July 2022, it’s hot, humid and even though only 10am the sweat is beginning to accumulate between my shoulder blades and in other unmentionable places. Not for the first time I am surprised at how hot it is in the city. Crossing the road in search of shade, I find myself greeted by the vista of St Pauls Cathedral, but this is not my destination, turning left I head for the Thames and the Millenium Bridge. Today, or at least for a couple of hours, I am joining a group of like-minded people to…mudlark.
I am early, really early, but it gives me time to watch – the river and the people – from a shady spot, which, thankfully, is tickled by an occasional breeze. Observing the tide as it slowly retreats, numerous wooden structures begin to appear, the remains of old jetties and the like can be seen jutting out of the mud. The Thames has been the lifeblood of London for more than two thousand years and although officially it was the Romans who first established a settlement here there were other inhabitants of the area throughout prehistory.
All of those people, have over thousands of years left traces of their lives on the foreshore of the Thames.
In the past mudlarks were group of souls who spent endless hours sorting and collecting useful debris from the mud to sell – it was an occupation for only the most desperate.
“The searched for pieces of coal they could wash and sell on the streets; rags, bones, glass and copper nails they could take to various merchants to recycle…sometimes the children would turn cartwheels in the mud for the amusement of onlookers, who would toss in a penny for them to find. It was a pathetic existence and just a step away from the workhouse.” (L Maiklem ‘A Field Guide to Larking’ 2021).
Nowadays, mudlarks have a much-improved reputation – the twenty first century mudlarks of the Thames foreshore scour the mud and debris for stories of the past. Bits of broken pottery, clay pipes pieces, coins, buckles, pins, tiles, bones and much more all tell the story of London’s history. Not the story of kings and queens but one of ordinary people whose voices are often lost to us but who can speak to us down through time via the bits and bobs they lost and discarded along the river.
As some may already realise, larking is one of my favourite activities – in NZ it is dressed up as beach combing and often consists of finding odds and ends of glass bottles and 19th/20th century ceramics if I’m lucky. So when the opportunity arises for me to become a mudlark for a few hours…well…what can I say…(actually I yelled, ‘here take my money!’)
At this point it is important to note that not just anyone can mudlark on the Thames foreshore and there are a number of rules and regulations to follow. Everyone who is involved in the searching and removal of objects from the foreshore has to hold a permit to do so. There are also exceptions as to where you can and cannot search, for example, the foreshore in front of Westminster is completely out of bounds (for obvious reasons). There are places where only certain permit holders can go and there are rules surrounding the digging/scraping of the foreshore. For more information on the rules and regulations look here.
For the casual visitor to London there are two ways to get involved mudlarking – get a day permit from the Ports of London Authority or join a mudlarking tour. The Thames Explorer Trust do daily tours and give you plenty of time on the foreshore to fossick. Needless to say, my foray into mudlarking was with the Thames Explorer Trust, as I found it to be the cheapest and easiest way to get involved.
Our guide for the morning was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic (and a fellow NZer!) She began the tour with a whirlwind introduction to the history of London and the types of artefacts we might find on the foreshore. Eventually, we were ushered to the steps that led down to the riverside. A few final words of warning from our guide (watch out for the wash of passing boats, no digging or scraping and don’t go past that point over there…) and we were left to our own devices.
Bent over, eyes on the ground, the rest of the world receded to a low hum in the background as bit-by-bit London’s past revealed itself. The broken stems of clay pipes were by far the most numerous artefacts, along with red bricks and roof tiles, pottery fragments began to leap out. At first the ubiquitous willow pattern and plain white sherds but then as I looked harder, the green glaze of medieval pottery could be seen. Animal bones were plentiful, some the remains of someone’s fried chicken dinner, whilst others spoke of the butcher and the resources needed to feed the people of London. Oyster shells told a tale of cheap and easy eats (in the past oysters were not a delicacy but a cheap foodstuff for poor people).
The above photos show just some of the things I spotted – in truth I kept forgetting to take photos, I was so engrossed. The first photo is of a roof tile, the nail holes can be seen on either side (I would like to think this was Roman but I cannot say for sure), second photo is the jaw bone of a pig and represents just some of the vast amount of bones found on the foreshore. The third photo is the sole of a leather shoe, age is undetermined but most likely Victorian – the Thames mud is of type which preserves organic remains very well. The fourth picture shows first a chicken leg bone, clay pipe stems and a small sherd of green glazed medieval pottery. The final photo is a close up of the medieval pottery sherd, note the quantity of terracotta brick and tile.
It was, simply, two hours of joy that flew by in seconds.
Please note, as a participant of the tour artefacts could not be removed from the foreshore; if you have one day permit you can remove artefacts but if you are travelling overseas, it is important to know that it is illegal to remove any artefacts over 300 years old from the UK. I would also like to stress that there are many laws around the removal of artefacts from any archaeological site (The Thames can be considered an archaeological site in its entirety) and it is up to the individual to know and understand these laws.
The following books are a good source of information regarding mudlarking on the Thames.
L. Maiklem (2019) ‘Mudlarking. Lost and Found on the River Thames’
L. Maiklem (2021) ‘A Field Guide to Larking – Beachcombing, Mudlarking, Fieldwalking and More.’
J. Sandy & N. Stevens (2021) ‘Thames Mudlarking. Searching for London’s Lost Treasures.’
The silence was constant,
the darkness absolute but at least it was comfortable. Of course, that was not completely true. Sometimes there would be noise and light but
only on rare occasions. This was one of
those occasions. At first it was only a
muffled clipping noise could be heard, plastic heels on a hard linoleum
floor. As the minutes ticked by the
noise got louder until it stopped, so close.
They had heard the noise before, anticipation hung in the still air or
perhaps it was just the dust motes waiting for something to disturb the
stillness so that they at least could continue to be what they were, to do what
they were meant to do – float lazily around finding surfaces to decorate.
Now a loud clicking as
the tumblers in the old lock turned, a breath then a snap, crackle and
pop. The ancient and rarely used fluorescent
lights shuddered on, illuminating row after row of metal shelves filled to the
ceiling with anonymous brown boxes. Each
box was numbered and some of the older ones even had labels, browning around
the edges, peeling, faded but labels all the same. Testimony, that someone had once cared.
From its cushioned
interior the broken pot waited, perhaps this time it would be chosen. Broken it may be but it still had a story to
At first a lump of cold,
dull clay, providing inspiration for a human mind. Worked and moulded by human hands, its
exterior carefully smoothed and decorated.
Then from the hot fire like a phoenix it came. The incised decorations had meaning, told
their own story of the people who made it.
Its beauty admired, given as a gift from an aunt to a niece and filled
with grain. Beautiful and practical,
that was its story. It was valued
passing from mother to daughter until a day of violence, rough voices and
screaming. In the aftermath the pot lay
broken on the hard-earthen floor, broken into many pieces, its precious
contents spilt out. The crackle and spit
of the burning building heralding the end of an era but not the end of the story.
Buried, for what seemed
like an eternity. The only company the ever-present
earthworms and the occasional mole. Scratching and burrowing, moving away parts
of the whole so that even now safe in the brown box, it was not complete. Then came the day when the light returned,
once more human hands held it, reverently, exclaiming over its beauty. Carefully washing away the dirt that had
accumulated over the centuries, it was drawn, measured and photographed. Then carefully, oh so carefully, a new home was
made for all its broken parts.
At first many hands held
it, admired it, there were more drawings and more photographs but gradually the
visits into the light became fewer and fewer as the next best thing came
along. It had been a long time since it had
felt the warmth of human hands gently caressing the incised decoration that had
its own story. Perhaps today would be
the day. If it had a voice it would have
cried out “pick me, pick me” not unlike so many of the other artefacts sitting
comfortably in their specially cut foam in their anonymous brown boxes. Each had story to tell of a time when they
were useful and valued, even broken and buried over centuries their stories had
“Pick me, pick me” said
Standing still at the
doorway to the storeroom the woman took a deep breath. Smiling she wondered where best to start. Her boss had simply said “choose the ones
with the best stories”. But how do you
choose a good story? What is a good
story? With a small satisfied sigh, she looked
at her tablet with its inventory, deciding to simply start with the artefacts
that appealed to her personally. Hoping
on some instinctive level she would choose the ones with the ‘best stories.
Although there was a
certain amount of pressure to pick the right artefacts this was a job she had
been looking forward to for quite some time.
Finally, a legitimate opportunity for a good rummage in one of the
museums oldest storerooms and a chance to prove she was good at her job. A job she loved. If she were a person of a certain disposition
she would have done a little jig, as it was she simply contented herself with
humming her favourite tune.
Running her fingers
lightly along the brown boxes she did a slow circuit of the room, soaking up
the slightly musty atmosphere. There was
no real order to the space except in a numerical fashion. Each box numbered according to when it
arrived in the room, so that Mesolithic flints sat happily beside early medieval
pottery sherds. She did briefly wonder
if there was analogy for the modern world there. Either way, here she felt at home, to her
each and every one of these artefacts had a good story to tell. Put them together and their story would be…mind
blowing? No, wrong word, it would
be…enlightening. Smiling and humming
she went in search of a trolley.
After an hour she had half
a dozen boxes on the trolley, so far so good she thought as she sat on the desk
at the end of the room. There were a few errant boxes that for reasons known
only to themselves had moved to other locations in the room other than their
designated spot. Perseverance had paid
off in those cases. It had been a risk coming
here, her choices were risky too. This
was not the only storeroom there were others with brighter, better and more well-known
artefacts stored in them, safer choices, but better stories?
Perusing the inventory,
the woman waited for something to jump out at her. What she needed for this part of the
exhibition was an object that grabbed people’s attention, an item to stop and
wonder at, what else is hidden away in the bowels of their museum? Page after page she flicks through, finally
at the bottom of the very last page a hastily added note. The last few boxes to come into the room, containing
artefacts from a small, local society training dig. The enthusiastic amateurs had come across an
ancient settlement but a lack of funding had kept the dig to a single trench, two
metres wide and five metres long. Even
so, several of the finds had been remarkable, telling a story of settlement in
use for many generations and its eventual but violent demise.
Feeling her heart beat
quicken the woman began to count boxes searching, hoping that no one had moved
them. The sound of her heels clicking a
beat along the rows, up, down, pause, up, down, pause. Damn!
They weren’t there. Hands on her
hips, frowning, her eyes focussing on the boxes that were not the boxes she was
looking for. Taking a step back she
scans around, sometimes they were simply a little bit in the wrong place, but
no not this time. If she were of a
particular disposition she would have stamped her foot in frustration not once
but twice, instead though she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Logic dictated that she
should check who had last looked at the boxes, there might be some indication
as to where were now. Walking back to
the desk where she had left the tablet with its inventory she spied a row of
four brown boxes sitting innocently on the desk she had only moments before been
sitting on. Her pace quickened, please
let it be them she prayed to no one god in particular. If she were of a particular disposition she
would have ran and slid to a halt at the table, but she was not and she still
got there in good time. A quick glance
at the numbers on the outside of the box confirmed it, yes it was them.
As she lifted the lids on
each of the boxes, once more she said a silent prayer of thanks. The contents of all four boxes would be her
centrepiece, they told a real story, a story to resonate through the ages. The woman placed the boxes on the trolley,
satisfied. Her heels once more clicking
sedately on the linoleum floor, a creak of the door, snap as the fluorescents
flicker off, bang, the door shuts once more on darkness. The dust motes swirled about in the air
eddies left by the woman’s presence. A
comfortable constant silence reigns – until next time.
Slam, went the car
door. Two bodies wrapped up against the
weather, one tall, one small make a mad dash for cover under the museum’s
portico. Stopping to catch their breath
the small one links hands with the tall one. There were a lot of people milling
under the portico and mum had said very clearly, ‘do not lose your dad, after
all, he can’t even find his way out of a paper bag’. The boy wasn’t really sure what his dad would
have been doing in a paper bag. He
shrugs to himself, grown-ups!
Rain and school holidays,
not a good time to come to the museum but today was his only day off work and he
had promised his son that he would bring him.
He had no idea why he actually agreed, he would have much rather chewed
off his own leg than come to the museum.
But there was something about the look the boy’s mother had given him
and then there was the boy…equal portions of guilt and love tumbled through
his consciousness and he found himself agreeing. She had pulled him aside, “he loves the
museum, and it’s soothing…when he is there he almost like any other kid, stay
as long as you can”.
As they walked through
the doors, father and son turned and looked at each other.
“Well, you know it best,
where to first?”
The boy smiled, twirling
around eyes closed, mentally communicating with the museum, where to
first? He stopped, opened his eyes and
pointed. Following the pointed finger,
he spies the new exhibition hall and yes as luck would have it there was a new
exhibition. A display of previously
unseen objects from the museum’s storerooms, well fair enough at least it
wouldn’t be the same old things although he did fear that was yet to come. There was a tugging at the end of his arm;
the boy was itching to go. His mother
was right he did almost seem like any other kid here.
Kids, no one tells you no
matter what you think will happen, no matter how prepared you are, it is
nothing like what actually happens. He
had been so excited knowing he was to have a son, he had imagined footy games,
cricket on the beach, surfing, building tree houses and boisterous games of
tag. What he had got was an entirely
different kettle of fish. It wasn’t that
he didn’t love him his heart had almost burst when he first held him in his
arms. It was just that things had not
quite turned out as expected and in the beginning the readjustment had taken
awhile, it had taken too long for his wife, the boy’s mother.
The boy tugged again on
his dad’s hand, come on, imagine the treasures in here he tried to say. He looked up at his dad, his lopsided grin
bigger than ever. He loved the museum,
he loved the way it smelled, the way it sounded, the way the objects would
speak to him, tell him their stories. He
could spend hours with his nose pressed up against the glass cases just staring
and imagining. His mum always told him
that no matter what he would always have his imagination, the endless stories
he wrote were testimony to that. She had
packed his journal and brand-new pack of pencils in his backpack, “just in case
the mood takes you”, she had said with a wink.
As they wandered around
the new exhibition they saw stuffed animals in scary poses, shiny beetles and
beautiful butterflies pinned very carefully to a board, everything was named
(common and Latin), everything creatively displayed. Each display had an information board with
their stories. Many of the stories were
about where the animal had come from, who had found it and the hardships that
were undertaken in the name of science.
The boy wasn’t that impressed, again he decided it must be a grown-up
thing, killing something in the name of science, it was not a part of the
museum he liked much. But although just
a kid he understood that you didn’t need to like everything about something or
someone in order to love it – no one was perfect.
He tugged on his dad’s
hand again, something was calling him forward.
It was the archaeology section, now this was more like it. His soul sang for this was his nirvana. Here artefacts spoke of human lives, told
their stories, here he could lose himself totally. He moved quickly from case to case his dad
trailing dutifully behind him.
“Slow down kiddo, we have
all the time in the world.”
The boy came to a
complete halt in front of a case displaying a beautiful blackened pot, its
swirly incised decoration speaking to him.
There were other artefacts, bronze clothes pins, other pieces of pottery,
part of an iron skillet and an iron knife blade, both rusted but still
identifiable, jet beads lovingly set into a shape of necklace. The board said that they all came from the
same excavation, not far from where the boy lived with his mother. It was exciting to know that under his feet
as he walked around his town there could be more stories waiting to be
discovered. He looked at his dad, who
was just smiling at him in a funny kind of way.
“Go on, your mum said she
had packed your journal, it’s okay. I
like to watch you write your stories, I’ll just be over here keeping an eye on
The boys grin said it
She had drawn the short
straw, the volunteer who was rostered on to look after this section answering
the public’s questions had called in sick, a migraine or something. So here she was, she didn’t really mind, she
liked to see people interact with the artefacts. The boy and his father had intrigued
They were in a world of
their own, the boy strangely silent. The
father seemed a little uncomfortable, he looked like he’d much rather be out
tackling the elements than in here. The
boy had sat down on the floor with his back leaning against the plinth, on his
lap was a book and in his hand a pencil, he leaned back eyes closed, obviously
deep in thought. Suddenly as if someone
had fired a starting gun his eyes flicked open and the pencil flew across the
page. Her eyes glanced at the father, he
was smiling, he had seen this before.
Father and son settled in, one watching the other, just being.
An hour later, the pencil
was put away. She was intrigued, her
feet moving of their own volition she walked over to the boy.
“Hello, I’m the curator
who put this section together. Do you
The boy nodded smiling
his lopsided smile. His dad hurried over
“he doesn’t speak but he does understand everything, just doesn’t talk” he
“But you like to write,
don’t you?” she asked, not fazed by his father’s explanation.
boy nodded again, a moment of silence stretched out and then he handed her the
journal. Taking the journal, she moved
to the bench the father had previously occupied, sat down and started to
read. Both father and son sat quietly
she had finished, she turned to look at the boy, “you have a rare talent, you
can see the story behind each artefact, I honestly can say I felt like I was
transported back in time. Thank you. You are a very clever young man.” It was a truth, not words to bolster a child’s
would love you to come back another day, so I can show you some of the other
artefacts in storerooms and you can write more stories. Perhaps we can convince the museum to publish
some of them. People need to hear your
the boy was of a particular disposition he did do a jig, his joy obvious to all. His father felt a lump in his throat and not
trusting himself to speak just smiled and nodded his thanks. She handed over her card and got his details
too – she knew a good story when she saw one.
It’s all about the story, we all have them tucked away inside, sometimes we tell ourselves, sometimes we tell others. They are in everything and everyone we touch. Some are short lived and some will resonate through time but in the end, it is our story and how it ends is up to us.