A new exhibition has just opened in Erith Museum which uncovers an intriguing new dimension to the town's history. Chief reporter LINDA PIPER finds out more ...

ROGER Griffith said in his account of the Thames in 1746: "Erith, a small town on the Kentish shore, is remarkable for little else but smuggling".

But as researcher Cliff Pereira has revealed, there was a whole lot more to Erith in the 17th and 18th Centuries than contraband.

It has taken him four months of painstaking work to plug a gap in the town's history, searching through maps and ship's manifests and diaries.

Mr Pereira, 45, from Springfield Road, Welling, even found someone with his own surname staying at the Running Horses pub during the 1881 census.

He said: "Most people know about the Royal dockyards of Henry VIII and the growth of industry on the riverfront in Victorian times.

"But I wanted to know what was going on in between."

In fact Erith had become an important part of one of England's best-known monopolies the East India Company.

Because the Thames is comparatively shallow between Woolwich and Erith, it was impossible for the company to send its ships from the Port of London, fully laden.

So they sailed down river to Erith, where they took on ballast and heavy goods before setting sail for the Far East.

And on the homeward journey, they would off-load cargo and ballast before returning to London with the remainder of their goods.

The exhibition gives a flavour of the sort of cargoes being carried and how the modern-day industries of Erith grew from their beginnings with the East India Company.

It also traces the links between well-known land-owning families such as the Wheatleys and the company.

An engraving from the 1700s (below) shows dozens of ships sailing down the Thames and several moored off Erith.

If you look carefully you can see the houses scattered down the riverfront and a pier stretching out into the river.

The houses are also likely to have included company warehouses.

One of the star exhibits of the exhibition, which also coincides with Black History Month, is a clay pipe recovered, like many others, from the Erith foreshore.

The pipes were tossed overboard by sailors and most are completely plain in design.

But this one has a bowl in the shape of an African's head.

Mr Pereira explained: "The pipe would have been filled with tobacco, probably from Virginia.

"It happens that an agent local to Erith, called Biggs, had plantations in Virginia, at Chesapeake Bay, which grew tobacco, rice and indigo.

"And the workers on those plantations were likely to have been slaves from West Africa."

The use of saltpetre as ballast on homeward journeys and its use in making gunpowder resulted in powder houses developing along the riverfront the precursor to the later armaments industry.

Cotton and linen bales were off-loaded for bleaching in Crayford, a forerunner of the textile industry in the area which ended with the closure of the David Evans silk mills.

Even for those who think they know the history of Erith, this is a fascinating exhibition, made more so by Mr Pereira's running commentary on the exhibits.

It is hoped he may be persuaded to give some talks at the museum about the free exhibition, while it is still on display.

The exhibition runs until the end of December and the museum, in Walnut Tree Road, Erith, is open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 2.15pm to 5.15pm and on Saturdays from 2.15pm to 4.45pm.