Searching for History in the Mud

Searching for History in the Mud

Wednesday January 18, 2017 Written by Genevieve

Mudlarks

Mudlarks. They’re those black and white not-quite-magpies, right?

Well, yes. But we’ve just learned that a mudlark is also a person who gleans treasure (or whatever they deem to be treasure) from – you guessed it – the mud.

A particular breed of this creature came into being on the shores of the Thames many moons ago, and they’re still going strong: these days, the Thames is home to plenty of collectors looking for oddments that the river washes up. The women in this article over on The Guardian are a good example. But back in the London of the 1800s, finding objects in the mud was more of a necessity than a hobby, as many poverty-stricken people went searching for their livelihoods.

Back then, the Thames was used as a flowing rubbish dump: everything people didn’t want was hurled into its waters. So along with a shitload of, well, shit, the banks of that grand old body of water (also filled with bodies) were thick with bits and pieces of stuff just waiting for an appreciative eye, a bit of a spit shine, and a willing buyer.

Mudlarking out of need seemed to die off somewhere in the early 1900s, and only became a casual pastime again in the 1970s. But for those of you thinking all the best historical goodies must have been snapped – or squelched – up years ago, we have good news. Members of the London Mudlark Facebook page constantly post pictures of some seriously cool and rather ancient finds, including glass beads, bits of old wigs, porcelain, Tudor-era shoes and gold-edged fragments of lace. Also: lots of mud.

Mudlarks
Fragments of 16th-century Bartmann jugs.

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A 16th-century poesy ring. The engraving reads: I Live in Hope.

Mudlarks
A collection of clay smoking pipes and ceramic tiles.

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Left: what appears to be a small lock. Right: antique coins.