I’m still not able to bring you any new finds from the Thames as we remain in lockdown in the UK, so instead I’ve decided to blog about some of my favourite mudlarking and Thames history books. The Japanese have a word – ‘tsundoku’ -which means owning more books than you can actually read and I can really identify with this as I can’t resist adding to my collection of history books, shelves literally groaning under the weight of them. The family joke that one day they’ll come in to our study and find the bookcases collapsed, me buried underneath like an unfortunate mountaineer in an avalanche. At the very least the current pandemic and severe restrictions on travel have given me the opportunity to read and read and read.
The first mudlarking book I ever read was by the father of modern mudlarking, Ivor Noël Hume. A self-taught archaeologist who started out as an amateur playwright and stage director in a London Theatre, eventually becoming the chief archaeologist of Colonial Williamsburg, Noël Hume often mudlarked on the Thames Foreshore in the City of London in the late 1940s and 1950s where he found many wonderful finds spanning millennia of British history. In my view, he represents a romantic yet grounded view of mudlarking and in his day, just as now, it was a popular recreational activity.
‘Treasure In The Thames’ is a very readable, informative and entertaining book about the history and archaeology of the Thames. Unfortunately it’s been out of print for some years now and has therefore become quite difficult to find, regularly changing hands for upwards of £70 for a copy of the book in good condition. It’s worth looking in charity shops as well as second hand and antiquarian book shops for a copy, but they’re quickly snapped up when they appear and people are prepared to pay quite large sums to get their hands on one. While I was writing this blog I did a quick internet search of various sites to check availability and there wasn’t a copy anywhere at the moment. I have heard rumours that there are ongoing conversations with the estate of Ivor Noël Hume, so maybe the book will be reprinted soon. Let’s hope so as there’s a keen and ready market for an updated edition, bringing it to a new generation of mudlarks. It can definitely lay claim to being described as the first ever book about Thames Archaeology.
My other favourite book by Ivor Noël Hume is the fabulously titled ‘All The Best Rubbish’. This one is more easily available, still in print, and you should be able to pick up a copy for approximately £12, depending on the supplier. Like ‘Treasure In The Thames’ it’s an immensely readable tome about the pleasure of studying and collecting everyday objects from the past. The Thames is, after all, a liquid rubbish tip so anyone keen on searching and collecting will be able to identify with this. Our Thames found bits of tat are rubbish to some, but treasure to us, and Noël Hume really understands the passion that grips collectors of artefacts and antiquities.
One of my favourite recent books about the archaeology of the Thames Foreshore is ‘The River’s Tale’ by Nathalie Cohen and Eliott Wragg. At the time of writing this book, both Nathalie and Eliott worked for the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) and the book is about the exploration of thousands of years of human activity along the Thames, London’s longest archaeological site. Thames Discovery and their volunteer helpers (FROGs) examine the structures and deposits left behind in the river at low tide as they monitor and record the the archaeology and use of the river. The book is a MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) publication and costs £15. It’s really worth buying and has taught me a lot about Thames archaeology.
The last few years have seen what I describe as a Golden Age of mudlarking books in which a new generation of mudlarks has taken to print, writing books in which they share their modern experiences of mudlarking. This new range of books contains some very individual voices and are all well worth reading. The first of this group of books is ‘Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames’ by Lara Maiklem. This is a beautifully written book, published in 2019, and is now available in paperback as well as hardback. If you want to know what mudlarking feels like then this is the book for you. Known as ‘London Mudlark’, Lara scours the Thames from its tidal origins at Teddington in the west of London, to the Estuary in the east, searching for urban solitude as well as historical artefacts on the foreshore. I particularly enjoyed this book as it’s one of the few recent mudlarking books written by a woman and it would be good to see more females writing books about this genre. Lara’s book was also chosen as the Radio 4 ‘Book Of The Week.’
Another ‘must read’ modern mudlarking book is ‘London In Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures’ by Ted Sandling, now available both in hard and paperback. The book is beautifully written and illustrated, and showcases over a hundred of Ted’s mudlarking finds. He writes evocatively celebrating the beauty of small finds, making sense of the hundreds of artefacts and fragments he includes in his book and the way these objects connect us with the original individuals who lost or threw away these items centuries ago. It is thanks to Ted that I first identified what a ‘prunt’ was – no, I’m not going to explain what one is. You’ll have to buy Ted’s book and find out for yourselves!
The latest in a pleasing line of recent mudlarking publications is this beautifully presented book published by Shire Books. ‘Thames Mudlarking: Searching For London’s Lost Treasures’ by Jason Sandy and Nick Stevens explores a fascinating and intriguing assortment of Thames finds from prehistoric to modern times. An enjoyable and informative read, it’s particularly useful for those who have recently started mudlarking as it’s very helpful regarding finds identification. I would have loved to have had access to a book like this for reference when I first started mudlarking many years ago. Reading this book this week has been a real tonic for these very difficult times when it’s been impossible to get to the river, and it’s helped assuage my mudlarking withdrawal symptoms.
I’m going to restrict myself to just one or two more suggestions as otherwise this blog will go on forever and probably cost you all a fortune if you buy just a fraction of the books I’ve recommended, though I refuse to apologise for this as these books are all fabulous and interesting in their own individual ways.
Another book that would have been useful when I first started mudlarking was a clear and informative pottery ID book. So I was really pleased to discover this last year, available in PDF form from eBay and costing a very respectable £2.99. ‘Identifying the Pottery of the Thames Foreshore’ by Richard Hemery contains lots of handy pottery and porcelain illustrations, and I understand Richard is writing a bigger tome on Thames Pottery that will hopefully be available sometime in the future. But, in the meantime, this definitely does the job. A handy guide to a range of Thames found pottery sherds from Roman times, Medieval, German stoneware, Staffordshire slipware, Tin Glaze through to Chinese porcelain imports. Richard also has his own YouTube channel which is worth checking out.
And last but by no means least, two quite pricey but nonetheless really important books from the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme – ‘Finds Identified’ and ‘Finds Identified II’ – both by Kevin Leahy and Michael Lewis. The books retail at £30 each and are hefty but beautifully presented tomes. Arranged on a thematic basis, the book identifies a range of finds made by metal detectorists and mudlarks and recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme. I recently identified a medieval pin using the illustrations in these books, really useful at a time when lockdown has meant mudlarks are not able to show their finds personally to their Finds Liaison Officer.
Happy reading and please stay safe!