Pottery from the foreshore

I’m pretty much recovered from my recent accident and itching to get back to mudlarking. I’ve really missed not being by the river but the last eight weeks or so have given me an opportunity to do a lot more research and writing about the Thames and sort out some recent finds in my collection.

People new to mudlarking often ask me for advice on finds identification, so I thought I’d use this month’s blog to write about the different kinds of pottery that’s most commonly found on the foreshore. When I first started mudlarking, I could have done with a mini-guide to foreshore pottery but there wasn’t anything easily to hand. There are many books and articles writing about pottery in greater depth, and quite a bit if you look online, but sometimes all you want is a quick photo guide to finds accompanied by a brief description. If you want to research pottery further then that’s something you can do once you’ve acquired some basic knowledge of the most common foreshore finds, and of course the best way to learn is to go out and mudlark. There will usually be someone else about on the foreshore who will help you ID your finds and many mudlarks are extremely knowledgeable.

I found my first ever fragment of Roman pottery fairly early on in my mudlarking career when I saw a fairly nondescript piece of a pale grey something on the Thames Foreshore near the Oxo Tower on the Southbank. I picked it up and then put it down again thinking it was probably not very much. This was also my first lesson in ‘if you’re not sure, take your find home with you’ and get someone with a bit more knowledge than you to take a look at it or post it on Instagram (using the mudlark hashtag) or one of the many mudlarking sites on Facebook.

Something about this fragment made me return to pick it up and look at it again and I eventually ended up taking it home with me, even though it looked like something someone had only recently thrown on the potter’s wheel in a nearby studio.

Six months later when I’d almost forgotten about it I took it, along with a few other finds, to my first ever appointment with the Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London. He immediately identified it as a piece of mortarium, one of a type of Ancient Roman pottery kitchen vessels. These were hemispherical, conical and shallow bowls , commonly fired with coarse sand or grit embedded into the surface which made them excellent for grinding, pounding or mixing foods. Some Roman mortaria even show the name of the potter, which helps trace the workshop where it was made and the actual journey of the piece through the Roman Empire, eg Gaul to Londinium. So useful were these vessels in the kitchen that we still use this kind of design today to crush herbs and spices. My piece of pale grey mortarium can be seen bottom right in the photo below, just underneath and to the side of the more central find (small, round terracotta base of a Roman pot recycled as a gaming counter.)

Roman pottery

There are many other types of Roman pottery still found fairly regularly on the Thames Foreshore if you know where to look and, as fashions changed, so did the need to have pottery fulfilling various different uses. Clockwise from the top: Nene Valley colour-coated ware (the Nene Valley is in Eastern England); coarse wares eg grey wares; Moselkeramik or Trier black-slipped ware (centre of photo) used for beakers, cups and commonly decorated with rouletted motifs on the rim as well as scrolls, dots, wavy lines and other motifs, often combined with a short text or instruction eg ‘BIBE’ or ‘Drink.’

Middle left of the photo are two fragments of a greyish shell-tempered ware. This can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between Roman and Saxon although Saxon shell-tempered pottery contains more finely crushed shells, therefore identifying it as having being made at a more recent date. The cruder and bigger the pieces of shell, the older the piece is. Middle Neolithic pottery would also have been shell-tempered but with clearly visible bits of reed, sticks or even animal bones in the clay as well as shells. Anything and everything was used in more primitive pottery.

Top left of the photo is probably the most ubiquitous of all Roman pottery types found on the Thames Foreshore; black-burnished ware. Unglamorous, not particularly stylish to look at, nonetheless it was a core staple in the kitchens of Roman London so I always treat it with respect.

I still haven’t found any decent sherds of much sought after Samian pottery fragments although in my early days mudlarking frequently confused it with post medieval bits of terracotta only to find the FLO at the Museum of London gently informing me that what I’d found wasn’t Roman, or even close. As a general rule of thumb, if your piece of terracotta red pottery is covered in a shiny glaze, it’s not Roman. The Romans decorated their pottery with slip, not glazes.

Samian ware is also known as ‘Terra Sigillata’ and is basically a fine red pottery with a glossy red slip made of an equally fine clay mixed with water. Unlike later medieval and post-medieval glazes which hang heavy on the surface of the outer and inner part of a pot or plate, Samian slip is light and delicate because of the high potassium and calcium content that almost melts onto the pottery. Once fired in the kiln it turns a bright terracotta red. Many mudlarks have been fortunate to find decorated Samian ware – complete with gladiatorial motifs, hunting or erotic scenes and so on – and occasionally with the name stamp of the potter too, giving an indication of where the piece was manufactured in Gaul or elsewhere. As I still haven’t found any, and as I prefer to use my own photos for my blogs, I don’t have any Samian photos to include here but if you google Samian ware you’ll see some stunning examples of it in various museums or collections.

Medieval pottery, (the word Medieval itself comes from Latin and means ‘middle age’) spans hundreds of years from approximately 500 AD to 1000 AD, known as the Early Middle Ages, followed by the High Middle Ages from 1000 to 1250 AD, the rise and dominance of the Catholic Church shaping these years. The Late Middle Ages completed the Medieval period, lasting approximately until the late 1400s. This later period in the Middle Ages was marked by war and conflict as dynasties battled for control of Europe’s borders eg The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), fought between England and France. It was also during this period that the Black Death arrived on the continent of Europe wiping out an estimated 75 to 200 million people across Europe and Asia between 1347 and 1351. The closing years of the 14th Century saw the beginnings of the Renaissance in Italy with a blossoming of painting, sculpture and architecture.

Unfortunately pottery from this period, that is the fragments that turn up on the Thames Foreshore, is mostly fairly crude, basic and functional. Sherds from the Early to High Middle Ages are found less frequently, the more common finds are from the Later Medieval period and are characterised by what’s known as the ubiquitous ‘Tudor’ green glaze, which is actually not from the Tudor period at all as this came later. Medieval pottery actually comes in a range of green, yellow and brown glazes, which was the sum total of colour the Medieval potter could manage. A lot of the sherds I’ve found from this period are simply coarse borderware, a common find on the foreshore as it supplied London’s cooking needs in the 14th and 15th Centuries.

For the purposes of this blog, and I could write about pottery forever but don’t want this blog to turn into something that’s PhD in length, it’s also worth mentioning some of the well known potteries of this period – from North Yorkshire to Surry Whiteware, Kingstonware and Surrey/Hampshire Borderware. I’m not an expert in the precise ID of these but there are interesting examples in the Museum of London and the V and A. I’d also recommend you google the excellent Richard Hemery who has a YouTube channel where he IDs various types of pottery from this and other periods. I’ve learnt a lot from Richard’s online pottery films.

Medieval pottery

The Medieval age eventually made way for the Tudor Dynasty (1485-1603) where for the first time food was becoming more refined and therefore so was pottery. This period sees the widespread manufacture of Tin glaze pottery, earthenware covered in a glaze containing tin oxide, which is white, shiny and opaque. It normally provides the background for a range of decoration, from ferns, flowers and foliage through to random geometric lines, circles and other patterns. It’s also known as Faience (German, French and Scandinavian tin glaze), Majolica and Delftware. Colours of English tin glaze are predominantly blue on white, but it’s always a joy to find other colours too such as a splash of yellow, green, orange or the rare (because expensive) manganese brownish purple. Tin glazed ceramics were the first white pottery manufactured in England, although first used in Europe by the Italians in the 12th century for simple painted wares, and then by the Spanish during the 13th Century for more colourful vessels. The use of this glaze then slowly began to spread through Europe in the following years as both Holland and England became centres of tin glaze production in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

The first examples of more recognisably common tin-glaze pottery was thought to have been made by Guido da Savino in Antwerp in 1512. The use of marl, a calcium rich clay, allowed Dutch potters to refine their technique and produce much finer ceramics. Their Delftware was a blend of three clays, one local, one from Tournai and one from the Rhineland. Dutch Delftware was also popular because it resembled the fashionable Chinese porcelain (which was only affordable to the wealthiest people), an effect achieved by covering the tin-glaze with clear glaze, which gave added depth to the fired surface and a smoothness and clarity to the vivid cobalt blue.

By the mid 17th Century, most of the major potters in England were Flemish or Dutch, many having fled the Low Countries due to religious persecution, making their way to England and bringing their secrets with them, setting up potteries in Southwark, Rotherhithe, Lambeth and Aldgate. English Delftware was harder and coarser than its Dutch equivalent, which was softer and thinner. Prior to 1620, English Delft was closer in style to Italian or Dutch but after 1620 fashions changed as the public clamoured more for the fashionable Chinese style blue on white. At the cusp of the 18th Century, English Delftware became more distinctive and less intricately decorated than its 17th Century counterpart.

Tin Glaze or Delft style pottery

I’ve found some large chunks of tin glaze in my time, mostly fragments of plates or chargers, but big pieces are becoming rarer so even the smallest sherd of this type of pottery invariably makes it home with me. Delftware came in a wide range of pottery and ceramics including punchbowls, plates or chargers, wine bottles, puzzle jugs, guglets (globular jars with a long neck), tea and coffee pots, fuddling cups (three dimensional drinking puzzle vessels) and posset pots for creamy, sugary syllabub type desserts.

Production of English Delftware had more or less stopped by the end of the 18th Century as fashions changed once more due to the Industrial Revolution, and pottery become mass produced and therefore cheaper.

The Stuart period of history lasted from 1603 to 1714 and encompassed a wide range of pottery types, from Metropolitan Slipware to Staffordshire Slipware, Delftware, Salt glaze and Westerwald Stoneware.

Slipware (see photo below) is a type of lead-glazed earthenware decorated with a coloured slip then fired in a kiln. Jacqui Pearce, Senior Finds Officer at MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) describes this period as ‘a time of vibrant growth in the potteries serving the London area.’ London-made Delftware was booming, especially in the Southwark area where extensive excavation in the 1980s uncovered huge quantities of pottery from this period. The potteries of the Surrey-Hampshire border were, from the 15th to 18th Centuries, also a prolific and important supplier of ceramics to the capital and elsewhere. In addition, a wide range of ceramics from the potteries of Devon, Somerset, the Midlands, Newcastle upon Tyne, Italy, Germany and the Low Countries also found their way to the London pottery market.

Metropolitan Slipware 1630-1700

‘Slip’ refers to the decoration of the earthenware, when the runny clay mixture is applied to the clay vessel by painting, splashing or dripping. It’s then covered with a thick, glossy lead glaze that seems to stop before it reaches the edge of the rim of the piece. Every item is different and the sherds I’ve found show everything from careful application by the potter to wilder, careless decoration that looks as if it was done in a great hurry. I love its chunkiness, earthy quality and random, joyous decoration showing the potter’s freedom of expression.

I used to find fragments of Metropolitan Slipware nearly every time I stepped onto the foreshore but I’ve noticed that decent sized sherds of this pottery also seem to be much less frequent these days. My most recent finds have been slipware of a more dark chocolate brown colour instead of the more common orange-red, emphasising the differences in types of clay used, and decorated with a creamy rather than yellow coloured slip. It’s indicative of the hand made nature of this pottery that there are so many different types of colour-way within it which adds to its attractiveness. It’s a pleasing contrast to the uniform nature of factory produced pottery and porcelain where every piece is identical. Objects made in this style included pots, cups, mugs, chamber pots, candlesticks and chafing dishes (for heating food).

Staffordshire Combed Slipware 1690-1830

Another type of slip, and an extremely common find on the Thames Foreshore, is Staffordshire Combed Slipware. I have so much of it at home, and many mudlarks tend not to bother with it, but I find I can’t resist its various cheerful shapes, bold forms and ever-changing designs. It reminds me of Mr Kipling’s bakewell tarts and tea.

Staffordshire Slip pottery is solid, chunky and reassuring. Earthenware with a clear lead glaze containing iron inclusions, which gives the white slip its cream to yellow colour. The trailed slip is dragged along the surface to create the distinctive ‘combed’ look, hence the name. Originating in Staffordshire, as its name suggests, it was also produced in potteries in Yorkshire, Bristol and the Midlands. Most of the pieces were glazed on one side only but you often see traces of the glaze oozing out onto the underside, sometimes it doesn’t even reach the edge of the rim at all. My favourite pieces of this type of pottery are when the edges resemble a pie crust, and this is known as ‘coggling’ or ‘crimping.’

The common nature of this type of pottery marks a distinctive stage in a more mass market production of tableware that was specially intended for poor to middle class kitchens and dining tables as well as inns and taverns where it would have been in common use in the late 17th Century and 18th Century until it fell out of favour. I’ve noticed that much of this type of pottery often turns up on a part of the foreshore where an inn or tavern would once have been.

You can see from the photograph of some of the many pieces I’ve found of this pottery that every single sherd is different. The subtle variations in the colour of the slip and designs – from straight to thick diagonal lines and the kind of zigzag pattern you might see on a cardiac patient’s chart – is why it has so much character.

Staffordshire Combed Slipware 1690-1830

Salt-glazed stoneware was produced in Europe, predominantly Cologne, and was in common use throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries. It’s a common find on the Thames Foreshore and is also known as Bartmann or Bellarmine stoneware. Bartmann literally means ‘bearded man’ and is the fragment that all new mudlarks desperately want to find. If you haven’t found one yet, don’t worry, you will.

17th Century Bartmann or Bellarmine Salt-glazed Stoneware

Bartmann pots have round squat bodies with shorter necks and a loop handle, covered in a brown or reddish brown glaze, while on the front is the face of the much sought after beardy. His toothy, often angry, snarling face glares at us from the front of stoneware jugs, bottles and pitchers. Used for transporting goods and storing food and drink they were also known as ‘witch bottles.’

In 2004 during the excavations of a house in Greenwich, a Bartmann jug sealed with a cork was found buried beneath the hearth. Further analysis of its contents showed the jug contained hair, nail clippings and urine, buried as a charm to protect the household from witchcraft. The image of the bearded face is thought to have its origins in the mythical wild man creature, popular in the medieval art and literature of Northern European folklore from the 14th century onwards where it was found in ceramics, metal, embroidery, portraiture, illuminated manuscripts and even stained glass.

Bartmann jugs also have a cartouche on the belly of the pot or jug showing the origins of the pottery eg Amsterdam or Antwerp. By 1634, they were also known as Bellarmine jugs, so named after the humourless Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542 – 1621) who held strong anti-alcohol views and was ridiculed for doing so by English and Dutch Protestants.

Westerwald is also a type of stoneware from this period, although much more colourful than its salt-glazed counterpart. Produced in German towns such as Grenzau and Grenzhausen, in the area known as Westerwald in the Rhineland. Made into jugs, tankards and other drinking vessels from the 15th Century until well into the 19th Century, moulded and decorated with circles, flowers, foliage and family crests and coats of arms. Last year I even found a fragment showing a bee collecting pollen from a flower. Predominantly a striking shiny cobalt blue on grey, some examples are pale grey, occasionally with inclusions of the much rarer brownish purple (manganese) colour. Cobalt blue and manganese were used because these were the only two colours able to withstand the high temperatures in the kiln.

17th Century Westerwald Stoneware

Sherds of Victorian Transferware are everywhere on the Thames Foreshore and I have many favourite pieces. Long time mudlarks probably don’t give transferware a second glance anymore but I still pick up the nicer pieces, particularly where there’s a pretty little scene, an interesting face or unusual decoration. One of the most common of these types of porcelain is the famous Willow pattern, still produced today and in use in cafés, restaurants and homes. In and out of fashion yet also strangely timeless in its popularity.

Willow pattern is a distinctive chinoiserie design used on a variety of ceramic tablewares. It became popular towards the end of the 18th Century in England when pottery first became mass manufactured during the Industrial Revolution, and blue and white wares imported from China were the height of fashion. Stoke-on-Trent was one such centre of industry, making use of the speedier new process whereby a design was printed on a transfer and applied to the plate before firing, unlike the slower hand painting of before.

A huge variety of Chinese inspired waterside landscapes were produced in this way, the most popular being the ubiquitous willow pattern, usually blue on a white background although occasionally other colours were used in monochrome tints, eg green or red. Common features of this type of porcelain include scenes of lakes, bridges, fruit and foliage, willows, birds, boats and pavilions.

Thomas Minton is thought to have been the brains behind the Willow pattern creating it in 1780 before selling it to potter Thomas Turner who mass-produced it, trading on the fashion for stories from Chinese mythology. People have always been drawn to tragic Romeo and Juliet style tales of tragic lovers and here the story is of a young couple eloping, the girl’s father disapproving of her inappropriate boyfriend, being pursued by the outraged father (this shown on the porcelain by angry men waving machetes as they cross a bridge.) The couple were inevitably caught, the father setting fire to the cottage where they were hiding, burning both to death. The Gods then took pity on the young lovers and transformed them into doves so they could be together for all eternity.

There are various different versions of this story, all completely false, yet it still gives me pleasure to find a nice piece of this porcelain especially when it’s a prefect fragment of the two doves.

Willow Pattern and Victorian Transferware

And last but not least, logos and things. From late 18th Century stoneware imprinted with the name of a blacking company that once employed a young Charles Dickens, a jar bearing the name of marmalade manufacturer James Keiller, the famous Hotel Metropole or the long gone Aerated Bread Company, each of these finds is worthy of a blog of its own, an important part of our social history. But that will have to be for another day…

Logos and things

If you’d like to read more about foreshore pottery then I recommend the following books – ‘If These Pots Could Talk’ by Ivor Noël Hume; ‘London In Fragments’ by Ted Sandling; ‘Pottery In Britain 4000BC to AD1900’ by Lloyd Laing. Check out the pottery exhibits in the Museum of London and V and A too as they have some fine examples on display.





11 thoughts on “Pottery from the foreshore

  1. Facinating article with much useful information putting historical background with each group of pieces. I am sure I shall keep returning here for reference. Thank you.


    1. Hi Debra. Thank you for your kind comments. In order to mudlark it’s now a legal requirement to have a permit which you need to buy from the PLA (London Port Authority.) If you google their website it will give you instructions re how to obtain one. Unfortunately there is no mudlarking allowed at the moment due to the current national lockdown and I understand that the PLA are also not issuing new permits until the lockdown restrictions are lifted. You will also need to check your tide times and make sure as a newbie you start in a safe area – I recommend Bankside in London under Tate Modern as a good starting place as it’s safe and busy. Also there are lots of mudlarks on Facebook and Instagram who will help you identify finds. Happy larking!


  2. Thank you so much for mentioning my channel! You have almost written a book on pottery here, it must have taken a while to put together. I have written a book on identifying pottery from the foreshore which is available from EBay or Etsy. Best wishes, Richard Hemery

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Richard. I have your pottery ID book and have learnt so much from it. I always recommend it to aspiring mudlarks or fans of pottery through history. I wish I’d read it before writing my pottery blog though as I now realise I have made some errors (not everything covered in green glaze is medieval…) But I’m still learning. Thank you again. Liz


  3. Hello,
    Thank you for this post, very interesting! I went in my first little look along the river in N. Yorkshire today and was wondering where I could post some pictures for some help identifying the few bits I found?

    Best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Esther. Thank you for your kind comment and glad to hear you’ve started doing some mudlarking in N Yorkshire. For finds identification I recommend joining the River Thames Mudlarking Finds Group on Facebook where members are very helpful with their comments. Also Instagram can be good too as long as you remember to use the #mudlark or #mudlarkingfinds There are also some brilliant mudlarks on YouTube such as Richard Hemery for pottery finds ID, The Northern Mudlarks or Tideline Art aka Nicola White. All are well worth a view and I’ve learnt a great deal from them. Good luck and best wishes, Liz


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