Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Tides, tours and treasure: a guide to Thames mudlarking

If you look down onto the foreshore of the River Thames in London at low tide, you might see, besides curious tourists and dog-walkers, solitary individuals staring intently at the ground. Some kneel on knee pads or carry buckets or trowels and others pace slowly, with no visible kit. All search with immense concentration, seemingly fixated on swathes gloopy mud or shingle.

These are mudlarks. And where you or I see muck and stones, they discern traces of 2,000 years of history. For every rare coin or jewel they find, they uncover countless artefacts that are more humble but equally resonant. Bearded faces from German Bartmann beer jugs from the days of Shakespeare, nails from ships of Nelson’s navy and sherds of fine Roman tablewares, to name a few. Sometimes artefacts even carry the names of ordinary Londoners, long dead.

Interest in the hobby has surged in recent years, to the extent that new restrictions have been introduced to curb numbers. Here is what mudlarking involves, and how you can still, legitimately, experience the thrill of the search.

What is mudlarking?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Thames mudlarks were children and older people who scraped a living by finding pieces of wood, metal, coal, rope, canvas and other recyclables on the river’s tidal foreshore and selling them on. One young mudlark told the Victorian writer Henry Mayhew: “The mudlarks generally have a pound of bread to breakfast, and a pint of beer when they can afford it. They do not go to coffee-shops, not being allowed to go in, as they are apt to steal the men’s ‘grub’.” 

Today, mudlarking refers to the hobby of searching the foreshore for historical artefacts and other objects such as fossils. Mudlarks, who hail from all walks of life, may search “eyes-only”, using a metal detector, or by scraping or digging into the surface within fixed limits.

Nicola White mudlarking among bricks and stones on the Thames foreshore in sight of Tower Bridge and the Shard. Photo: Simon Bourne

Mudlarking requires a permit from the Port of London Authority (PLA), and permit-holders must follow rules on exactly where and how they search. They are prohibited from selling finds for personal gain. The issuing of permits was paused in November 2022 after a rush of applicants, fuelled partly by popular books on mudlarking and social media posts. For now, the PLA says people who don’t already hold permits can visit the foreshore but cannot search it “in any way for any reason”. However, it is still possible to search without a permit by doing an approved guided tour (details below) and leaving any finds on the foreshore.

What motivates mudlarks?

Nicola White, an artist and mudlark who runs the Tideline Art YouTube channel, says: “I grew up in Cornwall and always used to like collecting things, whether it was on the beach or in the garden. Then, when I moved to London — close to Greenwich — in about 1998, I found myself down on the foreshore. It was a bit like a replacement beach because I really missed the beaches in Cornwall. I started to pick up bits of pottery and glass. Then I found a coin and I suddenly realised that there was this history to be to be found down there, and so I became fascinated with it.

“The coin wasn’t terribly old — it was a George V, I think — and I held it and I thought the last person who held it lived 100 years or so ago, and it really inspired me and got my imagination going. So I became a lot more interested in history. Because everything I find, to this day, I’m really motivated to learn about. Beforehand, I wasn’t particularly mad about history.”

The Great Fire of London, by an unknown 17th-century artist. Photo: Yale Center for British Art

It is personal, tangible connections to the past that grab her. For instance, most of us have heard of Pudding Lane as the street where the Great Fire of London started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery in 1666. A few years ago, White found a trader’s token issued in 1657 by Brian Appleby who owned a tavern on that very street. As she tweeted at the time: “Farriner’s bakery was close to Appleby’s Maydenheade & it thrills me to think that this token was once held by someone who probably knew Farriner.”

Simon Clarke, director of the Thames Explorer Trust, which organises guided mudlarking tours, says: “When you go to a museum, the objects are behind glass and have been found for you. Here, you find them yourself and you never know what you will find. It’s the very fact that you are discovering something that has been unearthed for the first time. Because Thames Clippers and some of the larger [river] vessels do the scouring for us — they overturn new things every day. It’s not only finding objects but the thrill of working out where they’re from.”

What can mudlarks find?

The anaerobic condition of the Thames mud means that items lost or dumped in the river hundreds or thousands of years ago can emerge, through erosion, in pristine condition. The variety of finds is extraordinary and reflects London’s far-reaching trading connections. Among frequent finds are clay pipes or fragments of them — some dating to the lifetime of Sir Walter Raleigh who popularised Virginia tobacco in the 16th century. Sherds of Roman pottery and chunks of Roman roof tile are also common in places, the latter occasionally marked with the paw prints of cats or dogs that walked on the wet clay. Meanwhile, depending on the details, blue and white sherds might be relatively recent Willow Pattern, Delftware or export porcelain hand-painted in China 300 years ago.

Sherds of Roman pottery and a fragment of hypocaust tile from the central heating system of a building that stood in Londinium. Photo: Mark Bridge

Pieces such as Roman coins, medieval pilgrim badges brought back from shrines, and mourning rings inscribed with names and dates are rarer and coveted. Although some mudlarks target such finds using metal detectors, many succeed in finding small metal objects eyes-only. White says: “For me, mudlarking is an experience of searching and being in the moment and wandering along, looking. If you’ve got a detector, there’s so much metal down there, it’s beeping all over the place. You really have to know what you’re doing.”

She adds that people should have realistic expectations. “A problem is that there are so many social media posts that you might get the impression that you can just wander down and it’s a smorgasbord of finds — and it’s really not like that. It’s important to still see the magic in a few pipe stems, a bit of pottery, and oyster shells, because those are the things that tell the story of London. Even a pipe stem could have been from a pipe smoked by somebody 400 years ago.”

Greenwich, where Nicola White first discovered mudlarking, depicted in a 19th-century painting by David Cox. Photo: Yale Center for British Art

What stories can finds tell?

The pewter mug naming James Burrows, of the Rose & Crown. Photo: Nicola White

White is one of a number of mudlarks who use social media to share the backstories of their standout finds after researching them. One of the most evocative is a pewter tavern mug that she found in thick mud. “I pulled it out and it was beautiful,” she recalls. “I saw some lettering through this film of mud. It’s engraved with the name of James Burrows, of the Rose & Crown on Lower Thames Street. He was landlord of the Rose & Crown, near Custom House in the City of London, from 1830 to 1850.

“I use the newspaper archives a lot, so I looked him up and came across a story of when he was a witness at the inquest of somebody who used to drink at his tavern. It was a man who, sadly, drowned himself at Custom House. So I took the tankard down to the foreshore in front of Custom House and made a toast to this man who died by suicide and to James Burrows.

“It’s magical really — these objects tell people’s stories.”

Remarkably, named connections can go back much, much further. As White explains: “I recently found the base of a Roman Samian ware bowl, with the potter’s stamp on the bottom. It was mind-blowing to think about this person, this potter, almost 2,000 years ago, and here’s his name [Borillus] still clear as day and I could look him up and find out where he was making his pots, at Lezoux in Gaul.”

Fragment from the centre of a Roman Samian ware bowl with the stamp of the workshop of Borillus in Gaul. Photograph: Nicola White

In another case, she found an object marked with the name of a British warship. She says: “I found a beautiful log slate, or slate log, which would have been on a ship. It’s a piece of slate that’s engraved with the name of HMS Merlin. And it’s got all the columns for wind speed and courses. I’ve been told it would have been on the deck of the ship and they would have written on it in chalk. Then, in the evening, they would have transcribed it into the paper log and then wiped the slate clean, which is where the saying comes from. So it was incredible to find this and the museum think it probably dates from around 1760 or 1770.”

The log slate of HMS Merlin as found by Nicola White in the mud of the Thames foreshore. Photo: Nicola White

This suggests that the log belonged to the British sixteen-gun sloop Merlin, which was commissioned in 1757, was involved in the British capture of Havana in 1762, and scuttled in 1777 after it ran aground in the Delaware River during the American Revolutionary War. The ship was repaired and refitted at Woolwich Dockyard in 1765 and 1766, so the log slate may have been lost around this time.

HMS Merlin shortly before the ship ran aground and was scuttled during the American Revolutionary War. Photo: The New York Public Library

When do mudlarks lark?

Mudlarking is only possible at low tide. White says: “It all revolves around the tides. I have a tide app on my phone and my computer. If it was low tide now, I wouldn’t be sitting here. So I run my life a little bit around that. You get low low tides, and some of them are a bit higher, depending on the cycle of the tides. I try to go a few times a week, and if it’s really good, and if it’s summertime and there are good low tides, you can sometimes go twice a day. I usually go a couple of hours before low tide, to chase the tide out. You have a nice long time then, and afterwards I probably stay for one or two hours while it’s coming back in. I tend to go to lots of different places, but I’ve got several favourite places and I sort of rotate them.

“The objects you find do reflect the activities that went on where you’re searching. In Central London, you’re going to find much older things — Roman, Tudor, medieval. Then in other places, where was a lot of [later] shipbuilding, you’re going to find different types of objects. So yes, I enjoy that mix.”

Nighttime isn’t an obstacle, but rather an opportunity for seasoned mudlarks. White says: “I do go nightlarking. And it’s surprising, you can find a lot because you’re focusing on a small area with a torch and it’s very effective. You’d be surprised what you can find.”

A tray of mudlark Nicola White’s finds, including clay pipes and pipe bowls and a German Hitler Youth belt buckle. Photo: Nicola White

Is there a knack to success?

It mostly comes down to persistence and experience. White says: “Some people write to me and say, ‘I’d like to find a clay pipe — can you advise me on a place to go?’ And I say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t. But what I will say is that you just need to go and explore and that’s how you’re going to find an object. There’s no easy way.’ Some people think they’re just going to get a fast solution and not have to put in the work. Some of us have been looking for years to find the places which really work for us.”

She adds: “With practice, you begin to see things and recognise objects. I like to think I’ve got my eye in quite well. The tide tends to sort things out in layers, like bones and metal and bits of coal. Also, you get to know where there’s a bit of exposed mud where things may get caught as the tide is going out. So you do get to know the foreshore, but it changes — you can get to know a place and then it can change completely in a couple of months.”

Mudlarking on the Thames foreshore at Greenwich, which has a notable maritime history. Photo: Jean Cuomo/Shutterstock.com

Tell me about guided tours

The Thames Explorer Trust’s regular tours provide a legitimate way for those without permits to search the foreshore. Participants can find and handle artefacts and have them identified by expert staff. They are asked to take away only memories and photographs, however.

The tours cost £25 each for adults and children aged eight-plus, for two hours on the foreshore with an archaeology guide. The proceeds go towards supporting the trust’s work with schools. The tours have soared in popularity in recent years. Simon Clarke, the director, says: “When I started here, a decade ago, we ran about six walks a year, with another two or three cancelled because there weren’t enough people. The tours that went ahead were half-full. Now we’re running about 160 a year and most are oversubscribed.” 

As for the format, he says: “We start off with a general talk about what happened in the area. Then we show some artefacts from a small collection our staff have and pass them around. Then we give a small health and safety talk and it’s onto the foreshore to have an eyes-only search.

“People tend to branch off in their pairs or small groups. But it’s one of those things where you really have to be silent and look very, very hard. In terms of the spread of things, on some parts of the foreshore, you can put your foot down across 1,500 years’ worth of history. Within a few inches, you might find late medieval, Tudor and Industrial.”

Where can I learn more?

There are various mudlarking-related events this month as part of the Totally Thames Festival, including exhibitions of finds at St Paul’s Cathedral on September 16 and 17, the National Maritime Museum on September 23 and 24, and the Museum of London, Docklands, on September 30 and October 1. The Thames Discovery Programme is organising guided foreshore walks with archaeologists for the festival and also runs walks and events year-round.

Acclaimed books include Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem and Mudlarks: Treasures from the Thames by Jason Sandy. Many mudlarks, including Nicola White, post videos on YouTube and photographs and videos on Instagram. In addition, there are active mudlarking groups on Facebook.

Visits to museums such as the Museum of London, Docklands, the British Museum and the V&A can provide historical context and opportunities to see complete examples of artefacts such as ceramic vessels often found in fragments on the foreshore.

Find reporting, and hazards

Mudlarks must report all finds that might be of archaeological or historical interest to the Portable Antiquities Scheme so that archaeologists, museum curators and historians have the opportunity to learn from individual objects and wider patterns. They must also report finds that qualify as treasure to the coroner.

A coin of Spain’s ‘Catholic Monarchs’, Ferdinand and Isabella, discovered in London and recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). Photo: PAS, via Wikimedia Commons

The foreshore is a hazardous environment and people are periodically caught out by rising tides. Anyone visiting the foreshore should use tide tables or apps and stay within easy range of steps or other exit routes. There are trip and slip hazards and sharp objects such as broken glass and needles. There is also the risk of Weil’s disease spread by rat urine in water. Mudlarks are advised to keep any cuts and abrasions covered, to avoid touching their eyes, mouth or nose, to consider wearing rubber gloves and to wash their hands thoroughly after searching.

Artwork at top of article by Claire Carponen Illustration.

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