Mudlarking on the Thames
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Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History, coming to you from a pub on the banks of the Thames and I’ve just had a fascinating couple of hours, which I can’t wait to share with you. I’ve been mudlarking, which is if you don’t know, it’s going down when the tide is low on the banks of the Thames and looking for historic artefacts. I’ve had a wonderful time and joining me to talk more about the whole mud larking world is probably the most famous of the mudlarkers. It’s Lara Maiklem. Lara, thank you for joining us on the show.
Lara: You’re welcome Mat. Nice to be here.
Mat: I must say it was quite an experience. It’s been an afternoon of history. We’re sitting in quite a historic pub with a cold pint after a day down on the river bank, and it’s just been an adventure in history. I must admit, when we’ve talked about doing this, I was expecting we would wander around for an hour and find one or two bits and pieces. I was just flabbergasted by the amount of things that you can find on the banks of the river Thames.
Lara: The pub we’re sitting in is basically on the site where Pepys sat and watched London burn during the great fire of London, and down on the foreshore is rubbish. It’s rubbish that dates back 2,000 years or more. Dates back to pre-history and London has, I’m afraid been throwing rubbish in to the river for all that time. And so yes, that’s what we’ve been looking at. Everything from rubble to ceramics to clay pipes, it’s all down there.
Mat: How long have you been rummaging through the detritus on the banks of the Thames?
Lara: I have been gutting around in the mud for over 15 years now. So, I’ve got a few years behind me and I found some pretty good stuff in that time.
Mat: Let’s begin. How did it end up there? People have obviously been chucking stuff in the Thames for as long as it’s been there. How did so much historic stuff end up in the river?
Lara: Well, basically it is stuff that people have dropped while they’ve been living and working and traveling on the river. It’s also stuff that’s been dug into the foreshore and dumped on the foreshore to build up the foreshore because it was a working environment, and naturally a river is V-shaped, so they’ve created what’s called barge beds. So these flat surfaces next to the river wall where the barge is rested at low tide. And to do that, they dumped loads of rubbish. It was domestic waste, spoil from building works, and then they capped it off with a nice layer of soft chalk that didn’t damage the bottom of the barges. And they packed it all down hard. And a lot of what we find is eroding from this layer of rubbish over somewhat since the 1960’s and ’70’s the ship stopped coming this far up.
The barges stopped working and nobody’s been looking after the foreshore, and so when a hole developed or the revetments broke, nobody was repairing them and the rivers eating away at it. There’s a lot more river traffic as well, and it’s literally eating away and washing out all this stuff. It’s also washing in the stuff that’s has been dropped and lost further into the river so what we find is literally they’re on one tide and gone on the next.
Mat: Because the Thames is unique, I would think anywhere in the world because of the fact that it’s so tidal, isn’t it? I’m sure the river Seine in Paris has lots of amazing things at the bottom of it, but it’s not tidal. You can’t get down and explore.
Lara: Absolutely. I know that they drained one of the canals in Amsterdam quite recently and they found over 700,000 objects and the objects are really similar. It’s an incredible book actually they’d done on it called Stuff.
Mat: Did you say 700,000?
Lara: 700,000 objects and they mirror what we find in the Thames. So it’s all there in other rivers. It’s just a case of getting to it. And London is unique in that it’s had such intense habitation for so long and it’s got these incredible tides that let you right down onto the foreshore to search it for about five to six hours a day.
Mat: Well we did that for an hour, an hour and a half, and the scale of what was there I’m still trying to get my head around it. We stopped picking up bits of ancient pottery. We stopped picking up tiles from centuries’ old houses. We stopped picking up animal bones that had been feasted upon and then thrown into the river because there was just too many of them. The real skill I think in this whole mud larking game is choosing what not to keep because especially as an Australian, anything that’s a hundred years old is considered pretty historic, but we were picking up things that date from centuries ago.
Lara: Centuries ago. Yeah, it’s true. You have to curate carefully what you take away. When people first start mud larking, they always come away with bags full of stuff, and I say to people, do you really need to take that much? Think about what you have. You would probably only need one or two clay pipes or roof tiles. There is so much down there and as you do it, the longer you do it, the more picky you get about what you take home and I don’t want to become that mad woman with boxes and boxes of stuff that can never move. So I curate my collection really carefully and I only take home the stuff I haven’t got or better examples of stuff that I have got.
Mat: The clay pipes you mentioned, that was something quite extraordinary. The numbers of pipe stems were remarkable that we found. We could have picked up a hundred if we wanted to.
Lara: Yes. Easily.
Mat: But the pipe bowls were rarer, but quite extraordinary. Little connections with what I love is personal history. These are not official artefacts or to do with ships and conquests and government. These are really intimate personal items that belong to people centuries ago.
Lara: This is what I love about mud larking. It is quite literally rubbish. So it’s the possessions of poor people and ordinary people and some of people who never made it into the history books, who are completely forgotten by history. The only thing that connects me to them is the rubbish that they have left behind. Sometimes you’ll find something with initials scratched on it. Clay pipe stems. You’ll sometimes find them with tooth marks in where they’d been clamped between someone’s teeth. And it’s the little things like that when you find a clay pipe bowl that’s still black inside from the last smoke that somebody had from it that really, really give you that amazing connection with history. It’s like reaching back in time and literally shaking the hands of someone that lived five, six hundred years ago.
Mat: We were talking about intimate objects. You found what looked like a Pilgrim’s shoe, an old leather shoe, almost complete hand-stitched, an actually wonderful artefact and it was just at the base of the steps just as we were heading off the river. And to think that the last person that wore that and discarded in the river, and it’s been there for centuries until we came across it today.
Lara: it’s amazing, and the side of the river that we were searching on is the side where all the brothels and the bear baiting and the theatres were. So that shoe would have… I think it dates from around the time of the Puritans, who banned all that sort of fun, so you can imagine what was going on at the time. And they’re those little slash marks in the front that looked like somebody cut the leather to some ease their bunions or their arthritic toe. It’s those little things that really appealed to me.
Mat: I should mention at this stage as well, that you’ve got a book that’s just come out all about this called Mudlarking and I highly recommend that people pick it up, and you’ve brought in a selection of wonderful things that you found on the river. Compared to what we found today, these things are quite extraordinary. Can you share with us some of these items you’ve discovered on the banks of the Thames?
Lara: We’ve got here a complete Georgian wig curler. So Charles II brought back this fashion these massive curly wigs, and so people have to keep them curled and they had these wig curlers and they are made out of clay. The same sort of clay as the clay pipes and they would have steeped them in hot water and curled them into the hair. And I’ve read that sometimes they’d bake them into a pie because they could steam the curls into them underneath the pastry. I find a lot of broken ones so you don’t find very many complete ones. There’s a glass eye here.
Mat: That’s particularly disturbing.
Lara: It is a bit disturbing. It disturbed me when I saw that staring back at me from the mud. It was like seeing old father Thames himself looking back at me, but it’s beautiful. It’s handmade. It’s made of glass, and I’ve read that they made huge numbers of these after the First World War because so many people got their eyes damaged during the war, and the production of these glass eyes went through the roof.
I’ve got a tiny, tiny clay pipe here. This is about as old as they get. This dates from about 1580 when they first started importing tobacco and it was very, very expensive. So the pipe bowl is tiny and as tobacco got cheaper, so the pipe bowls got bigger and like the ones that we found today, they’re much, much bigger. The ones we found today date from about the mid-1700s, and tobacco was relatively cheap then. Everybody was smoking and that’s why there’s so much of it on the foreshore. They were literally inches thick in Convent Garden and they would shovel them up and bring them down, probably by the cart load, and dump them onto the foreshore, and that’s why we find so many.
This is a Tudor comb. It’s made of boxwood, so it shows you how well the mud preserves organic material.
Mat: That one is quite extraordinary because it is quite delicate. It’s wood and it’s very finely made.
Lara: It is.
Mat: The teeth of that comb are very, very thin and to think that…. How old would this be?
Lara: I think it’s Tudor. They made them very similar to that for hundreds of years. The Vikings and the Romans, their combs look very similar. But this particular rough looking ones, they’ve got exactly the same ones they found on the Mary Rose. So I think it probably dates from the 1500s or 1600s.
Mat: Extraordinary that it survived.
Lara: It’s incredible, isn’t it? And it looks just like a modern day knit comb, doesn’t it? They haven’t changed. It’s an object that works. So why change it? It’s just now they made it plastic.
Obviously there are some coins here, various hammered coins. There’s Elizabeth I, Charles I and Phillip and Mary, which is quite rare because obviously she didn’t reign for very long. And these are all hammered coins.
Mat: Is it coins are a rare find on the river?
Lara: They are. I don’t use a metal detector, so everything I find is just sitting on the surface and I don’t go out looking. Some people go out, coins are really important to them. That’s what they want to find. And rarely coins interest me, but they pretty much do what they say on the box. You know how old it is, where it was minted, what it’s made of. I like the more unusual things, the one offs. So coins are great and they’re not rare. Once you find them, you get your eye in for them, and I found quite a lot of coins. This is a pirate coin. It’s a maravedi that was minted in the late 1600s, this one in Spain to use in the Caribbean. How it ended up in London is anyone’s guess, obviously on a ship. Somebody had been sailing around the Caribbean and picked it up and either chucked it away or lost it.
Mat: I think the fascinating thing about coins from a historic perspective as well is they’re not rubbish. Coins are not being thrown out. People not throwing coins away. So they’ve either dropped them and they’ve ended up in the water, or someone’s fallen into the river after a drunken night or fallen off a ship or dropped their purse overboard, and I think the stories of how coins end up thrown away must be quite fascinating.
Lara: Must be quite fascinating. In the 1800s it’s said that they flicked pennies and ha’pennies into the Thames to pay for a fair wind before they set sail. So you do find a lot of very worn Georgian pennies and half pennies and a lot of Roman coins as well, because they would throw money into the river as an offering to the gods as they passed over the bridge. So they did throw coins in, but mostly I think they were probably lost. And you wonder, did this fall out of a dead person’s pocket? Who knows?
Mat: Absolutely. Absolutely. And what’s this small green item?
Lara: That is a little medieval figure that would have been the decoration around a jug or a chafing dish or a bowl. I found a couple of these now in the same spot, so I’m not quite sure whether they’re coming from the same spot but I like that. Anything with the a face is always nice to find.
Mat: It’s very delicate, isn’t it?
Lara: Yeah. Yeah.
Mat: We were talking about this as we walked along the river. Just the craftsmanship that went into… all of these things we’re finding were handmade obviously, and just the craftsmanship. Those little pins, handmade little … were they dressmaker’s pins or hatpins?
Lara: Those were what people pin themselves. People were pinned into their clothes.
Lara: Buttons were expensive, obviously didn’t have poppers and zippers and things like that. And people wore pins and laced into their clothes and you would buy your pins. The phrase ‘pin money’ comes from the amount of money that was given to women to buy the pins for the household by their husbands or their fathers, and the pinning industry was huge in this country, especially around the time of Henry VIII, and we couldn’t even keep up. The English pin industry couldn’t even keep up with demands so we were importing them from France as well. Each pin was made by hand, often by families and they draw wire to gauge and wrap round and solder the head and then sharpen them all and polish each one by hand, and I just love them. I love them. You find lots of them because they must’ve just shed them as they walked.
It took hundreds and hundreds of pins to make these elaborate ruffs that the Tudors wore, for example, and they even pinned babies into swaddling and bodies into shrouds. So the pins were used for everything and they’re everywhere. And I just love the fact that each one is handmade. I love the fact that the bent ones were perhaps somebody trying to push it into some cloth that was too thick and it bent and they threw it away. And I love pins. I love pins. They are one of my favorite finds.
Mat: It’s extraordinary, they’re so delicate and yet we found several of them today. I mean it’s an overused phrase, but if these things could talk, if these items can tell us their stories.
Mat: It’s just extraordinary. Even the trying to work it out, the speculation is a delightful pastime. It’s the same when I walk a battlefield and find a personal object or something to do with the fighting. This is the same experience times a hundred though, that these wonderful items and just holding it in your hand and wandering what the last person to hold it in their hand had gone through at the moment that they lost it. It’s incredible.
Lara: And like you said, it’s that moment. It’s that connection that you make, the moment you pick it up, knowing that you’re the first person in all those years to touch it since the last person who’ve lost it or dropped it. And it’s just priceless. It’s hard to describe and it’s just the most incredible feeling. If you’re a history person, then it is just the ultimate feeling.
Mat: I did it for an hour and was absolutely hooked. So I’m sure this won’t be the last time that you’ll find me ferreting around on the banks of the Thames, but what else do you have in this extraordinary collection?
Lara: I’ve got some Roman game counters. The big one there has got the tooth marks of a rat all the way around it. So it’s been nibbled by a Roman rat, which I love. So I’ve got quite a collection of those now, almost enough to play a game, I think. And they all come from the same spot as well. And that’s Roman as well. That’s a Roman intaglio with the figure of Bonus Eventus (“Good outcome”).
Mat: So what is this I’m looking at?
Lara: It comes from a ring, so it’s the stone from a ring, and that was really tricky to spot. Usually we walked along. We walked quite a long way today and we kept walking. Usually I’ll kneel down and I’ll just scrutinize very small patch of the foreshore looking for the tiny, tiny objects. That’s what I like to collect is the small things, so the fact that I’ve taken home a great big shoe today is unusual for me. I don’t usually take them home but it’s a small thing. These are Roman hairpins broken, but more Roman stuff there. This is a silver posy ring.
So this dates from the 16th century and it’s got around the inside, it’s got – I live in hope – engraved inside so that was one of the objects that I found too personal to wear. I wear some things. I’ve got a Tudor button around my neck at the moment, but the moment I put that on it felt too strange to wear. It’s very big as well. I think it’s a man’s ring but it just creeped me out a little bit and I didn’t get creeped out, but it just felt far too personal to wear.
Mat: Well, you can understand that the person that wore this was perhaps going through a bad time, illness or they’ve lost someone close to them.
Lara: Yes, Possibly or they’re just been dumped.
Mat: Fair enough. That may be the case as well. You wonder under what circumstances they lost that ring. Did they did throw it in a rage into the river, or did they throw themselves into the river, who knows?
Lara: But you know, mud larkers still find wedding rings, modern ones under bridges. People are still throwing wedding rings and engagement rings into the river, love letters, torn up photographs. It seems to be the place that people come to ease their burdens and to get rid of the things that add to their lives that they don’t want in their lives anymore.
Lara: And so I found lots of very personal things in the river, which is it’s always been happening and it’s that connection with everyday history that makes you realize that things haven’t changed. People haven’t changed. Circumstances might have changed but the human condition is the same, and it always will be. We will be the same. Whatever’s going on around us, we’re all the same.
Mat: What’s the item that’s affected you the most, that had the most emotional impact on you, that really spoke to you the most that you found on the river?
Lara: I found a human skull about three months ago and I’ve never found a complete skull. I found human bones before, but not a complete skull, and holding that and looking into the face of someone who probably died about 200 years ago. I found it out on the estuary close to where they had the prison hogs, and that’s where they held people before they were transported and they also held the Napoleonic prisoners. These ships were horrific places, rife with disease, and when they died, they just rode them out to the nearest patch of land. It was usually quite deserted marshland and buried them in a shallow grave. And with the water levels rising, erosions increasing and all these graves are starting to erode out into the river. And so I found one of these poor souls and holding them and looking actually into the face of someone who lived all those years ago, was really quite emotional, really quite. I’ve never really felt anything like that before.
Mat: I’m not surprised, especially considering that the high likelihood of the terrible conditions under which they died. We’re talking about connections with history, but that’s a very somber connection with an awful chapter of history. These are the people that were bound for Australia, many of them that would have ended up convicts in Australia. So I think there’s always that fascinating connection with what might’ve been these people, had they not suffered and died in these circumstances.
Lara: You wonder would they’ve survived the journey. Would they have survived the hard labour? So yeah, that was a strange experience. So I think those kind of connections I found quite unsettling actually, probably is the best way to put it. I’ve found some very personal notes inside bottles that people … it is incredible how many people write down their pain, put them in a bottle and throw it into the river. Like I say, the river seems to be a place where people go to unburden themselves of all sorts of things.
Mat: And it’s been happening for a long time apparently, and it will no doubt continue well into the future. What’s the item if you could wave your magic wand and find anything, what would be the thing you would love to pick up on the river bank?
Lara: It’s a medieval Pilgrim badge and I haven’t found one yet. I found pieces of them and I’ve been standing next to someone who’s found one, which is really frustrating. But I’ve never actually found my own complete one yet. In medieval times people went on these incredible pilgrimages and when they got there, they buy these pewter…it was basically tourist tat, but it was very cheap pewter badges that were imbued with the magic of the shrine, and it also proves that they were devoted people who made this journey. They would wear them on their hats and their bags and their cloaks, and when they got back to London, often their pilgrimages started from London, when they got back to London, they would throw them into the river as a thanks for safe return. There has been more Pilgrim badges found in the Thames, I think, than anywhere else. The Museum of London has got an incredible collection and I’ve never found one and I really want to find a complete one.
Mat: Why do you think it’s important that we do this? I know that people do it simply because they enjoy connecting with the history, but is there a larger purpose to it? Is there something in our humanity that links us with this history? Why is it important that we go down and discover these items from the past?
Lara: With regards to the Thames, it really is a case of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ because when the tide comes back in, it wipes the slate clean. It turns another page in a history book. What’s lying there is probably going to be gone on the next tide and there’ll be something new there. So if we don’t go down, we’re missing so much. There’s so much history washing away. In terms of connecting with the past, I think it’s just important to connect with the ordinary side of history. I hated history at school because I didn’t enjoy learning dates and battles and Kings and Queens. I couldn’t connect with that. It was meaningless to me pretty much. It just had no resonance really with me. So coming down and actually being able to pick up a glass eye that somebody actually wore is quite incredible. So I think that to me is why it’s important. It’s rescuing the ordinary things that don’t end up in museums.
Mat: It’s a really wonderful thing that you do. As I said, I’m sure I’ll be doing it again next time in London. It was really quite fascinating and if anyone’s interested in this topic, which I’m sure many of our listeners will be, your book is out now. Mudlarking is out now. So certainly pick it up because I’ve read it. It’s a wonderful account of this sometimes crazy pastime that you’re involved in.
Lara: Thank you. I should add that you do need a permit to mud lark from the Port of London Authority. They’re not expensive. Anyone can apply for one, but if you are going to go mud larking, you do need a permit. And please, if you find anything of historic importance, it’s really important to have it recorded by the Museum of London, by the Fines Liaison Officers who worked for the Portable Antiquities Scheme. And it’s really important to keep a track of what’s being found down there.
Mat: Wonderful. Very well said. And Lara, thank you so much for the opportunity for me to join you. It was wonderful and for joining us today to talk all about it.
Lara: Thank you very much. Thank you.
CLICK HERE to view and buy Lara Maiklem’s book ‘Mudlarking’