It’s been a difficult and anxious few weeks as war wages brutally in Ukraine, the rest of the world looking on powerless. I try to avoid politics in these blogs, or real life worries creeping in (this is a historical blog, when all is said and done, a distraction from the present) but sometimes it’s impossible to ignore terrible events that affect us all. This is one of those times. We can’t turn our backs on awful atrocities and it’s important to acknowledge this and bear witness. Meanwhile my family, along with many others, have tried to do what we can, including donating to the hugely experienced people at the International Red Cross who have well established operations in both Ukraine and Poland where so many displaced refugees have ended up. I hope and pray that peace comes to Ukraine soon.
Sometimes, in the light of my opening paragraph, mudlarking seems quite trivial in comparison with grim world events, and I must admit my heart hasn’t been in the last few trips to the Thames. But life continues, we put one foot in front of the other, and on we go.
My first blog of 2022 was about discovering a family link to Limehouse on my husband’s side of the family and this blog is a continuation of that. It features a mudlarking find on the foreshore here which tells the history of a particular group of people within the Limehouse community that isn’t perhaps as well known as it should be.
There’s an area by the embankment wall where I’ve previously noticed lots of metal gathering together in a clump at low tide. Deep within this cluster of scrap – iron nails, chains and corroding rivets from old boats and barges – I spotted what I thought was an unusual coin. Made of brass/copper alloy, with four Chinese characters visible, it has a square hole in the centre. On the reverse side there’s what looks like a serpent, or maybe two serpents intertwined, it’s difficult to say for sure. A fellow mudlark came over to check out what I’d found and told me this wasn’t a coin at all but a Chinese gaming token.
Limehouse has long been associated with the beginnings of the first Chinese community in London from 1880 onwards, divided into two distinct groups. Northern Chinese and those speaking the Shanghai dialect settling around Pennyfields in the east, while the Cantonese community from Hong Kong or Guangzhou (Canton) settled nearer the docks on Limehouse Causeway.
The years leading to the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901) saw the British determined to expand their influence in China. Soldiers, merchants and missionaries set sail from Limehouse Reach to China, while ships returning to Limehouse and other UK ports, such as Liverpool and the Tiger Bay area in Cardiff, saw Chinese sailors, employed by British ships as cheap labour, jump ship when they arrived here. They tended to settle wherever they’d alighted and quickly opened up shops, cafés, laundries and gambling houses. It’s likely that my token find may have been used in a game known as Fan Tan played in a Limehouse gambling den. The romantic in me has even speculated this token may have been touched by the hands of my husband’s great-grandfather George who lived on Narrow Street nearby. But that’s wishful thinking, I know. We have no evidence he gambled but he may well have indulged in the occasional flutter.
Limehouse quickly became dubbed ‘Chinatown’ by the newspapers, and initially the new arrivals were viewed in a positive light bringing a dash of exotic colour to a grey, grimy and busy docklands area.
Inevitably hostility to the new community began to creep in. Limehouse women began to marry Chinese men, who they viewed as a better catch than many of the local males. Chinese men were seen as hard-working, non-drinking, exotic and therefore more reliable husband material than much of what was normally on offer. This led to resentment and anger. In 1901 The Morning Post wrote about an incident where an angry mob stoned the first Chinese Laundry that had just opened its doors in the Pennyfields area. It was sadly the precursor of similar acts to come.
By 1910 powerful, sinister myths began to develop around the Chinese community in Limehouse, politicians manipulating fears around cheap and plentiful immigrant labour (a familiar and effective anti-immigration trope still deployed today) and writers of popular fiction began to use Chinese Limehouse as a setting for their books. Drug trafficking (opium), gambling and the sexual ensnarement and exploitation of white women featured prominently in these best-selling stories.
The most famous of these writers was Sax Rohmer (real name Arthur Henry Ward) who published the first of his evil Dr Fu-Manchu novels set in the exotic underworld of Limehouse in 1913.
But even at its height, Limehouse residents of Chinese origin only numbered about 300 or so. The 1920s slum clearances eventually contributed to the decline of this community here and it began to move slowly to Soho and the West End where it remains today.
There is a strange twist to this tale of the history of the Chinese community in Limehouse and my gaming token find on the foreshore. Shortly after I’d posted the story of this artefact on social media, a fellow mudlark contacted me to say that a local man, for reasons that remain unclear, had apparently bought a large number of modern Chinese gaming tokens from the website of the world’s largest online retailer and been seen throwing them into the river at Limehouse. Perhaps to tease, frustrate or even annoy the mudlarking community who come down here to search for finds, but it’s unfortunate if so. Inevitably it seems that mudlarks have been finding these ‘fake’ Chinese gaming tokens, believing they’ve discovered the real thing. It would seem these particular tokens are anything but.
I hope that the token I found is an original one. I spotted it a bit further downstream from where the newer interlopers seem to be ending up and it looks much thinner than these ‘fake’ types. Also my token has traces of wear and tear, plus some green discolouration round the edge, typical of brass/copper alloy when it’s been immersed in water for some time. So I think, and hope, it’s the real McCoy. But who knows?