Mudlarking on the Thames: A Treasure Trove of History Washes Ashore Every Low Tide

If you’re look­ing for free out­door activ­i­ties to pull you from the dig­i­tal realm, may we rec­om­mend mud­lark­ing?

Lara Maik­lem, author of Mud­lark­ing: Lost and Found on the Riv­er Thames and A Field Guide to Lark­ing, has devel­oped a keen eye in the 20 years she’s been scav­eng­ing his­toric detri­tus from the fore­shore of the Thames at low tide.

 I nev­er use a met­al detec­tor and I often walk lit­tle more than a mile in 5 hours, yet I can trav­el 2,000 years back in time through the objects that are revealed by the tide. Pre­his­toric flint tools, medieval pil­grim badges, Tudor shoes, Geor­gian wig curlers and Vic­to­ri­an pot­tery, ordi­nary objects left behind by the ordi­nary peo­ple who made Lon­don what it is today. 

As she says in the short film above, her first find has become one of her most com­mon — a clay pipe frag­ment.

The term mud­lark was invent­ed to describe the pover­ty strick­en Vic­to­ri­ans who scoured the fore­shore for cop­per, wire, and oth­er items with resale val­ue, as well as things they could clean off and use them­selves.

Today’s mud­larks are pri­mar­i­ly his­to­ry buffs and ama­teur arche­ol­o­gists.

The hob­by has become so pop­u­lar that The Port of Lon­don Author­i­ty, which con­trols the Thames water­way along with the Crown Estate, has start­ed to require fore­shore per­mits of all prospec­tive debris hunters.

Per­mit­ted mud­larks can claim as sou­venirs how­ev­er many Vic­to­ri­an clay pipes and blue and white pot­tery shards they dig up, but are legal­ly oblig­ed by the Portable Antiq­ui­ties Scheme to report items of poten­tial­ly greater his­toric and mon­e­tary val­ue — i.e. Trea­sure — to a muse­um-trained Finds Lia­son Offi­cer:

  • Any metal­lic object, oth­er than a coin, pro­vid­ed that at least 10 per cent by weight of met­al is pre­cious met­al (that is, gold or sil­ver) and that it is at least 300 years old when found. If the object is of pre­his­toric date it will be Trea­sure pro­vid­ed any part of it is pre­cious met­al.
  • Any group of two or more metal­lic objects of any com­po­si­tion of pre­his­toric date that come from the same find (see note below).
  • Two or more coins from the same find pro­vid­ed they are at least 300 years old when found and con­tain 10 per cent gold or sil­ver (if the coins con­tain less than 10 per cent of gold or sil­ver there must be at least ten of them). Only the fol­low­ing groups of coins will nor­mal­ly be regard­ed as com­ing from the same find: Hoards that have been delib­er­ate­ly hid­den; Small­er groups of coins, such as the con­tents of purs­es, that may been dropped or lost; Votive or rit­u­al deposits.
  • Any object, what­ev­er it is made of, that is found in the same place as, or had pre­vi­ous­ly been togeth­er with, anoth­er object that is Trea­sure.

How did all this his­toric refuse come to be in the Thames? Maik­lem told Col­lec­tors Week­ly that there are many rea­sons:

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.

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.

There are numer­ous social media groups where mod­ern mud­larks can proud­ly share their finds, and seek assis­tance in iden­ti­fy­ing strange or frag­ment­ed objects.

Maiklem’s Lon­don Mud­lark Face­book page is an edu­ca­tion in and of itself, a reflec­tion of her abid­ing inter­est in the his­toric sig­nif­i­cance of the items she truf­fles up.

Wit­ness the pewter buck­le plate dat­ing to the 14th or 15th-cen­tu­ry that she spot­ted on the fore­shore in late Novem­ber, turned over to her Finds Liai­son Offi­cer and researched with the help of his­toric pewter crafts­man Col­in Torode:

Pri­or to c.1350 pewter belt fit­tings seem to have been rather rare, although a Lon­don Girdlers’ Guild Char­ter of 1321 which banned the use of pewter belt fit­tings does show that the met­al was cer­tain­ly in use. In 1344 the Girdlers’ guild again reit­er­at­ed the ban on what they felt were infe­ri­or met­als such as pewter, tin and lead. In 1391 how­ev­er, a statute rec­og­nized that these met­als had been in use for some time and that their use could con­tin­ue with­out restric­tion

This ornate plate would have had a sep­a­rate buck­le frame attached to it and is prob­a­bly a cheap­er copy of the more upmar­ket cop­per alloy or sil­ver ver­sions that were pro­duced at the time.  Although the the open­work design is sim­i­lar to those found in in fur­ni­ture or church screens, it’s not reli­gious or pil­grim relat­ed.

Maik­lem also chal­lenges fans to play along from home with “spot the find” videos for such items as a Tudor clothes hook, Geor­gian cuf­flink, and a Ger­man salt glazed, stoneware bottle’s neck embossed with a human face.

She also reminds would be mud­larks to always wear gloves as it’s not all medieval thim­bles, WWI medals and 16th-cen­tu­ry box­wood combs, beau­ti­ful­ly pre­served by the Thames’ anaer­o­bic mud.

The riv­er also spews up plen­ty of drowned rats, flush­ing them out with the sewage after a heavy rain. Oth­er poten­tial haz­ards include hypo­der­mic nee­dles and bro­ken glass.

In addi­tion to such safe­ty pre­cau­tions as gloves, stur­dy footwear, and remain­ing mind­ful of incom­ing tides, Maik­lem advis­es novice mud­larks to look for straight lines and per­fect cir­cles — “the things that nature doesn’t make.”

It takes prac­tice and patience to devel­op a skilled eye, but don’t get dis­cour­aged if your first out­ings don’t yield the sort of jaw drop­ping dis­cov­er­ies Maik­lem has made — an intact glass Vic­to­ri­an sug­ar crush­er, a 16th-cen­tu­ry child’s leather shoe and Roman era pot­tery shards galore.

Some­times even plas­tic comes with a com­pelling sto­ry.

I’m still feel­ing quite gid­dy over this bit of plas­tic. I came to Corn­wall this week to write and to beach­comb. I hoped I might find a small piece of Lost Lego, but I wasn’t hold­ing out much hope. Calm weath­er means less plas­tic: good for the beach, bad for the Lego look­er. Then I found this wedged between two boul­ders. It’s one of the black octo­pus­es from the Lego spill of 1997 when, 20 miles from Land’s End, a huge wave hit the car­go ship Tokio Express. It tilt­ed 45 degrees and 62 con­tain­ers slid into the water. One con­tain­er was filled with near­ly 5 mil­lion pieces of Lego, much of which was sea themed. Lit­tle scu­ba tanks, flip­pers, octo­pus­es, cut­lass­es, life rafts, spear guns, drag­ons and octo­pus­es like this still wash up on the beach­es of Corn­wall and fur­ther afield.

Stay abreast of Lara Maiklem’s mud­lark­ing finds here.

Try your hand at mud­lark­ing the Thames in per­son, dur­ing a guid­ed tour with the Thames Explor­er Trust.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Prize-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion Lets You Fly Through 17th Cen­tu­ry Lon­don

The Growth of Lon­don, from the Romans to the 21st Cen­tu­ry, Visu­al­ized in a Time-Lapse Ani­mat­ed Map

Watch the Sex Pis­tols Play a Gig on a Thames Riv­er Barge Dur­ing the Queen’s Sil­ver Jubilee, and Get Shut Down by the Cops (1977)

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is a mud­lark­ing new­bie, the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Bristol says:

    Enjoy­able arti­cle. Just to say I think there’s a bit of con­fu­sion in the infor­ma­tion here, though. “Trea­sure”, as defined in the para­graphs you quot­ed, must be report­ed, but through police / coro­ner — it’s manda­to­ry report­ing. The Portable Antiq­ui­ties Scheme is a data­base to record much more wide­ly defined items of his­tor­i­cal inter­est such as cloth­ing, pot­tery or base met­al­work, and relies on vol­un­tary report­ing to the local Finds Liai­son Offi­cer (the guide­line is any­thing over 300 years old or oth­er­wise sig­nif­i­cant). Luck­i­ly report­ing to the PAS has been huge­ly suc­cess­ful with large num­bers fol­low­ing best prac­tice (about 1.5m items report­ed since it start­ed over 20 years ago), but it isn’t legal­ly required in the same way that report­ing “Trea­sure” is.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.