During late 18th and early 19th century London, you’d often find the poor, old and young alike, down by the river searching for any and everything they could sell. Being a tidal river that has had mankind sailing up and down her shores for centuries, the Thames is a virtual treasure trove of “stuff” left behind. Digging around in the mud and muck of the foreshore during low tide could be dicey business as well. Raw sewage, dead animals, and sometimes dead humans could be found along with all sorts of remnants of human history.
Not to be confused with a tosher (someone who scavenges in sewers) or a grubber (someone who scavenges in drains), a mudlark only searched on the shores of the river at low tide. The mere fact that there were specific names to distinguish varying categories of scavengers reveals the level of poverty faced by most people. And the river didn’t discriminate – you could find coins from ancient Rome right next to a clay pipe tossed in the murky waters the week before. Whatever the mudlark could find of value, he (or she) would sell to their dealer, or dolly as a dealer was called. A good day’s hunt might result in four pennies.
Back then, it wasn’t historic artifacts that the mudlark searched for – those items had no street value. But a lump of coal or something metal like iron or copper, now those items would sell as there was a need for them – they had value. And the name “mudlark” wasn’t just a occupation label, it defined a strata of society. Because of the condition of the river at the time, it smelled like a cesspit and the mudlark spent all day, everyday in and around the river. As a result, the smell transferred to their clothes – they were the untouchables of Victorian London. But mudlarking did allow for some independence for those willing to do it. That alone was sometimes enough.
What was once a livelihood is more of a hobby these days. Mudlarking has made a comeback, but this time artifacts are the currency of the street, not metal or coal. Although not exactly pristine, the river is much cleaner these days and there is far less ship traffic than a few hundred years ago. This makes for a much more pleasant experience digging around the shoreline at low tide. Sure, you might have a few dead fish here and there, but no raw sewage or decomposing bodies – an improvement in anyone’s book.
There are even mudlarking clubs where members search together and discuss their finds. Check out River Finds – Thames and Field or London Mudlark – both have great advice for how to mudlark, as well as pictures of interesting finds. Another good source is the book by Ted Sandling called London in Fragments. Sandling provides some of the history of mudlarking and vivid descriptions of how it feels to find something several hundred or a thousand years old. He also provides pictures and information on his own finds. If you are a lover of history, this is fascinating stuff!
To this day modern mudlarks still pull items from the river that stretch back to the days of Roman Londonium or even pottery shards from Anglo-Saxon England. Leather shoes, Spanish coin, pilgrimage badges from the 15th century, Saxon coins, hair combs, bricks from the time of Henry VIII, Roman gaming pieces – just a few of the items pulled from the mud in recent years.
Makes you wonder what else is out there, just waiting to be found.
Cover image by Number One London.