The term, mudlark, nowadays has the romantic connotation of somebody strolling along the Thames shore on a sunny afternoon and suddenly discovering an ancient Roman hoard of silver coins poking up through the mud, or perhaps the discovery of an ancient Celtic shield revealed in the slimy river bank. However, it has a much deeper social and historical meaning.
On the beach below the OXO Tower looking towards The City.
The first, “mudlarks,” appeared beside the Thames in the late 18th century and early 19th century. They were usually children and mostly boys who scraped a living by scavenging along the shores of the Thames at low tide looking for anything they could sell for a few pennies. The items they might collect included pieces of coal, dropped from colliers, nails and bolts, pieces of discarded rope, bones, coins and any other item of use they might discover. In 1851, Henry Mayhew, the author, interviewed a 13-year-old, “mudlark.” Mayhew described mudlarks as the poorest level of society making a meagre income, dressed in tattered clothes and having a terrible stench about them. The modern day,” mudlark,” is very different. Officially there are 51 members of the Society of Thames Mudlarks. They are registered by the Museum of London to use metal detectors and to work with the Museum in collecting archaeological finds for the museum. Roy Stephen, at the Museum of London, says that their finds help them fill in some of the gaps of the history of London. Dr Michael Lewis at the British Museum goes further in that he thinks the present day work of mudlarlks has actually helped to rewrite history. Their finds add to the rich jigsaw of evidence that helps the Archaeologist and historian interpret the past. Apart from the these official mudlarks who work closely with archaeologist and museums , anybody can walk along the shores of the Thames and find things. This is what Keith, a very good friend of mine and myself did one sunny June day recently.
One small spot on the beach. Terracotta, pieces of chalk, flint, broken glass and a myriad other items deposited by humanity.
Using our ,” Freedom Passes,” we got on the train from Raynes Park to Waterloo. From Waterloo we decided to walk along the, South Bank, towards, The Tate Modern. Keith had told me, on a number of occasions, about how he had done some ,”mudlarking.” The Thames River was at low tide as we walked along and quite extensive stretches of sandy and stony beaches were visible. Keith suggested we go down to the beach opposite the OXO building to do a bit of ,”mudlarking.” I had heard it was easy to find the remains of artefacts along the Thames within the bounds of the city. I was dubious at first. Once we got on to the beach my immediate reaction was to start looking at the ground infront of me and to each side. The first obvious things were bricks and pieces of terracotta. The beaches alongside the river is speckled by these items. There were many yellow bricks which are thought of as the standard London Brick or stock brick. We also came across pieces of coal. At first I wondered about this but I kept finding more and more. What had been the industry at the side of the river here in the past? I picked up quite a number of oyster shells, which excited me because my immediate reaction was; Romans. Oysters were a staple of the Roman diet but it seems at other periods in History too. There was a recently broken wine glass. We kept finding bone, large blade shaped pieces of it. These segments could only have come from cows surely? I saw the elongated lower jaw of a cow with teeth still in place. Keith rather eerily found a set of four blackened teeth still attached to a piece of jaw. Was this human? It looked too small for either a cow or a sheep. Another find that excited me and suggested a particular period in history were the many stems of clay pipes we found. There simply lots and lots of them. This made me think of the Georgian and early Victorian period. We came across a lot of rust encrusted iron bolts, hooks and a chain link. We also kept finding pieces of terracotta. The fragments must have been part of larger containers of some sort. Mostly they were not glazed but some were on one surface. Keith found a small fragment of white glazed pottery with a blue pattern on it. One of the intriguing things that stood out was a short stretch of jetty. It was a length of evenly laid cobble stones, about a metre wide, edged by thick wooden pillars that supported large planks that kept the cobbled path within bounds. These planks were bolted with large iron bolts to the thick wooden pillars. The stretch of this pier that remains is in reasonable condition although it is eroding. This lead me to think it could not be much older than the Victorian period. We also came across a lot of flints. Some had been napped but many pieces were nodules that had come as they were from the chalk. There were also many large and small boulders of chalk. Each one these things has a story to tell us about London and the Thames through time. Keith and I began to surmise and make suggestions as we walked. All these artefacts made us wonder what had been here in past ages before the upmarket shops and restaurants and galleries that now line the shore at this part of the Thames. What did it all mean?
Keith searching for items.
London Stock Bricks first originate during the 19th century when London was beginning to expand outwards and new housing and buildings were constructed with bricks made from the London Clay they were to be built on. There has been a variety of colours of stock bricks. The earliest London bricks were red, going back to the 17th century and further. Then in the 1700s many were of a grey colour. In the 1760s another brick was made called a malm. The dictionary definition for malm describes it as a soft grey limestone that crumbles easily. It also describes it as an artificial mixture of clay and chalk to make bricks. There was some confusion over the differences between malms and stocks. The supplies of natural malm was also very limited, but in 1797 John Lee took out a patent for, 'A Certain Mixture of Chalk, Whiting, or Lime, Together With Clay, Loam, or Earth, For Colouring and Making Bricks'," and thereafter malm bricks began to be manufactured artificially, chalk being mixed with inferior clays and earths. The yellow bricks we saw in great numbers scattered on the shore were probably malms. Having said that there were also numerous porous types of red brick scattered about too. Keith and I thought of them as London Stock bricks.
Yellow London Stock bricks made with chalk and clay and a red stock brick too.
Oyster shells are interesting because the Romans developed the oyster beds where they could around the coast of Brittania. I remember taking a class of children to Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex quite a few years ago now. We learned that amongst all the artefacts that were found on the site that the rubbish tips were the most productive in telling us about life as a Roman. All sorts of things can be found in rubbish, just think of your own bins at home. Informing us of the Roman eating habits was one of the foremost things we can find from rubbish tips. The Romans ate copious oysters. So when I started to find oyster shells on the shore line of the Thames I looked over at St Pauls Cathedral and the city and recalled that that was where Roman London, Londinium, grew up. However in researching the cultural and historical eating of oysters it was not just the Romans who enjoyed this culinary delight. They were eaten all through the Middle Ages, the Tudor Period, the Stuart Period, The Georgian period and most definitely the Victorian period. While pickled oysters became a regular food of the poor in London and other towns, Dickens' Sam Weller remarks, "Poverty and oysters always seem to go together." In the middle of the 19th Century, oysters and scallops were being dredged in huge numbers all along Sussex coast by fleets of oyster smacks. Then, quite suddenly, the natural oyster beds became exhausted, partially through overfishing and partially through pollution; it was only deliberate artificial breeding that saved them from extinction. This far up stream in the tidal Thames at this point, the most probable assumption is that these were Victorian oyster shells. It just leaves the question, how did they get into the Thames from the dinner plates of the Victorians? The only answer is that the Thames was used like a sewer and all rubbish, including discarded oyster shells, were thrown into the Thames nearby the spot where the oyster flesh had been extracted from the shell and eaten at some person’s meal.
An oyster shell I picked up from the beach beside the Thames.
There were a conciderable number of pieces of terracotta pot and of course Keith’s little piece of glazed porcelain. I chose one piece to bring home. Terracotta could come from any period in History just as oyster shells can. The piece I chose was interesting because the rim has not been turned to give a nice rounded finished edge except in one place. This tongue or lip of terracotta that sticks out from the rim is too small to get a good hand hold for lifting the size and weight of the original pot. If there were a number of these lips around the edge I can only think they were used to hold the pot proud of the top of an outer container that it was placed inside. It is reasonably easy to estimate the size of the pot from the thickness of the terracotta and the curvature of the piece of rim that I have. It is a gentle curve so a complete top would have quite a large circumference. I could actually work this out on paper and continuing the curvature from the piece I have. A small pot would not need to be quite so thick. So I estimate it to be a tall round pot for containing something dry. It is not glazed either on its exterior or its interior so it would not be good for holding a liquid because of its porosity. Pottery is very durable and a piece of Roman pot can look very much like a pot from any later period in time. A modern handmade terracotta pot might merely look slightly less worn or used but there would not be much difference between the two.
The piece of terracotta I discovered on the beach. I wonder what the small lip on the rim was for?
The bones we found were a little creepy. Some were appeared like blades. They were slightly darkened with mud and green algae. They were large and so must have come from a large animal. A cow would be a good guess I should think. There was one bone I saw that was obviously the lower right side of a horse or cow’s jaw. It was long, tapering down from the joint of the jaw towards the front of the mouth and it had teeth all along its length. Perhaps a Victorian cabbies horse had collapsed and died on the job and its body thrown into the Thames? The bones could be just the results of the butchery trade. This is the thing with interesting artefacts like these, you begin to make up stories for them in your imagination. At one point Keith held some teeth still attached to a segment of jaw in his hand to show me. This was certainly not the teeth and jaw of a cow or horse or even a sheep. They were far too small. Was this human? I doubt it very much. It was probably the teeth and jaw bone of a dog or some such smaller animal.
A piece of blackened and burned bone. Was a piece discarded from the process of making bone char?
One piece of what I think is bone was blackened and fossilised. Could it be a piece of bone char? Bone char is primarily made from cow bones. The bones are heated in a sealed vessel at up to 700 °C (1,292 °F); a low concentration of oxygen must be maintained while doing this, as it affects the quality of the product. Most of the organic material in the bones is driven off by heat, and was historically collected as Dippel’s oil; that which is not driven off remains as activated carbon in the final product. Heating bones in an oxygen-rich atmosphere gives bone ash, which is chemically quite different. Bone char is used in water filtration to remove fluoride. It is used in sugar production. It is used to make the black pigment for artist’s paints. It has also been used, combined with wax, to impregnate and polish leather items to help preserve them.
A piece of pot with the remains of a glaze on it.
We found many pieces of coal. Just along from the OXO Tower where we were carrying out our Mudlarking exploits is the Tate Modern. That used to a coal fired power station when it was first built in the 1930s. That could answer the question about coal. Coal must have dropped into the river as it was being hoisted by cranes form coal barges onto the quay where the coals reserves for the power station were positioned. The OXO building, next to where Keith and I were mudlarking, was originally constructed as a power station to supply electricity to the Royal Mail post office, built towards the end of the 19th century. It was later owned by Liebig Extract of Meat Company in the 1920s manufacturers of Oxo beef stock cubes, for conversion into a cold store.
The building was largely rebuilt to an Art Deco design by company architect Albert Moore between 1928 and 1929. Much of the original power station was demolished, but the river facing facade was retained and extended.
The short piece of cobbled jetty we found was probably where coal or other items were taken from barges to the power station on the OXO building site.
The cobbled jetty on the beach in front of the OXO Tower site where previously, in Victorian times, a power station stood.
The copious amounts of chalk and especially flint is interesting. Chalk can be readily obtained from the North and South Downs which are ranges of chalk hills in Southern England extending through Surrey and Sussex primarily. Flint has been used as a building material by the Romans, Saxons and all periods since. There are a number of buildings still standing in London made from flint. Churches and important buildings were made from flint. Some of the flint we discovered was napped, that means it has been, chipped into even shapes to use in buildings. Others pieces were natural flint nodes that had come straight out of the chalk. These could have been used in the infilling between a smoother outer and inner layers of napped flint. The large amount of chalk boulders could suggest that the flint was not removed from the chalk until it reached its destination in London or that brick works in the area were using the chalk to make the London stock bricks. Chalk is a little too soft as a stone to be used directly in building. It would dissolve and wear away too quickly under wet rainy conditions.
Three pieces of clay pipe stems I discovered on the beach.
Finally, one of the most intriguing things we found were the broken stems of numerous clay pipes. We could have collected clay pipes all day. Within minutes we both had found, perhaps a dozen each. Unfortunately, we only found stems. The bowls would have told us so much more. Often the bowl of a clay pipe has the makers stamp on it and some have intricate patterns and designs. Many are plain of course. Clay pipes have been known in England since Sir Walter Raleigh reputedly brought tobacco from Virginia to England in the 16th century. In 1578, Raleigh sailed to America with explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert, his half-brother. This expedition may have stimulated his plan to found a colony there. In 1585, he sponsored the first English colony in America on Roanoke Island, now North Carolina. The colony failed and another attempt at colonisation also failed in 1587. Raleigh has been credited with bringing potatoes and tobacco back to Britain, although both of these were already known via the Spanish. Raleigh did help to make smoking popular at Elizabeth’s court. The North American Indians used stone pipes to smoke tobacco. The clay pipes manufactured in England were of a similar design. A clay pipe is made by rolling a length of soft clay into a type of sausage with a bulge at one end. This clay sausage is placed into a mould and the two halves of the mould fastened together. A thin wire is inserted carefully in the end of the stem and pushed through until it meets the bulbous bowl shape, A thick metal, peg is then thrust into the bowl head, creating the hollowed out interior of the pipe bowl until it meets the channel made in the stem by the wire. The inside cavity of the pipe is then ready. The pipe is baked in a pottery oven until hard. The pipe is ready. The process is simple and quick and a pipe maker might make hundreds of pipes a day.
Clay pipes and a small fragment of glazed and patterned pot that Keith found.
Keith and I only spent about half an hour looking and finding things on the Thames shore line but it was a fascinating exploration. It got us thinking about London, it’s history and the purpose of so many items. We moved on to explore some other interesting things. We looked into a pub called The Fighting Cocks, that in the 18th century had actually been a cock fighting pit and saw the gallery where spectators would have looked down on the fighting pit below. We found where Shakespeare bought a house, part of the great gatehouse to the Blackfriars Monastery. We also discovered a wall, hidden out of the way, in an alleyway that still shows the lathes that were part of a wattle and daub construction. We found remains of the White Friars medieval monastery hidden beneath the steel and glass construction of an insurance company in, The City, just off Whitefriars Road. We came across an iron Victorian street urinal and a shop selling judges’ wigs situated behind the law courts, just off the Strand. A couple of pints of beer and a fish and chip meal in the Bell Inn, near the Law Courts, was our well-earned reward.