The dangers of magnet fishing in Tower Hamlets waterways

James Norton, left, with Dylan and Shane Church at the Regents Canal in Victoria Park. Picture: Adrian Zorzut

James Norton, left, with Dylan and Shane Church at the Regents Canal in Victoria Park. Picture: Adrian Zorzut - Credit: Archant

Unexploded ordnance. It’s a term some may be familiar with but what many may not know is that Tower Hamlets is littered with them.

A Spitfire bullet found by magnet fishing. Picture: Adrian Zorzut

A Spitfire bullet found by magnet fishing. Picture: Adrian Zorzut - Credit: Archant

A military term to describe unexploded hardware like bombs and hand grenades, unexploded ordnance (UXO) lurk deep inside the borough’s canals and are a literal time bomb waiting to go off.

A survey by Landmark, an analytics firm specialising in property, estimates 10 per cent of Second World War bombs dropped on London failed to detonate.

In one night alone during April 1941, researchers at City, University of London point out, 446 tonnes of TNT were unleashed on the capital. A worrisome 58 tonnes did not explode.

The Canal and River Trust, which oversees 2,000 miles of waterways, is responsible for their clean-out. However, what they miss, magnet fishermen pick up.

James Norton with his magnet fishing kit. Picture: Adrian Zorzut

James Norton with his magnet fishing kit. Picture: Adrian Zorzut - Credit: Archant


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James Norton, 32, from Battersea, is one of them.

A novice at the sport – he bought a magnet and rope just four months ago after watching others online – James spends many a weekend in the borough searching for antiques to trade or rubbish to remove.

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He is joined by father and son pair Shane and Dylan Church who spend dawn till dusk scouring Regents and Hertford Union canals.

The group fish out all sorts of wares from bikes, couches and cars (yes, cars) to religious totems, co2 canisters, and, more sinisterly, guns and knives.

Foreign coins found in the canal. Picture: Adrian Zorzut

Foreign coins found in the canal. Picture: Adrian Zorzut - Credit: Archant

But its UXOs - and the regularity at which they come across them - that causes the most concern.

“If there’s a bomb and it’s getting moved around constantly about by the traffic of boats then if that bomb gets caught and hits the hull of a boat, that will go bang,” James warned.

In fact, just last month, the group dredged up a Mills hand grenade beneath Gunmakers Bridge at Victoria Park, prompting a temporary lockdown of the area until the Met’s bomb squad was called out.

He has also drawn out a Stokes mortar, which saw much of Hoxton’s towpath closed for hours, and claims to have found numerous First and Second Word War handguns.

A grenade. Picture: Adrian Zorzut

A grenade. Picture: Adrian Zorzut - Credit: Archant

James said magnet fishing can be dangerous and urged any beginners to never go alone.

The trust, on the other hand, advises against all types of magnet fishing.

A spokesperson said: “From time to time on our network, people do magnet fishing. It is not impossible that while magnet fishing, you could find something that poses a risk to the public.

“Although the majority of people are responsible, they might leave pieces of unwanted, sharp, rusty metal on the towpath.

“As towpaths are places that are enjoyed by lots of families and children, this could be unsafe for them.

“So, our policy is to explain the dangers of magnet fishing and ask people not to do it.”

James explained that Tower Hamlets is filled with UXOs due to the high number of armaments factories that had once existed in the borough which produced weapons for British troops.

He said it was not uncommon for the occasional grenade to roll off a barge while they were being transported along the canal, or worse, deliberately thrown in.

“In the times of World War One and Two, when they were making grenades, if a worker had made them wrong, they would have their wages docked so instead they put them in their pockets and dumped them in the canal when their shift had finished,” James said.

It comes as no wonder people like James and the trust remain committed to their safe removal.

He added: “When you walk down a canal it looks really peaceful; it looks like there’s nothing there but once you get under the silt, that’s where all your stuff is.

“It could be anything from a hairpin to a lock key to a hand grenade or motorbike. You’re always quite surprised about what you pull up.”

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