Out on the Ait

It was to be at Isleworth where the FROG team were going to look at the remains of a motor launch from WWI, ML286 otherwise known as Cordon Rouge or Eothen. In WW2 she was one of the little ships which went to Dunkirk. She is also believed to be the last motor launch of her type still in existence, having been designed in the US and shipped from Canada in 1916 for The Navy in WWI.

At Greenwich on the training days they said, ‘It’s very muddy here today. It’s not usually.’ All I can say is, they know nothing about mud. At Isleworth it was boot grabbing, foot deep, nasty, grey and clinging. Our leader did some experimental archaeology and built an (?) Anglo Saxon style walkway of stray branches so as not to lose his volunteers, or at least their boots, in the mud.

However by the second day the shape of the boat had begun to emerge and we could see her deck and two portholes that had bronze and brass fittings. The men got very excited by the engines and jumped into the wreck with “the big trowel” to dig them out.


We had visitors too. BBC4 came and filmed us for ‘Digging for Britain’. An expert on war boats came called Antony Firth and he showed us pictures of the ML fleet as they had looked in their prime. He also had some very touching pencil drawings from the IWM of ML boat crews by Geoffrey Allfree, a war artist. They were such young men.

A trawl around the websites when back home showed that the artist Geoffrey Allfree had actually commanded ML286 in 1916, when she was a very new boat, so those young men in the pictures may well have served on our boat. Were their ghosts watching us poking around? Geoffrey Allfree himself died on another ML boat, no 247 in 1918. His body was never recovered.

On the next day our leader produced clipboard, pencil and rubber and I suddenly remembered it wasn’t all just about moving mud. I’d forgotten what happens next. Baselines and scales had faded from memory. When in doubt copy a friend. But I might do a little practice at mapping my sitting room before the next outing! It was a splendid week for me, though I only did three days. I have rarely been more exhausted than I was on day one, nor wetter on day two (that hose with about 27 holes in it), but by day three I had a sense of what we’d found. New friends including the youngest FROG ever, as yet unborn, some (expensive) beer drunk and lots of new stuff learnt. I think I am going to enjoy being a citizen archaeologist.


I regularly bird watch and feed the ducks at Isleworth but from now on, every time I do, I shall look towards the Ait and think of that dead boat hidden there. I shall wonder about her life as a fancy houseboat in the 1920s and 1930s fitted out with bronze and brass fittings by Tiffany. But mostly I shall think of all those young men who served on her in WWI and of her adventures as a little ship at Dunkirk in WWII.