In 1904, a person could still claim "Mudlark" as his occupation, but by 1936 the word is used merely to describe swim-suited London schoolchildren earning pocket money during the summer holidays by begging passers-by to throw coins into the Thames mud, which they then chased for an amused audience. It persists today in the form of beachcombing as part of the tourist experience for those interested in London's past.
|Iron Age Glass Bead|
The most common items found are 16th Century clay pipes - usually broken and often found close to the surface as opposed to buried in the silt. These were sold pre-filled with tobacco yet, although they could be re-used, they were generally thrown away, especially by the dock workers, which explains why there are so many in the river.
Work conditions were filthy and uncomfortable, as excrement and waste would wash onto the shores from the raw sewage, and sometimes the corpses of humans, cats and dogs as well. The income generated was small, but a mother-of-pearl button or an old coin could earn enough for a meal. Fnders kept everything they made, but today, anything over 300 years old becomes the property of the Museum of London (though the finders are rewarded).
Henry Mayhew in his book, London Labour and the London Poor published in 1861, includes the "Narrative of a Mudlark", an interview with a thirteen-year-old boy, under the heading “Those that will not work,” for in the 19th century mudlarks were dismissed as thieves. The chapter was entitled “Felonies on the River Thames” alongside smugglers and pirates, though here is a resourceful child scraping a living in the worst circumstances.
The Society of Thames Mudlarks - founded in 1980 has a special licence issued by the Port of London Authority for its 51 licenced members to search the Thames mud for treasure and historical artifacts. Amongst the historic items which have been found are Tudor bricks, 18th Century clay pipes, coins, chain mail and Georgian jewellery. The Museum of London now holds over 200 such objects in its Medieval Gallery alone.
|Left - Mudlark Steve Brooker found this 17th Century Ball and Chain in 2009|
There is a pub called The Mudlark in Montague Close, Southwark. The Museum of London also houses the Cheapside Hoard, a collection of 400 pieces of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewelry, dating from 1560 to 1630. No one knows who buried the hoard, or why it was never reclaimed, but it was most likely sometime during the early 1600’s and discovered in 1912, by workmen digging in a cellar in Cheapside.
Steve Brooker also found this knuckle guard from a medieval gauntlet [left] at the Customs House near the Tower of London.
This site is somewhat zany but there are pictures of some extraordinary finds by modern mudlarksSteve Brooker's Website
The Cheapside Hoard
Anita Davison is a Historical Fiction Author whose latest release, Royalist Rebel, is published under the name Anita Seymour by Claymore Press.