Whilst staying in London for a long weekend last Spring, I carefully checked the tide times for the River Thames before heading off towards Millennium Bridge to do a spot of “mudlarking”.
Mudlarking these days refers to the riverside equivalent of beachcombing. However during the mid 18th century, through until the early 20th century it was a recognised occupation of many destitute Londoners. These mudlarks earned their living by picking over the debris lying on the foreshore of the Thames, seeking out lumps of coal, bits of old iron and other detritus that fell from ships in the port of London, in fact anything which they could sell for a few pence.
These poor unfortunate people were most vividly evoked by Henry Mayhew, a journalist, social researcher and one of the co-founders of the satirical magazine Punch, in his book London Labour and the London Poor published in 1851.
…”They may be seen of all ages, from mere childhood to positive decrepitude, crawling among the barges at the various wharfs along the river; it cannot be said that they are clad in rags, for they are scarcely half covered by the tattered indescribable things that serve them for clothing; their bodies are grimed with the foul soil of the river, and their torn garments stiffened up like boards with dirt of every possible description…”
Alongside these poor scavengers combing the river’s mud could be found another group the “toshers” whom Mayhew describes as follows…”The sewer-hunters were formerly, and indeed are still, called by the name of ‘Toshers’, the articles which they pick up in the course of their wanderings along shore being known among themselves by the general term ‘tosh’, a word more particularly applied by them to anything made of copper.”
Back to the present day! Instead of scavenging to survive, todays mudlarks like myself, have a keen interest in the City’s rich archaeology and history. With its twice daily scouring tide, the Thames foreshore is probably the longest outdoor archaeological site open for all to investigate. Anyone can walk the shoreline and pick up loose items although no digging or use of metal detectors is allowed unless a permit from the Port of London authority is obtained.
Members of the Society of Thames Mudlarks work closely with the Museum of London adding to the museum’s collections and many finds are recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme which assists at mudlarking walks, identifying and dating items found.
Today I decided to search the foreshore on the north bank of the river below the Millennium Bridge.
This iconic 325m long bridge was the first new Thames crossing in over 100 years, was designed by Sir Norman Foster and sculptor Sir Anthony Caro and engineered by Arup. It was nicknamed the “wobbly bridge” on its opening in June 2000 when the many thousands who walked over it felt the bridge start to wobble!
This “wobble” turned out to be caused by the natural sway of people’s footsteps which created small sideways oscillations in the bridge thus resulting in pedestrians beginning to sway in step with the bridge; a phenomenon known as “synchronous lateral excitation”! The bridge was closed for shock absorbing type dampers to be installed…no wobbles now!
One of the many dampers fitted to fix the wobble!
Nearby stands the London Millennium Inclinator, an inclined lift installed to make Peters Hill and the Millennium bridge more accessible to and from the Thames footpath.
And so on to mudlarking… I headed up the steps, over the wall and down the steep steps to the foreshore…and I was not alone today!
Making my way from the bridge and walking the foreshore down river towards Southwark Bridge, I soon left the families with excited children happily playing in the spring sunshine. As usual on the Thames, there was a calm and quiet atmosphere along the foreshore.
The air down here was rich with the smell of ozone and peaceful being below the sounds of the bustling city. The silence was only broken by the odd siren, waves breaking onto the shore from the backwash of the high speed Thames Clipper boats and the sound of the commentaries from the tannoys on board the tour boats.
Mudlarking, like fossil hunting another of my favourite pastimes, involves getting your eyes to focus in on the unusual at your feet. When fossil hunting it is helpful to know the geology of the site which will determine what types of fossils you are likely to find.
In comparison, when mudlarking on the riverbanks of a city as ancient as London, each turn of the tide can reveal clues of the city’s social history. All of London’s past and present life is here washed neatly onto the foreshore under your feet waiting to be discovered. Amongst the broken bricks and lumps of chalk and flint, you never know what you will find…
I wasn’t expecting this!
Or this…a bad day at the office perhaps?
The banks on this part of the Thames have been a focus of London’s life and commerce for centuries and the flotsam and jetsam washed up on the foreshore is testament to this. Trade unionist, Liberal politician and MP for Battersea in 1892, John Burns who was an expert on the City’s history, coined the evocative phrase “the Thames is liquid history”.
Can you spot the clay pipe stem?
Local inhabitants would use the river as a twice daily tidal dustbin, throwing in broken items of pottery, household rubbish and old bones. Cargo could be dropped from and between boats, roof tiles would fall from nearby buildings, glass bottles would be casually thrown in and clay pipes once smoked were tossed in. Oysters now an expensive delicacy, were once a staple diet of the poor, and their empty shells can be found in abundance.
Even Samuel Johnson fed them to his beloved cat Hodge!
Now for the practical bit…I always like to walk out on a falling tide and I would urge the novice mudlark to check the tide times carefully on The Port of London Authority website for the area you intend to walk and to follow their helpful guidelines. Don’t forget to check whether the time listed is BST or GMT! Take a mobile phone and tell someone where you are heading too!
You don’t want to be left clinging to one of the ropes or chains hanging on the river wall!
The Thames rises and falls by over 7.0m twice a day the current is fast and the water is cold! It is easy to get cut off as the shoreline has many inlets, curves and outfalls and piers of bridges. Whilst there is sand and shingle in places, it is also very muddy, rocky and old wooden jetties protrude from the mud. The stairs down to the river are steep and can be treacherous when green! So strong shoes or wellington boots are recommended, even if you get strange looks when sitting on a busy tube train covered in mud with a bag full of clanking finds!
I normally search the shore at Bankside on the South Bank below the towering edifice of Tate Modern Art Gallery housed in the former Bankside Power Station designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. However my search area today is on the north bank of the Thames towards to the small inlet of Queenhithe.
Edward Weller’s 1868 map of this section of the river clearly shows the small Queenhithe inlet (I have just received a great book… “Mudlark River” by Simon Wilcox who journeys the length of the Thames from its source to the sea, armed with this Victorian map)
How it looks today…
and in the 1920’s…
and through the eye of an artist, Olive Brackenbury
Queenhithe was originally given by King Alfred the Great in 883 AD to his brother-in-law Ethelred. Its name came from the profits from the docks being dedicated to the wife of Henry I, Queen Matilda. It probably began life as a Roman dock, and was known in Saxon times as Aedereshyd, and is the oldest and possibly the only extant Saxon harbour in the world.
As one of the main harbours in the City it was used extensively until the 20th century by the corn and later the fur and tea trades. Due to its historic significance this area is today listed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and as such no digging on the foreshore is allowed even if you have a permit!
Unfortunately there were not too many unusual finds today… I always hope to find a pilgrim brooch brought back from a successful pilgrimage trip and often broken and thrown into the Thames to ensure good luck, or traders tokens or coins but no luck as yet!
Today there were numerous broken clay pipe stems and bowls as usual…
Lots of bricks with their makers marks…
Knights of Woodbridge in Suffolk
and one nearer to home from Canning Town
As usual too lots of sherds of pottery from all periods in history…
Rough green medieval pot sherds
A miscellany of blue and white hand painted and transferware crockery
Some of the pieces are quite revealing when examined closely…
A fragment of a Wedgewood dish
A miniature pastoral scene complete with sheep?
A piece of Staffordshire combed slipware looks good enough to eat!
and is this the thumb print of a medieval potter?
I have had a couple of pot sherds identified by the Museum of London’s expert staff who are a useful source of information and who are keen to learn of unusual items found on the foreshore.
The base of a Roman colour coated ware jar I found at Shad Thames on a previous trip
The handle from a medieval greyware jug or pitcher I found on Bankside
My walk ended under the piers of Southwark Bridge and as the tide was beginning to turn I retraced my steps towards the safety of the Millennium Bridge.
The gnarled old wooden jetties protrude well above the water line at low tide
and an hour later are only just visible above the rising waters!
and the Queenhithe inlet is now cut off!
So what to do with all the finds I have amassed?
A few years ago I came across this wonderful mosaic collage on the South Bank
and appropriately made from foreshore finds!
So inspired was I by this work and having always been fond of mosaics, I recently enrolled on a one day workshop to learn about the techniques and perhaps utilise some of my foreshore finds.
Under the expert eye of professional mosaic artist Victoria Harrison, I produced my first mosaic, a stylised Roman hare, not using my Thames finds but Italian glass and ceramic tiles.
It turned out quite well for a first attempt!
I will continue to gather more finds and have a go at producing my own Thames inspired collage.
This fascinating river and its history continues to intrigue and captivate me and I foresee many more mudlarking forays in the future and hope that Father Thames will be kind enough to reveal some more secrets from London’s rich past.