November’s drawing to a close and Christmas is fast approaching. If you’re anything like me you’re probably wondering where this year has gone as 2019 seems to have disappeared in the blink of an eye. Who knows what 2020 will bring as we face a new and potentially worrying decade. I’m always grateful I have my mudlarking trips to the Thames to bring temporary distraction from all manner of worries and anxiety about the future.
But it’s been a good and busy month so I’m grateful for my blessings. At the beginning of November I was invited by the good people of North Hertfordshire Museum, in Hitchin, to give a mudlarking lecture. It was a real pleasure to do so. The audience were a delight and it was an absolute joy to take everyone on a tour of my beloved Thames, from Teddington to the Estuary, talk about some of my favourite mudlarking finds and explain the stories behind them. Thank you again, North Herts, for inviting me. I had a blast.
The foreshore has also been very kind to me during November and my mudlarking sessions have resulted in some very nice finds, for which I’m extremely grateful. I won’t write about everything I’ve found in this blog but will save them up for future ones.
One of my favourite places to mudlark is the Putney/Fulham foreshore, not too far from my home in South West London . Some mudlarks are reticent, understandably, about revealing their favourite secret places and I totally get that. Clearly, if you find something of major historical importance you don’t reveal the precise spot, for obvious reasons, but I genuinely don’t have an issue sharing some of my favourite locations and there are never that many of us mudlarking in this particular area. The Thames is an almost hundred mile ribbon of water running through the capital and out into the Estuary so it’s difficult to keep it secret, and talking a bit about your favourite locations isn’t going to cause a mad rush of people to the foreshore. If I felt secretive about my mudlarking I wouldn’t be writing this blog, because I enjoy sharing what I’ve discovered.
But back to this month’s finds. Take a look at the photo above. Can you see what was glinting up at me from the stones? If you can’t, then the photo below will reveal all.
I’ve found rings before, a couple of silver ones and a few made from base metal and paste, but this is the first engagement ring from the foreshore. It felt both surprising and slightly sad picking it up, taking a closer look and turning it over to check for a hallmark or inscription. Heavy, white gold, five glittering diamonds in a solid rather than claw setting, in my mind’s eye I was imagining it thrown, with some force, from Putney Bridge. My first thoughts were that this was obviously the final act in the end of a relationship and a broken-hearted, weeping fiancée decided to throw it in the river where it would be lost forever.
Except, of course, it simply washed back onto the foreshore on a low tide where I found it. Life is never straightforward. The river is a depository for secrets and shattered hearts but it doesn’t always want to keep the things thrown into it. I don’t know why but I had a particular image of someone throwing this in at night, the darkness perhaps offering a better camouflage for their grief. But anyone who’s walked across Putney Bridge at any time of day or night will know it’s pretty much always busy with traffic and people, so I doubt whoever did this was able to remain completely anonymous.
And, as a few people have correctly observed to me, maybe it was thrown away by someone utterly relieved that their relationship had ended and deciding to mark the occasion with a symbolic hurling of a once precious ring into the dark waters of the Thames in a ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’ kind of way. If that was the case, I like to think of the woman (yes, I do think it was a woman – I’m not sure a man would wear a ring like this but I’m happy to be proved wrong,) turning on her heels and walking away defiantly, head held high, ready to begin a new chapter in her life. Good on you, love, if that was you and you’re reading this blog.
After putting the ring away in my finds bag (have decided with this one I’ll sell it and give the proceeds to my favourite three charities – I’m not sure what else can you do with a ring like this?) I turned and headed further upstream in the direction of some old landing steps at the far end of Bishop’s Park where once the penny ferry used to bring Fulham fans across the south side of the river to their ground at Craven Cottage nearby. The foreshore is very different from the City of London here; less of the eroding mud from which emerge glittering goodies, but more heavily built up with a hard core of rock, stones and gravel. It can be difficult to find metal items here unless you have a metal detector (I don’t) and nearby steps are always muddy and slippery. But there can often be found a fair trail of pottery sherds here, the river depositing them in random patterns on the foreshore.
It was here that on that very grey day when I found the engagement ring I later spotted a welcome flash of royal blue something hidden among some stones and rubble at the edge of the tide line, slightly submerged in the water.
A fair bit of research later and a lengthy trip down an internet rabbit hole of Victorian cosmetics manufacturers, I managed to discover what this lid was and what it looked like in its entirety. It’s a John Gosnell and Company lid from a pot of Russian Bear’s Grease, a product popular with the Victorian gentleman worried about his thinning hair. The company moved to various different locations throughout its history but at this point was located at 12, Three King Court, Lombard Street, in the heart of the City of London. Below is what a complete lid would have looked like but it’s rare to find one of these whole, certainly in the Thames, although you might be able to find one in an old Victorian bottle dump or similar.
John Gosnell and Company are the oldest manufacturer of ‘personal care’ products in the UK, the company having been originally founded in 1677. Incredibly it’s still in business today, family owned, and now located in Lewes, Sussex, specialising in soap, cosmetics, perfume and toiletries etc.
Originally founded by John Price at Three King Court, Lombard Street, the company went through various name changes over the next one hundred and fifty years. I’m particularly grateful to Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, a registered charity, and a leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. Sometimes online research can be tricky and misleading, leading you down various blind alleyways, but Grace’s are a useful resource and deserve our support. I thoroughly recommend them if this is a period you’re researching for any reason.
1790 – the original company had changed its name to John Price & Sons, Perfumer, of 150 Leadenhall Street, London
1806 – it was listed as T. Price & Co, Perfumer, 4 Leadenhall Street, London
1814 – John Gosnell became a partner and the company evolved into ‘Patey, Price & Gosnell’
1818 – Price and Gosnell continued in partnership together and became perfumers to the Prince Regent, later King George IV
1832 – John Gosnell died and the business was divided up among his family
1840 – the business was listed as J. Gosnell & Co ‘Wholesale Perfumers and Flower Distillers.’
1852 – it was listed as Gosnell, John & Co, ‘perfumers and soap makers, brush and comb manufacturers, By Appointment to Her Majesty (Victoria) and the Royal Family, 12, Three King Court, Lombard Street, London’
During Queen Victoria’s reign, the company expanded globally with its popular cherry blossom range of personal products and perfumes. It was especially innovative in its witty and clever advertising and pioneered new ways of bringing its products to the attention of the public. For example, it ran a gloriously effective campaign that involved flying perfume shaped hot air balloons over Paris and London, dropping leaflets and samples onto the people below.
By 1900 the company had moved from Lombard Street to 211-215 Blackfriars Road and in the 1920s began to face commercial decline. British products were going out of fashion internationally and the economic downturn, fallout from a global Depression, added further strain to the company’s declining profits. In 1933 the company could no longer afford London rents and left their premises in the Blackfriars Road, finally relocating to Lewes in 1939 just as Britain was on the cusp of a second world war.
The range of perfumes and toiletries the company produced was quite varied, not all as fragrant as their extremely popular rose and cherry blossom products, but the idea of slapping bear’s grease onto a bald and thinning scalp isn’t something that sounds particularly pleasant.
Bear’s Grease as a treatment for baldness has a long history. The Benedictine mystic and prolific letter writer, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), recommended bear’s grease in her ‘Physica’ while a few hundred years later Nicholas Culpeper, famous English botanist and herbalist, wrote the following in his ‘Physician’s Library’ in 1653 – ‘Bears Grease staies (stops) the fallinge off of the hair.’
A number of companies sold bear’s grease, which remained popular throughout the Victorian period until the first world war. Atkinsons (founded by James Atkinson at 44 Gerrard Street, Soho, London) marketed a similar product showing a chained bear on the lid of the pot, this supposedly symbolising the strength of the bear and therefore indicating the effectiveness of the product in facilitating the regrowth of hair for bald men.
Bear’s Grease was originally made from the fat of the brown bear mixed with beef marrow and a perfume to disguise what would have been a foul, heavy, meaty smell. Towards the end of the 19th century, unscrupulous manufacturers were breaching a probably non-existent advertising code and substituting pig, veal, suet, and lard as the massive demand for genuine bear’s fat was exceeding supply. I literally shudder to think how many of these unfortunate animals were killed to provide this product.
Companies also added lavender, thyme, rose essence or oil of bitter almonds as a perfume, after which a green dye would be added to improve the ‘fatty’ appearance of the grease mixture in the pot.
It wasn’t just British men who bought this product in their thousands. Across Europe people believed that grease from Russian bears was the best. The animal was big, furry, strong and virile, these characteristics therefore would transfer to anyone who used this substance. I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m grateful that this product has gone out of fashion although I’m fully aware that there are still parts of the world where myths about the magical curative properties of certain animals still persist, which means far too many beautiful creatures are still being hunted to extinction in order to appease our vanity. Guys, bald can be beautiful!