During a trip to London some years ago, a friend took me for a walk along South Bank. This was before the Tate Modern opened and things were still a bit ragged around there. So when we unexpectedly took stairs down to the shoreline and he told me to watch out for "treasures," I was skeptical. (Not to mention totally unprepared to continue our walk out onto gummy black mud.) But I became practically giddy with excitement when within a brief 10 minute amble and absolutely no exertion on my part I found the bowl of an 18th or 19th century clay pipe (which I gave to my friend), and three distinctive pottery shards, above. (The blue ones are almost certainly mid-nineteenth century, the green is a mystery—1930s? medieval?) That afternoon remains one of my best excursions. It's a mystery to me why it's taken me so long to try to replicate that experience. And its only recently I learned the term for what I was doing that day...
Behind St. Katherine Docks, 1952
Mudlark: the word was late 18th century slang both for a pig, and for one of the scavengers working the banks of the Thames. Human mudlarks would root around along the foreshore of the river during low tide, searching for lumps of coal, bits of old iron and other detritus that fell from ships — anything which they could sell for a few pence. They were Dickensian characters—but were vividly captured from life by Henry Mayhew, a pioneering social journalist in London Labour and the London Poor (1851). The children (mudlarks were usually under fifteen, but old women would troll the shore as well):
....[were] 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.
Today, London's Society of Thames Mudlarks comprises about 60 people in overalls, gloves, and rubber boots who have official permits (browsing along the shore is fine for anyone, but digging needs a permit) to comb the river foreshore with metal detectors.* In Thames, the Biography, Peter Ackroyd lists some of the items the river has yielded to chance and modern mudlarks:
A cup of Trojan origin was found by two dredgermen at Barn Elms, a Greek rhyton of the second century BC was found at Billingsgate...24 Viking swords have been retrieved from the Thames... in one small area just east of Blackfriars Bridge, some 250 medieval pewter pilgrim badges were discovered. In 1834 a bronze head of the emperor Hadrian was found near London Bridge.
The Thames seems to contain the debris of the world—bird cages and urethral syringes, watches and wooden stools, pipes and phials and wig curlers...A flint hand axe might share the same stretch of river bed with a sixteenth-century pot and a nineteenth century bicycle wheel... In the ancient river all time is redeemable, past and present suspended together in intimate association.... the river is a great depository of past lives.
Ackroyd's meandering story of one of the world's famous rivers is a dreamily evocative and anecdotal sweep of history. He calls the river "a reliquary"—a container or shrine— and it is, not only in the metaphorical sense. The Thames's thick, viscous mud is low in oxygen and as a result, organic decay is greatly minimized. Metal objects retrieved from the depths look, after a swift polish, about as they did when they were dropped in.
Somewhere there are still blackened remnants of the Great Fire or a commemorative token that slipped out of a hand during a Frost Fair (one of several times the Thames froze over and tents with food and drink, and games of archery and bear-baiting were set up on the ice). I could happily spend my time looking for those... The web site for the Mudlark Society breaks this poetic reverie just a bit. There is no romanticism on these fluorescent green pages. The site revels in fart humor, abounds in misspellings and is one of the ugliest I've ever come across. And yet... there is a fantastic array of documented finds to pore over and the chief mudlark, Steve Brooker, seems like a pretty fun guy. I intend to sign up to go mudlarking on my next trip to London.
Thames Frost, Abraham Hondius, 1677
view from Isle of Dogs, Lorna Richardson, Thames Discovery Programme
. . . . .
If I would drink water, I must ... swallow that which comes from the river Thames, impregnated with all the filth of London and Westminster. Human excrement is the least offensive part of the concrete, which is composed of all the drugs, minerals, and poisons used in mechanics and manufactures, enriched with the putrefying carcasses of beasts and men, and mixed with the scourings of all the washtubs, kennels, and common sewers within the bills of mortality.
–The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollett, 1771
. . . . .
Mudlark finds, including medieval shoe soles and a coin bearing the image of Faustina Augusta who was briefly empress of Rome in 221 AD. These six preceding images from Thames and Field Metal Detecting Society*Forget shopkeepers, Britain seems to be a nation of amateur metal "detectorists". Take, for instance, Terry Herbert who in July '09 uncovered a tremendous cache of Saxon gold just below the surface of a cultivated field in south Staffordshire.