Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mudlarks of the River Thames

In the 18th and 19th Centuries, many London made a meagre living from searching the riverbanks of the Thames for cargo that had fallen off passing boats, or trinkets dropped into the water from the barges and wherries. If English literature is to believed, this practice began much earlier, maybe even Tudor children and poor women scoured the beaches at low tide for treasure they could sell for the price of a meal.

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.
The viscous, slate-coloured Thames mud with its distinct sulphurous smell is anaerobic [devoid of oxygen] which makes it a highly-effective preserving agent. An example of what has been found is bone that has been sawed and is still rough from the saw cut, and pottery that was "finished" by having salt flung at it, with the granules still visible after 400 years. A Roman roof tile was discovered once, with puppy footprints on it. A Roman puppy trotted across a tile when it was still soft from the oven approximately 1800 years ago!
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
Southwark was once known for its drunken sailors, thieves, prostitutes, cut throats and the Clink Prison where some of the best places to go mudlarking still exist. Others are: beneath the Millenium Bridge, outside Tate Modern on the south bank, the north bank near St Paul's Cathedral, where hundreds of clay pipes lay on the surface. Also, the beach below Gabriel's Wharf, and Blackfriars Bridge on the north bank.

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.

Further Information:

This site is somewhat zany but there are pictures of some extraordinary finds by modern mudlarks
Steve Brooker's Website
Amazing Finds
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.


  1. This was such an interesting post! I've read of mudlarks (since I've written an MG mystery based in Victorian London), but I only got a surface glimpse of what it was like. I had no doubt that it went back so far in history, or that one could claim it as one's occupation. I've book-marked this page for future reference.

  2. Thank you Elizabeth - Born and raised in London, I was aware of the word long before I knew what it meant. The fact that modern Mudlarks need a licence is particularly interesting, as is the fact the Thames silt has preserved so many artifacts.

  3. Very interesting article. Heard about finds of clay pipes before, but Roman tiles with puppy prints and a ball and chain! So cool!

  4. Wonderful post. Full of interesting snippets.

  5. As a child ,I read "The Mudlark" ? ? ....later made into a film w/ Andrew Ray ,son of the comedian ,Ted Ray,in the title role.

    V much enjoyed yr blogpost ..btw stayed In Southwark recently at Premier Inn , attached to The [much older !] Anchor Inn . Excellent view of the Shard fromour window ...and handy for the Clink !

  6. Thank you Elizabeth, Denise, Jeanette and Poppy for your comments, I remember that film too, Poppy - hate to say it but I suspect it was in black an white!

  7. Fascinating post - I have seen the Cheapside Hoard in the Museum of London. Well worth a visit.


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