It’s almost farewell to 2019 and hello to 2020, not just the end of a year but the end of a decade too and the start of a new one. So, for my final mudlarking blog of the last twelve months, I thought it was timely to celebrate my favourite ‘Best Nine’ finds since I first started mudlarking approximately five years ago. This was tough, a bit like having to choose your favourite child, but I’ve finally managed to narrow it down to this little lot and I adore every single one of these objects ever since the day I first found them on the Thames. What’s particularly special for me is that these are finds that encompass many different parts of the Thames Foreshore, from Fulham and Putney upstream in south west London, to Rotherhithe and Greenwich downstream in the east of the capital. London’s history is rich, varied and spanning millennia; the Thames never ceases to surprise me with its gifts.
Now recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) by the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) at the Museum of London, I can’t reveal exactly where I found this Medieval token other than to say it was on a part of the Thames Foreshore in the centre of London where there were once multiple ancient quays and wharves for the import of various goods from other parts of the country, and from Europe and beyond. Tokens were issued in lieu of coins when there was a shortage of currency, and these could be exchanged for goods eg bread or beer, or a service such as brothel tokens, quite common from Medieval times onwards. This particular token find was made of pewter (I thought it was silver when I first caught a glimpse of it among the gravel of the foreshore) and has now been formally identified as from the later Medieval period, approximately 1400. It shows a central design of a flower comprising five petals and a stem, and is quite light and thin, the thinness itself an indicator of age as later tokens tend to be quite heavy and coarse.
The Black Death swept through Europe in the 14th Century, arriving in England in 1348. Its spread throughout these islands was quick and vicious, and many villages, towns and cities were decimated as a result. I’ve chosen this token out of the many that I’ve found because it feels very special, a turning point in history, the design of it alone showing that artistry and creativity had begun to return after the darkest of times.
At the beginning of 2019 I was lucky enough to find my first complete and undamaged Codd Bottle. More common in the Estuary and in Victorian bottle dumps but nonetheless rare in the Thames in London, in part due to children deliberately breaking them when coming across them in order to get at the Codd marble lodged inside the lugg (the pinched section of the bottle). Codd bottles were designed and patented by Hiram Codd of Camberwell in 1872, and were used to store aerated drinks such as lemonade or fizzy water. The marble pressed against a rubber washer at the neck to keep the bubbles fresh.
My Codd Bottle find was made near some chalk beds at Rotherhithe. Barges would have rested on the chalk at low tide and it’s easy to imagine careless fingers accidentally dropping these bottles into the river at high tide when unloading them for transportation and sale elsewhere.
A few years ago I was lucky to find a beautiful Victorian stoneware inkwell, known as a ‘penny pot’ or ‘pork pie’ due to its appearance. These would have been filled with black ink before being sealed with a cork and then sold. Tactile and smooth to the touch, Charles Dickens would have used an ink pot just like this when writing his novels. I discovered my ‘penny pot’ on a cold but clear early spring day while mudlarking near Newcastle Drawdock on the Isle of Dogs, directly opposite the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich. I imagine that these stoneware inkwells were probably being unloaded from a large vessel in the area when a consignment of them dropped into the Thames and this one embedded itself in river mud, waiting for me to find it over a hundred years later. I keep my Victorian inkwell on the desk in my office and it inspires me when I’m writing.
My most recent clay pipe find was this beautifully carved example discovered by me while mudlarking on the Putney foreshore early one grey and murky afternoon in December, fairly close to Putney Green, once the home of William Pitt the Younger. A strange coincidence as the pipe commemorates the Act of Union in 1801 when Ireland was forcibly joined to England, Wales and Scotland as a single Kingdom, ie the United Kingdom. The Act of Union itself was hugely controversial and passed through Parliament during George III’s reign when Pitt the Younger was First Minister, effectively in the role of Prime Minister although that title wasn’t in formal use at the time.
Unsurprisingly the Act of Union was hugely unpopular with the Irish and a short while later Pitt resigned when his proposed reforms were ignored and Irish Catholics were refused emancipation. Eventually the south and north west of Ireland separated from the Union and became a sovereign nation known as the Irish Republic or Eire, while only Northern Ireland, with its historically controversial Protestant heritage and loyalty to the English crown, remained part of the United Kingdom we know today. Who knows if we’ll still have a United Kingdom at the end of this decade? We live in worryingly unpredictable political times.
One of my most special pieces of pottery, in fact the first ever piece of 17th Century tin-glaze I found on the foreshore, is this Delft beauty. The fragment, although broken, is as clear and fresh as the day it was painted. Discovered while I was mudlarking in 2015 on the Southbank, close to the Oxo Tower, where I used to find similarly large chunks of tin glaze pottery fairly often in those earlier days. Sadly, a few years further down the line, this type of pottery find is becoming increasingly rare in this particular part of the foreshore. This sherd is from a charger, or plate, a sturdy white earthenware decorated quickly in free-style with ferns and foliage, blue on white, and then covered in a clear tin glaze. The artist had to work fast to get the bulk of the design painted on the plate before the glaze dried, hence the sometimes ‘slapdash’ look of some of these pieces from this period.
Another very special find was this post medieval die or dice (I’ve written about this in more detail in an earlier blog) also now recorded on the PAS. I found it nestling under a large rock in the centre of London, perhaps dropped by someone from an ancient barge or boat a few hundred years ago and then annoyed at its loss. Maybe this person was winning in a game of dice but couldn’t continue once the piece disappeared into the murky waters of the Thames? Who knows…. The die is known as a Potter’s Variant 16 and is linked to a group of 40 similar die discovered at excavations that took place on the site of the Fleet Prison. It’s thought to be the work of a single prisoner, whose name we’ll never know, making these from meal bones to sell. A beautifully tactile object to hold in one’s hand, its history and connection to the Fleet Prison make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. In the spirit of recycling, we use this die when we play our family board games at Christmas and, every time I hold it in my hands, I try to remember the person who first made it all those centuries ago.
About six months ago on a wet and damp autumnal day on the foreshore, I saw what I thought was the shank of an old brass button sticking up from the mud. I pulled it out and quickly placed it in my finds bag ready to clean up later. When I got home and washed it I realised it wasn’t a button at all but a hawking or hunting bell. Even better, a gentle clean with a cotton bud to remove the mud from inside the sound holes at the base of the bell led to the discovery of a tiny clay pip. Even better than this, the clay pip still rang and made a beautiful jingling noise literally bringing the sounds of the 17th and 18th Century back to life. It was a glorious moment.
The hawking or hunting bell was found by me on a part of the Thames Foreshore where ancient wharves and quays once bustled with hundreds of boats and barges importing corn and grain, as well as other goods. The area would have swarmed with rats and other vermin so hunting birds such as Harris Hawks and Kestrels would have been used as natural pest control to protect the grain supply. The person who would have trained hawks for hunting was known as an ‘Austringer’, a word that originates from medieval French.
In 2017 my year was made when I found this fragment of wedge riveted mail armour lying on a slab of rock on the Thames Foreshore in the City of London. I shudder to think that I nearly didn’t pick it up, thinking it was just rusting iron scrap from a boat or barge, but a little voice inside me made me go back, pick it up and take it home with me. I’m very glad I did. When I later took it to the Museum of London it was identified as being chain mail, once part of a suit of armour, from approximately the 12th to 16th Century although more likely to be from the late 15th or early 16th Century. It’s now recorded with the PAS and is probably part of the shoulder or arm from a full suit of armour as the links over the body would have been riveted in a different manner.
Chain mail was incredibly valuable and expensive to make and even after a soldier’s death would have been recycled. It wouldn’t have been thrown casually into the river, so who knows how it got there.
Last, but not least, my most recent mudlarking find of 2019 is this lead key. I’m not sure of its precise provenance but it definitely has quite a bit of age to it and is likely to be from Georgian times, approximately early 1800s. I’m guessing it might have been the key to a chest or something similar, and whoever lost it would have been furious. Who knows the secrets it once kept locked? Hopefully once I’ve taken this beauty to the FLO at the Museum of London in the new year I’ll be able to tell you a little more about it but, for now, we can only guess at the story this key might tell.
Thank you for reading my blog this year and hoping my key unlocks some new finds in 2020. There are many occasions when I don’t find much, if at all, on my foreshore visits so I’m always grateful when things turn up and I can share my stories of forgotten people from the past.
If you’d like to take up mudlarking or detecting, please note that it’s illegal to remove items from the foreshore without a valid permit. These can be obtained from the Port of London Authority (see Advice section of my blog for a hyperlink), who are currently issuing permits for 2020 – 2022. Please see their website for further guidance and information regarding safe access to the foreshore at low tide. I also recommend the marvellous folk at the Thames Discovery Programme, under the umbrella of the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA,) who organise guided foreshore tours suitable for everyone. These are a safe way of discovering the history and archaeology of the Thames if you feel that solitary visits to the river are not for you. Please check out their website for 2020 schedules, a hyperlink is also available in the advice section of my website.
Happy New Year to you all, and wishing everyone a peaceful and healthy 2020.