Thames Mudlarking: Searching for London’s Lost Treasures

By Jason Sandy and Nick Stevens; reviewed by Richard Stone, published 5th February 2021

Thames Mudlarking: Searching for London’s Lost Treasures, Jason Sandy and Nick Stevens, Shire, 2021, 96pp, £9-99. ISBN 9781784424329. 

For two hours every day low tide exposes what this book calls ‘the ‘longest archaeological site in Britain’. Erosion and riverboat activity regularly reveal new artefacts. Henry Mayhew, in London Labour and the London Poor (1851) described mudlarks scouring the foreshore for items of value as ‘These poor creatures … the most despicable in their appearance of any I have met with’. Today’s incarnations are rather different from the destitute scavengers of Victorian times. The Society of Thames Mudlarks and Antiquarians, founded in 1976, helped to make the practice more organised. Modern mudlarks require a permit from the Port of London Authority, work closely with the Museum of London and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and operate within strict guidelines. Only hand tools can be used to excavate and depth is limited to 1.2 metres. 

In a series of well-illustrated and snappily titled chapters the authors lead us chronologically through the centuries covering a wide range of finds from 12,000-year-old fossils to children’s plastic toys. Not all the objects result from mudlarking. Two of the most spectacular and best known, the Battersea Shield (350-50 BC) and Waterloo Helmet (150-50 BC) were uncovered by dredging in the 19th century. Both are thought to be ceremonial rather than practical and ritual deposits. 

How items ended up in the river, whether accidentally lost, deliberately discarded, or deposited as votive offerings, involves an element of informed speculation. Each of the objects described, which includes weapons, coins, jewellery, pottery, toys, even leather items preserved in the anaerobic conditions, has a story to tell about the age in which it was made and the type of person who may have owned it. The authors offer considered insights. Bone and ivory pins, some ornately carved, tell of Roman ladies’ hairstyles. A shoe buckle decorated with paste gems leads us into a world of Georgian fashion and flamboyance. Among many eye-catching items thoughtfully interpreted is a gadling, a pyramidal knuckle guard from an elite medieval knight’s gauntlet, similar to those on Edward the Black Prince’s tomb effigy in Canterbury Cathedral. The finder of a French coin, hand-engraved to make a First World War dog tag, went on to identify its owner, research details of his service role in the Royal Flying Corps and return the tag to the man’s family. 

Our collective knowledge of the past, especially London, owes a significant debt to the mudlarks as evidenced by the many examples catalogued in this book and on display at the Museum of London. The enthusiasm of the authors makes for an enjoyable read and conveys something of the excitement of making a discovery and importantly what we may subsequently learn as a result.