Last week I made my third trip to the Thames Foreshore since lockdown restrictions were eased in June, and only the second visit to mudlark in the City of London. I’m still careful about travelling on public transport – the trains are on the quiet side but getting a little bit busier – and I’m limiting my use of trains and buses, for obvious reasons. It’s now de rigeur to pack a couple of face masks into my mudlarking rucksack as well as hand gel and protective gloves, but this is the world we’re living in right now and we have to get used to behaving responsibly and safely when we’re out and about. As someone said to me the other day, ‘this is a global pandemic and we’re all in it together’.
I haven’t found a great deal on my limited trips to the foreshore in June, July and August so far – a few glass beads, a broken clay pipe bowl, some post medieval pottery sherds – but it’s been a joy to return even though everything in London is still muted and offices and buildings remain empty. There’s also a sadness about the City of London at the moment that I’ve never seen before and I’m not sure whether things will ever completely return to normal although it is, slowly, becoming busier and restaurants and museums, but unfortunately not theatres, have re-opened. The Thames Clippers have started running again, albeit not in the numbers they once did, and tourists travelling on them are still few and far between. The gloopy green Thames mud that built up when the river fell silent at the end of March, and there was no boat traffic to create ‘churn’ or movement, has now more or less cleared away which makes it easier to find smaller items again.
Last week I was thrilled to hear that BBC Travel had posted an article about mudlarking. Written by journalist Ben Gazur and titled ‘The Lost Treasures of London’s River Thames’ it featured input from myself and other mudlarks about our favourite finds and passion for the history and archaeology of the river. As a result of this article traffic to my blog has increased considerably which is thrilling. So, if you’re new to this blog and to mudlarking along the river Thames in London, you’re most welcome and I’m very pleased you’ve found my mudlarking page. I’ve had so many emails from people all round the world and if you’ve sent me a question or other enquiry I’ll be replying to you as soon as I can, I promise. I’m enormously grateful to Ben for featuring me in this piece.
I also hope to be starting my very own mudlarking channel on YouTube at some point before the end of the year. If YouTube is your thing and you like the idea of checking out mudlarking videos there are lots to choose from. I hesitate to mention names as I’m bound to leave people out and I don’t want to offend anyone, but some of my own favourite mudlarks who have their own channels are Nicola White (also known as Tideline Art), Richard Hemery (an expert on Thames pottery and much more knowledgeable about pottery sherds than I will ever be), Simon Bourne (known as ‘Si-Finds’) and the Northern Mudlarks (a mother/daughter partnership who mudlark in the North of England and who show that mudlarking isn’t just about London and the Thames, you can mudlark wherever there is a tidal river). Do please check them all out and subscribe to their channels.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog and missed Ben’s article, here is the link to the BBC Travel website http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20200729-the-lost-treasures-of-londons-river-thames?referer=https%3A%2F%2Ft.co%2FnWLiviDx3f%3Famp%3D1
This week I’ve been researching a find from earlier in the year, prior to lockdown. In February I was mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore when wash from a passing Thames Clipper threw something glittering and exciting at my feet. This doesn’t happen often but it does happen occasionally and, when it does, it’s a very special moment. A passing mudlark identified it immediately as a jeton, or jetton, even though at first I thought that it was a coin.
The word ‘jeton’ originates from the French verb ‘jeter’, to throw. Jetons were important in medieval and post medieval times for keeping accounts, tracking commercial transactions and financial calculations. They were used to help keep accounts at the Royal Exchequer and the word ‘exchequer’ itself means chessboard, a board divided into squares. It was on these tables that jetons were placed in order to carry out calculations. In England, the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer originated because previous holders of this role once presided over similar chequered counting boards.
Calculations on a chequer board were done in the following way; vertical columns were marked with values eg £ (pounds), s (shillings) and d (pence) while the horizontal rows showed the transaction details. For each group of twelve penny counters (twelve old English pennies equalled one English shilling) a single counter or jeton was added to the shillings square, while the twelve pennies were removed from the pennies square. And so on until the transaction was complete.
I’ve found a couple of medieval German woodcuts featuring financial calculations taking place around a counting table. Sadly, very few examples of counting tables exist to the present day, probably because they would have been repurposed for something else when no longer in use. The second one is a particular favourite as it shows a woman present in what appears to be a central role. It’s not completely clear what she’s doing in this but she’s in this woodcut for a reason, a child by her side. It’s a commonly held opinion that women were by and large excluded from business during the medieval period but this isn’t necessarily the case. Although women were not allowed to be members of Guilds French, German and English records of this period show widows taking over from dead husbands and continuing with his business or trade, particularly the import and export of wool, where there were many powerful women present. Also in the aiglet (shoelace) making business in Paris where a woman was able, with the support of a Guild, to continue with the work of her late husband and thus provide her family with an income.
The jeton I found washed up at my feet on the Thames Foreshore is known as a ‘Ship’s Penny’ and dates from approximately 1550. Made from brass/copper alloy (jetons are not made from gold or other precious metal although the gilt of the copper gives them the appearance of gold) the obverse shows a stylized French Galley (ship) in a circle, the lettering or legend surrounding this circle reads ‘HANS SCHULTES GEMACHT’, which is the German for ‘Engraved by Hans Schultes.’
The reverse of the Ship’s Penny jeton shows four fleur-de-lis set in a diamond shaped lozenge or shield, the lettering surrounding this is more faded but is likely to repeat the name of Hans Schultes and include a series of initials indicating the number of these tokens made.
Throughout the 15th century, the French dominated the manufacture of jetons. By the end of this century and into the 16th century their dominance began to decline as Nuremberg (Germany) began to establish itself as the main centre of cheap, mass-produced jetons and France could no longer compete.
There were many famous Nuremberg jeton-making families and mudlarks frequently find Nuremberg jetons on the Thames Foreshore. They’re always a lovely find, some are quite ubiquitous in number (eg Hans Krauwinckel jetons) while others like my Ship’s Penny are rarer, particularly when found in a good condition.
The Schultes jeton makers were Jorg, Hans I, Hans II and Hans III. I’ve previously found a Hans Krauwinckel ‘Lion of St Mark’ jeton although it was so battered and faded it was hard to identify, it’s nonetheless a fairly common find on the Thames foreshore. The Krauwinckels – Damianus, Hans I, Egidius and Hans II – were also prolific jeton manufacturers from Nuremberg, as were generations of the Hoffmans, Koch, Vogel, Weidinger and Zwingel families. I’m grateful to Michael Mitchiner for his book ‘Jetons, Medalets and Tokens – The Medieval Period and Nuremberg’, a really useful resource if you want to know more about these items.
The Hans Schultes’ Ship’s Penny jeton has been modelled on an original and earlier French design, perhaps to show continuity and a link to the French jeton makers, and this can be seen in the use of the French Galley design plus fleur-de-lis, common in the crest of many European Royal families but particularly associated with the French Bourbon monarchs.
I’ll never know who dropped this jeton in the Thames or how it got there – perhaps a merchant disembarking from a ship, a small velvet pouch containing these tokens falling from his hands straight into the river – but whoever lost this would have known nothing of modern times, of electricity, flight, mobile phones, the internet and the way we live now. The thought that I was the first person for five hundred years to have touched this item still makes me shiver to this day.
And that is why I love mudlarking.