Thames Mudlarking: Searching for London’s Lost Treasures

In the 19th century, mudlarks were people (mainly children) who would scour the muddy banks of the Thames for items like coal and metal that they could sell on. Nowadays, mudlarks set out at low tide (with mandatory licences from the Port of London Authority) in search of something different: historical artefacts.

This small book, written by two mudlarks, Jason Sandy and Nick Stevens, offers a concise overview of the long history of London as told through the many lost, tossed, or deliberately deposited objects found in the Thames. Highlighting the contributions of mudlarking to our understanding of London’s past, the chapters largely outline some of the significant mudlark finds (some of which are on view in places like the Museum of London, the British Museum, and the Tower of London) associated with a particular era and set them into historical context.

London is well known as a financial hub today, and this part of the capital’s life can be traced through the finds. There are, for example, the various copper trade tokens that were issued by coffee-houses, tobacconists, bakers, grocers, and traders of virtually all kinds for local use in in the mid 17th century. As the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed many buildings and records in the City of London, the authors write, these small tokens offer important evidence of the names of people, businesses, and streets before this date.

Sometimes, the same type of object is discovered in the same area. At the site of a Tudor palace in Greenwich, a number of gold finds have been recovered. These decorated dress-hooks were perhaps lost as finely clothed nobles got on and off of boats as they came and went to the royal residence. Small objects like these give an insight into changing fashions – from Roman hairpins (including a striking ivory example in the shape of an elephant) to numerous ornate Georgian cufflinks and buttons, which were produced in large numbers with the rise of mechanisation in the 19th century.

Of particular interest are the range of toys recovered. These include a 14th/15th-century pewter model of a knight on horseback, and, from the 17th and 18th centuries, pewter replica pocket watches (the real thing, Sandy and Stevens note, was very costly at that time). Later comes the slightly macabre ‘Frozen Charlotte’ – a porcelain doll popular in the 19th century whose name stems from a poem in which a young girl froze to death because she did not want to cover up her dress with warm clothing.

Often small and personal, the objects offer an intimate connection to Londoners young and old and highlight the river’s place at the heart of the city through the ages. There are ample illustrations of the finds throughout the book, which may be a slim volume but provides an engaging and accessible overview of the subject and the exciting wealth of insights that emerge from the riverbank.

Review by Lucia Marchini.
Thames Mudlarking: Searching for London’s Lost Treasures, Jason Sandy & Nick Stevens, Shire Publications, £9.99, Paperback, ISBN 978-1784424329.