Two gentlemen belch torrents of water at one another, like unenviable superheroes. Ships are caught up in the maelstrom, while the nearby land is flooded. That's a superficial reading of this eye-catching mosaic, hidden away on a Barking industrial road. But the artwork includes many references to a remarkable local history.
It's fair to say that most Londoners never visit Creekmouth. It's a dusty enclave south of Barking, where the River Roding issues into the Thames, guarded by the mighty portcullis of the Barking Creek Barrier. Today, it is characterised by gritty industrial roads, parked-up HGVs, recycling stations and small factories. To the east, Dagenham Sunday Market is one of the few draws for those who don't work in the area.
But Creekmouth has a history. The small Thameside village was established in the 1850s by John Bennett Lawes. Twin rows of cottages housed workers for the Lawes Chemical and Fertiliser Company, one of the first places on the planet to manufacture artificial fertilisers. The village also boasted a school and an inn called The Crooked Billet. The latter still stands as the River Restaurant. It specialises in Romanian weddings.
Even in Victorian times, Creekmouth was isolated from the rest of the Barking area, surrounded by marshy land to the north and the River Thames to the south. The worst disaster in London's recorded history occurred nearby in 1878. Out on the Thames, the Princess Alice paddle steamer collided with a collier and immediately sank. Over 650 people were killed, many drowning in the raw sewage emanating from outfalls at Crossness and Barking.
Their fate is remembered in the Creekmouth mural. The heavily laden Princess Alice is seen at the centre, in the moment of collision with the much larger Bywell Castle. The artwork is by Tamara Froud and is known as Soul Searching in Creekmouth. It was erected with the help of the Creekmouth Preservation Society, whose splendid website contains many photographs and memories of the area.
As an attached plaque explains:
'Two old souls talk across a river, remembering times gone by in Creekmouth Village. As their words transform into the waters of the Thames and the Roding, the history of Creekmouth and the surrounding area is brought to life: from the Princess Alice disaster to the looming chimneys of Barking Power Station, and the flood that spelled the end of village life.'
Also depicted are the workers' cottages, the Crooked Billet pub, and the Handley Page factory. Handley Page was Britain's first manufacturer of aircraft, including the so-called Yellow Peril monoplane shown in the mural. A small facility opened near Creekmouth in 1909 before moving to Cricklewood a few years later.
The Great Flood of 1953 effectively put paid to the Creekmouth of old. Today, there is little if any residential population, although industrial activity continues apace. The wider area is set for major change once again, however. The Barking Riverside scheme should see thousands of new homes built just to the east, along with a new Overground station. Anyone interested in London's history should take a look around now, before the area is transformed.
Want to see the area for yourself? Footprints of London tour guide Rob Smith organises occasional tours, with the next planned for 5 September.