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Mudlarking the Thames: How a Riverbed Became the World’s Biggest Archaeological Site

Mudlarking the Thames: How a Riverbed Became the World’s Biggest Archaeological Site

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A mudlark is the name given to a person who scavenges in the foreshore of a river for objects that could be sold. This term applies specifically to those operating along the Thames River in London during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although mudlarking continues today along the Thames, it isn’t quite the same sort of activity that it was a century or two ago.

For much of its history, the Thames was used by the people of London as a convenient place to dispose of their rubbish. Over the centuries, artifacts from all eras were deposited in the foreshore of the river. As the mud of the Thames is anaerobic (without oxygen), objects thrown into it are well-preserved. The Thames foreshore is regarded to be one of the richest archaeological sites in Britain, and perhaps one of the largest in the world.

The Job of Mudlarking

It was only during the 18 th century that mudlarking began to be carried out. The mudlarks of this period were interested in scavenging for small objects of value that had been dropped into the river, or cargo that had fallen off passing boats . These finds were then sold, and although this was normally for a meagre sum of money, mudlarking was a means of making a living at that time. In fact, mudlarking was recognized as a legitimate occupation until the early 20 th century.

Mudlarking on Bankside. (Rose of Academe_ / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Originally, the mudlarking was a job done by children, normally aged between 8 and 14 or 15. Most mudlarks were boys, but girls also partook in this activity. The mudlarks were a peculiar class of people, and were identifiable by their filthy appearance, ragged clothes, and strong stench. They were confined to the river and would begin work when the tide went out. They would scavenge the foreshore until the tide came back in.

Who Are the Mudlarks?

An account of an unnamed 13-year-old mudlark can be found in the extra volume of London Labour and the London Poor , published by the journalist Henry Mayhew in 1861. In his work, Mayhew considers mudlarks to be ‘Those who will not work’, and places them under the chapter of ‘Thieves and Swindlers’. Mudlarks belong to the sub-chapter ‘Felonies on the River Thames’, alongside river pirates and smugglers. Needless to say, mudlarking was regarded to be an activity of ill-repute during the 19 th century.

Mudlarks of Victorian London, The Headington Magazine, 1871. (Mervyn)

Mudlarking has changed much since then. Unlike their predecessors, today’s mudlarks are not destitute children who are forced to do such a job in order to earn some money. Instead, they are individuals who are enthusiastic about the history and archaeology of the city. In addition, modern day mudlarks have their own society, the Society of Thames Mudlarks, which has been in operation since 1976, and works closely with the Museum of London and the Portable Antiquities Scheme . Under this scheme, today’s mudlarks record their finds meticulously. Members of the public are also allowed to mudlark, provided they purchase a permit, and report any find that is over 300 years old. They are, however, only allowed to dig to a depth of several centimeters on the southern shore.

What Is Found While Mudlarking?

The artifacts found by modern day mudlarks come from every period of London’s history and paint an interesting and sometimes even personal history of the city. As an example, one of the more fascinating finds made by mudlark Nick Stevens is a trader’s token made by a vintner at Ye Maidenhead on Pudding Lane. The token was issued in 1657 by Brian Appleby and contains not only his name but also that of his wife, their trade, location, and date. Such tokens were produced by traders so that their customers could use them when the Mint ran out of coins.

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Mudlark Finds - exposed shoreline at high tide on the Thames. It is a dressed stone of some sort, flat and about A4 size with the mason's marks clearly visible. (Tom Lee / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

One of the oldest finds made by mudlarks is the fragment of a skull dating to the Neolithic period. Experts have determined that this skull fragment belonged to a male above 18 years of age. Radiocarbon dating also showed that the person had lived sometime around 3600 BC. Other finds made by modern mudlarks include pottery shards from Roman times, Medieval glazed floor tiles, Elizabethan clay pipes , and, of course, a whole range of objects from modern times. Recently the skeleton of a Medieval man still wearing well-preserved leather boots was found.

Mudlarking On The Thames - The Antiques Roadshow - Dingo and Madelyn discuss an etched bottle with red-glass camels on it. (Dauvit Alexander / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

A brief history of mudlarking

The OED defines the word ‘mudlark’ as ‘a person who scavenges in the river mud for objects of value’. The term was first used during the late 18th century to describe poor Londoners, adults and children, who searched the filthy and dangerous Thames mud at low tide in order to find things to sell. This might be anything from valuable historical artefacts that could be sold to antiquarians or more commonly fragments of copper, lead, nails, rope and pieces of coal. Pilfering from boats and barges also took place when the opportunity presented itself. Life was hard, short and miserable and these people did what they had to do to survive.

Henry Mayhew, journalist, co-founder of the satirical ‘Punch’ magazine, playwright and advocate of social reform, published a series of newspaper articles in the ‘Morning Chronicle’ which in 1851 went on to become the basis of a book series called ‘London Labour and the London Poor.’ He wrote about mudlarks in vivid and graphic terms:

‘They may be seen of all ages, from mere childhood to positive decrepitude, crawling among the barges at the various wharfs along the river it cannot be said that they are clad in rags, for they are scarcely half covered by the tattered indescribable things that serve them for clothing their bodies are grimed with the foul soil of the river, and their torn garments stiffened up like boards with dirt of every possible description.’

Mayhew didn’t mince his words. Conditions for the early mudlarks were filthy, unhygienic and dangerous. Industrial waste and raw sewage would wash up on the foreshore at low tide together with all sorts of rubbish, and all too frequently the corpses of humans and dead animals. Financially, a mudlark rarely made much of a profit but at least they could keep what they earned from selling their finds. A mudlark was even a recognised occupation until the beginning of the 20th century.

The 19th century was undoubtedly the Golden Age of mudlarking when the Victorians began major infrastructure building projects in London. They rebuilt London Bridge and constructed new embankments and sewage systems to cope with the needs of the huge increase of people living in the capital. Large numbers of important historical finds were made at this time by workmen and labourers working on the river and many of these treasures were sold to collectors only too eager to pay large sums of money for them.

In the 20th century mudlarking increased again in popularity after the Second World War even though London was still recovering from massive bomb damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe and there were (and still are!) ever-present dangers of unexploded mines drifting up onto the foreshore at low tide. Vintage photos from the 1950s show gents in double-breasted suits, their trousers rolled-up to the knee, standing in the river on the City’s north bank searching for finds. In 1949, the archaeologist and writer Ivor Noël Hume began to explore the Thames Foreshore at Southwark and the north bank and wrote in evocative detail about the wonderful experience of treasure hunting in the centre of London. In 1956 he published his sadly now out of print book ‘Treasure In The Thames’ in which he wrote about the atmosphere of the river and the range of glorious items he’d discovered on his mudlarks – Iron Age, Roman and Medieval pottery fragments, old coins, jettons (tokens), 17th Century lead cloth seals, buttons, buckles, pins, clay pipes and Roman tiles. ‘Treasure In The Thames’ was the first book about the archaeology of the Thames in London and continues to remain an important resource for keen mudlarks.

Today mudlarks are very different from the poor scavengers of the past. Thankfully the modern mudlark no longer has to search the Thames mud for a living and can enjoy the simple act of pottering about looking for fragments from past centuries. The modern mudlark is passionate about London’s history and archaeology and many are active participants in a wide range of online resources – Blogs, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook – sharing their films and photos and helping identify finds. They work closely with the Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) where historically important discoveries are recorded. Mudlarks have found, and continue to find, numerous objects that have changed the way historians view the past eg the discovery of rare medieval toys, made from lead or pewter, has helped alter the perceptions of childhood during the Middle Ages. The quality of finds found by mudlarks is often excellent due to the anaerobic nature of Thames mud which is de-oxygenated,, therefore preservative. This means that items often come out of the mud in the same condition as when they were dropped by clumsy fingers all those centuries ago.

The Golden Age of mudlarking has been and gone but there are still special things to be found hiding in that very special Thames mud that links us with the past and the lives of Londoners long since gone.

Mudlarking is our heritage, our history, our city. The inter-tidal zone of the Thames Foreshore is the most unique archaeological site in the world and this literally makes it the people’s archaeology.

Mudlarking: Bellarmine Jugs and Witch Bottles

While mudlarking along the exposed riverbed of the River Thames in London, Jim Ward made an incredible discovery. He spotted the base of a German stoneware jug sticking out of the mud. This is a common sight on the foreshore, but normally, it’s only a broken fragment.

16th-century Bellarmine jug found by Jim Ward. Photo: Sharon Sullivan

When Jim tried to pick up the piece, it was firmly stuck in the mud. With his trowel, he slowly excavated around the circular base. As he dug deeper, Jim exposed more and more of the stoneware jug. This was Jim’s lucky day! The jug was completely intact except for the handle and a small piece missing at the top (above). It is truly a miracle that this 16th century German stoneware jug survived intact for 500 years in the River Thames.

Manufactured in various towns along the Rhine River from the 16th–18th centuries, these vessels are commonly called “Bartmann” (bearded man) or “Greybeard” jugs. The bearded face on the neck of the jugs is thought to represent a “wild man” found in popular European myths of the period. The stoneware vessels are also known as “Bellarmine” jugs because of their association with the Catholic cardinal, Roberto Bellarmino (1542–1621 AD), a strong opponent of Protestantism who wanted to ban alcohol. To mock the unpopular Catholic cardinal who was greatly disliked, Protestant Germans drank ale and wine from stoneware jugs which they nicknamed “Bellarmines” because the bearded faces on the jugs had an uncanny resemblance to Roberto Bellarmino who had a flowing beard.

16th-century Bellarmine face, 17th-century Bellarmine face, 17th-century Bellarmine face. Photos: Jason Sandy.

Each Bellarmine face is unique, and I have found many types of bearded faces in the River Thames (above). In the 16th century, the exquisite faces were created with great skill and detail. As the production and exportation of the jugs increased, the faces became more grotesque and crude in the 17th century. Bellarmine jugs were made with a dense, grey clay and fired to create an iron-rich, brown surface and salt-glazed appearance. The belly of the bulbous jugs was decorated with medallions which often contained figures, geometric patterns, symbols, heraldic devices, crests, or coats-of-arms of affluent patrons, European cities, royal houses, and ecclesiastical organizations (below).

Bellarmines were made in various sizes as drinking jugs and for decanting wine in taverns (right). They were also used for a multitude of other purposes including the storage of ale, cider, and wine and for transporting goods such as acids, oils, vinegar, and mercury. Because of its variety of uses, the non-porous stoneware was a key export from Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries and was shipped around Europe, the British Isles, and colonies in North America, South America, Africa, India, and Australia. Bellarmine jugs were used in most households in England in that time period.

For this article, I had the privilege of interviewing Alex Wright, the founder and owner of the Bellarmine Museum in Swaffham, England. When Alex found his first Bellarmine jug in Kings Lynn, England in 1976, his life-long passion and fascination with the German stoneware jugs began. “I found my first Bellarmine embedded in the side of a large pit on a building site. I carefully pulled it out only to discover that a large piece of the back was missing. This did not dampen my enthusiasm. It had a face mask and a medallion, and I was the first to see it for over 300 years. Most importantly, it was mine,” describes Alex.

Collection of Bellarmine jugs. Photo: Alex Wright

After collecting a vast array of Bellarmine jugs and other German stoneware over the past 40 years, he founded the Bellarmine Museum in Swaffham. “I created the Bellarmine Museum to give interested enthusiasts an opportunity to view all the items in my three books (The Bellarmine and other German Stoneware I, II & III). The collection has continued to grow, and the museum has now been open for three years,” explains Alex. “Most of the Bellarmines in the museum come from old collections or recent finds I have purchased. None were donations. In my collection, there are over 150 Bellarmines and hundreds of fragments including face masks and medallions. There are also over 200 other German stoneware pots (c. 1200–1770 AD),” describes Alex.

Bellarmine Museum in Swaffham. Photo: Alex Wright

Alex has even acquired several Bellarmine jugs discovered by mudlarks in the River Thames in London. It is now the largest private collection of publicly displayed Bellarmine jugs in the world. The museum collection contains examples of the pottery which can also be found in the United States, in such places as Jamestown, Virginia, where many Bellarmine jugs were discovered during archaeological excavations of the former British colony established in 1607.

Historical illustration of Salem witch trials.

In the 17th century, people were very superstitious, both in Europe and America. Witches and their curses were greatly feared, and they were often blamed for any illness or misfortune people suffered. There were several witch trials in Britain in the 17th century, but the Pendle Hill witch trials of 1612 are probably the most famous in British history. In Lancashire, twelve people were accused and charged with the deaths of ten people by the use of witchcraft. Following a series of trials, ten “witches” were found guilty and executed by hanging. During the deadliest witch hunt in the history of colonial America, two hundred people were accused of being “witches.” After a series of hearings and prosecutions of the people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts, 19 “witches” (14 women and 5 men) were found guilty and executed by hanging following the infamous Salem Witch Trials between February 1692 and May 1693. The fear of witches led to many more executions, and people sought to protect themselves against the witches and their evil spells.

Because of their human-like shape and often frightening faces, Bellarmine jugs were sometimes used as “witch bottles” in the 17th century. As a defense against witchcraft, the bottles were filled with various objects that were supposed to protect their owners and harm the witches. Urine, menstrual blood, hair and nail clippings, rusty iron nails, needles, pins, cloth hearts, and other bizarre items were often placed in the witch bottles before they were sealed with a cork. It was commonly believed that a witch bottle could capture an evil spirit which would be impaled by the nails and pins and drowned by the urine. Another theory is that the bulbous shape of the Bellarmine jug represented the witch’s bladder. “The nails and the bent pins would supposedly aggravate the witch when she urinated and torment her so badly that she would take the spell back off you,” explains Alan Massey from the University of Loughborough.

The powerful witch bottle was believed to be effective against evil spirits as long as the bottle remained hidden and unbroken. To guard the entrances to the home, the witch bottles were strategically concealed beneath the fireplace hearth or buried under the doorsteps or threshold into the house to prevent witches and evil spirits from entering.

In 2004, a complete witch bottle was found during excavations in Greenwich. It provided a rare opportunity for archaeologists to analyze its contents from the 17th century. When they opened the bottle, they found bent nails and pins, a nail-pierced leather “heart,” fingernail clippings, navel fluff, and hair. The bottle and its contents are currently on display at the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre in southeast London.

17th-century Bellarmine jug used as a Witch Bottle, Photos: Alex Wright

The Bellarmine Museum also has a rare, sealed witch bottle from 1620–1675 AD that was found in Swardeston, England (above left). Alex Wright explains that “this Bellarmine was made in Germany, transported to England by Dutch traders (probably to a merchant in Norwich) and ended up in Swardeston.” The witch bottle was found under a doorstep in a public house (pub) during renovations several years ago. Alex has not opened the bottle, so it still retains its nearly 400-year-old contents. “From an X-ray of the bottle, you can see many brass pins, an iron pin, and a silver pin. The organic material does not show up in the X-rays,” describes Alex (above right). This sealed witch bottle is an amazing time capsule which is evidence of the superstitions and fear of witchcraft in the 17th century.

If you would like to find out more about German stoneware and witch bottles, I would highly recommend a visit to the Bellarmine Museum in Swaffham. The museum will be closing in Spring 2020, so plan your trip soon. For more information, check out the museum’s website: www.bellarminemuseum.co.uk.

Get a sneak peek of some of Jason Sandy's favorite finds

Please note: In order to go mudlarking in London, a Thames Foreshore Permit must be obtained from the Port of London Authority. Check their website for full details. Digging, scraping, and metal detecting are restricted or prohibited in some areas. All objects that are 300+ years old must be reported to the Museum of London for recording on the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme. An export license is required if you intend to leave the UK with any historical artifacts.

There are two non-profit organizations that offer guided foreshore tours with archaeologists. I have been on several tours with them, and they are very informative. Unlike when you mudlark on your own, you don’t need a mudlarking license if you are part of these official foreshore tours.

Foragers of the Foreshore

Modern mudlarks are a far cry from those Victorian scavengers, usually children, who trudged the tidal waters of the Thames in search of lumps of coal or scraps of metal to sell for a crust. Today, mudlarking has become a recreational pastime for history-hunters, artists, or simply individuals seeking solace from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is a way to connect with both our urban and natural environments, and a special place where the past meets the present.

The River Thames is the longest continuous archaeological site in Britain – the cumulative rubbish dump of thousands of years of habitation. The range of objects eroding from the mud with every tide is astonishing: from Neolithic flint tools, to Roman detritus, pottery and glassware across the centuries to animal bones and human teeth, religious curios, relics of war, children’s toys or yesteryear’s fashions – pins, jewels, buckles, buttons, leather and cloth.

Our heritage project, Foragers of the Foreshore, unearths the story of London through these remarkable items recovered from the Thames. We meet the mudlarkers who have dedicated themselves to finding London’s lost treasure, with new portrait photography by Hannah Smiles, and we marvel at the collections that have shaped their lives.

From 24th – 29th September 2019, as part of Totally Thames, we held the largest ever mudlarking exhibition to date at The Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf. Three floors of exhibition space presented hundreds of historical artefacts, as well as multi-media artworks by artists inspired by the Thames, from immersive film pieces to fine art and ceramics, and an installation by mudlark artist-in-residence Nicola White. We trialled an ambitious new ‘Thames Museum’, invited audiences to identify their own finds with a panel of experts, and we asked you to consider what today’s trash means for tomorrow’s archaeological record.

Foragers of the Foreshore at Bargehouse was curated by Florence Evans and Eva Tausig, and produced by Thames Festival Trust for Totally Thames 2019.

Lost and Found: Mudlarking the Thames for Relics of Long-Ago Londoners

Lara Maiklem holds items found on the foreshore of the Thames in central London. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

Lara Maiklem was just 10 years old when she found her first human bone, a lower jaw complete with teeth, lying in a rose bed at Southwark Cathedral. She promptly scooped it into an empty chip bag and brought the jaw home, where it briefly occupied a place of honor in her budding collection of found artifacts, then stored inside a chest of drawers in her family’s barn. Since those days, Maiklem’s passion for uncovering the artifacts and stories of previous Londoners has only grown (though the jaw was returned to a local church by her mother).

“The objects they lost are all that’s left of these people who’ve been forgotten by history.”

Maiklem’s childhood in the countryside, where relics of previous inhabitants are regularly combed from fields and streams, led to an adulthood interest in archaeology and anthropology, though she’d mostly left her digging days behind when she moved to London after university in the 1990s. However, after finding herself drawn to the Thames, Maiklem realized the banks of this tidal river were laden with all types of treasure—from ancient Roman pottery to Victorian-era coins to more modern discoveries, like eyeglasses or a set of false teeth.

As a self-identified “mudlark,” Maiklem began scouring the muddy foreshore of the Thames—the strip of land between the high- and low-water marks—for little bits of history from the prehistoric era to the modern day. Over many years of mudlarking, Maiklem has found objects as varied as Venetian glass chevron beads, printer’s lead type, pieces of green-glazed Tudor money boxes, an ivory pocket sundial, pewter medieval pilgrim badges, a 16th-century child’s shoe, and even a centuries-old ring bearing the inscription “I LIVE IN HOPE X.” Eventually, Maiklem also found a community of fellow mudlarks who search the edge of the river for remnants of those who came before.

London’s mudlarks are a mix of amateur archaeologists, professional historians, and regular folks who live for the hunt. As Maiklem writes in her 2019 book, Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames, “For just a few hours each day, the river gives us access to its contents, which shift and change as the water ebbs and flows, to reveal the story of a city, its people and their relationship with a natural force.” We recently spoke to Maiklem about this lengthy and complicated relationship, and the long-lost things that wash up with the tides.

Clay pipe bowls and stems, dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries, are among the more common mudlark finds. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

Collectors Weekly: How has the word ‘mudlark’ shifted over the decades?

Maiklem: The first time that mudlarks are mentioned or written about in connection with the Thames was at the end of the 1700s. And they were written about by a man called Patrick Calhoun who was looking for a way to protect the ships that were sitting at anchor in the River Thames because, at the time, it was the world’s biggest port. Ships could wait for up to six months at a time for a berth to unload their precious cargoes, and they were being preyed on by these gangs of criminals with wonderful names like Scuffle Hunters and Night Horsemen and River Pirates.

Peggy Jones was one of the few female mudlarks in the late 18th century, and became known for finding coal in the mud with her feet. Jones is depicted here in an 1805 engraving. Courtesy the British Museum.

At the bottom of this list of miscreants were the mudlarks, and they were the sort of pathetic wretches that were poking around in the mud near the hulls of the ships, looking for anything they could find that had been dropped by these other criminals. There were packages of spices and sugar, and bladders of rum that came off the West Indian ships, which had the richest cargoes. They’d throw them off the side and the mudlarks would pick them up from the mud and convey them into the black market through the taverns in Wapping and Rotherhithe.

This is the first time that the mudlarks are properly mentioned and written about, but they really came into their own in the mid-19th century when the social commentators of the time—most famously Henry Mayhew—wrote about them. They described mudlarks very beautifully, if you can say that. The Victorians had this morbid curiosity for poverty: They’d go to the poorest parts of town just to look at the poor people and see how they lived.

These social commentators, who tended to be rich, upper-middle-class people, had a fascination for the mudlarks. They were basically the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. Mudlarks were mainly women, old people, and children who couldn’t earn a living doing much else, and there were armies of them all along the River Thames. They would wait until low tide and then walk down these rickety river stairs and plod around in the mud, looking for rope or bones, or if they were lucky they might find a copper nail, bits of coal, or some tools that might have been dropped—anything that they could sell to survive.

Victorian-era mudlarks, as depicted in “The Headington Magazine” in 1871. Courtesy Wikimedia.

They’d take it back to the streets and sell it to the rag collectors, and sell the bones to the glue factories, and it was just enough to keep them out of the workhouse. It was preferable to wander around in what would’ve been basically thick shit—because the river then was a moving cesspit—to plod around without any shoes on, cutting their feet on the nails and the glass looking for anything. That was more preferable than going into the workhouses they were such dreadful places.

I’m quite sure there’ve been river scavengers ever since London existed, so those were the original mudlarks. Fast-forward through to the mid-20th century and mudlarking became a phrase used for people who started to look for historic objects on the foreshore. There was a man called Ivor Noël Hume who actually moved to America and worked at Jamestown, Virginia. Hume was the godfather of modern mudlarks he discovered this wealth of artifacts lying on the foreshore of the Thames with no historic context at all. They were overlooked by many archaeologists, but he found value in them. He built up an incredible collection of things that he found on the river, and since the mid-20th century, many people have been doing it for fun, recreation, and as a hobby.

Ivor Noël Hume works on an excavation for the Guildhall Museum in London, c. 1950. Courtesy thamesdiscovery.org.

Collectors Weekly: When did you first start scouring the foreshore?

Maiklem: Well, I grew up on a farm with a Victorian dump, and when they plowed up that field, all the bottles and 19th-century junk would come to the surface, so we’d go looking in there. We also had the ruins of a medieval village in our top fields, and whenever they plowed that up, we’d find medieval pottery. The house itself was built in the reign of Henry VIII, so I grew up surrounded by history. My uncle also had a farm on the edge of the North Downs where there are lots of fossils. I was always looking for fossils. And there was a river at the bottom of the garden as well, so that’s where I got my love for rivers.

I moved to London in the early 󈨞s, and I think because I’d grown up on a farm, I was used to my own company and peace and quiet. But I really wanted to be in the city. I was looking for somewhere quiet to go, and that’s when I discovered the river. For years and years, I walked along the side of the river on some fantastic river paths. Then one day, around 15 years ago, I found myself at the top of a set of river stairs, wondering why I hadn’t gone down on to the foreshore before.

Roman-era pottery shards Maiklem collected in a single day mudlarking on the Thames. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

The River Thames is tidal, so the water level goes up and down. Twice every 24 hours you can get access to the riverbed, and that’s where mudlarks do their mudlarking. For some reason, a lot of people in London think that the river’s out of bounds and you can’t go down there. I’d probably always thought that until this day, when I decided I’d go down and have a look. In the mud, I found a piece of clay pipe stem—something that’s very common and not that interesting to me now—but it was the key to another world for me then: Having found lots of clay pipe stems in the fields at home, it made me realize that there was interesting stuff down there, so I went back. And the more I went back, the more I found, and I started gradually building a collection and visiting other places along the Thames. I lived five minutes from the river, so it was easy for me to get down there. It became my go-to place.

One of the pieces of pottery Maiklem found included an image of a mythical phallus-dog. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

Collectors Weekly: Do you have any background in history or anthropology?

Maiklem: I’m really fascinated by history. I did do anthropology at university, though, and in my first year, I did archeology, which I rather
embarrassingly failed. So it’s just an interest or a hobby.

Collectors Weekly: What’s your system for tracking your finds?

Maiklem: I have a notebook that I’ve written everything in with a sort of code. I know where everything came from—when I found it, where I found it. A lot of it’s in my head as well, which is a terrible, dreadful thing to do. I need to decipher my code because if I fall under a bus tomorrow, nobody’s going to understand any of it.

Collectors Weekly: How has human intervention in the river’s natural form contributed to the human debris in the Thames?

Maiklem: There are lots of reasons for all the stuff in the river. Obviously, it’s been used as a rubbish dump. It was a useful place to chuck your household waste. It was essentially a busy highway, so people accidentally dropped things and lost things as they traveled on it. Of course, people also lived right up against it. London was centered on the Thames so houses were all along it, and there was all this stuff coming out of the houses and off the bridges. It was the biggest port in the world in the 18th century, so there was all the shipbuilding and industry going on.

“We’re so lucky here—we’re literally walking on history all the time.”

And then of course, there’s the rubbish that was used to build up the foreshore and create barge beds. The riverbed in its natural state is a V shape, so they had to build up the sides next to the river wall to make them flatter so the flat-bottom barges could rest there at low tide. They did that by pouring rubbish and building spoil and kiln waste, anything they could find—industrial waste, domestic waste. When they dug into the ground further up, they’d bring the spoil down and use it to build up the foreshore, and cap it off with a layer of chalk, which was soft and didn’t damage the bottom of the barges.

One of the reasons we’re finding so much in the river now is because there’s so much erosion. While it was a “working river,” these barge beds were patched up and the revetments, or the wooden walls that held them in, were repaired when they broke. But now, they’re being left to fall apart, and these barge beds are eroding as the river is getting busier with river traffic.

Maiklem descends one of the rickety ladders down the river wall to the foreshore of the Thames. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

Every tide, something new will turn up, and the contents date right back to Roman times in central London. When they dug cellars or basements in the 18th and 19th centuries—this is when they created the barge beds—they’d dig down into medieval Roman layers, and then bring that spoil down to the river to build up the barge beds. So that’s possibly why we’re finding Roman objects next to Victorian objects next to Georgian objects. Such a mess of history in there.

The beauty of the Thames is that it’s muddy and anaerobic, so if something falls into the mud, it’s preserved as perfectly as the day it fell in. It’s not too acidic, it’s not too alkaline, and no oxygen gets to it, which means there’s no degradation at all. It’s like suspended animation until you find it—it’s not like finding things in fields or archaeological digs. What we’re pulling out of the mud is pristine: Sometimes you’ll pull a pin out, and it’ll still be shiny, or you’ll find coins that have absolutely no damage on them at all, like they fell out of someone’s pocket yesterday. It’s incredible. Centuries-old leather and wood and even fabrics have been found, which is quite incredible. The key is, though, getting to it before it washes away or it starts to erode. The wave action starts to damage these objects.

A selection of silver coins found by Maiklem over the years, dating from the reign of Mary I, c. 1557, to George V, c. 1925. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

Collectors Weekly: Are there any efforts to restore the Thames to its natural form?

Maiklem: No, the river hasn’t been natural for many hundreds of years. The original river was a very wide and shallow river. We forced it into the channel that it is today, so we could never return it to what it once was without demolishing London. But you have to remember that the tidal Thames goes from Teddington in the west out to the estuary in the east. If you go to Teddington, it’s a much more natural river, a rural river almost. Then when you are out in the estuary, it’s a wild, wild place. It’s completely natural there. There’s nothing man-made about it. So it’s just that little wiggle in the center of town that’s the very artificial river.

Collectors Weekly: Has the relationship between Londoners and the river shifted over time?

Maiklem: London’s only there because of the river, so it’s been very important. In the 1960s, the river was mostly forgotten about in central London. Anybody who remembers the Thames from the 󈨀s, 󈨊s, or 󈨔s, it was desolate. Nobody wanted to live beside it nobody wanted anything to do with it. But we rediscovered it from the 󈨞s onward, and it’s become a lot more important. It’s a lot busier, and it costs a fortune to live anywhere near it now.

Collectors Weekly: Has your experience mudlarking changed your understanding of London’s evolution?

Maiklem: I’m not sure if it’s changed my understanding because I’ve always been very aware of how London grew. If you live in London, you’re surrounded by it all the time. The history is just under your feet, and you live in it. What it has done is brought to life some of the people, given some of the nameless people from history a voice, almost. The objects they lost are all that’s left of these people who’ve been forgotten by history. So when you find something that somebody scratched their initials into, all of a sudden it makes history very personal. It brings these forgotten Londoners to life. So I think mudlarking has connected me to the Londoners rather than London.

Maiklem holds a Victorian-era sugar crusher found on the foreshore. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

Collectors Weekly: What are some previously commonplace but now unfamiliar objects you’ve learned about while mudlarking?

Maiklem: Well, I didn’t know anything about shoe pattens at all until I found one. I didn’t know what it was at first, and then the shape of it rang a bell. I’d actually seen one in the Museum of London. Shoe pattens were these iron hoops screwed to the bottom of wooden shoe soles, which were strapped onto shoes. It was mainly women who wore them, and it raised their feet up enough to keep them out of all the muck and sludge on the streets and keep the bottom of their skirts clean and their shoes nice.

“Sometimes you’ll pull a pin out, and it’ll still be shiny, or you’ll find coins that have absolutely no damage on them at all, like they fell out of someone’s pocket yesterday.”

I’ve also found a glass sugar crusher from the 19th century. It’s like somebody took a piece of molten glass and pulled it out and made a bubble on the end. I didn’t know anything about those either: Londoners used to buy sugar in cones, and break off a piece with tongs and use these crushers to break it further once it was in the drink. They’re very beautiful.

I’ve also learned about the sugar-cone molds, and we find lots of pieces of those on the foreshore. And Roman hypocaust systems or box flues. I didn’t know much about those, and I find lots of Roman hypocaust pieces. The Romans were very clever: They basically invented central heating. They embedded these square-shaped clay pipes in the walls and floors of their villas, and they’d have some poor slave down in the basement, controlling a fire and blowing the heat underneath the house. The hot air would be drawn up through the walls in these box flues and would heat the rooms.

Bits of Roman hypocaust tiles found along the Thames showing the varied patterns on their surfaces. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

But the great thing about these box flues is they patterned the outside, so they all have different swirls or geometric stamped patterns on them to help the plaster of the walls stick to the outside. But it’s thought these different patterns were the tile makers’ signatures. That was a bit of a revelation to me when I first started finding them.

Collectors Weekly: I’d never heard of the Bellarmine jugs with the bearded guys on them until I read your book. And also the aglets, I think they’re called, those metal ends of laces or clothing ties.

Maiklem: Yes, but you’ve got them on your shoe, if you’ve got laces on your shoes today. You learn some really great words mudlarking, like “raspberry prunt.” That’s my favorite.

A Roemer glass with raspberry prunts on its cylindrical stem, c. 1650. Courtesy the British Museum.

Collectors Weekly: What’s that?

Maiklem: “Raspberry prunt” is an applied blob of bumpy glass that looks like a raspberry. They use to put them on Roemer glasses, these German glass goblets, to stop your hands from slipping and to make them look pretty. I just think that’s a great word.

Collectors Weekly: When you find an item you’ve never seen before, how do you research it? What’s your process like?

Maiklem: I have a library of weird and unusual books. I do a lot of searching on the internet. I’ve got my Facebook and Instagram and Twitter pages, and I have access to such a phenomenal hive mind that, very often, I’ll put a picture up of something I’m not familiar with, and somebody will know what it is.

Failing that, we have what’s called the Portable Antiquities Scheme here in the U.K. It’s a project of the British Museum, whereby they’re trying to record all the objects found in fields and gardens and beaches and rivers. Obviously, these objects are out of context but they want a record of them all because it’s our history. Otherwise, they’d be lost. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has recorded over a million objects now, and every part of the country has a Finds Liaison Officer, and you report your objects to them. They have access to experts in all sorts of museums, and they can usually tell you what something is if you don’t know. So it’s fantastic to have access to that.

Maiklem scours the shore near the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

Collectors Weekly: What are the oldest, most valuable, and oddest objects you’ve found?

Maiklem: Well, the oldest objects are obviously fossils. Because the river runs over a chalk flint bed, you find fossilized sea urchins and things like that. The oldest man-made objects I’ve found are Mesolithic worked flints, and it was quite incredible being the first person to pick those up. I’m getting much better at spotting them. They are quite hard to see because there’s so much flint on the foreshore, but you’re looking for the ones that have been worked by hand.

The oldest manmade objects found in the river are pieces of Mesolithic-era worked flint. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

The oddest is probably the glass eye, which scared the crap out of me. It’s like it was looking back at me. That and the—God, I’ve found so many weird things—that and the human ashes. Somebody had thrown a box of human ashes into the river rather than scattering them. They threw the whole box in without opening it. You do find some odd things, like the pewter syringe that I didn’t pick up but wish I had. It was a urethral syringe for treating Syphilis, probably dating from around the 18th century.

The most valuable find is a really difficult question because do you mean most valuable in terms of money or historical? I can honestly say I don’t know how much any of my objects are worth. I never get them valued because I think it turns the hobby into something completely different. I’m not a treasure hunter, and I don’t do it for financial gain, and don’t believe people should. In fact, it’s worth saying that you’re not allowed to sell anything that you find from the Thames foreshore because it doesn’t belong to you. It all belongs to the Port of London Authority.

This pressed bone token reading “Lambeth Wells” is one of Maiklem’s rarest finds. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

In terms of history, the objects I’ve found that are one-offs are the most historically important. I think, weirdly, one of the most historically important objects is a little pressed horn or bone counter from one of the 18th-century pleasure gardens at Vauxhall called Lambeth Wells. Nobody’s found anything like that before it’s completely unique.

These pleasure gardens were situated just outside the city, and people went to promenade around and get away from the stench of the city to where there were trees and open space. They had fireworks shows, music, dancing, and you could get a drink. But when the sun went down, the pleasure gardens became a place of dreadful iniquity where people would go to get very drunk and meet ladies of the night and not leave until the early hours of morning. As the 18th century went on, they became more and more notorious places.

Vauxhall Gardens is probably the best known one. It was right on the river, and there was a small one behind it called Lambeth Wells, which grew up around a spring in the 17th century. People would go there to take the waters—it was a healthy place—and they’d exercise in the fields and play games. At various points in its history, it became well known for its prostitutes and lost its liquor license. The bone counter I found could’ve been a token for someone to leave their coat or an entrance token. Nobody knows because no one’s found anything like it. But I love that. I love its connection to that time in history.

I’ve also found gold, which a lot of people would associate with value. I found part of a tiny hoard, a beautiful gold lace aglet that’s with the museum at the moment. The tiny, little pieces of 16th-century gold that make up this hoard are all broken or crushed in some way. They think it was a bag of scrap gold that had been dropped.

A small 16th-century lace aglet or end cover that would have decorated the sleeve or doublet of a wealthy gentleman, found by Maiklem and donated to the Museum of London. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

Collectors Weekly: Tell me about some of your improvised conservation techniques.

Maiklem: Well, I can, but I think what I do will have proper people wincing! The problem we have here is there’s so much old stuff. If you pull a leather shoe out of the river, even if it’s 500 years old, there won’t be a museum that can afford to conserve it because they have too much already and don’t have the budget. You’re left alone with a lot of this stuff. Obviously, I give the museum anything they want—they’ve got a leather hat of mine at the moment—but anything they don’t take and professionally conserve, I have a go at myself. So some of my rather dubious methods are as follows.

With leather, you mustn’t let it dry out. If it dries out, it shrinks and twists and warps, and it’s fairly useless. So you have to keep it damp and cool and dark until you’re ready to work on it. Leather’s very difficult. With the only bit of leather I’ve successfully managed to preserve, I used the same stuff I use on my leather sofa, and rubbed it in. I’m going to try using some dubbin wax as an experiment, see if that works, and I’m also going to try some neatsfoot oil. I’ve got a friend who has successfully managed to preserve shoes by gradually drying them out and stitching them back together again.

A child’s leather shoe, c. 16th century, that Maiklem managed to get professionally conserved. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

For wood, I’ve put it in my freezer. I wrap it very tightly in Saran wrap, put it in my freezer, and I leave it there literally for years. It starts to freeze-dry, a bit like if you’ve got an old chicken in the bottom of the freezer, you know how it goes all dry. Once it’s started out to dry out a bit, then you can take it out very gradually using a bag with little holes in to stop it from splitting and warping. That seems to be quite successful.

Old glass tends to fracture. Roman glass is great it’s really high quality and doesn’t fracture, but 17th- or 18th-century glass tends to crack. The best thing I’ve found to do with it is to spray it with clear lacquer, and that seems to stop it. I’ve done that with an old glass ironing weight, and it seems to have stopped it from breaking up.

And then I use electrolysis, which is a dreadful thing to do. But if you’ve got something metal that is so encrusted—the river creates a kind of concrete around things sometimes, coins especially—that you can’t see what’s under it, it’s worth giving it a go. You can often tell from the shade of it that it’s going to be a ha’penny or something like that. I’ve got an old mobile phone charger, and I’ve taken the end of it, split the wires and attached crocodile clips. Then, you attach one end to a spoon and put it in a warm solution of bicarbonate of soda and water, and attach the other end to your object. It creates a current, and it’ll get rid of all the crud quite effectively. But obviously, you have to be very careful.

Pewter toys from 17th and 18th centuries including a dripping pan, partial plate, two watch-backs, and possibly a spoon, pen, or a candle. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

Collectors Weekly: What found objects do you tend to return to the river?

Maiklem: I take back a lot of pottery and pipes, mainly. I take lead away because it’s not good for the environment, and I recycle that. Once I’ve photographed it, any pottery I don’t want or don’t know anyone who wants, I take that back. Same with the clay pipes and pipe stems.

I curate my collection very carefully because I don’t have room for everything, and I don’t want to be greedy either, to be honest. You don’t need more than a few clay pipes. So unless it’s better than the one I’ve got, it tends to go back or I give it away. Often, I take a picture of them in situ and leave them there.

A Charles II jetton or token, c. 15th century, emerges from the sand and stones along the Thames. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

Collectors Weekly: What’s important to know when you’re planning an expedition to the foreshore?

Maiklem: Well, there are safety precautions. You need to check your tide tables. You have about two to three hours either side of low tide. You can get cut off, because there are pinch points, so you have to keep an eye on your exit. If you’re concentrating hard, you can turn around and find that the tide is coming in quicker than you realized. Tell people where you’re going or ideally go with someone else if you’re not used to it. And be careful of deep mud wear sensible shoes. I advise wearing rubber gloves or latex gloves because raw sewage still flows into the Thames. Always wash your hands before you eat something.

The tops of 16th-century ceramic money boxes, used to collect theater entrance fees and then smashed at the “box office” to retrieve payment. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

There are other obvious precautions to take if you’re going to give it a go: There are restrictions on where you can access the foreshore, and you have to have a license from the Port of London Authority, which you can find out more about at their website. Also, if you’re coming from another country, you have to apply for an export license to take things home as well, and that’s all on the website.

There are some places that are protected—they’re scheduled monuments, so they’re as protected as Stonehenge. You can’t go into them or take anything away. On north shore in central London, you’re not allowed to disturb as much as a pebble. You can only pick things up that are on the surface.

Also, if you find anything of historic importance over 300 years old, you have to report it to a Finds Liaison Officer. If it is over 300 years old and made of a certain percentage of gold or silver, then it qualifies as “treasure” and you legally have to report that and it will be taken away from you while it’s being assessed. I think it’s really important to record what’s coming off the foreshore. It’s our history it needs to be recorded. It shouldn’t end up in a dusty old drawer and forgotten, because as soon as it’s taken away, its provenance is gone.

Collectors Weekly: How do you display your collection?

A ceramic face embossed on a Bellarmine, a type of German stoneware jug, c. 16th-17th century. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

Maiklem: I curate fairly carefully, and I’ve got a beautiful printer’s chest with 18 thin drawers. Since most of the stuff I find is quite small, most everything I’ve got fits in there. The biggest thing I’ve got is a piece of whalebone with a hole drilled in it. It’s as big as my thigh. Then I’ve got a few old 18th-century bottles I can’t resist keeping, and some larger bits of pottery or things like that. But most of what I got fit in these printer’s drawers and a few small display cases as well. It’s all in my spare room—it doesn’t spread around the house because I’ve got 7-year-old twins, so it would be too worrying for me having it anywhere but in here.

Exhibition-wise, if we’re allowed out, I’ve got an exhibition planned for September, along with some other mudlarks. It’s going to be quite an interesting exhibition.

Collectors Weekly: Pre-pandemic, did you feel that mudlarking was having a moment?

Maiklem: Yes, I think more people are getting interested in mudlarking, which is great! We’ve had to stay away from the foreshore for a while, because of the pandemic, but the Port of London Authority has just given us the green light to go back to the foreshore. I went down to the river for the first time since March last week and it was great to be back.

I think at the moment, people are also turning to their gardens. They’re doing a lot of garden-larking and field-larking and beach-larking. And they are digging up all sorts of things in their garden. That’s what seems to be being posted at the moment on my Facebook page, which is great. We’re so lucky here—we’re literally walking on history all the time. You can find the most incredible things.

A view of the skyline in the Millwall neighborhood of London, as seen from the foreshore near Rotherhithe. Courtesy Lara Maiklem.

Mudlarking: History buffs dig up priceless treasures along London's River Thames

Sift through the mud on the shores of a Canadian river and you'd be lucky to find a lost necklace amid the washed-up bottle caps and beer cans. But take a walk along the edge of London's River Thames, and there's a good chance you'll find a piece of ancient history.

It's this chance to dig up the past that has lured so many history buffs to the shores of London's Thames at low tide, where they hunt for washed-up artifacts in a hobby called "mudlarking." These treasure hunters routinely pluck all manner of mind-blowing items out of the mud, from medieval coins, to 2,000-year-old Roman relics, to the remains of pre-historic rhinos and sharks.

New treasures are revealed on the banks of the Thames twice a day, when the river's tide goes out and the water level drops by seven metres. That's when mudlarks – all of whom must be licensed – climb down ladders to the freshly-revealed foreshore and start hunting for historical goodies.

Veteran mudlark Jason Sandy says every trip to the foreshore offers a new set of surprises. "You never know what you're going to find," he told CTVNews.ca by phone from London. Sandy explained that boats are constantly stirring up the waters of the Thames, churning items out of the silty riverbed. Sandy finds all kinds of items, from modern objects to relics from hundreds, even thousands of years ago.

"Everything is kind of laundered together," Sandy said. "You can have a modern cigarette butt next to a prehistoric flint tool… Every day is a new surprise."

Sandy first became involved in mudlarking in 2012, when he used to take his two young children down to the foreshore to hunt for crabs and shrimp at low tide. He got the idea to look around for treasure from a TV documentary, and soon, he was doing it as often as possible.

"I just couldn't believe that you could actually go down there and find these historic artifacts that are that old," he said.

Sandy has found all kinds of relics since 2012, including a few that are now part of museum collections. "That's every mudlark's dream, to have something that's on permanent display in a museum," he said.

One of Sandy's earliest finds, a 2,000-year-old carved bone hairpin from Roman times, is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of London. Sandy has also donated a pin associated with the infamous King Richard III to a visitor's centre and museum in Leicester.

Explore the History

Flowing through the heart of Central London towards the sea, the River Thames was once the largest port in the world and vital transportation link between London, the British Empire and the rest of the world. The busy, congested port was filled with ships and boats of all sizes, from large ocean-going vessels, importing and exporting cargo around the globe, to small row boats with watermen transporting passengers from one side of the river to the other.

For eleven continuous miles in London, both sides of the river were packed with docks, wharfs, warehouses, shipbuilding yards, ship-breaking yards, fish markets, factories, breweries, slaughterhouses, municipal buildings, offices, pubs and houses. The vibrant riverfront was home to thriving communities of watermen, lightermen, stevedores, dockworkers, sailors, merchants, fishermen, fishmongers, oyster wives, shipbuilders, ship-breakers and local mudlarks.

Over the past 2,000 years of human activity along the River Thames, countless objects have been intentionally discarded or accidentally dropped in its waters. For millennia, the Thames has been an extraordinary repository of these lost objects, protected and preserved in the dense, anaerobic mud.

Because of its close proximity to the sea, the water level of the River Thames in London fluctuates by 7 – 10 metres with the incoming and outgoing tides, twice a day. As the murky waters of the river slowly recede at low tide, the exposed riverbed in London becomes the longest archaeological site in Britain. The surface of the intertidal zone is an eclectic mixture of rocks, oyster shells, broken glass, bricks, terracotta tiles, animal bones, sand, gravel and mud. Hidden within this unusual terrain are lost and discarded objects, exposed by the waves of passing boats and erosion.

‘Mudlarking’ is the act of searching the riverbed for these historical treasures. Mudlarks comb the Thames foreshore, which is only accessible for a few hours a day at low tide, in their hunt for objects, untouched since they were lost hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Each artefact, whether ordinary or extraordinary, tells us something unique about London’s history.

In the 19th century, Victorian mudlarks were the original ‘Foragers of the Foreshore,’ scavenging for anything on the exposed riverbed which they could sell in order to survive. They were often children, mostly boys, who braved dangerous conditions to find practical items like coal, iron, copper nails and ropes which they could sell in order to buy food and essentials for themselves and their families. Their income was very meagre, and they were renowned for their tattered clothes, filth and terrible stench. Out of desperation, these young children went mudlarking to survive. In the 19th century, they were considered among the lowest members of society in London.

Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and the London Poor published in 1851, with an additional volume in 1861 that examined the mudlarks of London, visited the Thames foreshore several times and interviewed a nine-year-old Victorian mudlark:

"His trousers were worn away up to his knees, he had no shirt, and his legs and feet (which were bare) were covered with chilblains (blisters caused by exposure to extreme cold temperatures). He had been three years mudlarking, and supposed he should remain a mudlark all his life. What else could he be, for there was nothing else that he knew how to do? He could neither read nor write and did not think he could learn if he tried ever so much. All the money he got he gave to his mother, and she brought bread with it. He worked every day, with 20 or 30 boys, who might all be seen at daybreak with their trousers tucked up, groping about and picking out the pieces of coal from the mud on the banks of the Thames. He went into the river up to his knees, and in searching the mud, he often ran pieces of glass and long nails into his bare feet. When this was the case, he went home and dressed the wounds, but returned to the riverside directly, for should the tide come up without having found something, he must starve till next low tide."

Treasure Hunter Nicola White

In the June 27th, 2020 issue of the BRTV Guide we had the honor to feature Nicola White. An artist, historian, YouTube host and mudlarker. Mudlarker? What is that? Not too long ago anyone outside of London would have asked the same question, but because of the popularity of Nicola White and her work producing videos and educating the general public, many are becoming familiar with what mudlarking is.

What is Mudlarking?

The best way to find out what mudlarking is and what it’s about is to ask Nicola herself.

Well the term mudlarking dates back to pre-Victorian times when young children, and sometimes old men and women, used to go down to the Thames at low tide and scavenge in the mud for anything they could sell to make a few pennies. This could be rope, metal, coins, things people had inadvertently lost – or coal that dropped off the barges. These mudlarks were the poorest of the poor in society and were desperate to make a few pennies.

It was not unheard of for richer people to throw coins from bridges and then watch and laugh whilst the mudlarks scrabbled around in the mud fighting over the coins. So that is the mudlark of yesteryear. The modern day mudlark goes down to the Thames foreshore at low tide to search for history and for objects that were lost or thrown in the River Thames over the years. As the Thames flows right through the centre of London and it has always been used as a rubbish receptacle, we find so many different objects and artefacts in it dating right back through the centuries.

Tide Line

The Thames river is also one of the world’s largest outdoor archaeological sites when the tide is out. As it is a tidal river we are very fortunate – and each time the tide goes out – it leaves pieces of history to find. This can be coins, medals, wartime artefacts, pottery, tokens, bagseals, pins, beads, hairpins – the list goes on and on – and of course, we find clay pipes – which I have to admit are some of my favourite finds!

It does seem like an intriguing activity. Walking along, every so often picking up a priceless object and toss it in your rucksack. Although, I have a feeling it doesn’t quite work out that way. I’m sure there must be more to it than I think.

How Long Have You Been At It?

Nicola White

I have been mudlarking in London for about 15 – 20 years, since I moved to London from Cornwall. I always used to love beachcombing in Cornwall and when I moved to London in 1998 I found myself down on the Thames foreshore – which was a little like a replacement beach. It wasn’t long before I realised I could find pieces of glass and pottery scattered amongst the rocks and mud – and then one day I found my first coin and a clay pipe – and it went on from there. I applied for my mudlarking permit from the Port of London Authority and there was no going back from then on.

Its Not Junk, So I’m Told

Living by a large body of water myself, I think about walks along the beach, smoking a pipe of course. Which by the way is referred to as Lunting, but that’s another article. Searching the beach to see what washes up is what we call beachcombing. In decades of doing that, I can say that never have I ever found anything like Nicola finds. Broken glass, tires and all sorts of other junk.

When you consider the history of London which has been developed for so long compared to here in the United States, it’s no wonder that things which are so old turn up. They were stopping off for a pint after work and tossing their clay pipes into the Thames when there was nothing around here except for Native Americans and some Colonists planting their corn.

But it’s more than that. The waves and the rocky shore doesn’t lend well to preservation. The erosion is just not conducive to preservation. On the other hand, the shores of the Thames are much different.

How is it that delicate things that end up in the river Thames can survive for so long? Nicola took the time to explain the phenomena.

Over the Centuries

Well I think people might be surprised at how some of the objects last in the Thames mud over the centuries and come out in such good condition. The mud in the Thames is anaerobic (it has no oxygen in it) and so what is lost or thrown in often comes out looking very much like it did when it went in, sometimes hundreds of years ago. People are often amazed at how the clay pipes can survive intact for over 300 years in some cases. This is because the mud provides a perfect protective cushion. It’s only when they erode out that they are at risk of breaking. You do need to have a permit from the Port of London Authority to mudlark on the Thames.

That seems to surprise some people but it’s a way to protect the artefacts that are found. Part of the conditions of the permit are that you need to register your finds with the Portable Antiquities Scheme database – which in our case is with the Museum of London. This is important as it helps to build up a picture of what was found where and what was going on in various parts of London. Apart from that – the mud can be deep – the currents are strong and the tides creep up on you so you have to be very careful and aware of your surroundings.

Nicola In Action

To get a good idea of what Nicola does and what the river means to her you need not look further than a segment of a documentary which she was featured. Film maker Paul Wyatt produced a movie called “My River Thames”. This is an excerpt of that movie in which Nicola give you a tiny glimpse of herself along the shore and the things she finds.

What About All These Tiny Treasures

I had asked her about the objects and bits she has discovered, mentioning the fact that my experience has always been to uncover junk. She had quite a different take on the subject.

The objects I find I enjoy researching. I don’t look on any of it as junk. Each object I find – even a tiny button can have a great story behind it. This brings the object alive and we can get a real glimpse into the lives of people who used to own them years ago.

It really is like history that you can touch. I display the objects in cases and on shelves and often take them to places to give talks. Although the items have in many cases been discarded years ago – some have names on or identifying marks and it’s special to be able to link them to people and places. Even broken clay pipe stems can have the name of the maker and where they were made on them and so this can take you on a journey of discovery – to find out more about the clay pipe maker and their family.

She shared with us a photo of some of the clay pipes she has found over the years. I suspect she knows the kind of things we like.

Clay Pipes from the White Collection

The Pipe

How I had originally found Nicola White was her sharing photos of the pipes she finds on Twitter and making videos plucking these delicate pipes out of the mud. At first I thought it was amazing that she had come across a good bit of luck to find a pipe like that, but after several such videos it occurred to me it had to be much more than luck. More than just a good eye to spot the end of the stem poking out between the rocks. There must be pipes all over the place. I’m sure it’s one of the most asked questions when the subject of pipes comes up. Why so many?

Pipes & tobacco with too much drying time

Since tobacco was first introduced to England in the late 16th century, smoking has been very popular. Men, women and children used to smoke. The clay pipes which they used were not meant to be for long term use. They were smoked just once or twice before being discarded. It’s hard to believe that people used to discard these clay pipes especially as some of them are so special and so intricately designed – but they did! Sometimes they were given away free with a pint in in the tavern – and often they were sold prepacked with tobacco. The remnants of clay pipes we are finding now are really like old fashioned cigarette ends!

Oh my!

Cigarette butts! Good thing I love pipes so much or that bit of information might change my opinion slightly. So there must have been people cranking out these clay pipes at an amazing rate. Not like today where they are somewhat of an oddity, back then it was the norm. Also consider the fact that briar wasn’t used to make pipes until the middle of the 1800s and meerschaum, which was used before, was much harder to obtain and quite costly compared to using clay.

Clay on the other hand, goes back a long way and it’s easy to produce a pipe. Here is a graphic that Nicola uses to give her a general idea when dating clay pipes.

Fairy Pipes and Whimsical Designs

More about the pipes Nicola has found over the years.

I find pipes that date back to around 1580 and up until early 20th century. My earliest pipe dates back to 1580 and has a tiny bowl. Sometimes these are referred to as fairy pipes. You can often tell the age of the pipe by the shape and style of the bowl. Early pipes have very small bowls as the tobacco was scarcer and more expensive. Bowls became larger as tobacco became more widely available.

Then from the early 1800s, bowls became more decorated. The Victorians in particular loved their fancy pipe bowls. My favourite pipes are those that date to the Victorian era. They were in most cases disposable though after one or two smokes. There is a French pipe maker in the early 19th century called Louis Fiolet and he was renowned for his eccentric and exquisite designs. His clay pipes would not have been as disposable as most of the others. They would have a very short stem into which a replaceable stem was inserted. The replaceable stem would be discarded but the bowl was kept. I have found 2 pipe bowls made by him and they are both favourites of mine.

A Very Unique Pipe

Alt. meaning for pipe bowl

One is a pipe bowl which is of a woman sitting on a commode with her skirts hitched up. The other is the head of soldier wearing a cap with a cap badge. Fiolet sometimes used coloured paint on his pipes. This was not usually the case in most pipes. I have some pipes with an animal theme. Several feature horses and I love these. Pipe bowls can be like little artworks and I admire the creativity of the clay pipe makers. One which I love is a lady whose billowing skirt is used as the bowl. She is lying down hitching up her skirts. Definitely some kind of saucy design! Also, I find quite a lot of masonic clay pipes with the masonic symbols on them. For every occasion, there seems to be a clay pipe that would suit the occasion very well.

Fancy Clay Pipe

The pipe with the woman on the commode, mentioned above, seems to be one of Nicola’s favorite, even with so many unique designs in her collection.

Probably the one which fascinates me most is the lady on the commode made by Louis Fiolet. Another one I found is a clay pipe bowl which is a dog’s head and I love that. I have a collection of over 200 clay pipes now and I never tire of looking at them. I have about 8 turks head pipes, which are Victorian and the bowls are designed to look like little faces.

The Question Everyone Asks

The pipes have little monetary value but they are some of my favourite Thames mudlarking finds. The thought that the last person who touched them before I pick them up from the mud is the person who smoked them sometimes over 300 years ago is quite mind blowing – and it’s such a personal piece of history. They were once between someones lips!

I forgot to say that often I find the remnants of 250 year old tobacco in the bottom of the bowl. Now that is just special! It has been perfectly preserved by the mud in the river Thames. My favourite way to display my clay pipes in glass cases and I often research the ones that I can with a makers mark. I found one which is slightly unusual as it was made by a woman, a Catherine Shipwell. I was able to find out a lot about her life and she was one of very few women making pipes in the mid 1700s.

Some of the pipes saved from obscurity

You Mean There Are Other Things Besides Pipes?

We could talk about pipes all day but in reality that is only a fraction of what Nicola finds on her mudlarks. In fact the kinds of things she finds might cause you to start researching things yourself.

I have found so many wonderful artifacts. It’s hard to pinpoint my exact favourite. It changes all the time. One of my favourite finds is a brass luggage tag engraved with the name of a World War One Soldier. I was able to find out about his life, where he fought and then went on to find his grave. This was special as this small piece of metal opened up a whole story – and he had no children and so no one to tell his story.

I found a beautiful silver Elizabeth I half crown which is very special. It was minted in 1601 and it was just there in between my boots one evening when I looked down as I was getting ready to head home after an evening’s mudlarking. I always felt that was a find that was just meant to be!

The Onion Bottle

Another favourite is a 17th century small glass bottle that would have been used for brandy or wine. It’s called an onion bottle and is exactly the shape of a small onion. It was broken when I found it but I stuck it together. Apart from that – I’ve found some beautiful jewellery including a sapphire and gold ring, 2 human jawbones, an unexploded handgrenade from WW2 and some wonderful Roman pottery including an entire Roman mortarium (used in a Roman kitchen almost 1700 years ago to blend up food like a pestle and mortar). I found a beautiful heart pendant dating back to Georgian times which I now wear around my neck.

Each tide there is something new to discover and learn about.

Nicola White

Messages In Bottles

So many special objects. You just don’t know what you are going to find each time you go to the River. That is what keeps me going back! Oh and it’s not just old artifacts that you can find. I have found over 130 messages in bottles in the River Thames over the years! Mostly they are relatively modern, but they still all have a story to tell! I always say that the Thames is like a giant liquid story book.

Not As Easy As It Looks

After hearing from Nicola and watching a couple of her videos you may think it might be an easy task to meander around finding all sorts of things. But as a long time viewer of her videos I know it’s not quite as easy as it looks.

One of Nicola’s favorite things to do is not tell you what she has found, but posts a photo instead, giving you the chance to see if you can spot what she has. Not as easy as it looks, I can tell you that. I usually always guess pipe which is more hopeful thinking on my part rather than an assessment of my poor eyesight.

Here is a little test, let’s see how well you can do. No scrolling down and cheating.

What can you spot in this photo?

Did you see the little clay pipe in the bottom left side? I did. Very proud of myself actually. Normally I have a hard time, but this one caught my eye.

What about the other objects? The monkey toy, the shard of pottery and that other thing. What is that thing? Looks like some kind of soccer hooligan.

Grade yourselves

Here is a close up view of the objects.

Objet d’art

There must be some objective after spending countless hours searching, walking through the mud, hunched over and getting rained on. There is indeed. Not only can you learn about the past but many of these objects have a new future of their own. What started out as a broken bottle, now may find itself in a piece of artwork Nicola creates.

What might have been lost to time not only gets to have a second chance, but possibly in a more appreciated role. Nicola runs the business Tide Line Art. There she sells all kinds of creations that have been made from the medium of found objects. The glass fish seem to be a favorite and I’m a personal fan of the whimsical birds made from drift wood. It is more in line with something I could do myself if I had any sort of talent.

Wooden billed Curlew with chick

The Magnum Opus

Spending time on her website you are guaranteed to find something interesting. Starting with these works of art, but leading to the popular Message In A Bottle section. It seems people love to write down their thoughts, put it in a bottle and toss it in the river. Guess who finds those bottles? There is a part of the website dedicated to just that. Plus so many other interesting things.

Asked to describe herself Nicola said “I am self-taught artist and a River Thames Mudlark. My work is inspired by found objects old and new (glass, metal, wood, pottery and plastic) which I pick up whilst mudlarking along the Thames foreshore. At low tide many fragments of history are revealed along the banks of the river. Some of these pieces are hundreds of years old, and each has their own secret story. It’s the mystery behind these found objects that inspires me. I love to put forgotten, once loved or discarded items back together and give them a new purpose in a piece of art.

Following Nicola White

One of the best ways to find out more and stay up to date on what’s going on with Tide Line Art is to subscribe to Nicola’s YouTube Channel, nicola white mudlark – Tideline Art. Twitter is also a good place to follow her. Twitter @TideLineArt.

We are so appreciative that she took the time to explain what she does and share her treasures, especially the clay pipes. They each do have their own unique history. Just like her.

Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames (2019)

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"The pretty porcelain head of a Victorian sailor figurine that I found rolling around at the edge of the water at Greenwich is wearing a straw hat, which was standard issue in the navy at that time. I found him at the bottom of the sweeping steps up which Nelson's coffin was carried following his death at the Battle of Trafalgar."

What a wonderful book! So much history in every yard of the river's shores.

I noticed an amusing error in the Greenwich section of the audiobook. The author, who narrated her own book, says Nelson's column instead of Nelson's coffin. Everyone is so used to the word column always coming after Nelson's, that is an easy mistake to make. I had to laugh, imagining hundreds of sailors struggling to carry Nelson's column off a very long barge and up the steps. ( )

The author is a collector of sorts. “Mudlarking” is collecting items/artifacts that are washed up and found in the mud along the banks of the Thames River, and apparently a lot of people do this. Some of these items are hundreds of years old. Some of the items, she is able to restore herself, and some she sends away for restoration. The chapters are organized by the area, and each will give a bit of history of the area (as this can affect the types of items found there), combined with some of the items she has found and the history of those items.

I found some chapters more interesting than others – the one at Greenwich, which looked at some Tudor history (the Greenwich Castle was one of Henry VIII’s favourite residences), along with animal bones and utensils found (and thus meals and utensils used during Tudor times). Oddly, the other chapter that held my interest more than others was the one of current day garbage. Overall, I’m calling this one ok. I had hoped to like it more – the premise is something I feel like I am interested in – but for some reason, it just couldn’t hold my interest all the way through. ( )

Pretty much everything that humans have made used and thrown away will be here forever. Often these possessions have ended up in middens and now we bury vast quantities of our unwanted stuff in the ground in dumps. If you know where to look these relics from a time long gone can be found, especially along the foreshore of the tidal Thames.

There have been people finding the detritus and treasure alongside the capital’s river for hundreds of years. It has been called the world’s longest archaeological site! The people who look for those discarded and lost items are called mudlarks and for the past fifteen years, Lara Maiklem has walked searching for anything that she can find. The variety of things that she spots is quite astounding, and these tell the story of London going back several thousand years to the Neolithic.

The lost treasures of London’s River Thames

“Mudlarks” play a vital role in preserving London’s history by picking up objects washed out of the River Thames’ mud, from woolly mammoth teeth to Roman lamps to Tudor rings.

It was a chilly and dark morning as I exited the train station at Wapping in East London. Under the orange glare of streetlights, I changed my trainers for a pair of dirty wellies. People walking in the other direction, heading to work in business clothes, stared as I pulled on my plastic gloves. My office for the morning awaited so I turned down a narrow alleyway and carefully made my way down an uneven flight of steps, slick with green river weeds. Today I was going &ldquomudlarking&rdquo.

If you find yourself crossing one of London&rsquos busy bridges and look down, you may notice that the height of the Thames changes dramatically over the course of the day: the tidal river can rise and fall by as much as 7m. When the tide is out, you may see people scurrying down hidden stairs, ladders and slipways to trudge along the foreshore. These are &ldquomudlarks&rdquo &ndash and they play a vital role in preserving the history of the Thames by picking up objects and artefacts lodged in the river&rsquos mud.

The Thames is especially rich in small portable finds it&rsquos not only their quantity but their quality that makes Thames finds so important

Walking along the foreshore of the Thames in central London is not everyone&rsquos idea of a hobby &ndash it can be cold, dirty and just as muddy as mudlarking suggests. Historically, being a mudlark was not a desirable station in life. The terms came about in the Georgian and Victorian periods when the Thames was one of the major routes to transport goods into the city. At this time, the banks of the river would have swarmed with the melancholy figures of mudlarks, mostly poor women and children who would be &ldquoup with the larks&rdquo to work whenever the river ran low.

As the tide dropped, they would wade into the mud to grab lumps of coal, pieces of rope or anything else careless boatmen had dropped overboard that they could sell. Mudlarks were a chiefly London phenomenon because few port cities had as large, exposed riverbanks where they could descend to do their work. In addition, the mud of the Thames is anaerobic &ndash having very low levels of oxygen &ndash so is perfect for preserving organic material that would otherwise rot.

Despite its humble origins, mudlarking is undergoing a renaissance. It has never been easier for people to explore the Thames: anyone looking for inspiration just has to follow the mudlarking hashtags on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. The Thames Discovery Programme, a group of historians and volunteers, run guided tours of the foreshore where &ldquoexpert guide[s] will point out fascinating archaeology hiding in plain sight like Saxon fish traps and jetties that once led to Tudor palaces&hellip and [ensure] that you stay safe and stick to Port of London Authority rules,&rdquo said Josh Frost, senior community archaeologist with Thames Discovery.

While these tours are a great introduction to communal mudlarking, most mudlarks are solitary creatures and can often be found on their own, staring at the stones beneath their feet.

One of the surprise best-selling books of 2019 was Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem, who stumbled into mudlarking almost by accident. &ldquoOne day I found myself at the top of one of the river stairs looking down onto the foreshore and I decided to go down,&rdquo she wrote. &ldquoFor some reason, until then, I'd thought of the foreshore as a forbidden space, sometimes revealed, other times covered over with water. I found my first object that day, a short piece of clay pipe stem, and I was hooked.&rdquo

My story was similar. Always tempted to play the archaeologist as a child, I dreamed of striking it rich by finding King John&rsquos lost golden treasure that sank in a river. One day, long after I should have given up such fancies, I read about mudlarking online. I ran down to the Thames and pulled out my first treasure: a broken clay pipe last smoked by someone in the 18th Century. Now I can be found under London Bridge looking for Roman pottery in Rotherhithe searching for industrial relics and around Putney for prehistory. The joy of mudlarking is that you never know what might turn up or where.

The Thames is one of the greatest and largest archaeological sites in the world, and the entire history of Britain can be told from items found on the foreshore. Many objects in the Museum of London have labels giving their provenance as &ldquoDiscovered in the Thames&rdquo. Even a cursory glance at the river will reveal broken pottery pieces, shards of glass and twisted pieces of metal, and mudlarks have discovered everything from woolly mammoth teeth to Roman lamps to Tudor rings.

Given the lack of funding in archaeology in the past few years, the amateur eyes of mudlarks have been incredibly helpful in pointing out fragile structures emerging from the mud, with the Portable Antiquity Scheme (PAS) having just recorded its 1,500,000th archaeological discovery made by members of the British public.

&ldquoIt is tremendously important that mudlarks report their finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme in accordance with the terms of their licence, no matter how trivial or mundane they seem,&rdquo said Stuart Wyatt, Finds Liaison Officer for the London area, who assesses and records the artefacts found by mudlarks for the PAS.

&ldquoThe Thames is especially rich in small portable finds it&rsquos not only their quantity but their quality that makes Thames finds so important. The preservation of lead, leather and bone artefacts is especially good, whether a Roman bone hair pin or a 17th-Century child&rsquos pewter toy. These artefacts are often lost on land sites due to adverse soil environments, but the anaerobic qualities of the Thames foreshore preserve them.&rdquo

Mudlarks must get a license from the Port of London Authority. For a minimal fee, covering three years, this allows you to search in the mud and stones of the Thames and dig up to 7.5cm deep.

Whatever you uncover must be declared to Finds Liaison Officers and belongs to the Port of London Authority, but if not deemed of historical significance you may keep what you find.

However, mudlarking can be a risky hobby. When the tide turns, it turns fast. You must always be aware of your route off of the foreshore. The mud is another hazard: on one of my first mudlarking trips, a more experienced mudlark told me how he had once fallen into a pit left in the mud. He was lucky to have a bucket to claw his way out &ndash though the Tube ride home was a little dirty.

But it&rsquos the mud of the Thames that makes mudlarking so rewarding. The layers of dirt contain artefacts from every stage of London&rsquos history and pre-history. Liz Anderson, a mudlark who runs a blog about her finds, once pulled a 2,000-year-old Roman nit comb from the mud. &ldquoThe comb is made of boxwood and what I love about it is that it's almost exactly the same design as these things still are today,&rdquo she told me. &ldquoIt also has mud between the teeth, in which almost certainly there may still lurk Roman nits. When I found it, it was in such good condition it looked like it had only been dropped yesterday.&rdquo

As the river meanders through the centre of the city, untold interesting stories are constantly revealed. On a small patch of foreshore in Rotherhithe in south-east London, you can see tumbled red bricks where the buildings levelled by the Luftwaffe in World War Two fell into the river. Beside those bricks are myriad rusting nails, screws and ship plates left from a time when Rotherhithe was known as a ship-breaking site in the 19th Century.

Even if I don't find much that day, I love the peace the river brings

Nearby is a row of wooden jetty supports. Looking closely, you might notice one is somewhat different: instead of rotting from the outside, it is hollow. This post is not made of wood but is a whale rib. From the 1720s, whaling ships ferried their blubbery trophies into Greenland Dock where the whale fat could be rendered down into useful oils. Whale bones found their way into many products, but sometimes, as here, they were used whole if builders found themselves short of timber.

These items are all on a stretch of the Thames no more than 100m long.

Mudlarking is not all about the physical objects you find on the river, however. Anderson speaks poetically of the joys of being on the foreshore. &ldquoI instantly forget any anxieties or problems that I have for the few hours or so that I'm down by the river,&rdquo she said. &ldquoEven if I don't find much that day, I love the peace the river brings &ndash the wildlife, birds, boats going past, the sounds, the way the light reflects on the water, the changing landscape on whatever part of the Thames foreshore I happen to be mudlarking on that day. Even on a cold, windy or wet weather day, it&rsquos very invigorating.&rdquo

But on a brisk morning, when you are up with the larks and a freezing wind is blowing along the grey Thames and no finds are turning up, it can be hard to stay cheerful. Once all I discovered was a used condom and a discarded belt. But the rich possibilities of the Thames continue to draw mudlarks back.

For Anderson, &ldquoA dream find for me would be a Neolithic flint tool. It's lovely to find coins and things, but you can't beat finding something like a flint tool because of [its] age and how special [it is] to find and hold. Some of them are so beautifully worked and crafted.&rdquo

Maiklem is searching for an item with a story to tell. &ldquoMy dream find is a complete medieval St Thomas Becket pilgrim badge,&rdquo she said. The pewter relics were produced in huge numbers as souvenirs at Becket&rsquos shrine in Canterbury, and you can imagine one of Chaucer&rsquos pilgrims accidentally losing theirs on the way back into old London.

The longer you mudlark, the more you want to find. &ldquoIt is addictive,&rdquo Maiklem warned me. But the bug has already bitten me &ndash even if I do still dream of finding golden treasure in the Thames.

Unearthed is a BBC Travel series that searches the world for newly discovered archaeological wonders that few people have ever seen.

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  1. Artus

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  4. Eyou

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  5. Thaumas

    What a lovely phrase

  6. Fegami

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