For the past week, I’ve been obsessively reading a book I got for Christmas called Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the Thames, by expert mudlarker Lara Maiklem. It’s about an intriguing, off-beat activity I’d heard of but didn’t know much about – which basically involves hunting for treasure on the shores of London’s River Thames. It’s been out since 2019 so you may or may not have heard of it already. But if you haven’t, and you’re in the mood for a new hobby for 2021, follow me.
The first thing I was surprised to learn is that it’s not a modern-day activity. It actually began as a profession in the late 1800s, although it was done out of necessity and not for fun. Sadly, most mudlarks were poverty stricken children who would endure difficult conditions – like walking on broken glass, and tidal currents – in the hope of finding anything of value to make a living. At the time, the River Thames was essentially a huge rubbish dump where people and its industries threw away their unwanted items. On a more positive note, it was also a place for tossing coins to make a wish or ask for good fortune.
A Victorian journalist and social reformer called Henry Mayhew, wrote several articles about the life of London’s poor, which were compiled into the 1851 book series London Labour and the London Poor. In one, he describes the life of a mudlark:
“The mudlarks generally consist of boys and girls, varying in age from eight to fourteen or fifteen. For the most part they are ragged, and in a very filthy state, and are a peculiar class, confined to the river. As soon as the tide is out they make their appearance, and remain till it comes in. These mudlarks are generally strong and healthy, though their clothes are in rags. Their fathers are robust men. By going too often to the public house they keep their families in destitution, and the mothers of the poor children are glad to get a few pence in whatever way they can.”
According to curators at the Museum of London, mudlarking continued as a profession until around 1904, but wasn’t until the 1970s that it became a hobby. Apparently, lucky for me, mudlarks do not need to look too hard: “The key to spotting objects on the foreshore is simply to relax and look through the surface,” says Maiklen, in this article.
Lara grew up in the countryside and became interested in mudlarking when she moved to London in the 1990s after university. “I started walking along the banks of the Thames … I missed the peace and quiet of the countryside and I discovered an oasis of peace by the river. It was a while before I discovered the foreshore, but one day it was low tide and I decided to go down the river stairs to take a look around. I found a clay pipe stem and that was that, I was hooked. I’d always enjoyed collecting and looking for things,” she tells London blogger, Simone.
Lara moved out of London and had twins in 2012, at which point she started the London Mudlark Facebook page, the first online mudlarking page; somewhere to share the objects she’d been finding on the foreshore and the research she was doing. It was also a connection to the outside world at a time when she was home alone most of the time with babies.
Some people love mudlarking as a way to unearth secrets of London past and indulge an interest in archaeology, others want to find valuables. Some do it occasionally; others come regularly and take it seriously, even bringing metal detectors with them.
To get you in the mood, her Facebook page and Instagram feed are rich with information on her finds, to make your inner archaeologist drool: old clay pipes, coins, pins, needles, colourful pottery shards, thimbles, combs, and wig curlers are just a few of the items people have uncovered on the foreshore. She recently posted her top 12 finds for 2020.
- Pipe clay bird’s head, possibly a toy, still no idea how old it is.
- Roman box hinge, made of bone and with the wooden dowel preserved inside.
- Near complete 18th century pipe.
- Pin making bone, c.16th century.
- Roman tuyere for connecting bellows to a furnace, made of clay.
- 15th century pilgrim badge of St Osmund.
- Contemporary counterfeit of a silver James I sixpence.
- 14th century beehive thimble.
- Pewter Elizabethan counter.
- A sherd of samian featuring a phallus-dog – the Roman embodiment of the divine phallus.
- Victorian teacup, broken, encrusted with barnacles and ready for kintsugi next year!
- 18th century political token issued for four men imprisoned in Newgate for sedition in 1794.
Number 10: dog- phallus? “At first, I thought the pattern on this sherd of Roman samian was a funny looking tree, but when I turned it up the other way I saw something different – a phallus-dog! (Yes, that’s actually a thing),” she posted to the group. “Apparently phallus-dogs were a common apotropaic symbol, often as a fascinum. In ancient Roman religion and magic, the fascinus or fascinum was the embodiment of the divine phallus.”
Number 12, the political token: “I found it at Rotherhithe after my first visit back to the foreshore after Lockdown 1, which tells the story of four men imprisoned at Newgate Prison for sedition,” which you can read here.
So how do you go mudlarking? First of all you can only search in designated areas and need a permit to do it, which you get from the London Port Authority, even if you only want to do it for a day. Also, If you discover anything of significance, Lara advised that, “Mudlarks are morally bound to report anything over 300 years old to the Museum of London.”
For mudlarks of all ages and experience, there are some good practices to follow since the Thames is a tidal river. Lara suggested these tips for anyone up for the adventure: “The one rule everyone should follow is safety. The Thames is a powerful benefactor: twice a day it reveals its foreshore then the waters rise to claim it back again. The currents are very strong and it’s easy to get cut off by the tide, so if you’re thinking of going mudlarking you should always check tide times and keep a close eye on escape routes once the tide turns. I also advise people to take a mobile phone with them so they can call for help if they need it. One beauty of the foreshore is its privacy and relative remoteness, but there’s a good chance there won’t be anyone around to help if you get into trouble.”
(Photos from the London Mudlark Facebook page.)