Richmond Draw-Off

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The first two weeks of November saw a continuation of above average temperatures and some spectacular autumn weather, the perfect background for visiting the Thames Foreshore during the annual Richmond Draw-Off. This takes place every year during the first three weeks of November and is when the London Port Authority lifts Richmond Lock and Weir in order to carry out vital repairs and clear out accumulations of sediment. At low tide this results in the river between Richmond and Teddington Locks looking as if someone’s pulled the plug. It’s a stunning sight. The annual Draw-Off also provides a welcome opportunity for volunteers to clear the river bed at Richmond, mudlarks and detectorists to chance their luck with finds in areas that aren’t normally accessible at other parts of the year, and for Thames Discovery to come down to do some vital monitoring of the structures on the foreshore here.

 

 

IMG_0985                      Thames Discovery checking out the low tide by the Georgian jetty.

So this was a great reason to stroll along the embankment from Twickenham to Richmond on a sunny November morning in order to join the Thames Discovery team, helped by the ever knowledgeable George from the Richmond Archaeological Society, for the annual monitoring visit.

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The Richmond upon Thames area is rich in history and archaeology, though the archaeology tends to be less well known. In prehistoric times, mounds and caves stretched from what are now Richmond Hill and Richmond Park along the ancient embankment of the river, which was much wider than it is now. Archaeological finds from pre-history often turn up on the river foreshore during the Draw-Off period and George from the RAS had brought along some finds he’d made on previous November visits to the Richmond foreshore. These finds included a spectacular worked flint hand axe discovered in the river, and which is approximately a mind-blowing 43,000 years old.

The oldest and earliest flint hand tools date back even further into prehistory to approximately 700,000 BC although would have been found in what is now Ethiopia rather than the landscape of South West London as early man was not yet present on the European continent. The first people living in this area in prehistory would have used carefully worked flint tools to hunt mammoths, bison and reindeer. Ritualistic marks on human bones also found in this area from that time show evidence of cannibalism, ie that humans were deliberately and carefully dismembering other humans in order to eat them. It’s safe to say that cannibalism isn’t normally associated with the green, leafy and affluent landscape of South West London, but it’s always fascinating to add a touch of the macabre to South West London’s history.

Fossil finds are also reasonably frequent on the South West London foreshore and it’s always a pleasure to find a nice example or two. This year’s Draw-Off proved lucky for me when I found an unusual heart-shaped Echinoid, from the late Ordovician period, and a mind-blowing 400-450 million years old. We can never be a hundred per cent certain how fossils end up in the Thames as it’s possible they’re washed in from the South Downs via the Thames Estuary. Equally we know that they may be more closely linked to the Neolithic and other ancient settlements along the river in this area. Echinoid fossils were thought to contain magical and spiritual properties and often turn up at Neolithic burial sites. In the Middle Ages, Echinoids were known as ‘Faerie Loaves.’

IMG_1008                       Worked flint hand axe, approx. 43,000 years old, found by the RAS.

 

IMG_1128                         Echinoid fossil, late Ordovician period, 400- 450 million years old.

The current river embankment is man made and the subsequent dumping of hard core has resulted in a much narrower river that frequently floods at high tide. If you’re travelling in to Richmond by train or car you can often see flooded areas of grass adjacent to the Old Deer Park. It’s important to remember that, although sea levels are rising and therefore so are river levels, the flooding of Richmond Riverside is essentially the river returning to its natural and ancient embankment. If you’re familiar with the White Swan pub in Old Palace Lane you might not know that this was the original site of the moat from the old Tudor Palace.

IMG_1060                        Car park in Old Palace Lane, the site of Richmond Palace moat.

The demolition of Richmond Palace, and its subsequent loss to history, was a huge shame. Henry VII built Richmond Palace on the site of the former Palace of Shene which was badly damaged by fire in 1497 when the King was there to celebrate Christmas. Inevitably after the fire Henry wanted to rebuild the palace. The Royal Apartments had been situated in the Privy Lodgings area, the side that faced the river, and it’s thought that much of this area escaped the inferno so the same ground plan was incorporated in the new design.

A bridge over the moat, surviving from Edward III’s time, linked the Privy Lodgings to a central courtyard , flanked by the Great Hall and the Chapel. The Great Hall was built of stone, roofed with lead and supported on an undercroft used as a buttery and offices. The Chapel, also of stone, was decorated in ornate style. Underneath it were the wine cellars while above was a floor devoted to rooms for court officials. The Chapel’s ceiling was of a chequered timber design, the plaster decorated with roses and portcullis badges.

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IMG_1637          The West Front of Richmond Palace, drawn by Antony Wyngaerde, dated 1562

The gate opened up into the Great Court which had red brick buildings on the east, west and north sides. These included the palace wardrobe where the soft furnishings were stored. It was essential for the Monarch to travel regularly from palace to palace, or other grand residence, on Royal business and to show himself to his subjects. As the King did so his soft furnishings – tapestries, furniture, paintings and other decorative, portable items – would travel with him. The photo below shows the palace wardrobe area today.

IMG_1067                                   The area formerly known as the Palace Wardrobe.

In 1501, Henry VII, having ‘rebuilt it up again sumptuously and costly….’decided to change the name from Shene Palace to Richmond. The reason for the change of name is thought to have been because both he and his father had been Earls of Richmond (in Yorkshire.)

For a brief, glorious time, Richmond Palace was one of the palatial stars of the Kingdom. The wedding celebrations of Prince Arthur, Henry VII’s eldest son, to Catherine of Aragon took place at Richmond, as did the engagement of Princess Margaret to King James of Scotland in 1503. Henry VII himself died here on 21 April 1509, as did Elizabeth I on 24th March 1603. Richmond was thought to be Elizabeth’s favourite palace.

Henry, who had unexpectedly found himself king as Henry VIII on the untimely death of his older brother Arthur in 1502, (possibly from bubonic plague), married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, and in 1510 Catherine gave birth at Richmond to a son, also called Henry, but who sadly died a month later. Catherine gave birth to only one surviving child, Princess Mary.

Henry VIII preferred to spend much of his time in the bigger Hampton Court Palace, further upstream and originally built by the ambitious Cardinal Wolsey for himself, so Richmond eventually became a home for discarded queens – first Catherine and her daughter Mary, and later it was given to Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, as part of the canny Queen’s divorce settlement.

Both Mary and Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn, made more use of Richmond during their reigns. Elizabeth adored Richmond as her winter home, probably in large part due to the fact its compact design made it easier to keep warm, no mean feat where draughty stone palaces were concerned. Elizabeth enjoyed having plays specially performed for her at Richmond, especially by the company of actors that included William Shakespeare as a member. It’s perfectly possible therefore that Shakespeare himself may have visited Richmond in order to entertain the Queen.

When the Tudor Dynasty ended due to lack of a direct heir (Elizabeth never married), James I of the House of Stuart and the Queen’s closest relative, was next in line to the throne. James I gave Richmond Palace to his eldest son, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, whose mother was Anne of Denmark. A talented, sporty and clever young man he was predicted to be a great King. However fate had different plans for him and sadly he died on the 6th November 1612 at the age of 18 having unwisely gone swimming in the freezing Thames at Richmond, contracting a severe fever which it’s thought then morphed into typhoid. His brother, Charles, stubborn in character and unsuited to ruling, became King instead and ascended the throne as Charles I. Charles expressed little interest in improving and enlarging the palace although it remained a popular home for the Royal Children until the Civil War. After Charles I’s execution in 1649, the Palace was sold on the orders of Oliver Cromwell. Some of the buildings survived but sadly the Chapel, Great Hall and Privy Lodgings were demolished and the stones sold off or thrown into the river.

What was left of Richmond Palace was leased out to various people and new houses were built, many of which can be seen today, to replace the crumbling and old brick buildings. The front facing the court still shows Tudor brickwork as does the Gate House (see photo below). ‘Maids of Honour Row’ replaced most of the buildings facing the Green, and most of the house now called ‘Old Palace’ was rebuilt in 1740. Old Palace Yard survives as the name of the road leading up to the Gate House.

Old Palace Yard, Tudor crest visible above the archway

The Richmond Draw-Off has resulted in some splendid and rare finds from the Stuart period of history. A thrusting dagger, known as a ‘dirk’ or ‘bollock dagger’, for obvious reasons, was found on the Thames Foreshore by a member of the Richmond Archaeological Society. The handle is a new one based on the design of the Stuart period, the blade is original.

IMG_1045                        A Stuart ‘Dirk’ found by the Richmond Archaeological Society

Also found on the Thames Foreshore during the Richmond Draw-Off by the RAS, is this  very early and beautiful sherd of stoneware pottery, possibly from 1700, and showing an image of Queen Anne, last of the Stuart Dynasty, second daughter of James II and his wife Ann Hyde.

 

IMG_1051                               Stoneware from 1700 showing an image of Queen Anne

The November Draw-Off reveals other things that aren’t normally visible at other times of year. On our recent monitoring trip it was good to see this beautiful eel. The poor thing was literally drawing its last breath as we carefully approached to check it out, probably exhausted by both spawning and its mammoth journey from the Sargasso Sea all the way to South West London. The good news though was that the sight of the eel is evidence of the improved cleanliness of the Thames. Long may this continue.

IMG_1038                                         Richmond Eel, straight from the Sargasso Sea

Rivers have been linked to various religious rituals throughout history, even used as burial sites in the past. Hindu offerings, such as the ones in my photo below, turn up frequently on the Thames Foreshore and we always leave them where we find them.

Hindu Offerings on the Richmond Foreshore

The 2018 November Draw-Off has now come to an end and the foreshore is no longer so visible at low tide. The end of our monitoring visit this year ended on Richmond Green, beautiful and golden in the late autumn sunlight.

IMG_1094                                                                    Richmond Green

So, bidding you a fond farewell from the Richmond Foreshore until next year. See you all in November 2019 to see what treasure the Thames will be generous enough to show us.

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Deptford Foreshore

September has come to an end, I’m back from a holiday in France and we’re well into autumn, “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” as John Keats memorably wrote in his poem ‘To Autumn’. This has been the month of ‘Totally Thames’ Festival, an event that celebrates the life of the river with a wonderful calendar of activities, exhibitions and other events across the Capital.

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Views of Canary Wharf and the Financial Sector from the Deptford Foreshore

It was therefore the perfect opportunity for me to go on my first ever TDP (Thames Discovery Programme) guided foreshore walk in a part of London I’m ashamed to say I’ve never visited before – Deptford, and therefore an excellent topic for another blog. Deptford isn’t visited nearly as much as its more famous neighbour Greenwich, but it has an interesting history. Playwright, translator and poet Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death here, allegedly in a brawl over a tavern bill, in 1593. Sculptor and wood carver Grinling Gibbons, known as the British Bernini, was born in Rotterdam but moved to England and settled in Deptford in approximately 1667. Gibbons created exquisite wood carvings for churches and palaces, such as Hampton Court Palace, Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral, also working in stone.

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Watergate Street

I arrived at Watergate Street early so took myself off to see the rather disturbing monument to Tsar Peter The Great, described as London’s ‘weirdest’ statue.  It overlooks the foreshore at Glaiser Street and you can hardly miss it – the 6 foot 8 inches (2.03m) Tsar with his favourite dwarf and travelling throne. A reminder of this eccentric Russian monarch’s four month visit to Deptford in 1698 when he and his entourage stayed at the house of the writer, diarist and gardener, John Evelyn, in Sayes Court, and successfully managed to trash both house and garden with their drunken antics. Poor John Evelyn had already let out his precious house to Captain John Benbow, described as an ‘impolite tenant’, who further outraged Evelyn by subletting the house to the ‘right nasty’ Peter the Great, who was travelling incognito as Peter Mikhailov. One of the Sayes Court servants described the following carnage:

‘No part of the house escaped damage. All the floors were covered in grease and ink, and three new floors had to be provided. The tiled stoves, locks to the doors, and all the paint work had to be renewed. The curtains, quilts and bed linen were ‘tore in pieces.’ All the chairs in the house, numbering over fifty, were broken, or had disappeared, probably used to stoke the fires. Three hundred window panes were broken and there were ‘twenty fine pictures very much tore and all frames broke.’ The garden which was Evelyn’s pride and joy was ruined.’ (Ian Grey, ‘Peter The Great In England’, p229.)

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Peter The Great’s Statue, Deptford

When not vandalising Evelyn’s house and garden, the Tsar spent time in the Deptford shipyards learning the shipbuilding trade. A journeyman-shipwright employed there at that time noted that ‘the Tsar of Muscovy worked with his own hands as hard as any man in the yard.’ Peter eventually took the shipbuilding knowledge he’d acquired at Deptford back to Russia, thus laying the foundations for the Russian Navy and establishing the country as an emerging major European power.

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Watergate Stairs

As we walked down Watergate Stairs onto the foreshore it was easy to imagine the busy wharves and waterfront at the turn of the 19th Century but harder to envisage this area in Peter the Great’s time. What is now Deptford Creek was once the mouth of the River Ravensbourne, overlooked by what would have once been a relatively small fishing village. Our TDP foreshore guide, archaeologist Eliott Wragg, pointed out the stranded remains of a Lighter, a type of flat-bottomed boat, visible at low tide at the entrance to Deptford Creek. A Lighter would have been used to transfer goods and passengers to and from ships moored out on the Thames.

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Thames Lighter at Deptford Creek

Henry VIII founded a naval dockyard at Deptford in 1513, a good location for the monarch due to its proximity to the Royal Palace downstream at Greenwich. From this moment on Deptford’s importance re the shipbuilding trade can’t be underestimated. LM Bates has said of the Deptford waterfront: ‘This was the ground from which , more than any other, grew the British Empire. In 1577, Francis Drake sailed from Deptford via Plymouth for a three year circumnavigation of the globe and on his return was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. His ship, The Golden Hinde, was moored at Deptford and became one of the biggest tourist attractions of the age with people frequently stealing parts of the ship to take home as souvenirs and talismans. (NB The Golden Hinde at Southwark is a replica.)

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Deptford Foreshore Facing Burrell’s Wharf

Along the Deptford waterfront we could see across the Thames to historic Burrell’s Wharf, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument (or S.A.M.) It was here that Isambard Kingdom Brunel watched over the ill-fated launch of his great new ship, the massive SS Great Eastern, on 31 January 1858. Brunel and his business partner Scott Russell were under tight financial constraints at the time of building the SS Great Eastern and there was no money available to build a brand new dock or launch site, hence the choice of Napier’s Yard at Burrell’s Wharf, next to the Millwall Iron Works. The soft peat and clay of the foreshore made it ill-suited for the launch of such a big and heavy ship and the foundations of the slipway couldn’t support the 12,000 tonne vessel, the first one of her time to be almost entirely constructed of metal. The ship was also far too long for a traditional launch into the Thames, which would have seen it in danger of shooting up Deptford High Street, so the decision was made to launch it sideways. Even so, when the moment of launch finally came, the ship refused to budge. Thousands of people had turned up to see this huge spectacle so it was a hugely embarrassing moment for Brunel who’d have preferred to keep the public away. It took another three launches over three months to finally get the SS Great Eastern into the river.

The Deptford dockyards soon became large centres of industry in their own right hosting a wide range of businesses supplying the local community and Navy, plus overseeing the building of important war ships during the 17th and 18th centuries. Hundreds of men were employed in the shipyards at Deptford both constructing and repairing warships. At the western end of the dockyard was once the Victualling Yard, which by 1742 was extremely busy providing supplies such as food and other vital provisions to the Navy. By Victorian times, such was the importance of the Navy to British foreign policy and the accumulation and governance of the Oversees Territories, the Victualling Yard had to expand to meet this need. This resulted in the addition of slaughter houses, a brewery and facilities for pickle production, biscuit making and milling pepper. The Victualling Yard eventually closed in 1961 when ships became larger and the Thames was found to be too shallow for them to navigate safely. The era of Deptford Historic Shipyard had therefore come to an end and ships began to head to Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth for repair. In the 1950s/60s when the London Docks finally closed, commercial shipping moved downstream to Tilbury and this part of the shipbuilding history on the Thames Foreshore fast became a distant memory.

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Sherd of pottery from the Edinburgh, London, Leith & Glasgow Steam Company

However, even by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Deptford was already in major decline. It had a brief respite in the 1840s and 1850s to accommodate the era of small steam-powered ships but this didn’t last long and Deptford Dockyard finally closed at the same time as Woolwich in 1869. While mudlarking a bit further upstream on the Thames Foreshore I’d found a sherd of pottery from a porcelain plate advertising the London, Leith, Edinburgh and Glasgow Shipping Company, a legacy of the small steamships, some of which had been built or repaired at Deptford and Woolwich. Picking up passengers at one of three Scottish ports of Leith, Edinburgh or Glasgow they then sailed to St Katharine’s Wharf in London. These steam ships would have once been deemed to be the height of luxury and passengers could eat off porcelain crockery with the company’s logo emblazoned across it.

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It’s addictive pottering around on the Thames foreshore here and the maritime history of Deptford is fascinating. The cat and I are currently engrossed in a book TDP’s Eliott Wragg recommended to further our knowledge of this period in British History, called ‘Shipbuilders Of The Thames And Medway’ by Philip Banbury.

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TDP Guided Foreshore Walk Of Deptford

Totally Thames Festival is over for 2018 but the Thames Discovery Programme tours continue, an excellent and safe way of learning about many different parts of the foreshore. Check out their website (link is on the home page under ‘Advice’) to see what events they’ll be organising for 2019.

Trinity Buoy Wharf And The Mystery Of The Clipped Coins.

Yesterday I went all the way to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets to mudlark at Trinity Buoy Wharf, the site of London’s only lighthouse, sitting at the confluence of the river Thames and Bow Creek, the mouth of the river Lea. One of the things I love about mudlarking is the challenge of taking myself out of my usual SW London/Southbank/City of London comfort zones and going further out to the Isle of Dogs and the old London Docks to breathe in the atmosphere, take photos and try my luck in the Thames mud. This place is steeped in maritime history and doesn’t disappoint. A recent flux of new builds and development have breathed much needed life into a previously deprived and ignored area and brought about huge changes to the surrounding landscape.

Turning left out of East India DLR station I walked in the direction of the East India Dock Basin. I’m going to blog about the East India Company on another occasion but couldn’t help thinking abut the transient nature of history; a once massive trading beast with a complex and controversial history, the dock where its ships (East Indiamen) were the largest merchant ships in the British marine is now transformed into a wildlife sanctuary. You could see the effects of the recent prolonged heatwave in the photo below as the mud of the former basin was cracked and dry but it’s a beautiful space – coots, mallards, herons, grebes, greater spotted woodpeckers, green and goldfinches, sparrowhawks and countless other varieties of birds can be seen on or around the water. A woman sitting on one of the benches overlooking the reserve told me she’d seen a kingfisher here earlier that morning.

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The photo below is all that’s left of any visible trace that the basin was once home to ships bringing in precious cargo of teas, silks, saltpetre, Madeira, wine and countless spices. I’d like to say you could still smell these in the air but that would be fanciful although I did pick up the scent of coffee beans being ground and wafting out from the open window of  a nearby kitchen. Someone had clearly leant over the rail a bit too far to take a photo as I could see a mobile phone bobbing about in the bubbling waters below the entrance to the dock. Well, we’ve all done it…

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Below is Orchard Place, now flanked by Industrial Units, but once hugely important in the history of shipbuilding from 1803-1987. It was home to the great shipyards of Perry, Wigram & Green, the Samuda Brothers, Ditchburn & Mare and the Thames Ironworks. Eventually shipbuilding migrated north from the Thames to the Tyne and the Clyde although some repairs continued here till the 1970s. HMS Thunderer was one of the last ships built in the Thames Ironworks in 1911.

 

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Trinity Buoy Wharf at its shipbuilding height employed hundreds of engineers, riveters, platers, pattern makers, smiths, carpenters, painters, chain testers and office staff. The Wharf was responsible for every lighthouse, lightship and buoy between Southwold in Suffolk and Dungeness in Kent.

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The lighthouse on this site isn’t the original one and nor was it specifically built to aid river traffic, but its main function was as a base for conducting experiments with different coloured lights, the results monitored and checked at Charlton across the river. It was here that scientist Michael Faraday discovered a way of clearing the residual gases produced by the huge oil lighthouse lamps and which obscured the light rays. The shed in the photo was installed to commemorate Faraday’s work at Trinity Buoy Wharf although his actual workshop was at the top of the lighthouse. There’s no doubt that Faraday’s experiments saved the lives of countless numbers of those working and travelling on ships, boats and barges on the river and out at sea. After the war, the lighthouse was used to train lighthouse keepers.

There’s a darkness to this place too and on an earlier visit a shiver ran up and down my spine as I read the information board below. Directly across the mouth of the river Lea stood the magnificent Italianate building that housed the main office of The Thames Ironworks & Shipbuilding Company, that built and repaired sizeable ships. 120 ships were launched from this site including HMS Warrior in 1860 (now berthed at Portsmouth) and the battleship HMS Thunderer in 1912. However, in June 1896, spectators, dignitaries and employees of the Ironworks looked on in horror as the wave from the launch of HMS Albion washed thirty seven onlookers from a pontoon to their deaths. Shipbuilding and maintenance was dangerous work and health and safety regulations were not the priority years ago that they are now. I’ve often wondered how many others might have died on this and adjoining sites in the course of their day’s work due to industrial accidents.

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I’d mentioned the East Indiamen earlier and my first finds of the day reflected that part of this foreshore’s history. As the tide went out I pottered about in some rockpools and noticed a piece of grapeshot and then a musket ball washed up by the Thames. Grapeshot (below, left photo) consisted of small round balls, usually of lead or iron, used as an antipersonnel weapon. Usually these were grouped in clusters of three (like a cluster of grapes, hence the name) and broke up when a gun was fired, spreading out in flight like a shotgun charge, spraying the target area and causing significant injuries. Grapeshot was widely used in wars of the 18th and 19th centuries at short range against massed troops.

Musket balls (below, right photo) were used in battle from the early 17th century onwards. Also made from lead and, unlike grapeshot, these are not usually dark gray but cream or light tan due to being buried in preservative Thames mud for centuries. This results in the musket ball developing a coating of lead carbonates, sulphides and oxides, hence the colour. On a previous visit to the Trinity Buoy Foreshore I found some much bigger canister shot. Smaller than a naval cannon ball (designed to blow a hole in the side of a ship) canister shot was also designed to be fired at short range against troops. It was a lethal weapon, capable of blowing a large hole in a man’s skull.

It’s almost impossible to walk more than a few yards on the foreshore here, or other parts of the Isle of Dogs, without coming across signs of World War Two combat and damage. I recently read that the Luftwaffe had been conducting reconnaissance over the London and other key cities of the UK for at least five years prior to the outbreak of war. These reconnaissance flights resulted in the taking of thousands of aerial photos of key installations such as power stations, docks, gas works and factories. When the Germans began their infamous bombing offensive, known as The Blitz, on 7 September 1940, the intelligence gleaned from these aerial photos helped the Luftwaffe pilots locate vital targets. The easiest shape for bomber pilots to recognise from the air as they swooped over the capital was the distinctive U-shaped loop in the Thames, ie the Isle of Dogs, so this was also why the area was principally targeted.

West India and Millwall Docks sustained maximum damage in a matter of days. The East End at that time was densely populated with families and dock workers. Badly misplaced bombs that veered off target fell on surrounding residential areas such as Canning Town, Cubitt Town and the streets of Millwall causing horrific numbers of casualties. On the first night of the Blitz, 430 civilians were killed and over 1500 wounded. In another raid on the Isle of Dogs, it was estimated that 2000 Eastenders died while 47000 houses were completely destroyed. Eventually The Blitz ended on 11 May 1941 after eight months and 5 days of sustained bombing and leaving behind it immense damage and unimaginable numbers of casualties.

I’m always conscious of this when mudlarking on the foreshore here and so it’s no surprise to find a range of World War Two bullets, or shrapnel from anti-aircraft fire, lying in rock pools that become visible as the tide goes out. The most common type of bullet find is the 303 round (see middle photo). On this visit I found a total of four spent bullets, all with the case but minus the shell.

 

Further along this part of the foreshore a range of concrete fortifications and barge bed timbers indicate that this spot was once a hive of activity at low tide. Here I found someone’s brass PORT LOCKER key tag and also a brass button with the distinctive word ‘INTERNATIONAL’ clearly visible. The joy of mudlarking is getting home, cleaning up your finds and then sitting in front of your computer with a cuppa trying to identify them. Any words, names and logos help but I haven’t as yet been able to discover much more about either of these items. However, clumsy fingers have always dropped things into the river, especially on sites where they would have been busy loading and unloading goods from barges to the shore, so I’m always grateful for anything interesting that turns up.

But the absolute highlight of my day mudlarking at Trinity Buoy Wharf was definitely the moment when I found what looked like half of a Ten Franc clipped coin from 1965. As a general rule, mudlarks are less interested in modern coin finds than they are old ones but I was intrigued as to why this coin had been cut in this manner or who might have dropped it here. Returning to the same spot fifteen minutes later I was staggered to find what looked like the other half to the same or similar coin and the words ‘Republique Francaise’ plus ‘Égalité.’ The chances of two pieces of the same coin turning up within a few feet of each other on the Thames Foreshore was nothing short of staggering and I was intrigued as to how they’d ended up here, tossed up on the low tide by the river.

Coin clipping is illegal in most currencies unless as a result of a Government directive so my initial theories were of a more romantic nature and I was convinced that a coin had been deliberately cut in half as a love token, one piece being held by each of two lovers about to separate until one day they’d be reunited again. As often with some of my wilder mudlarking suppositions, this turned out to be complete tosh.

One of the wonderful things about social media is that very often a more experienced and knowledgeable mudlark, or mudlarks, will see what you’ve posted on Twitter or Instagram and get in touch with you to provide a more accurate and sensible explanation for the provenance of a find. I’m therefore indebted to Flo who directed me to an interview given by a well known mudlark called Steve Brooker, nicknamed Mudlark Mud God, who was interviewed by a newspaper some years ago:

“After several years of finding the coins -roughly the size of a two pence piece and cut with a serrated edge” – on a stretch of river adjacent to a former smelting works close to the Millennium Dome, he (Brooker) met a former docker who provided the answer to the riddle. “I mentioned how I kept on finding these odd coins. It turned out that he had worked on that stretch of the river during the fifties/sixties when the French Government was sending excess coinage to London to be melted down. The dockers would cut loose a few cases from each shipment so it would fall into the mud and these guys would come back later under cover of darkness to recover the coins. They would then use the money to take their families on holiday to France. You have this lovely image of Greenwich dockers all going off on holiday to Brittany or whatever with their pockets full of this coinage they’ve nabbed. The French obviously caught on to this because they then started cutting all the coins in half before they sent them off to London.”

So there you have it. The Mystery of the Clipped Coins solved

The tide comes in very fast on this stretch of the foreshore and you need to keep a close eye when it turns. There’s not enough exposed foreshore to mudlark on unless the low tide is at least 0.50m or less, and when the low tide point has passed you have approximately 45 minutes to make sure you’re back by the steps near the boat called the ‘Knocker White’. You don’t have the indulgence of lingering here for another hour and a half as you might on other wider parts of the Thames Foreshore so please don’t get caught out on a pinch point otherwise you’ll find yourself in serious difficulties.

So, with the tide coming in, it was time to grab my rucksack and trowel and head off up onto the embankment and to the gloriously named ‘Fatboy’s Diner’ (see below) for a well deserved cup of tea and cake. Trinity Buoy Wharf delights at every corner with a wealth of interesting art installations and surprising buildings, and Fatboy’s is no exception. It’s a genuine 1940s Diner brought over from New Jersey in the USA. Eager-eyed movie fans might just recognise it from the film ‘Sliding Doors’ (starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah) and it’s also featured in many other music videos and glossy magazine photoshoots.

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A brief history of mudlarking

The OED defines the word ‘mudlark’ as ‘a person who scavenges in the river mud for objects of value’. The term was first used during the late 18th century to describe poor Londoners, adults and children, who searched the filthy and dangerous Thames mud at low tide in order to find things to sell. This might be anything from valuable historical artefacts that could be sold to antiquarians or more commonly fragments of copper, lead, nails, rope and pieces of coal. Pilfering from boats and barges also took place when the opportunity presented itself. Life was hard, short and miserable and these people did what they had to do to survive.

Henry Mayhew, journalist, co-founder of the satirical ‘Punch’ magazine, playwright and advocate of social reform, published a series of newspaper articles in the ‘Morning Chronicle’ which in 1851 went on to become the basis of a book series called ‘London Labour and the London Poor.’ He wrote about mudlarks in vivid and graphic terms:

‘They may be seen of all ages, from mere childhood to positive decrepitude, crawling among the barges at the various wharfs along the river; it cannot be said that they are clad in rags, for they are scarcely half covered by the tattered indescribable things that serve them for clothing; their bodies are grimed with the foul soil of the river, and their torn garments stiffened up like boards with dirt of every possible description.’

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Mayhew didn’t mince his words. Conditions for the early mudlarks were filthy, unhygienic and dangerous. Industrial waste and raw sewage would wash up on the foreshore at low tide together with all sorts of rubbish, and all too frequently the corpses of humans and dead animals. Financially, a mudlark rarely made much of a profit but at least they could keep what they earned from selling their finds. A mudlark was even a recognised occupation until the beginning of the 20th century.

The 19th century was undoubtedly the Golden Age of mudlarking when the Victorians began major infrastructure building projects in London. They rebuilt London Bridge and constructed new embankments and sewage systems to cope with the needs of the huge increase of people living in the capital. Large numbers of important historical finds were made at this time by workmen and labourers working on the river and many of these treasures were sold to collectors only too eager to pay large sums of money for them.

In the 20th century mudlarking increased again in popularity after the Second World War even though London was still recovering from massive bomb damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe and there were (and still are!) ever-present dangers of unexploded mines drifting up onto the foreshore at low tide. Vintage photos from the 1950s show gents in double-breasted suits, their trousers rolled-up to the knee, standing in the river on the City’s north bank searching for finds. In 1949, the archaeologist and writer Ivor Noël Hume began to explore the Thames Foreshore at Southwark and the north bank and wrote in evocative detail about the wonderful experience of treasure hunting in the centre of London. In 1956 he published his sadly now out of print book ‘Treasure In The Thames’ in which he wrote about the atmosphere of the river and the range of glorious items he’d discovered on his mudlarks – Iron Age, Roman and Medieval pottery fragments, old coins, jettons (tokens), 17th Century lead cloth seals, buttons, buckles, pins, clay pipes and Roman tiles. ‘Treasure In The Thames’ was the first book about the archaeology of the Thames in London and continues to remain an important resource for keen mudlarks.

Today mudlarks are very different from the poor scavengers of the past. Thankfully the modern mudlark no longer has to search the Thames mud for a living and can enjoy the simple act of pottering about looking for fragments from past centuries. The modern mudlark is passionate about London’s history and archaeology and many are active participants in a wide range of online resources – Blogs, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook – sharing their films and photos and helping identify finds. They work closely with the Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) where historically important discoveries are recorded. Mudlarks have found, and continue to find, numerous objects that have changed the way historians view the past eg the discovery of rare medieval toys, made from lead or pewter, has helped alter the perceptions of childhood during the Middle Ages. The quality of finds found by mudlarks is often excellent due to the anaerobic nature of Thames mud which is de-oxygenated,, therefore preservative. This means that items often come out of the mud in the same condition as when they were dropped by clumsy fingers all those centuries ago.

The Golden Age of mudlarking has been and gone but there are still special things to be found hiding in that very special Thames mud that links us with the past and the lives of Londoners long since gone.

Mudlarking is our heritage, our history, our city. The inter-tidal zone of the Thames Foreshore is the most unique archaeological site in the world and this literally makes it the people’s archaeology.

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Start of the journey….

 

IMG_3268I first ventured onto the Thames Foreshore at Southbank in the heart of London a few years ago. In those early days you didn’t need a permit to search, there were far fewer restrictions, not quite as many mudlarks, a few detectorists here and there, and you were free to search by eye and take home the bits of pottery and other fragments of the past that you were fortunate to find. I was going through a difficult time professionally, not in the best of health with two frozen shoulders plus work-related stress, and feeling very anxious about my future. I was actually on my way to a difficult meeting but was early so leant against the embankment wall near the Oxo Tower at Gabriel’s Wharf and watched the comings and goings on my beloved Thames.

It was winter, the river was slate grey as was the sky, the wind was whipping up the waves while gulls screeched and wheeled above a barge carrying large, yellow containers heading downstream to the Thames Estuary. I could see the tide was going out and realised that I was only vaguely aware of the movement of the river. I’m a born and bred Londoner, passionate about London’s history, its bridges and buildings, and had been photographing them and other famous London landmarks for nearly thirty years. I was also a history graduate and history teacher for much of my professional life but that particular day, looking down on the river, realised I knew next to nothing about it or its inter-tidal zone (the stretch of the river from Teddington Lock to the Isle of Sheppey) that twice a day rolled back like a liquid carpet revealing the most unique archaeological site in the world, the Thames Foreshore. It’s quite magical when you learn something new about your home city, the greatest city in the world.

I noticed a man walking at the water’s edge, wrapped up against the winter chill, walking, stooping, eyes on the gravel, searching for something, and wondered what he was doing. He stopped to pick up what looked like a pipe of some sort , examined it carefully and put it in his rucksack. I wondered if he was an archaeologist and was intrigued. I wanted to know more. So I walked down the Oxo Tower steps onto the sand and gravel below and went over to talk to him. He was, of course, a mudlark. He explained that mudlarks search the river at low tide for objects of historical interest such as clay pipes, pottery, coins, tokens, lead cloth seals and other artefacts. I was instantly hooked and knew I had to learn more. I wanted to be a Thames Mudlark, discover the stories of Londoners long since gone and hear their voices live again through the things they’d left behind in the river.

As I made my way off the foreshore my trainers brushed against what looked like a thick piece of pottery lying in some Thames mud. I picked it up and turned it over and saw this beautiful thing (see photo below); a fragment of a 17th century Delft-style, tin-glaze charger (plate), blue on white colour with a crudely drawn fern and foliage. It was free-style, a bit slapdash and utterly glorious.  I’d made my first mudlarking  find. As I looked at it I realised that the last person to have touched this lived over three hundred and fifty years ago. Who was this individual? A Londoner? A careless servant? A high-status merchant? Was this a fragment of pottery from Pickleherring or one of the other many Southwark pothouses that proliferated on the Thames in the 17th and 18th centuries? Perhaps a bespoke order for a wealthy trader and his family, or a design that had gone wrong in either the firing or the glazing. Whatever, the colours were as intense the day I’d found it as the day it ended up in the river and I knew that there was no going back for me. I was a mudlark now and that was that.

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I’ve met mudlarks who describe themselves as obsessed by mudlarking and are out on the Thames every day, sometimes twice a day at low tide. I’m not sure if I’d describe myself as being obsessed but it’s certainly become a passionate hobby. I don’t go mudlarking every day but I do go out as often as I can, sometimes a couple of times a week, whenever possible and whenever there’s a good low tide. The Thames Foreshore in many parts of London can be quite narrow so it’s vital that the tide is fairly low, under 0.50m, in order to make it a worthwhile experience. But there’s no rule of thumb here and one of my most favourite finds, a late medieval Penn tile showing a flower in yellow glaze, part of the ubiquitous dumped builders’ rubble that makes up so much of the foreshore, was found when there was a high low tide (1.33m), nestling snuggly against the embankment wall. The motto of this is probably ‘take a chance’ because you never know what the river is going to leave behind when the tide’s gone out.

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I don’t always find things either. There are so many people mudlarking these days that certain popular bits of the foreshore can be a bit like the M25 at rush hour. It’s great to see so many embrace this as a hobby but I love the peace and quiet when out looking for fragments of the past so have to confess I avoid certain places at very busy times. And it’s not just about finding things; sometimes just being by the river on a beautiful day is enough to soothe my racing thoughts, help me forget my worries and anxieties and leave the endlessly grim state of politics and the world behind for just a few short hours. I come home with my finds, mucky, muddy, tired but happy and exhilarated, grateful for whatever the Thames has seen fit to gift me that day.

I recently asked the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) at the Museum of London if he thought mudlarking had had its day and he replied that, although finds were finite, he was still as busy as ever recording the items brought in to him by mudlarks. I found this reassuring and his comment has also taught me patience: you won’t always find things but there are still many things to be found. Keep your eyes peeled and you might be the lucky one to spot them one day! And as one fellow mudlark said to me recently, “We find what we’re meant to find.”

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