Around 200 years ago, poor Londoners known as mudlarks would scour the Thames for treasure to sell to survive.
Now, history lovers are getting down and dirty on the riverbank just for the fun of the find. Keen-eyed enthusiasts can unearth lost trinkets from hundreds, even thousands of years ago.
Roman jewellery and Elizabethan clay pipes are among the discoveries so far. But sometimes, what comes to light is far more grisly with bones, skeletons and even bodies emerging from the ooze.
Anyone can apply for a permit to search the river banks, but you must declare any finds of archaeological interest.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
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Martin Garside, from the Port of London Authority, said: “Mudlarking is part of a wider growth of interest in Britain’s heritage.”
Here, we speak to three modern-day mudlarkers about their unusual hobby.
Tiny button revealed romping Georgians
Former BBC foreign correspondent Anna Borzello says being a mudlarker is like being a journalist because of the sense of discovery – and some of her searches have had racy results.
She said: “Earlier this year I found a Georgian button which is tiny but when I peered at it, I saw that the picture was of two people having sex.
“I thought, ‘Goodness me!’ I love the idea that people were really dirty minded back then with their saucy pins!”
Anna, 55, of Hackney, North East London, said: “The objects you find are like a portal into the past. You’re finding out about them just as you would with a story.”
She reckons the tales behind her trophies also fascinate children when she gives talks in schools.
Anna said: “I always choose the finds that are gateways to weird or strange stories from the past. For example, a wig curler may look like nothing on the surface. But then you tell how it was used – in some cases, to cover up syphilis – and it becomes so much more fascinating. I’ve taken two [school] classes down the Thames and it’s really magical.”
Internet tours are also possible. Anna said: “A woman invented a remarkable machine so kids from a specialist autistic school could go virtual mudlarking.”
Anna has collected around 15,000 garment pins. She said: “Queen Elizabeth I had 10,000 pins on some of her royal dresses. They were very common for people to wear then.”
Anna’s hobby has also boosted her social life. She said: “I’ve always loved being by the sea and I’ve met this wonderful community of people.
“I like the fact no one asks, ‘What do you do?’ It’s actually quite irrelevant. They’re just interested in what each other finds. It’s a real leveller.”
Thames is full of historic finds…and bodies
Extreme mudlarker’ Jason Sandy only goes out at night when the tide is low – and has made some gruesome finds.
He said: “I have found dead bodies on the foreshore of suicide victims or people who have drowned.
“Last year, I found a human femur bone at 2am and the tide was coming in quickly so I took a photo, put it against a back wall and called the police.
“Nick Stevens, who I wrote a book about mudlarking with, found the entire skeleton of a 12-year-old girl – face up – looking at him.
“The Thames Discovery Programme excavated her and radiocarbon dated her to the 1700s.
“From the state of her teeth, they could tell that she had probably died from malnutrition.”
Property developer Jason, 47, of Chiswick, West London, comes from Virginia in the US and has always been interested in history.
He says: “As a kid, I’d walk ploughed fields and look for Native American arrowheads.
“I got here in 2007 and was living just two minutes away from the river.
“When my kids were young, we’d take them to look for shrimps and crabs at low tide but in 2012, I watched Thames Treasure Hunters on National Geographic and realised you could find historical artefacts.
“The very next day I went out and found my first 300-year-old clay pipe.
“You can tell its age because the barrel dictates the year. The smaller they are indicates they are older because people had less money to pay for tobacco to put in them then. For me, the Thames is like a liquid history book.”
Jason says mudlarking has changed his life. He said: “It’s made me want to preserve London’s history and help educate future generations.
Every object takes you on a journey. I have well over 5,000 now.”
Every mudlarker has to log objects on a British Museum website called the Portable Antiquities Scheme. When Jason first started mudlarking, he found a Roman hair pin that was almost 2,000 years old and extremely rare. He donated it to the Museum of London and now wants to establish a museum just for mudlarkers’ finds.
He says: “For me, mudlarking is about sharing the history with others and teaching people its value.” See more details at thamesmuseum.org.
Antiques recycled into amazing works of art
Artist Nicola White first started mudlarking in the late 1990s because she missed the beaches of Cornwall, where she grew up. Now she draws inspiration from the materials she finds in the Thames – and loves to recycle them.
Nicola, 48, said: “I’ve always had this burning passion to pick things up.
“When I was a kid, I would collect snail’s shells. In 1998 I moved to Greenwich.
“I hadn’t realised there were these areas where you could go down to the shore and I was missing the beaches from home. “
Nicola found it the perfect way to unwind from her then-job as a PA. One of her top finds is a brass luggage tag that reads: ‘Fred Jury, 72 Woolwich Rd.’
She said: “I did some research and found he’d fought in World War One, married his landlady and was hit by a grenade. “Suddenly, from something very small, a whole story opened up.
“He had been buried in a pauper’s grave in Greenwich and I found it, with the help of the cemetery keeper.”
Mum-of-two Nicola has also found more than 130 messages in bottles – one from a 13-year-old boy who’d written, ‘I wish I was a Dino Thunder Power Ranger’.
Nicola later found out who the boy was and sent him a Power Ranger.
“Other bottles contain resolutions,” she said. “One was from a woman saying, ‘I want to lose 20 pounds’. There’s another saying, ‘I want to get a boyfriend’.
“A huge variety are from people saying goodbye to loved ones.”
Nicola recently found a 19th century wooden dog from the Congo in Africa, which was thought to contain spiritual power.
Experts say it could be worth thousands – but Nicola insists she doesn’t mudlark for money. Instead, she repurposes many of her finds in art.
Nicola said: “I make fish, for example, out of Victorian glass I find on the foreshore. Or I might make collages out of old nails and metal.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.