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Digging the dirt on London's past

'Mudlark' scavengers comb the Thames to explore London's muddy history.

By John J. RonanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 2000



LONDON

It is a clear January morning in London. I'm dressed in layers of old work clothes, heavy leather boots, and orange rubber gloves. Ignoring stares, I step down a concrete ramp on the south bank of the River Thames, just under Tower Bridge, and with a permit in my pocket and hope in my heart, stride onto the fog-gray mud and start digging.

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I am a "mudlark."

My mudlark mania had started a year earlier when I read an article that described how British comic Spike Milligan, walking the Thames at low tide, discovered an ancient silver flask lying in the mud - still half full of brandy!

Is this safe and legal, I wondered. Yes, it's safe if you have the right clothes and a tidal chart. And it is legal. The Port of London Authority (PLA) issues permits for about $30, and anyone is eligible, British or not. I mailed off an application in plenty of time for my next visit.

London's alluvium beachcombers have been called mudlarks since Victorian times. The term, borrowed from the water-loving pipit (one type of which is called a mudlark), came to signify city urchins who earned a few pennies a day dredging up saleable scraps of rope, coal, wood, iron, and copper.

A 1950 movie, "The Mudlark," starring Irene Dunne and Alec Guiness, romanticized these poor Olivers. The reality was far different. Victorian author Henry Mayhew reported one child's dilemma: "It was very cold in winter to stand in the mud without shoes," the boy said. But unless he found something, he'd "starve until the next low tide."

Despite my get-up, I don't identify with the original mudlarks; I am much too comfortable. The temperature hovers at 50 degrees F., and my boots don't leak. But first results are similar: scraps of metal and rope, driftwood, and glass.

There is also the distraction of more modern jetsam: cellphones, bottles, traffic cones, and shopping carts.

Mudlarks are asked to report any exceptional discoveries, with exact locations, to the Museum of London. The museum keeps a vast record of Thames artifacts, and the informally gathered data is a part of broader records from professional digs.

The tidal drop in London can approach 25 feet, and hundreds of acres of mud flats are exposed every day. Because Londoners have considered the Thames both a dump and a waterway for millennia - in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Falstaff commands, "There, empty it in the muddy ditch close by the Thames." - the river's silt is laced with countless artifacts representing all of the city's ages, from Briton and Roman to Elizabethan and Victorian.

The dream of discovering real treasure is what keeps mudlarking popular. And real treasure is found: elaborate chains of office, medieval pilgrim badges, Elizabethan coins, Saxon knife blades, a bronze Roman peacock, even jewels.

In 1995 a diamond and enamel ring dating from the reign of James I (1603-1625) was uncaked on the foreshore at Dowgate, near London Bridge. Twenty-five stones and exquisite workmanship suggested ownership by a member of court, possibly Anne of Denmark. The historical connection boosted its worth past 20,000 - nearly $35,000.

History offers further encouragement. Legend says that King James II, fleeing from William of Orange in 1688, threw overboard into the Thames the Great Seal of England. It has never been found.

Usually, treasure is more modest. In fact, old but homey collectibles account for more than 90 percent of the items in the flats. But what this litter lacks in value, it makes up for in frequency.

Pottery fragments, for example, blanket the tidal foreshore. Pipes, which were cheap and common from the introduction of tobacco in the 16th century, also litter the flats. They can often be dated by size and shape, or by makers' marks, and a single visit can yield an example from every century since Sir Walter Raleigh brought tobacco to the country.

The Thames is not the only English river to yield artifacts; a Bronze Age oar was found recently in the Humber, and an ancient sword blade in the Ripon. But the Thames is easily the richest source because of London's long history and the river's great size.

I have found clay pipe stems, shards of old pottery, a Victorian medicine bottle, and a few modern coins. No jewels, mind you, but treasure nonetheless. It was in the mudlark's gritty but refreshing views of the city, which offer a rich, meditative, and historically enriching trip that few tourists - or natives - ever experience.

And most of all in a rich, meditative calm that made me feel a part of history.

* For further information on mudlarking permits, contact the Port of London Authority, Public Relations Office, Devon House, 58-60 St. Katharine's Way, London, E1 9LB; Phone 011-44-171-265-2656.

The London String of Pearls Millennium Festival, a series of events during 2000, will celebrate the Thames's rich history. For details, visit the Internet site www.travelbritain.org/millennium.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society