MUDLARK | Noun – a person who gains a livelihood by searching for iron, coal, old ropes etc. in mud or low tide
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.
Thames Foreshore Access
Anyone wishing to search the Tidal Thames foreshore in any way for any reason must hold a current foreshore permit from the Port of London Authority (PLA). Searching includes all forms of ‘mudlarking’ activity and also metal detecting; digging; scraping etc. If you are considering searching the foreshore, do be aware:
- The foreshore and tidal river are potentially hazardous.
- The foreshore permit is only valid for certain locations between Teddington and the Thames Barrier.
- Searching is not permitted at some places – e.g. to protect key archaeological sites and for security.
- Significant finds must be reported.