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Oral History Transcript
Interviewee: Anna Borzello
Interviewer: Jill Evans
Q: This is an oral history interview with Anna Borzello by [Jill 0:00:05] Evans on Thursday the 22nd August 2019. Also present are--,
Q1: Eva Tausig from Thames Festival Trust.
Q2: And Vanessa [McClean 0:00:14].
Q: And the interview is taking place at Anna’s house as part of the Thames Festival Trust’s Foragers of the Foreshore heritage project. So, Anna, could--, please could you state your name and date of birth?
A: My name is Anna Borzello and I was born on January the 18th 1966.
Q: And where were you born?
A: In Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Q: And did you grow up there.
A: I didn’t, my mother didn’t want me to grow up in America so she brought me to England when I was ten months old.
Q: Gosh. And where did you arrive in England?
A: We arrived in London where, yes, where my parents have lived ever since.
Q: And that’s where you grew up then after that?
A: So, I grew up in London and I've been here most of my life apart from a large section of the middle when I worked abroad in sub-Saharan Africa.
Q: Right, gosh, interesting. And what subjects did you study and were you interested in at school?
A: I really hated school, generally, from the beginning. I never liked any of school, it kind of passed me by. I did do a history A level but I got an E. I don’t know how I even managed to get an E, that felt like a triumph but the facts danced before my eyes. I don’t like sitting in classes having people talk at me. I always loved words and I loved ideas but school was not my metier, I much preferred university.
Q: And what did you study at university?
A: So, I studied philosophy at university which is perfect if you have a very poor memory because you only have to understand the idea and then you don’t have to learn any facts whatsoever and it’s--, yeah. I found it really interesting, questioning assumptions about life and everything.
Q: Yes, well, it connects, doesn’t it? So, what’s your work now and what’s a week look like for you? Do you have a typical week?
A: So, I was a journalist for a really long time so I feel like I am still a journalist but I'm not working as a journalist at the moment so it’s quite difficult. So, I want to say I'm a journalist and that’s who I am. If I’m honest, I think the last journalistic work I did was about six months ago and before that, there was a long gap so, at the moment, most of my life has been taken up with looking after my twin girls. I’m a single parent, managing very boring domestic projects involving house renovations and mudlarking.
Q: And how long have you been mudlarking?
A: So, I started about four years ago. I’d often thought about the river, so I used to go down to the river a lot when I was kid, I know my dad took me down to the river. The other day I found a photograph of myself at 16 all dressed in black doing some kind of ballet on the river with a German artist right near the South Bank. I remember sitting on the river when I was 16, again at the South Bank, being broken hearted with unrequited love. When I lived in--, I lived in Uganda for eight years and Nigeria for two years and I loved Uganda--, when I went to Nigeria I did get a bit homesick 'cause it’s quite a closed city Lagos, you can't really see the sea and whenever I used to think about London, I’d think about the river and just that big open space which is very relaxing to be near.
A: So, I've always been drawn to the river and then I often used to look at people down there and see little things like pipe stems and had this notion that I wanted to mudlark and I’d think, I ought to do it, I ought to do it and then one day when the kids were about seven I thought, well, right, I may as well just go and do it then. And so I went down to the river and started.
Q: So, did you choose a particular spot or did you just happen to find a place where the tide was low?
A: I did two things. I went with the Thames Explorer Trust, I think they are.
Q: Ah, yes.
A: I went with the kids and wandered along, so it was an excuse to go down there in a structured way. I just remember thinking this is completely feasible. And I also went out with a very seasoned mudlark, Steve Brooker and I asked him to show me how the foreshore worked. Actually, I don’t remember much of how it worked but I just remember being rather dazzled by his incredible knowledge and everything he found and it all seemed even more magical and extraordinary than before. So, after I went down that first time then I just started coming or going all the time, I’d just go down--, drop the kids at school and go straight down to the foreshore.
Q: What was the first thing you found, do you remember?
A: Well, I think everyone finds bits of pottery--,
A: And pipes but the first thing I really remember finding was someone showing me how to find a pin and they bent down and they said, look, you can find pins and they picked it up and I thought, oh my goodness in the vast array of these pebbles and mud and stone someone has found this little tiny object, that is amazing. And there was a whole load of them there and so, when I did go back, I would sit there and pick pins out of the mud like--, just I’d literally sit down on the foreshore and get a wet bottom and pick pins out of the mud and from the little stones and then rest and look out at the river 'cause I found that very relaxing. Actually, I've got a theory about why I find it relaxing which is that I’ve got quite poor eyesight. I have strabismus which means you can't focus, it’s difficult not to see double, so you can do it but with a lot of strain but if you look in the far distance, you don’t have to strain your eyes, you can see the horizon. So, I think part of the reason I like the river and was always drawn there was 'cause it’s quite relaxing to look on a far horizon. So, I often spend a lot of the time on the river, just looking out at a further horizon and finding it relaxing.
Q: So, what was--, what keeps you going back to the river then to mudlark?
A: Well, it takes on a certain obsessive quality and I have had lots of various obsessions throughout my life, so I tend to do something very intensely for a--, quite a long chunk of time and then move on. I can think of three or four things I've done that for. And so, I have a--, a character that can get very engaged with something and this lends itself to obsession and at the same time, it’s just very nice being near the river, I find it beautiful being there. I like other people but I'm quite a solitary person as well, I like being by myself, so I really like it when there’s no one else on the foreshore. But then, at the same time, there are people that I’ve met and I enjoy having conversations with them about odd things. Say, I like people who aren’t like me, I get very--, I feel very claustrophobic when people are very like me, sort of slightly panicked. I think I don’t want to just be around everyone who is similar to me with the same sort of education. So, I just remember seeing, for example, a construction worker in huge, shiny overalls marching down, he was incredibly overweight and he came up to me and opened his palm and he had this little tiny bit of pottery and he had this passion, you know, this love for pottery.
Q: Yeah, yeah.
A: You would never have guessed if you’d seen him on the street but this man came down to the river and horded pretty bits of pottery and I find that a really attractive way of getting to know people.
Q: Yes, it’s really delightful, isn’t it?
A: So, that pulls me back. And also, the fact that you never know what you're going to get. And I think, finally, because I'm a journalist, I like--, I like quick research, it appeals to me, so you can find an object--, and I’m actually quite well suited just to going to research it for three hours and doing everything and finding out about it and then turning it around and writing about it in an Instagram post. So, I’m very keen on Instagram and I think it’s that turning it around and précising in a short space really appeals to me as well.
Q: Yes. Do you enjoy sharing it? Is that really a part of it as well then?
A: I do enjoy sharing it. I actually just enjoy taking--, now, I enjoy taking the photographs. It matters to me that they look good. And I enjoy just the process of writing it, I suppose. Yeah, it’s the same journalistic instinct and the fact that it’s a way of--, I said before that I didn’t like history at school, I found it tedious ,but I don’t find it tedious finding an object and then seeing the world through the prism of that object. That comes to life for me and I find that very interesting. So, it’s got everything. It’s got everything you could want, invest--,
A: And it’s got slightly adventurous qualities. Sometimes you might get cut off, you know.
Q: Yes, yes, yes.
A: You can--, yeah, it’s--, and it’s beautiful and an interesting way to see the city. And there’s also, maybe less so now 'cause even in the short time I've mudlarked, more people have started coming, but at the beginning you'd feel quite transgressive and you’d go down to the river and there would be people up above going to work in huge swarms at 9 am and you'd be down there looking filthy and I quite like that transgressive feeling, yeah.
Q: Do you go back to the same part of the river?
A: Yes. Sometimes I go back there just 'cause I know, you know, you begin to know a little patch.
A: Sometimes like really sadly, like you think, I know you stone, I saw you last week.
A: And sometimes I do think, this is ridiculous, you know. Or literally, a piece of pottery might be on that beach for three weeks and it’s tiny and you recognise it [both talking at once].
Q: Would you go and look for particular things, you think, if you have a hunch that there’s metal in one direction or pottery?
A: Well, I do sometimes. What I've found is that sometimes it’s really--, and it’s not that mysterious but I've noticed that if you are thinking about an object you’re more likely to find it. So--, which isn’t that strange 'cause obviously it’s in your head and you're going to recognise the snatch of it that you see, the little angle. But, for example, the other day I was chatting with my friend, Monica, who’s a mudlark, and we were saying how we never found nit combs and that evening I went down to the foreshore and I found a nit comb and people say the river gave it to me but I just think I had it in my head, this, you know, that little--, the shadows--, even though it was dark I was attuned to picking it up.
Q: Yeah, I think that happens.
A: So, sometimes I try and think now. I don’t think gold, I might think cufflink.
Q: [Laughs] modest.
A: Strange, weird thing, you know.
Q: Yes, yeah.
A: Peculiar coin. Yeah, so. And occasionally--, no, not occasionally, I’d say there’s about five beaches within London that I rotate around, the various--,
Q: Right, sort of familiar--,
Q: Kind of territories.
A: Yeah, yeah.
Q: So, do you always go by yourself for the most part?
A: For the most part. There are a couple of people I’ve gone out with. So, I've gone out with Nicola White, who you’ve interviewed a few times. So, I've gone with her a few times and you’ve interviewed her. And--, but--, so she--, but her idea of going out is much like mine, she just goes up the other end of the beach and we might meet in the middle for a sandwich afterwards.
A: So, you're out but not actually having a conversation.
A: So, the notion of going out and chatting with people while looking just seems to me very peculiar 'cause you can't--,
Q: It’s such a distraction, isn’t it?
A: But ac--, I've just remembered, I do have a night time mudlarking pal and we go out together. She is a young woman. I have no other contact with her in the real world. I think, maybe, we’ve met on--, in daylight twice--,
A: On the foreshore. And we ring each other up and we go down there and we meet. She’s always late, so I'm often there by myself first and we kind of pass each other and have a little chat and then move on again and she’s a very relaxing companion.
A: But that’s partly for safety because you don’t want to be--,.
Q: I was going to say, a bit more confidence at night time and things.
A: Yeah. That’s the reason, that’s why I started doing it, not because I thought I need--,
A: Somebody else to be here [both talking at once].
Q: But a quite common sense sort of approach really, yeah.
A: I think a lot of mudlarks are the same. I think people who go into areas which are bit dodgy because, say very soft mud, would want to go with someone else 'cause it makes sense.
Q: Mmm, absolutely.
A: But a lot of people I know would, in general, if it’s daylight, would go by themselves and then maybe meet--, maybe meet later.
Q: Yes [sure 0:12:34].
A: It’s lovely when you do meet people.
A: That’s not--, but it’s--, that’s not for me the thing of looking is a sort of meditative state [both talking at once].
Q: It’s not an object, it’s the exercise, no. And have you ever found yourself in difficulties and things? You mentioned maybe getting cut off by the tide or something or?
A: No, the nearest was when I was with--, walking with somebody else and the tide was sort of lapping round our ankles and it was slightly embarrassing and we managed to get out and walk round and it was fine. But in general, I don’t think so, I think I'm quite careful. Except, as you go further east it gets very muddy and I have, quite recently, sunk and my boot got completely stuck and I had to take my foot out of my boot and it was right up to the edge of the boot and I had to stand there in my sock, tugging at the boot to try and get it out and then try and get back to more solid ground. And there was someone at the far end of the foreshore who I shouted towards and he did come towards me. When he came towards me he just looked rather bewildered, I don’t--, he probably thought, what am I meant to do?
A: And I was thinking, I don’t know really but I got out. But I did think, gosh, that was a little bit stupid because that very soft mud, if it comes in and there’s nobody nearby--,
A: That’s a very dangerous thing to do. But in general, I am--, I would say I'm quite careful.
A: And then after a while you learn to read it. You think, oh well, there are stones here or bricks here or there’s a little path there and I can do that [both talking at once].
Q: Yeah, yes, you understand what’s there. So, what kind of preparation do you do, I mean in terms of researching tides and water movement as well as your own preparation to go off out?
A: I’ve just got a tide app
A: And I think--,
Q: And that’s it, is it?
A: That’ll do.
Q: Yeah [laughs].
A: That’s it.
Q: So, do you time yourself? Do you think, oh well, I’ll give myself so long or set an alarm or?
Q: How cautious are you, just--,
A: I’m not cautious, I think--,
Q: Just keep an eye.
A: I’ve come down an hour and half before the tide and I’ll probably--, I can watch it come in.
A: I mean, if I'm in central London I know where the exits are, I’m not really--,
Q: That was another question, yes.
Q: I mean, yes. Do you--, but you’ve--, that’s because you already know them? You wouldn’t go down [both talking at once]--,
A: I would always look for--,
Q: without knowing?
Q: No. 'Cause--,
A: One exit is quite peculiarly blocked on the--, on the far east--, further east which is there is a man who sits there smoking a joint--,
A: And he’s--, he’s covered the entire access point, which actually involves climbing a wall, it’s not easy. He’s covered it with the stuff he’s collected off the foreshore, like bricks and things like that and you can't disturb it. If you touch it he’d get angry, so--,
Q: Oh, my goodness.
A: I did think have-- I did think, gosh I don’t--,
Q: That’s quite an obstacle then.
A: I did--, yes. I thought, I don’t want to touch his bit of wall so I actually made a concerted effort to find an access point further down--,
Q: Right, right, yeah, yeah.
A: So I didn’t have to bother him.
Q: Yeah, that’s--,
A: He really likes his bit of wall though, he’s there a lot.
Q: So, is he making a contribution to the Thames foreshore, isn’t he, of a different kind? It’s not the kind of blockage I was envisaging when you said. So--, and how do you prepare yourself, particularly in terms of clothing or, you know?
A: the unfortunate thing is that there has become little distinction between what I wear on the foreshore and what I don’t and it’s really unfortunate because I think I look worse than everybody else. I was never a tidy person to begin with. I quite like mud and I'm not averse to that sort of clean filtObviously, I wouldn’t, you know, like sewage but I quite like mud. I really quite enjoy it and I don’t mind when I'm covered in it. I did once get refused entry into an Uber when I was rushing to pick up the kids from school and the man said, I can't take you in my car and I did think, perhaps I have crossed a point.
A: And actually, about a month ago, a woman on the train told her daughter to move her legs so she wasn’t touching me and I was a bit embarrassed by that as well. So, I do get really dirty and then my clothes get holes in them and then 'cause I've recently gained a bit of weight, I don’t have other clothes that fit so my trousers that I wear normally, I've gone down to the foreshore in them and they've got ripped and then they sort of cross over. So, I wish I did have a dedicated mudlarking wardrobe and that’s what I'm going to work towards.
Q: Sort of zip into it [both laugh].
A: I would like to work towards it. I do have these boots. I tried Hunters first, which are very stylish and posh. I went through three pairs in one year with the stone--, with the rocks just cut through the base so they were no good. So, now I've got these Muck boots, they're called, and they're quite expensive and they've got a steel reinforcement and they are neoprene so, even in winter, the tide can come right up to your knees and your feet stay warm and I love my boots.
A: But they are now quite smelly as well, so that’s another disadvantage when I go on public transport.
Q: How--, how tall are they?
A: They're only up to my knees.
Q: Right. So, you can wade a fair old bit in those [both talking at once].
A: Yeah and I clomp, you know. It’s not more of the look, oh, clonk, clonk, clonk.
Q: [Inaudible]. [Laughs].
A: It is satisfying in its way.
Q: And what about on your hands? Do you wear gloves and things or?
A: Oh, I don’t. I should, okay. I don’t wear gloves out of any principle, I don’t think I do, I like to be one with nature. It’s just that I--, it’s like one layer of faff I can’t be dealing with. I put them on, I think, oh my God, this is so annoying and I take them off, then I lose them, so I don’t wear gloves but I ought. I think, particularly in places where there used to be landfill further up the estuary, you should definitely wear gloves there 'cause it really isn’t safe and--, but I don’t wear gloves and I should, I am aware of that. But they have to be the very thin ones 'cause otherwise, you can't feel. It has to feel--,
Q: [Inaudible], yes, yeah.
A: And also, I quite like feeling things.
Q: Yeah, yes. No, it is a different experience, isn’t it? And then do you bag things up when you pick up something or do you just put it all into a—,
A: I often find that really kind people give me bags. Like, I suspect that bag was given to me by someone like Johnny on the foreshore probably thought, poor Anna, she’s found something, I’ll give her that bag. Sometimes I buy those now, those big zip up freezer bags--,
Q: Things like--, yes, sandwich bags [both talking at once] kind of things, that sort of thing.
A: And use those and--, but just drop everything in. I--, Sometimes I lose stuff which I really regret. This year I've lost a prunt and I've lost a love token, a silver love token that was a coin that was pressed into an S shape and that was sad.
Q: [Hard 0:19:25], yes.
A: I briefly held it.
Q: Yes, yes.
A: It was fun to find it, sad to let it go.
Q: Gave it back.
A: Yeah. But I would like--, again, I’d like to be more organised in that area but it’s not my forte. The other problem I have is that because my eyesight’s not great, I've got two pairs of glasses, one for distance--, I can't--, the short--, the close up ones have prisms in them so I can't have bifocals or varifocals, whatever they're called. But it means that sometimes--, I tried it the other night. I had a headlamp on and two pairs of glasses on string and I just got tied into knots.
Q: It’s too much, isn’t it? Yeah, yes.
A: It was--, yeah.
Q: I can see why [both talking at once].
A: And also, I felt like Professor Brainstorm and I'm covered in mud and I feel porky and I’ve got holes in my clothes.
A: I just think is--, I’m not--, this is not a look, I can't go with the glasses, it’s too much.
Q: So, you don’t make notes or anything when you're on the foreshore, you just take--, just take the pieces you find away and then sort things out later?
A: I--, I don’t--, I don’t make notes. I don’t know many people who do make notes on the foreshore actually. I mean, I'm processing it in a sense, I'm putting it on Instagram later so--,
Q: Yes, so you’ve got a record there.
A: Yeah and I do that quite quickly.
A: So, I think that’s why. It’s not that I'm not bothering, it’s that I think--,
A: I know where I found it, I can see that in my head.
Q: Yeah, yeah.
A: And so I--, and I know where that--, what that piece might relate to. So, they're obviously--, there are certain places if you find a long pipe you think, well, that was a jetty and it was very commonly used and probably someone got on the boat and dropped that pipe at that point.
Q: Yeah, yeah.
A: And then you go away and you know, you might [both talking at once].
Q: Yes, yes, so you’ve got a bit story coming.
Q: So, do you--, would you come home straight away and start looking things up on the internet or anything or only if it’s particularly something you really are intrigued by that you don’t already recognise?
A: I think I’m always looking stuff up. My children would say that I was always looking stuff up, you know, I find it just quite interesting, yeah.
Q: Are there particular things--, you mentioned that pins were a thing that you found very early--, well, that was your first experience and you also mentioned earlier that you have a nickname, which is the pin lady, I think you said.
A: Oh no, it was just when I started collecting pins [both talking at once]--,
Q: [Laughs] oh, back when you started, yeah.
A: Somebody had said, oh [inaudible 0:21:51] the pin lady.
Q: Yeah. So--, but is that something--, is that--, that is one of your objects, clearly because here we’ve got a nice healthy pile of pins that you’ve found.
A: So, when you came into my house you might have noticed in the win--, there’s a big shop window, that’s my dad’s collection of stuff. My dad is an accumulator of objects and I think that along the way I've picked up his habit which is not so much--, it’s not even sometimes the specificity of one object, I like common objects en mass.
A: and once you’ve got four it’s--, you think, oh, I may as well get another one.
Q: Keep going.
A: And after a while, you’ll end up with a large jar full of marbles or a large jar full of stoppers.
Q: So, it’s--,
A: There’s something about that that’s quite attractive.
Q: So, critical mass rather than the kind of object--,
A: Yeah, yeah.
Q: Is appealing to you.
A: Well, no, you might look at the glass jar and think, that’s nice but actually there’s something rather amazing about how many of them there are and then you think, well why are there so many? Which is what I would do with the pins. Why are there so many pins?
A: And then that tells you something about how bottles were produced and mass produced [both talking at once]--,
Q: Exactly, [inaudible 0:22:49], yeah.
A: And how they were stoppered. So, there’s always a story in that.
A: Or even like willow pattern, for example, the willow pattern birds.
A: I've come to hate willow pattern and I genuinely hate it but I was so thrilled the first time I saw--,
A: The two birds on a willow pattern fragment and I took it home. I think I've got about 30 of them now and I've grown to hate the fact that it’s everywhere, it’s ubiquitous, it was like the Ikea of its time, I think it’s so unimaginative, it’s got a schmaltzy back story but you know, there’s something compelling about all of it there and what that says about what people’s homes looked like.
A: Everybody had a piece of that--,
Q: Exactly, yeah.
A: Stuff, telling this romantic, fake, oriental tale that wasn’t reflective of China at that time.
Q: What do you do with the objects that you find?
A: I put them into jars and I look at them and I put them into jars by type and then I look at them some more and then I think, should I put them in the light, doesn’t that look nice?
A: And then someone comes in the house and I say, look at my jars, aren’t they wonderful? I mean it really is like that.
A: And I have just renovated my home, which I'm about to move back into and one of the things I asked them to make were these shelves in my kitchen which is a big display cabinet just beneath the skylight--,
Q: Wow, how fantastic.
A: So I can fill it with objects and I'm looking forward to doing that. The builder, however, said--, took me aside last week and said, have you thought about not putting your dirty objects on there?
A: Maybe you could put some nice books on there--,
Q: [Inaudible 0:24:28] perspective.
A: And put your dirty objects in the garden? And I said, that wasn’t really why I spent the money on it, so no but yeah. That--, so I--, there is something satisfying about it and I like it when they’re in these big jars together so it looks like a kind of apothecary.
Q: Yes, yeah [both talking at once].
A: [Inaudible 0:24:45], yeah and all the different colours.
Q: So--, and enjoy the aesthetic of bringing these objects together [both talking at once].
A: Yeah and they do look rather wonderful in a group.
Q: I’ve seen people who have beautiful arrangements where they have put stuff into very little compartments and labelled it--,
Q: Yes, yeah.
A: And it looks marvellous but that is not something that I would enjoy doing [both talking at once].
Q: That’s not your mindset, no.
Q: No. And in--, you said you'd been mudlarking now for about four years or so, have you noticed any particular change in the river or how things are at the foreshore in that time?
A: Well the biggest change is the number of people. It’s like a massive number of people. I think the first... spike was after Ted [Sandling 0:25:29] did his book. And there was a spike then and I imagine now--, there’s another book that’s come out about mudlarking that’s been quite specific about locations and I think that that will be another big spike.So--, and there’s been quite a lot of publicity in general in the last two years, so there are more and more people coming down and people coming especially, particularly from America and mudlarking. And people coming down with plastic bags--,
A: To fill their plastic bags with stuff. I don’t know why, you know. I always find it quite upsetting when you see someone coming down and literally just everything, oh bones, bits of pottery and you think like, what’s that going to do?
Q: Yes, a good human Hoover.
A: And I can understand it, you know, when you first see it you think, this is amazing and obviously, people learn to be more selective but I think the number of people definitely--, I mean, I, for sure, when I first started I felt like--, on my little patch that I go to a lot I would--, I knew everybody there and you wouldn’t see new people that often--,
A: And now I've noticed that there are more people [both talking at once], yeah.
Q: More people arriving, yeah. And has your relationship, in fact, with mudlarking changed because of there being more people around or do you just feel--, is there a sort of equilibrium in your approach and desire to keep looking for things and discovering things?
A: I don’t know yet. I think that more and more people are going to come and I don’t know how that is going to affect what I feel about it. I know that sometimes I go down to the foreshore and my heart sinks. I think, oh, oh goodness, there are so many people.
A: And also people who don’t know about--, because they haven’t come because they've been driven to come because they've had a romantic idea about the river because they've heard about it in another way, they just come down and they start looking and they might know you need a licence or you see people in areas where they’re not meant to scrape or dig and they're just scraping away. Or at [Queens Hyde 0:29:33], which is a protected area, wandering up the back, you just think, do I tell them, this is making me very anxious and it actually makes you quite anxious. 'Cause you think I don’t want to be a police person and tell people those things.
Q: Yeah but you have a responsibility now--,
Q: At the foreshore because you're a sort of guardian, aren’t you, almost with it? Yeah.
A: Well, sometimes I don’t go to places like that 'cause I just I think I don’t want to deal with it today, I’d rather go where there’s not going to be other people doing that [laughs].
Q: [Inaudible 0:29:56] nobody else around to irritate.
A: And so I don’t--,
A: But I don’t--, I don’t know. In answer to your question, I don’t know. The community of people that I know has grown in that time which is interesting, so that’s a benefit. So, the community of knowing different mudlarks who have a lot of information and are very skilled about--, in what they do and are very informed about what they know, that’s been a benefit--,
Q: So, that’s very nice sort of--,
A: Over time [both talking at once], changing.
Q: Yes, a community to enjoy, yes.
A: So, I don’t--, I’ve been thinking about this myself and I don’t think I know the answer yet but it’s definitely changing and I don’t think, hooray, they’ll be loads of people down on the foreshore.
Q: Right, I can understand that. So, perhaps we could talk now about these other five objects from your collection that you’ve selected today. Which would you like to tell us about first?
A: I’m going to tell you about this little tiny object first. I actually found this outside London on the Thames estuary so it must have eroded out of landfill I think.
A: But it was right by the side of the river and I was sitting on the pebbles, looking out over the water, relaxing, sort of absentmindedly scraping the pebbles with my hand and I saw this little glint of deep yellow. I thought, what’s that? And I found a tiny, golden swastika and it was incredibly unexpected. I--, my first thought was ridiculous. In my head I saw a shower of swastika confetti being thrown enthusiastically--, I'm really embarrassed to actually say this. My children said you can't tell anyone this. It was very soon after the leave vote--, vote leave, Brexit [both laugh] and I thought, oh my gosh, the far right have been celebrating near this beach by throwing up showers of golden swastikas. Then I thought, that is ridiculous [both laugh].
Q: Just to describe it, it is very flat [both talking at once], isn’t it?
A: It’s very flat.
Q: So, I can see why the confetti [both talking at once]--,
A: It looks like a little--, it looks like one of those annoying bits of table confetti but it’s not.
Q: Yes and what about--, how--, how big would you say it is? It’s about--,
A: It’s got--, well it’s--, I can fit it on my fingertip of my second finger and it fits there. It’s like half a-centimetre is that it’s very tiny. And then I looked at the back and realised there was a hallmark so I went home and looked at it and actually, Instagram was very helpful and I discovered it was made in 1910 by a man called Charles--, I think it’s Charles Horner of Chester. Apparently he was quite well known and also well known for making hatpins, some of them gold and I think that this might have been on to Or perhaps, a charm bracelet, I'm not sure. And in--, from 1880 to 1930, 1920 this was a symbol of good luck all across Western Europe, so it obviously didn’t have fascist connotations or Nazi connotations. People would wear this, you know, they were influenced by the imperialism, the age of travel, you know, people coming back from India where this symbol is prevalent. And I look further and there were amazing things, like you get the--, this Coca Cola had a swastika key fob that they gave out and there was a Dublin laundry company with a great big swastika on the back of it and there was an American infantry unit that had a swastika insignia. So, it was really commonplace and then the Germans, the Nazi party, completely appropriated it and turned it into something that had a completely different meaning. So much so that when the photographer Hannah Smiles was doing a project on mudlarked objects, she took this, she stuck it on a pinhead and took a picture which I quite like 'cause it reminded me of the angel on the pin but it wasn’t an angel, it was the opposite. I loved the way it looked. It looked a little bit like--, also like a--, a flagstaff that someone marching might have on top.
Q: Yes, yeah.
A: And I put that on Instagram and I was banned, the picture was banned from Instagram, it was reported--,
A: Because someone had found it offensive which I also thought was bit ridiculous 'cause I think that’s an object and a symbol with a history and to give--, if you're offended by it, the better way to deal with it is to take away its power by actually giving it back its old meaning and by saying, that isn’t a symbol of the Nazi party, that is, in fact, a symbol that for thousands of years has meant good luck.
Q: Good luck, yes.
A: You know, it’s a religious symbol, it’s a good symbol, not a bad symbol. Now when Hannah took the picture she very accidentally--, I could see why it’s such a thin piece of metal--, she--, she snapped off that bit there, one of the arms and she then very kindly, she was so embarrassed, went to a jeweller and soldered it on. So, it’s got this little tiny Frankenstein--,
A: Arm there. But again, you know, I've got quite used to that and I quite like it. I think, you know, that’s had quite an interesting life that swastika.
Q: It has indeed, hasn’t it? Yes.
A: It was someone’s decoration, they thought it brought them luck. Then, somehow, it got thrown out, and I wonder if they threw it out because they were embarrassed of it because it had changed [inaudible 0:36:52] [both talking at once].
Q: It would be a time, wouldn’t it?
A: They never thought someone was going to pick it up again and it would end up in a museum or now, you know, talked about and recorded and kept for posterity. And I like the fact that part of its history is now that little arm that came off when it was being filmed and recorded.
Q: Exactly, that somebody else went to that trouble, yeah. That’s wonderful, thank you. What next shall we talk about?
A: This object here is a very beautiful brooch and--, would you describe it as a brooch? What would you call it?
?: Yes, it fills the palm of your hand, doesn’t it? It’s quite a large brooch.
A: It has--, it’s oval and it’s beautifully decorated with swirls and kind of quasi floral pattern or leaf pattern around the edge.
Q: And that’s metal, isn’t it?
A: Yes, I don’t know what kind of metal it is, I'm not sure. And then in the centre there is a large oval piece of mother of pearl which has come out so I can rest it on top but actually they're separate. I found this as the tide turned on top of a load of pebbles. I --, it amazes me that this survived. There was no obvious mud nearby, so it wasn’t like it had just come out of the mud--,
A: And was lying there and I pulled it and it had been protected and cosily kept for, you know, 200 years 'cause I think it’s Georgian, I think it is probably late 1700s. Mysteriously it survived and I managed to catch it before the tide smashed it up because I think that would have been destroyed very quickly.
Q: Yes, it’s very delicate that middle piece, isn’t it? Yes.
A: It’s very delicate indeed. I mean, certainly, those two pieces would have come apart I think. I imagine that this was worn by, I don’t know, a Georgian dandy, perhaps it’s a lady, I'm not sure. I always imagine these being worn by men. And I think that perhaps there was glass on top, like a glass jewel--, a large glass jewel and that the mother of pearl base would have given it this added lustre, so it perhaps looked much more authentic than it really was. When I put it on Instagram, somebody suggested that maybe it could have been painted on and used as a portrait. I'm not sure. I’ll research that a bit more and ask someone else but I don’t think it was painted on directly but I did then research portraits in Georgian England and I was really amused to find out about these--, you wouldn’t put the entire portrait of your loved one in a picture, you’d just put a bit of your loved one, so an eye, for example. And my mother, who is an art historian, gave me a wonderful picture of a--, a brooch like this with a painting which had a pair of breasts on it.
A: So, I’ve not--, so now, what it means is when I look at this lovely object I think about that. Now this--, because it’s only probably 200 and--, I don’t know, 250 years old. It’s not old enough really to record with the Museum of London, I might bring it along anyway 'cause I think it’s quite unusual. So, I don’t know that much about it but I love the fact that it’s so delicate and so beautiful and so complete.
Q: It’s fantastic, isn’t it? There’s a very high level of detail, isn’t there--,
Q: On the--, on the metal oval. Beautiful and quite a nice weight too.
A: Yeah, a really nice weight. I think the person who lost that was really annoyed. This was lost at a spot where I think someone dropped it.
A: Or maybe it was ripped off their dress by a little thief who dropped it, I don’t know.
Q: Is that your vision when you found it [both talking at once].
A: Yeah. I just know this was lost. This was--, this was--, someone was really annoyed to lose this. It did not go easily. And I find that I connect quite well with people who are annoyed or frustrated when they lose things. I thought of suddenly of those people in the past become human again, so yes.
Q: Yes, that’s a [inaudible 0:40:43] thought. Okay. Now, what else?
A: Now, this is such a beautiful little object. It is a seal matrix. It’s from the 1600s. It’s quite small, it’s about an inch high and there’s an oval stamp at the base and on the face of the stamp there is a bird. It’s not the most delicate of drawings and the bird is holding a branch in its mouth, so I imagine it’s an approximation of a dove with an olive branch but it is quite an approximation but I like it none the less. In fact, I like it even more because it’s an approximation and it has--, I think that’s called a trefoil design, isn’t it, where you have these--, these [both talking at once].
Q: With the three circles.
A: Three circles on top and I--, I don’t--, you probably even put a little chain through that if you didn’t want to lose it. So, this--,
Q: This is very intact, isn’t it?
A: It’s incredibly intact. So, I remember this, again finding this. So, I say, as I mentioned earlier, I do remember where I find things. Again, the tide had just turned and it was actually quite close to this brooch that I found earlier but on a different day and the tide had turned and I was scanning the pebbles--, I was actually hoping to find a hammered coin--, and I saw this shape and I suppose one of things about mudlarking after a while is you--, you--, shapes that are unusual jump out at you and something about that may be oval or the cloverleaf pattern at the top jumped out at me and I picked it up and I was so thrilled. And it was a Sunday and St Paul’s Cathedral was nearby and I could hear the bells peeling and it was such a lovely experience of the bells and the waves behind me and this wonderful object which for 400 years had been lost on the foreshore. So, this would have been used to seal envelopes or letters and to stamp documents.
Q: Into sealing wax or [both talking at once].
A: Sealing wax.
Q: Was, yeah.
A: I--, as you--, there’s actually a little bit of red wax on there. I’m afraid that’s where I tried to do it but because I'm not very good at that kind of thing, all I ended up with was--,
Q: A genuine remnant [inaudible 0:42:46].
A: I just got it a little bit waxy trying to do it, unfortunately. But again, with this object, I looked on the Portable Antiquities Scheme where this is also recorded, this seems quite a common design and I wonder if--, I think by the 17th century these were mass produced, you didn’t necessarily have to be rich--,
Q: Oh, right.
A: And very wealthy to have one, you could just be the owner of a small shop. So, in my head--, so, how it happened in my head was, first of all, I thought, ah, a dove of peace he’s some strange little priest but I moved on from that--,
Q: Is it because you were hearing bells from the church at that moment?
A: I think so, yeah. I quite liked him, he wasn’t the nicest of characters in my head, I don’t know why, that’s what I thought. But then I realised, no, this--, the person who owned this probably ran a little shop near St Paul’s Cathedral--, in my imagination it’s quite dark but there’s little lead paned windows and he was in there stamping his documents. I don’t know how that would have ended up on the river. It was quite near a ferry stage because the [werries 0:43:49], as they were called, you know, went back and forth across the River Thames at multiple points along the foreshore and I wonder if that could have been dropped, could have dropped out of his pocket.
Q: Did they ever wear them attached, like--,
A: They did--, they did and I have wondered if that--, one of those holes it could have been attached, I'm not sure but I think that that would have been a loss. I think somebody would have been annoyed to have lost their seal but I found it 400 years later, sorry but still [both laugh]. It’s great. So, I’m very--, I think--, and that’s also quite a ni--, it’s one of those objects that if you have a list of things you think I have to get, if I'm a mudlark, I have to get a whole [wig curler 0:44:26], I just have to.
A: Really, you need to get a complete Bellarmine face. You must get a variety of hammers. That’s sort of on a must have list.
Q: This has ticked a very big box for you.
A: Yes but I think that they're not--, they don’t come up--, they’re not unusual but they don’t come up that often so I was really thrilled to find it.
Q: Yes and it’s so very beautiful and so whole, isn’t it?
A: Yeah and so telling of the past, that’s not something that you get today.
Q: Yeah, no. No, it’s absolutely lovely. And?
A: Okay. So, this object is--, well it’s only a fragment, it’s a fragment of pottery. It’s probably 16th or 17th century and it is the front half of the neck of a Bartmann jug. Bartmann means bearded man and you can see a little bit of this man’s face on here. It would have been a stoneware pot, probably used for wine and he’s got--, you can't see the beard but you can see his mouth and his nose, very standard. These come up quite a lot on the foreshore but what’s unusual about this one is he has two sets of eyes, double eyes and that’s--, makes it unique for me. So, I--, originally I thought maybe the mould slipped when he was making it.
A: But if you look obviously, nothing else has slipped.
Q: Nothing else has doubled.
A: So, then I asked someone and they said, in fact, there were multiple variations, hundreds of variations on the Bartmann face--, on the Bartmann face and that this would have been someone’s chosen variation and actually, I like it. You know, the double eyes are really quite a cool idea, you know, they are really unusual. They look quite modern in a way, you know, sort of like a modernist painting.
Q: Yes, yes, yes.
A: They look--, I think the Guide--, I think it’s a man for some reason. I think the man who made this, the potter who made this, had a creative streak and a good imagination. He thought, let’s do a--, maybe he saw double, you know [both laugh]. I don’t know why [both talking at once], maybe he was trying--, maybe he was--,
Q: Perhaps it’s a reflection of him, what he saw in the mirror every morning, yeah.
A: Maybe he thought--, I don’t know but I love--, I love that about it because it’s so specific and you look at it and you think I can connect through that man’s decision and through his creativity, I can connect to somebody’s own creative decision at that time and that makes that person who made this not just a potter in the 16th or 17th century, it makes him a real person. And I find my quest with all these artefacts is somehow to make the former owner real because I often found when I was--, when I studied history at school, which I struggled with, was that it was hard to make the past come alive, they sort of dance before you on this screen but they weren’t like real people. And when you see something like this or a mistake or a flaw, something broken in anger, I often find this with pottery which is smashed. I think, oh, someone had an argument and they smashed their plate, I so know how you feel. When I say that I connect with it--,
Q: Yes, yeah.
A: And that’s why I think I really like this and these objects are in themselves very interesting objects, they come from--, originally from Germany and they have this wild man face on them and they spread to--, they spread all over the place, they spread throughout Europe, they were here in England--, I think a couple of English potters began making them and German immigrants too. They were mainly used for wine but they were also sometimes used as witch’s bottles to ward off curses so occasionally, they turn up, often in the walls of buildings and they’re plugged inside [with 00:47;51] their needles to prick the curse that might be coming towards you because it’s to ward off a curse and urine, things like that. It’s all very exciting. So, I like the fact that it had this other life. I like the fact that these were so common. They're a rarity for me, I'm really thrilled with it but that would have been the furniture of everyday life for 150 years, they would have been everywhere. If you'd seen that you'd think--, you'd have known it, that would have--, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see it, you might not even have noticed it would have been so common. So, I love the way it’s so beautiful and unusual to me but would have been like Ikea of its day to somebody else.
Q: Yes, yeah.
A: And I also like that in Britain--, well, they were known also as Bellarmine jugs and that is--, well, the supposition is that it was named after Cardinal Bellarmine who was a Catholic, obviously, and very anti-alcohol and the story goes that maybe people just called it that because he was anti-protestant and they’d got him on this jug and it was full of alcohol and they were basically saying, you know, a little--, a little--,
Q: Two fingers [laughs].
A: Exactly, a little two fingers up at him and I like that. Again, that’s connect--, that’s humorous that’s connecting with the past again through the fact that our ancestors were not just shadily moving across this screen of history, they were actually making jokes and being a bit ribald and taking the Mickey out of people. So, that is another reason why I like this face.
Q: And connecting to this object, finally, which is? Enormously prickly [laughs].
A: So, this is my final object. It’s actually a multitude of objects and I'm going to make the noise of it first here. [Rustling sound]. It sounds like rain. I absolutely love these. So, there are more of these pins here than you might think. The last time I counted there are about ten thousand. So--,
Q: I can't believe you counted them.
Q: [Inaudible] [laughs].
A: That is a little bit pathetic but I did count them. So, the first time I went down on the foreshore to try and mudlark, as opposed just to go down and wander around, I--, somebody showed me--, bent down and they picked up one of these pins and I was just amazed that you could find something so small in the vastness of the foreshore. And so, I’d go back and I’d pick up pins all the time and for a long time, for the first six months, I think pins was mainly all that I picked up. And often if you find pins you'll find other small objects nearby, so I would find other objects but it was all about the pin for me, I really enjoyed it. What I like about pins is they are the most ordinary of objects and yet their value and their meaning over time has changed so much. So, in the 14th century, this was a high end item. This was like extravagant. You got your pins, you know, you're really living the life. People even used to pass on their pins in their wills to people, they were that high end. In fact, I think it was in the 15th century, you could only buy pins two days in the year and the French were really good at making pins and they were so good at making pins that Richard the Third tried to ban their import because they were sort of crushing the British pin industry but he failed because the French pins were so much better. And people used them to keep their clothes together, they weren’t using zippers or Velcro or elastic, they were keeping their bodices together and keeping their sleeves together and I can imagine that if you had a fancy dress, this is going to take a lot of work. To keep you together is going to take you a lot of work. So, by the time you get to--, I know that Henry the Eighth tried to up the quality of the pins to compete with the French, so if you find a double headed pin, it’s from around his time because he--, he was all for the double headed pin.
Q: And what are they made from?
A: I think they're made from copper, brass. Look at that one, that’s a particular beauty.
Q: Gosh, that’s for a cloak or something heavy I should think, isn’t it?
A: So, what--, by the time you get to Elizabeth the First, women were wearing ruffs and all this lace--, I think Elizabeth the First had a Royal pin maker. She was getting about a 100 thousand pins a year made for her by this Royal pin maker who delivered them biannually. There are different kinds of pins, you know, you might think it’s just a pin but there are minikins and lilikins. The Victorians had pins that were matt so that they didn’t reflect the light for mourning. I think I read somewhere that the most complicated dress Queen Elizabeth had, and she had several thousand, involved ten thousand pins. So, obviously, it would take--, you’d need maids to put your dress on. I love all this information about the pins.
Q: Yeah, yes.
A: The process of manufacture is really interesting. For a long time it was made at home--, they were made a home by families, really slow going. And once it was done as a production line the volume of pins produced was increased and obviously, they became much more available, so they kind of--, their value as an individual item went down because they were easier to afford. They, you know, were shipped to the colonies. Britain was sending them all over the place and then by the time you get to Victorian times, everyone’s got pins. The whole process of making them was mechanised, you know, they were churned out. These days they're made--, not really made here anymore, they’re made in Asian countries and imported here. Now, going through my pin s I've just found one of the objects I’ve lost.
Q: Oh, great.
A: So, I found this six months ago on the foreshore and lost it and I think it’s a Tudor decorated pin. Can you see it’s got a--, about a half centimetre wide face with little dots on it and that would have been decorated so it’s to be shown when you pin it.
Q: Crikey, yes, yes, yeah.
A: I’m so glad I found that. I thought I’d lost that. I will take that to be recorded at the Museum of London [both talking at once].
Q: Constantly searching.
A: Well it was lost in this huge mound so I find--, the other thing I found interesting, researching pins, was that they were such a part of everyday life that Byron, at one point, talks about women being prickly to the touch. So, you know, obviously, if you touch them--,
Q: Oh, yes, yes.
A: They would have--, you could have got a pin in you and would have been really annoyed. I can imagine pins were everywhere, you'd tread on pins. I mean, this was--, this is the stuff of everyday life.
Q: Yes, yeah.
A: Now these days, I don’t sew, obviously, 'cause I'm incompetent in so many ways, I don’t sew. The last time I used a pin I had to hunt everywhere for it and it was to heat the end and take a splinter out of my daughter’s foot. You know, you don’t need pins anymore 'cause you're not sewing your clothes because in general, you can buy them cheaply from a shop like H&M or Primark. So, the pins have had their day and yet for 600 years that was the stuff of life and so [both talking at once] I find them fascinating.
Q: Critical to being decent to step outside your house and everything else, yeah.
A: Critical. And they also used to keep together papers as well, they had multiple functions.
Q: Oh yes, yeah.
A: What I do find interesting is it took so long to invent a safety pin because you know, safety pins are genius ideas. Byron would have had it so much easier if those women had been stuck together with safety pins rather than these things sticking into him.
Q: Do you find safety pins though as well? Would you--, would you collect safety pins?
A: I don’t find safety pins, they're a modern invention and I wouldn’t be interested. However, I went to New York--, I go to New York frequently and I have friends there who mudlark, they beach comb along the riv--, the sea and the river there and they--, there’s a place there where landfill has spilled out onto the beach and you can find amazing things. So, what I find interesting there … you find loads of zippers there… so, you realise, actually, just by tracking where you find these things you suddenly think, gosh, between the thirties and the forties zippers--,
Q: This happened, yeah.
A: Became a thing, you know. That’s--, before that they just--, you're just not finding them at all.
Q: No, no.
A: And I find that very interesting as well.
Q: Yes, completely. Why did you choose these objects today particularly to talk about?
A: Well, let me think. I chose these ob--, I chose the pins because I--, they feel personal to me and the eyes because I connect with the person behind it. And I think I chose the brooch because I'm amazed that it survived. And I chose the swastika because it’s just was such an absurd moment to find it. And I think I chose the--, the seal matrix because it’s probably--, even a mudlark would say, oh, that’s a proper find [laughs].
Q: Yeah, yeah, yes.
A: So, that’s like a proper find, so I brought one proper find along but the rest, you know, I don’t--, I don’t think anyone--, someone might say that’s really interesting 'cause it’s got double eyes but if you are--, I don’t think if you were a museum you would particularly want that. I think, for me, these are objects that I connect to and enjoy and bring alive the past in some kind of way.
Q: It’s wonderful to share your enthusiasm and your connection with the objects that you’ve found. I've got one more really difficult question for you which is to describe in just one word what mudlarking means to you.
A: [Pause]. Hmm... I’m not sure that I can do that. I’m trying to think what--, I’m not--, I’m devoid of words. Let me think.
Q: You can have two more words if you want [laughs].
A: No, it’s not--, it’s not even that. I’m not--, I’m trying to think 'cause I think it rep--, it feels like a [pause]. I think, for me, what mudlarking is--, but this is not specific to mudlarking, it’s specific to anything about which I've had a passion, which would be a high level of engagement.
A: What mudlarking is for me is I’m highly engaged.
A: I’m highly engaged with the river, I’m engaged with the people that I meet, I’m engaged with the objects that I find, I'm engaged with the history of the objects, I engage with the past. So, it is a form of intense engagement. And I like to feel intensely engaged and therefore--, yes, I think that is one of the reasons that I love mudlarking. It is something that--, yeah, intensely engages me.
Q: Yeah, that’s great, it conveys so much. Thank you so much. It’s really wonderful to hear you speak about these objects.
A: Thank you very much.
Q: And about your experiences. Thank you.
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