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Mudlarking

I’m actually writing this piece on the train home from London. Today’s date has been highlighted in my diary for several weeks and the anticipation has been steadily building as the days passed, for today I have been down on the Thames foreshore “Mudlarking”

A Mudlark is someone who scavenges in river mud for items of value, a term used especially to describe those who scavenged this way in London during the late 18th and 19th centuries. One very strong distinction that hit me as I travelled up to town today is that back then Mudlarking was done out of necessity in order to survive, today it’s a pastime.

The two hour experience was run by the Thames Explorer Trust who were established in 1988 to educate people about the river and it’s surroundings, by running school workshops and days like I attended.

Vanessa, our guide for the day met us beneath the Millennium bridge and gave a short talk about the river from the last ice age right up to the 21st century and then passed round artifacts that she had found on the shore with an explanation on each piece so that we would have some idea what we were searching for. I learnt a couple of things about the Thames, firstly there is a boat called the Thames Vitality that cruises up and down the Thames oxygenating the water to promote the growth and spread of plant life and also the Thames is the now the cleanest industrial river in the world.

The Thames Vitality

My fellow mudlarkers were a mixed bag in terms of age. Being half term there were quite a few families, but the majority were adults. After the obligatory health and safety briefing, on average five people a year die on the Thames and around six people have to be rescued from being trapped by the incoming tide we headed down the steps to the shore area between the bridge and Queenhithe.

Facing Queenhithe, Southwark Bridge & Cannon Street railway bridge in the distance.

As you can see from the picture above the shore is predominantly terracotta in colour which comes from the number of broken roofing tiles that are deposited at low tide, but its a mixture of these, stones, masonry, shingle and sand. Surprisingly very little in the way of rubbish is evident as the river is cleaned regularly.

At first the sea of terracotta and shingle appears to be all you can see, that and the multitude of oyster shells. One important rule when you go hunting on the shore is that what you find is “Sight Only”, that is you are looking for items that sit just on or slightly below the shore surface, digging is not allowed as is scuffing up the surface with your feet. Some mudlarkers adopt a hands and knees approach, but I felt that it would be better to keep my dignity intact (especially when trying to get back up again) so adopted a head down slow walk and it wasn’t long before I got my eye in.

Vanessa had showed us a number of pieces of medieval pottery that was predominantly green in colour. Slightly west of us by Blackfriars Bridge had been several medieval manor houses, so the likelihood of this type of pottery was high and after a short while it began to pop out in between the terracotta.

A shard of green medieval pottery

These were the easiest pieces of pottery to find, but as you become attuned to the surface you start to notice other types as shown in the photos below.

Piece of ochre coloured late medieval/early Tudor pottery bowl

Not everything you find is that old

A small fragment of blue Victorian Willow Pattern china

Part of a late Victorian ink bottle

This next one was probably my best find of the day, it’s the small piece of white and blue glaze towards the bottom of the photo.

It’s a very small fragment of tin glaze which comes from the Stuart period and possibly dates from around the 1660s. The glaze was very soft and would wear away very quickly, so to find a piece that was recognisable after three hundred years in the water was quite exciting.

The other thing apart from the terracotta that is found in abundance is the remains of clay tobacco pipes, mainly the stems. The bowls are harder to find, especially whole ones. I had always thought that these were so numerous because they were fragile and broke easily causing the owner to toss them away which is not exactly the reason. These pipes had long stems from bowl to mouthpiece, somewhere in the region of two feet. This was fine if you wanted a smoke in the comfort of your own home, but should you be a manual labourer and fancied a smoke break these stems were cumbersome, so the stems were snapped off to a manageable length which is why you find so many.

Clay Tobacco Pipe stems

Oldest (Top), Newest (Bottom)

I was hoping to find an intact bowl but no luck this time, although I did find some fragments. Thanks to Vanessa I learnt that the smaller the bowl the older the pipe was. This is down to cost with the earliest pipes being expensive to produce so to keep the price down they were made smaller. As the demand increased and materials became cheaper the bowls got bigger. Most pipes of this type were produced between the mid 1500s reaching a peak around 1700 when the taking of snuff became more popular. These pipes were sold ready filled and were hawked around the city by small boys. Earlier pipes were usually used more than once, but when they became cheaper they became single use.

I’ve mentioned the terracotta tiles a few times and there are so many that you pay them little attention. Some are just broken pieces but occasionally you find one that has the hole for the peg that secured it to the roof batten. I just happened to pick up a piece with a triangular peg hole, which could possibly date it to the late Roman period.

The time on the shore was over too quickly, but you can’t argue with an incoming tide, so I went in search of another treasure and reviewed my finds.

Despite appearances the Thames shore is a highly controlled area. Parts are open to public access while some parts are not and attract a fairly hefty fine if you are caught trespassing. The River Police do patrol and regularly stop and question anyone who looks as if they are transgressing the rules. All the foreshores have an owner, metal detecting, searching or digging is not a public right and as such it needs the permission of the landowner. The Port of London Authority and the Crown Estate are the largest land owners of Thames foreshore and jointly administer a permit which allows searching or digging. The Thames foreshore permit is only valid for certain locations west of the Thames Barrier up to Teddington. Searching is not allowed east of the Thames Barrier. All searching, digging, scraping or the removal of any items is strictly prohibited at Queenhithe Dock, Brunel’s Great Eastern Slipway, Tower of London and at Greenwich Palace due to the historic nature of the sites.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable day and as a first timer the input and help from Vanessa to explain your finds was invaluable. If you would like to try mudlarking I would recommend that you attend one of their shore days, details of which you can find here. I’ll definitely be purchasing a permit and continue searching for that elusive whole pipe bowl.

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