What is Mudlarking?
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.
In contrast to the young Victorian scavengers of the Thames, mudlarks today have a passionate interest in London’s rich archaeology and history, and it has become a popular hobby which gives both adults and children
a unique ‘hands on history’ experience and deepens our understanding of London’s past. Modern mudlarks have discovered and recovered an incredibly wide range of artefacts from all periods of British history, from prehistoric to modern times. They search the foreshore using a variety of methods. Some search ‘by eye’ while others use a trowel, sieve or metal detectors.
When scouring the Thames foreshore, they tend to look for items which personally interest them. Some mudlarks pick up colourful pottery sherds and white clay pipes, while others search specifically for metallic objects of all shapes and sizes. Coins, tokens, jettons, buttons, buckles, cufflinks, wig curlers, jewellery, gemstones, red garnets, rings, brooches, clothes fasteners, toys, gaming pieces, dice, dominoes, pilgrim and secular badges, bottles, shoes, pins, daggers, knives, chainmail, pottery such as Roman samianware or 18th century Chinese porcelain, early and late stoneware, Victorian transferware and clay pipes, etc. are common discoveries on the Thames foreshore.
Each mudlark’s collection reflects their individual personality and provides a unique insight into their interests and passions.
In order to go mudlarking in London, a Thames Foreshore Permit must be obtained from the Port of London Authority. All objects which are three hundred years old or more must be reported to the Museum of London. Mudlarks arrange regular appointments with a Finds Liaison Officer who records the artefacts on the Portable Antiquities Scheme managed by the British Museum.
New, interesting artefacts are constantly being discovered by mudlarks and brought to the museum. Finds from the Thames are still giving us new information and adding to the collective knowledge. These objects are continuing to enhance our understanding of London’s history and the lives of Londoners who inhabited the city over the last two millennia.
Historical Importance of Mudlarking Finds
When the Society of Thames Mudlarks was founded in the late 1970s, the members were granted a special mudlarking license from the Port of London Authority. The Museum of London recorded the incredible artefacts found by Society members and through this fruitful collaboration, tens of thousands of historically important artefacts were acquired by the Museum which now has one of the largest collections in the world of Medieval pilgrim and secular badges and Post-Medieval pewter toys, thanks to the Society.
Many reference books have been written about mudlarking finds acquired by the Museum of London. The incredible variety and quantity of pewter toys discovered in the Thames, for example, have actually changed the way historians view the Medieval period. Hazel Forsyth, Senior Curator at the Museum of London and co-author of Toys, Trifles & Trinkets, observes that, ‘these Medieval toys are exceptionally rare and have helped transform perceptions of childhood during the Middle Ages’. We now know that, ‘some parents [in the Middle Ages] were very devoted to their children and gave them every luxury and pleasure they could afford.’
Every year new and exciting artefacts are being found by mudlarks on the Thames foreshore. These objects continue to change historical perceptions and reveal new insights into London life centuries ago.
“Over the last 30 years, the mudlarks have made a really important contribution to the study of London’s history through the sheer volume and variety of finds that they have recovered from the Thames foreshore. ”
“Finds can alter our picture of the past. Many of the finds are very small pieces. They are like little pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that help us create a picture of the past. By putting them together we get an idea of what’s going on. They can actually rewrite history. ”