fossils, occasionally picking up small remnants of a bygone time.
But nothing that could really prepare him for the scale of what he was about to unearth - a woolly mammoth and the now extinct straight-tusked elephant, preserved in the ground for more than 10,000 years.
“The most important breakthrough to occur in Britain” was how the Recorder, then known as the Romford, Havering and Hornchurch Recorder, described the discovery.
“A unique paleontological find, the like of which has not been matched since,” was what it was called in a recent paper for the geology journal Deposits.
But Bob Williams - the essay’s author and member of the Essex Rock and Mineral Society - laments that John was never adequately credited for his work.
“The skeletons went on display to the public in a special gallery constructed at the National History Museum ... The display ran for 20 years from 1970 to 1990.
“Regrettably, John’s name was only featured in a rather insignificant piece of the informative text that accompanied the exhibit and the clear implication was that ownership of the bones lay with the museum.”
The skeletons went back on show in 1997, where they remain today “with acknowledgement of John Hesketh’s role in the discovery”, according to the museum.
But that the text originally brushed over John’s involvement seems more galling given the context of the straight-tusked elephant’s discovery.
Despite being from a completely different era, separated by perhaps as many 100,000 years, the mammal was found just yards from the mammoth by another amateur palaeontologist - John’s mother.
It’s said Doreen Hesketh had asked the Natural History Museum’s Dr Tony Sutcliffe - who along with colleagues had by this point been drafted in to help John with the dig - what the chances were of another skeleton being found, only to be told it highly unlikely.
The woman, who has outlived her son and is now 93, then picked up a broom and with three sweeps uncovered the elephant’s lower jaw, which had only just been missed by the heavy duty clay digger that was helping to excavate the site.
Today John’s historic (in more ways than one) discovery is barely remembered, and his name seldom cited when it is - despite the thoroughly responsible way in which the amateur geologist reported the find to experts when he realised its magnitude.
Christopher Long, who in 1964 was a 16-year-old budding journalist drafted in by a friend to help with the excavation, has nothing but admiration for John.
“As someone who’s worked as a journalist all my life, a piece of advice I would give is if you ever discover something like that, whether it’s a Richard III or a mammoth, do the responsible thing and let somebody know who knows what it’s about,” he said.
“I think that’s what he (John) will be remembered for.
“But I certainly agree he probably did not get the credit he deserved.”
• If you’re interested in learning more about geology, with particular reference to east London and Essex, the Essex Rock and Mineral Society meet on the second Tuesday of every month.
• To read Christopher Long’s story of his involvement with the Aveley Elephants dig, visit christopherlong.co.uk/oth/aveley.html