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Oral History Transcript
Interviewee: Monika Buttling-Smith
Date: 14th August, 2019
Interviewer: Jessica White
Q: This is an oral history interview with Monika Buttling-Smith, by Jessica White, also present is…
Q2: Eva Tausig.
Q: The interview is taking place at Monika’s home as part of the Thames Festival Trust Foragers of the Foreshore heritage project. So Monika, could you please state your full name.
A: My name is Monika Buttling-Smith.
Q: And when were you born?
A: I was born on July 29th 1966.
Q: And whereabouts were you born?
A: I was born in Highgate in London.
Q: Did you grow up in Highgate?
A: Grew up in Muswell Hill, so not too far from Highgate. My family have lived in London--, well, my English family have lived in London for at least 300 years, but my other side is German, so--, and there’s a bit of Irish chucked in as well, so I like the fact that as a Londoner I’m half local, half immigrant because I think that’s quite a nice mix, and most Londoners seem to have a bit of everything in them, so yeah.
Q: Very nice. And when you were at school what sort of subjects were you interested in?
A: When I was at school--, when I was little I loved history, I loved all the going round ancient monuments, my mum was--, she’d spent a lot of time travelling so she’d--, when we were little we used to take a caravan and go through Europe and we’d go to Rome and Pizza and all sorts of places, Nero’s caves--, yeah, all over the place. So when we were little I loved it. When I got to secondary school history was killed for me, I’m dyslexic and you have to know dates for history if you want to study it for O Level and I can’t get a date for love nor money, you know, if I have it written down, fine, no problem, but to try and get it off the top of my head… So I basically--, I lost a love for it and I think it was mudlarking that brought it back to me in quite a spectacular way really.
Q: Amazing. So you’ve been in London forever?
Q: And what would a typical week look like for you now?
A: [Phew]. Typical week’s complicated, I’ve been a part time carer for a long time now, my father--, when I was 16 he had a head injury and was quite severely brain damaged and then as time went on that developed in to Parkinson’s, so I’ve basically helped my mum care for him for many years. Unfortunately she then got bone cancer and I’ve basically not gone back to work since, so between helping her with my dad to now helping her. So over the last few years I’ve had two children to raise, I’ve had family to look after, my husband I’m very lucky, he’s been a trooper and gone to work and earned enough money to keep us going and I’ve basically been the one who’s around to take whoever needs to go to hospital to hospital, look after whoever in whatever manner they need looking after at that particular time. One of my children was a preemie and that was quite stressful, needed quite a lot of care as well, so basically that’s what I’ve been doing over the last 20 years. I did manage to squeeze in a distance learning Master’s in the meantime, you know, so I’ve--, I tried to keep myself busy and on days when I’m not caring I try and do something, like go to a gallery, go to a museum, keep learning basically.
Q: So how does mudlarking kind of fit in around that, when did you start mudlarking?
A: It’s very hard to say a specific date, when my daughter was born--, the preemie one, when she finally came home from hospital we were trying very hard to financially survive so I was trying to do shifts, my husband was trying to do shifts and we were trying to basically pass the baby between us so we could cover as many shifts as possible, so--, until the second child was born when I couldn’t work at all. So when she was little he would work--, he was working on Southwark Bridge so I would literally drive--, a little Morris Minor at the time, I’d drive up to Southwark Bridge and I would park on the bridge with the baby in the back and he’d run down the stairs, come out and he’d jump in the car and I’d go upstairs and I’d do a shift upstairs and then I’d get a cab home at night and start the procedure the next day. And that was about the time the Globe was being built so my husband was there day time and he used to go out for walks along and watch it, and then we’d--, on days off we’d go and baby papoose or pram and trot down and watch the Globe being built and walk along there and go down on the foreshore a bit, so that was probably the first time I remember being aware of stuff to pick up. I’d been down there--, I mean most Londoners have been down there at some point as a kid, you’ve gone down ‘cause there’s stairs so why wouldn’t you? But that’s probably the first time I was aware of picking stuff up, but I definitely wasn’t a mudlark then. I think probably the first time I got into it still not knowing that it was a name or a thing, when my mum was diagnosed with bone cancer, which was about [phew], 12 years ago she was at UCH so I used to go sometimes if she was doing a full day chemo I would pop along and walk just anywhere in London just to take your head off it, so I went down a few times then. And then probably about six years ago I started going down a bit more often, and then about five years ago I think by that point I’d heard what mudlarking was and realised that maybe that’s what I was doing, but I can’t say a specific time or date when--, I’ve tried, I really have tried ‘cause everyone keeps saying when did you start and I can’t actually work… I know the first thing I found that I tried to record was a latchet shoe that was absolutely beautiful, it was Valentine’s Day and I’d gone out--, I managed to persuade my husband to go to the river with me, which was unheard of, you know, he grew up on a boat so he’s had enough boats, he doesn’t--, he has no interest whatsoever in mudlarking. But on this occasion he agreed to come with me and we basically--, there was a good pub nearby--, went down to the river, went for a walk and we saw this little bit of leather that had stars and moons cut out of it, it was absolutely beautiful, totally intricate and looking at it I was thinking that’s got to be Tudor, it just screamed the patterns, the--, that kind of romantic look just screamed Tudor. And that was the first bit I packed up very carefully, kept moist and wrote to, erm, wrote to Kate Sumnall at the Museum of London to try and get an appointment to have it recorded, and so that was probably my first recorded find, that was about five years ago now. And then as soon as you get down that path where you start recording things and you realise other people have an interest in it as well and it’s not just your tat but actually yeah, it is really interesting, and you’ve been banging on about it to your family till they’re blue in the face but they don’t care ‘cause it’s not their thing, and then you find there are other people… And I got involved in a couple of Facebook pages, there’s the River Thames Mudlarking Finds page and Thames Foreshore Finds and they’re both run by lovely people, lots and lots of people do it, there’s a big community, everyone posts, everyone discusses what they’ve found. You have--, when you take something home and you ask people in your family or your immediate circle of friends you have a small well of information, but if you post it online there are thousands of people--, there might be somebody who’s a granny in Australia who remembers using one of those when she lived in London back in the 1930s, you know, so it’s that drawing in of the information, people all over the world that is--, I find just wonderful. I’ve really enjoyed being an admin because I think my knowledge has--, it’s given me the chance to learn so much just from seeing other people’s finds, other people’s memories, other people’s history and etc. [Laughs].
Q: Is that what’s kept you going back, is it the finds, is it the community, is it the process of mudlarking by the river? A combination of all of them?
A: I think it is a combination of everything, but I literally--, I come at the top of the stairs when I come out the tube, and I can see the light above and my heart is pounding ‘cause I’m excited, and that--, I genuinely haven’t had anything that’s brought that kind of excitement to me. And you get down on the river and some days you go down there and it’s piddling with rain and you get cold and you’re desperate for the loo, but you find something that is just so amazing you forget it. Other days you go down on the same--, you don’t find anything, so it’s kind of, you know, it’s the thrill of the lucky dip--, thrill of, you know, if you do find something you may think it’s not very interesting, you get home and research it, it turns out to be absolutely amazing, one of the finds I’m going to talk about is like that. And other ones you know the minute you pick them up--, or in fact before you pick them up, you look at them and you go [gasp] oh my God, can somebody else just verify that I’m seeing what I’m seeing, I don’t want to pick it up ‘cause I can’t quite believe it’s there, so I think that’s what brings me back to it. And also just walking on the foreshore it is--, it’s calming and I’ve had a lot of family stuff to help--, I have to be a rock to keep other people calm and keep everybody else managing and coping, and this allows me to carry on managing and coping, it calms me down and gives me a sense of peace that is essential in my life. And I still, you know, we all have times of stress in our lives and every time I have another peak of stress my rucksack comes out and I’m off down the river [laughs], just to--, just to have a moment of calm down there.
Q: That’s lovely. Can you just describe a bit more about the kind of feeling of being by the river and the sounds, what is it about it that you find particularly calming?
A: Erm, the sounds of the river vary very much depending on where you are, there are some places if you go out the estuary and you can hear curlews calling and there’ll be wild horses that either love you or hate you [laughs], that adds a sense of excitement, you know, the sun can be beating down on you and you’ve got dragonflies or something and the estuary is beautiful. If you go in town there’ll be a boat going by with a James Bond theme just as you’re climbing down a ladder and that’s--, that’s so cool ‘cause you’re like oh, yes, I’m a James Bond heroine as I’m coming down the ladder [laughs]. Or, you know, there’s places where you sit and you can hear sort of, I don’t know, buskers up above and you can smell roasted nuts as you’re down there. There’s other places where you sit there and as the tide’s going in and out you can hear the bits of pottery on the foreshore, there’s a place where there’s lots of tiles from bomb damage and as the waves are going in and out the pottery is chinking and clinking like a--, like a million wind chimes and it’s just magical, sometimes I’ll just sit there and, you know, you can breathe in and just calm down and listen to the sounds. And then a goose will come along and disturb you or a crow will come along, so there are different sounds. I quite like the squelching of mud as well, when you’re walking along and you hear [squelching sounds], that’s quite cool as well. Erm, that’s--, yeah. I quite like seeing people’s footprints as well when you go down and you see different mudlarks and after a while you actually learn to recognise people’s footprints, there’s a couple of people who I know by their footprints [laughs], and it’s like ah, now he went that way, I think I’m going to go the other way, just so that you’re not treading on the same bit of turf, you know. I like to daydream when I lark and I find if there’s other people there I can’t daydream and if I can’t daydream it doesn’t have the effect I need it to, which is to shut everything else out.
Q: Do you have a favourite time of day or a favourite time of year to go?
A: Erm, to be honest I’ve only ever been able to lark in free time when there hasn’t been a nightmare in personal life going on. So my time tends to be if I have got four hours free Friday evening I'll go--, and the tide happens to be suitable I’ll go then, and if it isn’t a particularly brilliant tide I don’t care, you know, it’s just to get out there. Some people prefer mornings, evenings, I think I love the variety, I actually genuinely like the fact that it can be so different at different times, you can watch the sun rise. I found one of my favourite finds, it was dark when I went down there and I found it in the dark but the sun was coming up and I was still holding it as the sun came up kind of in shock, you know, the soft light coming up, it’s so beautiful. Dusk is quite nice, the way the sun glints on things at different times when the--, when the water’s--, when the waves have come in and gone--, receded, if the sun’s hitting it at an angle sometimes it helps light up different areas that you wouldn’t normally see, so that’s--, that’s quite lovely too.
Q: Do you travel very far to go mudlarking, so you said you go to the estuary and you said you go to town, so do you always mix it up?
A: Yeah, yeah. I--, mostly I’m central London--, mostly. I will go as far out as Richmond, as far out as Isle of Dogs and beyond, I’ll go to the estuary, kind of the estuary takes more planning because it’s quite a hike for me, you know, it’s--, that will normally be a full day if I’m going out there, so I just have to make sure I’ve got cover at home if I’m going to do that. Town I can normally do a half day so it’s easier for me to go into town.
Q: Do you have a particular kind of process--, a ritual that you stick to, you know, do you have your boots laid out and your bag laid out and you gather everything up?
A: Okay, when I go out it’s normally the night before I pack my bag, I have--, I have a lovely bag that I absolutely adore and it’s wearing out and I can’t get a replacement, so I’m looking out for a new one of those, it’s got a really lovely wipe clean surface so when you get it covered in mud just a wet cloth wipes it all off, perfect. Any other bag, not so good, you know, mud gets caught--, you sit on the tube and you see people shuffling over ‘cause you’re grubby, so my bag is my favourite thing. So the bag is opened, in the bag is another plastic bag, liner to hold the worst of the mud, keep it controlled. In there is a pair of kneepads because I’m not a young mudlark so I need a pair of kneepads to get down. I have a waist belt--, always take my waist belt with me, waist belt’s got my permit ‘cause you have to have a permit to mudlark and I always carry it with me basically because I run the website I can’t be seen to do anything, I can’t dig where I’m not meant to, I can’t not carry a permit, I have to be above and beyond what anybody else is because I have to represent the hobby. I also carry a little fold up knife, just a small one, it’s legal, it’s like just in case you saw anything that might possibly be caught up in wire or whatever, if a bird was caught--, so far I haven’t yet but I carry it just in case ‘cause I have in the past--, not mudlarking, and if you can free something and let it go then it’s nice to have that--, the ability rather than sit there and go oh dear, I can’t do anything, so I always carry that with me. If I go to the estuary I carry a rope just in case, ‘cause it’s quite muddy and scary and you can get caught, and if you had a rope and somebody was on the bank saying I’m not coming to you, you can go hang on a moment, catch the other end of that, you know, it just would give you an element--, a further element of safety. I carry--, in my belt I carry a little finds pouch that I put my finds in, a little box for the small things that once you put it in there you won’t lose it and it’s got lots of little compartments so you can open one compartment and not lose something from the next compartment. And mudlarks do that after they’ve lost something really precious. And the last thing I carry--, most mudlarks have a trowel of some kind. When I first started I didn’t want to look like a jumped up person with a trowel when I didn’t know what I was doing and I looked round the garden and grabbed the first thing I had, which was a daisy grubber, and it actually has proved to be a brilliant tool and I think it’s better than a trowel and I have tried to use a trowel, doesn’t work for me. So I go round with my daisy grubber and it works, it’s got a little split tip to it so it’s actually really good if you bend down and you see a bit of pottery sticking out you can put both edges of the tip around it and gently lift it or turn it and you’re not disturbing anything, you’re so delicate on the foreshore it’s causing very little damage, so I really like that as a tool. But it’s strong enough if you’ve got a shoe that’s buried that you can still dig a shoe out, so it works for me perfectly.
Q: Well we are sitting surrounded by glass bottles and vases or clay pipes and willow ware, and I was wondering if you had any particular objects or kind of themes or time periods that you like specifically to look at or that you have a particular interest in or you go out and seek those things in particular?
A: No. I am a creature of fortune, I will find things from any era because London is from any era, I don’t see how you could just--, if you only got excited by one era you’d be disappointed every time. And I go out and I’m excited just as much by fossils, you know, ancient as by, you know, German bottles or pipes, whatever, Roman--, bits of Roman--, I love Roman stuff. I’ve dragged my kids round Pompeii and Herculaneum and Florence and all sorts of places and all round Greece and, you know, if you find something that has that, that’s a total thrill, but, you know, if you find a shoe from the 1880s and it’s been really well worn that’s quite exciting too, and I wouldn’t want to limit myself to just being excited by one era, there’s too much out there. Yeah, so…
Q: Amazing, beautiful objects. What do you think you most often find?
A: Erm, most often find? Pottery sherds, because they’re colourful and the eye falls to them very easily. I don’t metal detect, I tend to be eyes only, but I do use a trowel and I don’t really dig much at all with the trowel, I tend to just poke around with rocks, and there’s a lot of sharps on the foreshore so I think it actually helps you not get your fingers cut if you’re not poking your fingers at everything, I just use my trowel just to turn it over, so I find that protects me a little bit. I always wear gloves as well and I know that’s--, a lot of experienced mudlarks don’t ‘cause they know what they’re doing and they’ve probably built up a natural immunity, but I also think a lot of people are new to the hobby and I feel I need to teach best practice for mudlarking. So I wear gloves because I think hopefully a lot of other people will when they start and if they know what they’re doing and they’re less likely to hurt themselves, fine, take them off, but if you don’t know what you’re doing or you have kids out there I don’t want them getting nasty bacterial infections or anything
Q: These objects are all laid out really nicely, what do you do with all of your objects, do you have a process of recording them and then displaying them or recording them and archiving them?
A: Okay, the first thing I’ll do is wash them, so everything comes home and gets a thorough washing and basically I want to be able to show my finds to friends and not worry that they’ll get tummy upset afterwards. So I take everything home, brush off the worst of the dirt, give it a wash and make sure that it’s hygienic. Tthere are some finds obviously that are very delicate, very fragile [fragile 00:21:51] and they will be treated differently, but the majority get a good wash. I have a large chest of drawers that the bulk of finds goes in to. I have a small chest of drawers that the delicate, little finds go in to. There’s one drawer for buttons, one for worked bone, lead, glass, fishing weights, another for coins, another for small pottery bits, another for dress accessories, so things like wig curlers and lace chapes and pins and they all go in there. That’s the fun drawer--, that’s a really lovely drawer. The next one is traders, jetons, bag seals, the one below is knives, so all the different knives I’ve found on the foreshore, not modern flick knives but Tudor knives, sailors’ knives, and they’ve all got beautiful bone and carved handles, they’re really exciting, I love them. And the bottom one is for fancy pipes, so bottom drawer--, the big drawer is for the bulk of--, hundreds of pipes, but the little pipes--, the fancy ones are in the bottom drawer. Other stuff goes up there, I’ve always got usually a few items with Stuart at the--, the Finds Liaison Officer, so he will have stuff. If it’s over 300 years old and being recorded by the Finds Liaison Officer then I will have a note of where I found it because that’s important to them. If it’s not a find of note I don’t bother with the locations because you’ll find willow ware everywhere so there’s no point recording each piece and where you found it. And now I’m quite good with my dates I know that I’m not going to break any rules by not presenting stuff that should be presented. Yeah, it is generally spreading all over the bookshelves, as you can see, I started with one shelf on the bookshelf for finds and my daughter was like you’re not going to go on to the second shelf, are you, and I’m afraid it’s gone eight shelves, two bookshelves and spreading, and I was promising I wasn’t going to go on to that shelf and I’ve started, so. At some point it would be really nice to have a dedicated bookshelf but we haven’t got there yet.
Q: So you’ve mentioned that you like sharing them with friends and about Facebook, so is it really important to you to like share the finds and share the research you do about them?
A: I think it’s incredibly important to share the finds. I am a Londoner, I’ve been here all my life, but there’s going to be Londoners there when I’m long dead and buried and I think stuff needs to be shared with the museum, with children. One of my biggest kicks is showing finds to either my [niece 00:24:31] nephews or my next door neighbours, ‘cause you see their eyes light up. and I’m sad that I didn’t get more out of history when I was at school . The lad next door is reading loads of historical books now, he’s about 12 and he’s really into it, and a lot of that is because I’ve been giving him musket balls to look at and falconet balls and I love that. I also like to take my finds--, If I do a talk, I’ll take my finds on a talk and it’ll be an illustrated talk and I can give people in the audience a shoe sole to handle and they can see the different styles of shoe soles or the different styles of clay pipes, so they will be able to touch and handle the finds as well and it gives them a link to the history of their city too.
Q: Yeah, definitely, it’s very London--, sense of London you get from the foreshore, isn’t it?
A: Absolutely, yeah.
Q: So you touched on mudlarking a while ago and have been at it for five or six years now, would you say your relationship has kind of changed over that time, has it changed in the recent years as well?
A: Erm… my relationship with the river has changed because when I first started it was very private and very personal, and as a result of being admin on these two sites and joining a couple of clubs as well, and just being down there, you get to know a lot of people and there’s quite an amazing community and I’ve got to know an awful lot of people through it and many of them are friends now which is lovely. So it has become--, it has become a much bigger scene and a bigger part of my life. It’s harder to be more private now, as you know more people, but then again, I tend to go off on a daydream and I would walk passed my own mother in the street when I’m in a daydream, so sometimes--, sometimes I’m not trying to be rude but I literally just don’t see people, if I’ve got my eyes down and I’m focused on the river I just literally don’t see people. But I think you need that for your own space when you’re down there. Sometimes it’s quite nice at the end of a mudlark you see a few of your friends and you’ve all been doing your own little bit on your own little patch of the same bit of river and as the water’s coming in and it’s the last dregs of the tide and it’s hitting your ankles and it’s time to get up that ladder and all the mudlarks kind of congregate at the ladder, the last, you know, all looking around the bottom of the ladder and the bottom of the stairs just in case somebody’s missed something. And then quite often we’ll all go upstairs and have a coffee or a beer depending on which group you’re with and then you sit there and you put some tissues down on the table so hopefully you don’t make their table too dirty and you pull out your nicest bits and show each other what you’ve found, and I really enjoy that bit, that’s really lovely. I love the social aspect once I’m off the foreshore, actually on the foreshore I just want to be on my own really down there, but as soon as you get up it’s really nice to share that time with other people.
Q: Can you describe mudlarking in one word?
A: Can I do two?
Q: You’re allowed up to three max [laughs].
A: Dirty fun--, oh God, no, I shouldn’t have said that, that sounds terrible, no, you’ll have to edit out that [laughs].
Q: Can you describe the river in one word?
A: The river in one word? Joy, it really is.
Q: That’s a good one. So we’re going to start talking about your amazing objects you’ve found by the river now, so your first one, can you just describe it firstly so that people can hear about it? Physically what it is.
A: I’m going to pick it up. My first object is tiny, it’s about the size of a fingernail--, the middle fingernail on your hand, so it’s really small, it’s not even as big as your thumbnail. It’s made of lead and it’s got a fine layer--, so lead is kind of a dark grey coloured metal and it’s got a very fine layer of lead oxide which is white that fills some of the little grooves and highlights some of the details on the object. The object is shaped like a little crown and when I first saw it it was the little spikes on the crown that drew my eye to it and it was sitting in a bit of gravel along with nails, dirt, nothing of any interest there at all, and it was literally these little sort of crenulated crown tips that I saw and I picked it up and I was thinking oh my, that looks just like a crown and I was like oh well it’s probably not, it’s probably--, maybe it’s just a knackered old lead token, and I thought oh well, I’m taking that, I’ll take it home. And I took it home and gave it a little wash and as I turned it round when I got it home On the back of it you can see a tiny little line and that’s the casting line and it would--, that’s where basically you would’ve found a little pin. And what the item is, is a pilgrim’s badge which basically means it would’ve been worn by a pilgrim as they walked back from their site of pilgrimage, they would’ve bought it at the site of pilgrimage, so Canterbury Cathedral or Salisbury Cathedral, and it’s their souvenir, their pride and joy to say to everybody look what I’ve done, I’ve made this journey now, aren’t I a good person. Most mudlarks believe and a lot of historians believe it too, that there was a symbolic throwing of the pilgrim’s badge in the Thames at the end of the walk and it was almost like a thank you for giving me a safe journey, that I didn’t get robbed, that I didn’t lose my wallet, that my horse didn’t go lame, so that’s why they assume so many of them have been found in the Thames. There’s also an argument from Gustav Milne that perhaps this was just luck, you know, thousands of these were made, people had hundreds of these badges, they were all getting in ferry boats on and off the river, maybe just some of them fell off, which is also very possible and very likely. So it could be either of those two reasons. This particular pilgrim’s badge was made for either Edward the Martyr or Edward the Confessor, there are similar style badges for both of them, one would be Salisbury Cathedral and I think the other one was Wiltshire, but that would’ve been--, the pilgrim basically would’ve walked from London to Salisbury--, Salisbury Cathedral and then back again, and he would’ve bought it at Salisbury Cathedral and he’d have worn it all the way home. And it was found right in central London, so he’d have literally made it all the way back safely before it got chucked in the river, and I found it 500 years later. No, not even 500 years, what is it, 1350, so this is dyslexic brain, my maths is so bad, 700 years?
Q: Seven hundred ish.
A: Yeah, 700 years, there you go. And this is why I didn’t do history at school, because my maths is not very good either--, maths and dates, not my thing.
Q: How long ago did you find it?
A: Er, this one, oh goodness, I think I found it about four years ago--, I think it was about four years ago that I found it. So--, and it’s--, everybody wants to find a pilgrim’s badge, Tony Thira [name 00:32:13] has found the most beautiful ones, he’s found several absolutely gorgeous ones. I don’t like to get competitive about things ‘cause it’s--, if you do it takes all the joy out of it because there will always be somebody who found--, so but for me it’s tiny, it’s little and it’s my little pilgrim’s badge and I love it dearly.
Q: Do you remember the day you found it on?
A: I remember the weather, I remember it was drizzling, I think it was probably about February, March, cold, wet, drizzling, and it was before I’d discovered my favourite boots so my feet were a bit cold and damp and my raincoat leaked and I remember being very cold and very wet and I was on such a high when I came home on the tube because I had this, so it was, you know, no, it was--, yeah.
Q: Did you know what it was as soon as you saw it?
A: Not immediately, I think pretty much when I turned it over and I saw the little casting badge. I was a bit excited about it but I didn’t want to be too excited about it, just in case, because that’s the thing with the river, you find things, you get all excited. I had an inkling and I showed it to a very established mudlark, Tony Thira [name 00:33:33], I sent him a photograph of it and he said he thought it looked good. And then I was at a conference the next day where Stuart was and he was assistant Finds Liaison Officer [FLO 00:33:45] at the time and I asked him and he went yes, it definitely is, and I was like, yes [laughs]. So that made me very, very happy.
Q: How do you usually go about researching your objects?
A: Generally I’ve seen a lot of them--, since I’ve been on the site I’ve seen a lot of them coming up. Portable Antiquities Scheme site is absolutely brilliant for researching objects. Another place--, another place that’s quite good for looking--, researching objects, especially ones that are one to two hundred years old, is eBay, because quite often people have either metal detected or found stuff and they’ve sold it on, so if you find something and it’s a coin and--, like a coin with a horse on, you know, you can search on eBay as well, so that’s quite a good way of finding stuff. Google is every mudlark’s best friend, I mean honestly, I have--, my history on Google is hilarious, if you look at the different things I’ve been researching and quite often because I admin, the admin team are quite kind towards other people, if they--, especially newbies, if they’ve not found any--, if they’ve not got much knowledge about stuff quite often they’ll post 20 bits of pottery and you’ll sit there and go through and identify stuff for them. So yeah.
Q: Why did you choose this object to talk about first?
A: Erm, I think a pilgrim’s badge--, I loved Chaucer at school, that was one thing that I really, really did love, and I had an absolutely brilliant teacher, Mr Noble, if you’re hearing this, thank you, he was really brilliant, and he--, I was at quite a difficult comprehensive and he actually managed to get a group of kids interested in Chaucer that he probably--, it was probably quite amazing that he did because it was quite a rough group, but he gave us The Pardoner’s Tale which is quite rude and that basically worked. And he managed to get the boys laughing and because the boys were engaged and laughing the class was able to move forward and you’d actually learn something, and I absolutely loved it. So to find a pilgrim’s badge for me, you know, it’s cool, that’s London, I mean that is so--, that’s so London, so yeah.
Q: Amazing. Can you tell us about the second object you have?
A: I found the Saxon coin on a sunny day on the foreshore and there was nobody else around, and I was walking along, it was an eyes only spot and it was just sitting in a little bit of sand and I could see the shape of the face on it from standing, and I was looking at that thinking oh my goodness, I think that’s a Saxon coin, no, it can’t be, it can’t be, it can’t be, no, it can’t. And dropped down to my knees, looked at it, still didn’t touch it, I have a thing, if something’s really special I feel I can’t touch it straight away. And then I kind of looked around thinking well is anybody around, maybe I can just shout somebody to come over and tell me that I have found this, and there was nobody--, absolutely nobody, which is quite unusual on the foreshore nowadays. So I very carefully picked it up, looked at it, thought about it, sat down, thought about it a bit more, thinking I’m not sure if this is a Saxon coin. I’m not a metal detector, and metal detectorists tend to find a lot more coins so their knowledge of coins is phenomenal quite often, and I thought no, I’m pretty sure. And I actually kind of wanted to find out a bit about it myself before I asked anybody, so I took it home and looked up Saxon coins and found a similarity and then once I knew roughly what it was I could then go and ask some of my metal detector friends and sort of get a bit more detail. So very, very excited to find that, they really don’t come up very often on the Thames.
Q: What do you imagine as the kind of story behind this coin? Do you do that with the objects, do you imagine how they got there every time?
A: Absolutely. This coin was--, it’s basically King Burgred of Mercia and it is [ AD 852 to 874 00:39:03], and poor old Burgred at this point he was losing his kingdom to the Vikings so there were hordes of marauding Vikings coming down, sweeping him out of Mercia--, and Mercia goes from up north, Offa's Dyke down to London basically--, went, should I say, past tense. And London was the southernmost tip of it, so I have a feeling somebody was escaping Vikings at the time, they were literally running to the outermost corner of their territory to try and escape the Vikings. It was minted by a guy called [Dudecil 00:39:36], which I just think is the coolest name [laughs], I have a coin minted by the Dude. King Burgred himself had to flee Mercia and ended up in Rome, so he escaped all the Vikings and ended up in Rome in a sanctuary in a church in Rome and he lived out his days there, so he survived.
Q: So this coin, is this part of a coin collection that’s close to your heart? Do you often go and specifically look for coins, is it just this coin in particular because it’s maybe the first one you found or from the time period?
A: I’m not--, because I don’t metal detect coins aren’t my biggest thing. I--, I think the thing I love about going eyes only is the finds are of a greater variety, so I’m very excited to find things made of bone and things made of ivory and things made, you know, all different kinds of things, not just metal coins. But this metal coin (a) it’s got a king on it so you know who it is so that tells you, you know, you know where it’s come from, and Saxons is pretty cool, that’s--, you don’t get much coming up in the Thames from the Saxon era, so to actually get something Saxon, whatever it is, it’s just so cool. So the fact--, I don’t think it’s the coin that makes it cool in my eyes, I think it’s the fact it’s Saxon that makes it cool in my eyes, that’s--, yeah.
Q: Yeah, it kind of reveals a whole part of history that you don’t see that often.
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.
Q: Cool. Can you tell us about the third object [inaudible 00:41:21]?
A: Okay, so the third one--, oh, I love this one. Pick him up.
Q: It is beautifully displayed for those listening in an amazing bell jar--, is that what you call it?
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yes, this little object, I thought it was a twig and bent down between--, it was jammed out from between some rocks and it was the broken end--, at the very tip of it it’s broken and the broken end was poking out, and I gave a little wiggle and as I gave a little wiggle I noticed that it was a little shinier so it wasn’t just your normal rat bone or something sticking out which it very often is, it looked like worked bone. And as I gave a little pull I saw a couple of little carved holes in it, and then as I got it further out there was a little slot carved out of it and then two more holes and then this funny little dip on the end. And the whole thing is about the size of, I don’t know, a large Kirbigrip hairpin or a small pencil, sort of about three inches long, very, very slim, dark bone, probably would’ve been light bone originally when it was first made but the tannins and dirt and river mud has dyed it a dark, beautiful colour.
Q: So the end of it was just sticking out from the ground and you saw it?
A: Yeah, literally just--, probably about a half an inch was sticking out. I could see--, as I poked down I could see more of it, but it was jammed between two rocks. Yeah, I think I actually took a picture of it in the rocks, so somewhere I do have a picture of it in the rocks.
Q: So you’re really down up close with your face close to the ground to be able to see all these items?
A: Well generally I start off standing and walk along, and then if I see something of interest I go down on--, drop to my knees and poke my head down, and sometimes you have to really put your head down between the rocks and--, so it’s worth wearing waterproof trousers just so you don’t get totally muddy, and so people sit next to you on the tube on the way home [laughs]. But it’s--, this one I particularly love because it’s the only known version made in bone of this particular style of bodkin, and there is an identical one made in silver in the Museum of London and quite a lot on the PAS Scheme identical in metal, silver or brass, but this one is bone. And I have a little story that I think goes behind it, I personally believe that a lady’s maid would’ve used a silver one when doing her lady’s repairs, but if she wanted to do any piece work she couldn’t take that out of the building, it’s silver, it’s valuable, it belongs to the lady, so she could work in the lady’s house and use the tool in the lady’s house but she couldn’t take it out. But if she wants to work and use something at home and do a bit of evening work I have a feeling she borrowed her silver one once, took it home and either whittled it herself or persuaded her husband to whittle one, because it is an exact copy of an expensive silver one but made in cheap bone that anyone could, you know, all you need to do is eat meat to have bones, so anyone could have access to bones. So that’s my personal belief, that it was--, it was basically a homemade copy used so somebody could do piece work at home and not use the lady’s expensive silver one that she probably would’ve been sacked for taking out of the house.
Q: For the less knowledgeable among us, what is a bodkin?
A: Okay. A bodkin is a little tool that has many, many purposes. Basically the main reason is--, is used to thread laces before the days of zips we had pins to hold all our clothes together and laces, and you’d have little holes in your material and you would lace using a bodkin, you would thread it with the lace and you’d use that to thread through the holes in your clothing. The little--, tiny holes were for actually threading thread if you’re sewing something, a lot of the cloth was woven so you can thread through the weaving holes with quite a thick item and the cloth will close up again afterwards if it’s--, because of the weft of the--, weft and the weave of the material. So the little threads would’ve gone in the little round holes, and the ear scoop is really useful because you use the ear scoop to scoop out wax to put on the ends of your threads so that you can thread it through the little hole. [Laughs]. It’s brilliant, isn’t it, I love that [laughs], it just makes it so cool, I love that bit.
Q: Wow. What a neat little tool that is.
A: And, apparently people used to use it to hold their hair in place as well, so you put your hair in a bun [pop] stick one of those bodkins in your hair so people would say that--, but I would as well, it’s the same, we use pencils, it’s exactly the same size as hairpins I’ve used in the past, so I can see that being a very common usage then you’ve always got it to hand when you need it, so.
Q: That is really practical.
A: Yeah, I love it.
Q: When did you say it was from?
A: I think that was meant to be 1500s roughly--, 1500s. Of course, being handmade theoretically it could be any time, but it is an exact likeness of a 1500s one in the museum.
Q: Did you find this one recently?
A: No, that was--,probably about four years ago.
Q: It’s in amazing condition.
A: Yeah. Well it’s bone, I love bone, bone items, they don’t tend to crack. If they’re just bone they tend not to crack as they dry out, if they’ve had iron riveting it together, like if you look at a bone domino it will have a little metal peg in and quite often when the metal corrodes it will cause the domino to break apart, or if you have a bone knife with a metal [tag 00:46:58] where the metal inside rusts it can cause the bone to split. But if you just have an item that’s pure bone it tends to survive [inaudible 00:47:05].
Q: So when you bring your finds home and you have different materials, do you split them out into the different materials so you can treat them differently?
A: Yeah, yeah. I give everything a good wash first. If it’s something that’s iron, which is particularly likely to rust, if it’s something that’s quite delicate it will sometimes go in the toilet tank because if you put it in the toilet tank every time you flush the toilet you’re changing the water and it’s pure clean water and you will eventually wash all the salts out of the metal, and that way it won’t corrode so much because all the water in the Thames is slightly salty. So it’s a good way--, I did that with my toy gun, that was sat in the toilet for a month [laughs], so--, but it does work. I don’t do it with most of my finds because otherwise my toilet would be totally manky, but if there’s something really special it will spend a little bit of time in the cistern.
Q: That is a really amazing tip, I’d never have thought of that [laughs].
A: No, most people--, most people wouldn’t [laughs], but go and peek in mudlarks’ toilet cisterns now to see if they’ve got anything hidden in there [laughs], but that’s a--, that was a good tip, I like that tip.
Q: This is a very beautiful Roman lamp.
A: So this is probably one of my top finds, if you have to label things as top finds, but it is pretty wonderful. It’s a very small Roman oil lamp, it’s called a factory lamp because it was made--, it was basically mass produced in Roman times and the Romans were very, very good at making things that work, they were very good at practical aspects of life. And this little lamp--, whenever you find something Roman, if there’s something on it it’s normally got a purpose, the holes are perfectly situated so when you pour oil in it doesn’t--, it’s got a little well so that the oil will drip back into the middle. It’s got a little line so that the wick will tip backwards so you can hold the wick in place, it’s got four little lugs on the outside which I have a feeling has a purpose even though nobody’s officially said so, but I have a feeling possibly this lamp might have been hung at some point and the lugs would stop a greasy, oily lamp from slipping through the threads, so little lugs on the four corners are quite--, I think have a purpose. It’s made out of basically redy, orange clay and all over the surface is what we call concretions, it’s a kind of white layer of river gunk that dries rock hard. But it’s very delicate, I have to be very careful with it, I let a few people hold it sometimes, but I always tell them please don’t touch the bit in the middle because that will break.
Q: Is the ceramic quite thin then?
A: The bulk of the body is quite tough, but the little bits where the oil--, where the hole is to pour the oil in, there’s a tiny little bit there and that is actually paper thin. When I was first washing the mud off it you could just--, you could feel--, you could just feel how incredibly delicate that is. And from my experience with pottery generally, this stuff isn’t glazed, it’s just a very, very thin layer of pure clay, if you were to tap it, it would just shatter, it’s 2000 years old, it’s delicate, so I treat this one with a lot of care and respect.
Q: So this was one for the small finds box?
A: This is--, well in fact, actually this is a mantelpiece one, so it doesn’t fit in the small finds box, this is a mantelpiece one, this is, yeah, one of my favourites. He has spent a fair bit of time in the museum and he’s come out and he’s been to a couple of talks and he has been on display before, but--, but he is very much loved. The story of finding him was quite--, it shows the lengths that mudlarks will go to sometimes when everybody else is tucked up in bed, 4 January, freezing, freezing cold, sleet, not quite snow that you can brush off, the wet sleety stuff that really gets into every crevice, and I’d arranged to meet another mudlark at I think it was 4:30 down in central London and we basically arranged to meet by a bridge, and he was standing up at the top of the bridge and I was standing underneath the bridge in the sleet for about half an hour till we actually managed to find each other [laughs]. And then we started walking along and he followed one tideline and I thought well there’s no point me following the same tideline as him ‘cause I won’t find anything ‘cause he’s really good, so I’ll go along another tideline, and I went along another tideline. And I’d forgotten my glasses and was blind as a bat, could barely see, had a head torch on, it was pitch black and, you know, I was thinking I’m not going to find anything today, pouring with rain, blind as a bat, and I saw a pipe and as I was looking at the pipe which was a big, white, chunky object, just nestled down next to it was a Roman oil lamp, and I was like [gulp], it’s an oil lamp. And then I called Tony back, the guy I was larking with, and we both just stood there. But what was particularly wonderful about this was about four days before I’d made a pledge on my mudlarking site that we’re both admins on, and I made a pledge that I was going to pick up rubbish every single time I went mudlarking, it was my January 1st New Year’s Resolution, I am going to pick up rubbish. And I’m thinking I run the group, if I make a big deal out of this, for every bit of rubbish I pick up there’ll be other people who’ll pick up rubbish too, and there’s loads of people doing it anyway so it’s a movement and I can really spread the word, if I make a point of it it can spread the word and we need to get the rubbish out of the Thames ‘cause there’s so much of it down there. So basically I made that pledge on the 1st and the first time I went mudlarking the first thing I found was a Roman oil lamp and I was like--, it was almost like Father Thames had gone thank you, I appreciate that, and then Tony and I basically--, we just went with bin bags and just filled the bin bags, we got two big bin bags of rubbish and it was like, yes, you know, this is like--, this is thank you. So we got the rubbish off and Father Thames gave me this and he gave Tony his pilgrim’s badge, so he’s been thoroughly rewarded for his efforts as well.
Q: Sounds like you’ve a very good relationship with the Thames [laughs].
A: Yeah, yeah. [I might say 00:54:20], so far the Thames has been very nice to me, I could’ve had some accidents and I haven’t so I kind of think I’ve been looked after when I’ve been down there, so. I’ve fallen in once [laughs], which was quite funny. I was following another mudlark who had decided--, we were walking along an edge and the tide was just about to come in and it was just under water, so we had to move really quickly to get out and somebody else had decided to put some stones down to try and lift the layer up, but unless you do that evenly with an awful lot of stones all it’s going to do is be a trip hazard, so I tripped [laughs], splash in the water. But bizarrely enough, I actually--, I did roll, I literally rolled my arm but I wasn’t that wet, I don’t know how it happened, I think I must’ve jumped up so quickly--, anyway, I managed to get home on the tube without too many people avoiding me, so [laughs].
Q: Was it worth the day, did you find anything good that day?
A: Erm, I always find something good, and I seem to remember having a nice lunch in the pub afterwards, so [laughs], I probably dried off a bit in the pub as well, so that’s probably why I wasn’t too embarrassed on the tube, but I can’t remember what I found on that day, I just remember getting wet.
Q: If you’ve been mudlarking for six years I’m sure you can’t remember everything you find every day.
A: No, no, no. I go through boxes, and drawers--, hundreds of drawers, a whole [inaudible 00:55:40]--, oh, I forgot about that. And the more you learn, the more you realise that this box of odds and sods in the bottom--, I found a really beautiful dress hook with IHS on it, absolutely beautiful, so that would’ve been 1550s lady used to pull her skirts up, and when I was looking at it I finally got it identified, knew what it was, I was thinking that shape looks familiar, the very tip of it is kind of almost like a trapezoid with a hole in it, and I was thinking I’m sure I’ve seen that shape before. Rummaged around in my bits of metal that are interesting and I don’t want to throw away till I know what they are box and sure enough there was one there, it wasn’t the hook bit and it wasn’t the decorated bit, but it was just that little loop at the top that’s a very specific dress hook shape, so that was--, that was what I found, so--, so I’ve since had another one up--, so once you’ve found one your eye immediately recognises it, so the second time or third time you know exactly what it is. The first time is the researching time and asking loads of questions and posting it on a site or asking various different friends and trying to work out what it is.
Q: Do you go back through your collections often, or ever?
A: Oh, all the time--, all the time. Basically somebody will say I found a jaw, do you know what animal it is? And you’re thinking that looks familiar, I think I’ve got one. And in that drawer I’ve got all bits and bobs of bones and fossils and stones, and there was actually a fox jaw that we’d found on holiday once that had been decaying regularly and we’d been back the following year and it had decayed down to just a white jaw, so I--, but it was beautiful so I took it home and I was thinking well that’s what you found. So it was quite, you know, the reference, if you can--, if you know what something is for fact it helps, you know, helps identify other people’s finds later on.
Q: Sounds like you’re giving back to the mudlarking community by identifying as you learn.
A: You have to. But the only reason I learn is because I had older mudlarks, more experienced mudlarks helping me and, you know, I wouldn’t--, I wouldn’t have found anything or know anything if it wasn’t for their advice. And what I really, really love about this hobby is how many people were disenfranchised at school and have found a passion--, one of the best blokes I know for coins didn’t like history at school, didn’t have any history--, I was like saying to him you’ve got to go back and find your history teacher and tell her how much you know about every single king and queen in the country and not just this country, you know, all the different countries of Europe, this guy’s knowledge of coins is phenomenal. And you just think it’s--, it is history in your hand, it’s basically seeing something and learning and having a tangible link to people who were there before you that you would never get at school, not in the same way. Although a friend of mine has asked me if I’ll do some talks in school with finds and I’m actually quite excited about that because that would be quite--, quite a fun thing to do.
Q: Well, on to the last find. Can you tell us about the unusual fifth object you have in front of you?
A: So, this is probably one of my favourite finds--, they’re all my favourite finds, but no, I really, really love--, I’ve said that about everything, haven’t I [laughs]? Yeah, no, this one is really special, it’s about two inches long, it looks a bit like an old battery almost, it’s got a threaded end to one side and it’s made out of pewter, which is a lead alloy, so it’s kind of a dark grey, little bit on concretions on the side still, and it has a little nozzle at one end. And as I was--, I basically found it in a spot which you can’t normally access except once a year when they work on the lock area, so it was actually quite--, quite far in the water. And basically it turned out to be a syphilis syringe. So in the days of venereal disease gentlemen were--, the first thing you would get would be spots on your willy, so people would try and cure that by injecting mercury in their willy, which unfortunately has a habit of making your willy incredibly sore and possibly… nearly drop off. So any sailor who used this was worried about getting to second or third stage of syphilis which is mental decrepitude and it’s really, really awful, but going through the first stage and using this is very, very scary because they know it’s going to cause them a lot of pain and distress but it might help them not to have the third stage. So whoever used this, used this and at the end of it was so upset about having had to use it they chucked it as far as they possibly could, and it, you know, your heart goes out to them because they were just human beings trying to live their normal life and they didn’t want to catch something nasty, you know, and they didn’t want their missus to find out about it. So, you know, it tells a real story about London and the seafaring--, and the port, the fact that this was a port city and people from here travelled all over the world, and syphilis was brought to England by Christopher Columbus from the Americas and hadn’t been seen in Europe before the 1500s, so it’s very much of that era. And the reason I know the dating of this being about 1710 is an almost identical one was found on Captain Kidd’s ship that sank in the Caribbean and it was called Queen Ann’s revenge, and when they dug it up, I think in 1990 they managed to raise the boat, they found an entire medical kit there because Blackbeard, the pirate, had basically a very sensible idea, if you want to carry on raiding ships you need a healthy crew. And if you have a healthy crew you need to have doctors on board, so when he basically accessed the ship--, he stole the ship from, I think the French, and when he got the ship he chucked everyone else off board except for their three surgeons, and he kept their three surgeons on board and their medical kits. And this is an exact replica of one of the medical--, one of the syringes found in their medical kit which had traces of mercury inside, so that proves that these were used for mercury for that purpose.
Q: So this was quite a common item, just use it once and throw it away?
A: Erm, generally not, as far as I’m--, I’ve been told, on board ships it would be washed out and reused, so you might have several doses in it and you might do three or four sailors at once before, you know, dose, dose, dose, line up, or whatever. Apparently they would get passed around and people would buy them, the mercury itself would be in a little glass vial which was apparently then put in a little bone cover, so some people--, one person I know has got a little bit of a bone cover that would’ve held the mercury vial that was in glass. You can’t keep mercury in the syringe for too long ‘cause it affects the metal of the syringe, so--, which was why the actual drug was kept in glass vials. So no, not a one use tool, however, I think the person who last used this was in--, didn’t really care about anyone else using it afterwards, he was--, he had a personal dislike of the item by the end of his usage [laughs], so it got thrown.
Q: And when did you find this?
A: Erm, I found this in November--, probably three--, three years ago--, two, three years ago, about. I remember it was November [laughs], if that helps.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say about your objects or your collection of objects or your experiences mudlarking?
A: I think it’s really hard to find top finds because it changes all the time, and if you’ve just watched a documentary about something that tickles your fancy then, you know, things like, I don’t know, cholera in London and then you think oh, actually maybe that’s why people started wanting to drink more bottled water because they were worried about the tap water coming out and maybe that’s--, so when you find a Codd bottle that might be running, you know, so all different thoughts go through your mind depending on what--, what you’ve been most interested by recently. So if somebody else finds something really interesting and you think oh, that’s cool, I’ll check back my collection to see whether I’ve got one like that, and oh look, oh, mine’s similar but slightly different, slightly newer, slightly older, sometimes yours are in better condition, sometimes they’re in better condition, you’re looking at how things were used. So I think favourites change all the time. There’s also very much people have a bucket list of finds that--, a lot of people talk about their bucket list, and I’ve tried really hard not to have a bucket list because as soon as you have a bucket list if you haven’t got something you feel incomplete, and I try and work the opposite way, like just anything you find has got to be a bonus because then it’s--, you feel happier about your finds, not oh well, now I’ve got to find the next thing. No, you want to enjoy each thing as they come up and not tick them off.
Q: Well it has been a joy to hear about all your finds and mudlarking and how the river has, you know, presented you with all this incredible stuff. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.
A: You are very, very welcome. Do you want to hold the syphilis syringe [laughs]?
Q: Yes please.
A: I love people’s faces when--, especially when you give it to people the first time and they get to hold it and then you say do you know what it is, and you explain, they go… And that’s one thing if they drop it, it doesn’t really matter ‘cause it’s quite tough, so…
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