March is Women’s History Month so I’ve been spending time immersed in researching a spectacular recent Thames find, long since at the top of my ‘mudlarking finds’ wish list, that fits the bill perfectly regarding exploration of the lives of women in the past and their links to living and working on the Thames.
The challenge of in-depth research is both exciting but also daunting if you want to do your subject the justice it deserves, and I’m only at the very start of this journey.
No research is ever done in isolation and I’m grateful to Professor Tracey Hill, who has kindly signposted me in the direction of the Guild of Pinmakers or Pinners, a Guild no longer in existence and one I didn’t know existed. Tracey has also told me how she’s found pins used to mark a particular page in historical manuscripts. This was apparently a fairly common practice, though archivists and conservators tend now to remove them from documents in the interests of preservation and avoid staining and tearing of fragile documents.
Every find starts with a trip to the foreshore and it wasn’t the greatest of low tides the day I found my Pinner’s bone. I pretty much had the foreshore to myself, which was an unexpected bonus and doesn’t happen very often.
What seemed to me to be a fairly common bovine bone, I initially thought a femur though my knowledge of animal bone names isn’t my greatest strength, caught my eye when I noticed some deep grooves and clear chiselling at its base as I picked it up to take a closer look.
I’d found a Pinner’s bone.
Pinner’s Bones or Pinholders were usually made from the lower leg of a cow or horse, ie the metapodia or cannon bones. They were sawn in half with grooves, such as in the trio of photos below shown from different angles, where the pin wire was placed ready for filing.
London Archaeological excavations have found many Pinners’ bones at the site of religious orders, particularly, though not exclusively, nuns, suggesting this was a popular way for an Order to generate additional income. Before buttons became widely used, rich and poor were literally pinned into their clothing with a variety of different types and lengths of pins, which is why mudlarks find so many of these, fallen off clothing or washed into the river via drains.
Pinners’ tools, such as my find, were used by the maker to help sharpen the pin, beginning life as drawn wire (brass/copper alloy.) This was placed in the groove at the end of the bone, at an angle, and rotated to fashion a pin point. The pin head, which could be a solid head or wound wire-head, was soldered by hand afterwards.
The 14th century saw a huge expansion in the Pinners’ craft, the pin makers’ process becoming more refined and elegant. Finer ones were used to pin delicate materials such as silk, linen headdresses or transparent veils, and sometimes shown in Medieval art.
Queen Elizabeth I’s household accounts show her pin maker, Robert Careles, supplying her with hundreds of thousands of pins every six months, from ‘small helde Pynnes’ to ‘great verthyngale Pynnes.’ They were looked after and stored carefully on pin cushions when not in use. Pins were never left in precious fabric as this might tear or stain the garment due to oxidisation. It took at least two hours to pin the Queen into her clothing every day, and a similar length of time to unpin her afterwards. Pity her ladies maids who had to do this without actually touching the Royal body.
Yet the primary purpose of this blog and current research isn’t so much to discuss pins and their use in depth, but rather to begin the process of drilling down to a different layer of the pin making trade. This is a huge work in progress, and I’ve barely scratched the surface, the scale of this project making me realise just how much work will be involved in order to bring to life the stories of women who worked in this business.
I’m grateful for the fact that while the south side of the river (Southwark/Bankside) was largely a stinking, chaotic, unregulated mess during the medieval and later periods, the north side was subject to strict and careful regulation by the Guilds within the City of London.
The British Library has The Pinners’ Book, showing early accounts from 1462-1464. This is evidence of the Pinners organising themselves into a craft of recognised standing, and in 1463 they showed their growing influence when they petitioned Edward IV for protection from increasing foreign imports.
A preliminary search through documentation shows that women (often completely absent from medieval records unless they paid poll tax or committed crimes) begin to be named from the early 14th century onwards as members of the Pinners’ Craft, but only if they were the wives or daughters of a deceased pin maker. It seems this practice was also in existence in France where the Parisian aglet-making Guild protected widows by allowing them to continue with the business run by their late husbands.
Margaret Hall is listed as having paid 10 shillings, a lot of money for that time, to become a member of the Pinners’ Craft in 1477. Other widows are named as paying 3s 4d to keep up a Pinners’ workshop after the death of their husbands. Among their number were Margaret Exnyng, Margaret Golde, Margaret Crawford and Katherine Smyth, who were all admitted to the Pinners’ fraternity in 1498, though accused of being ‘forins’, ie trained outside the City of London.
The London Metropolitan Archives has further documents that first mention a Guild of Pinmakers or Pinners as early as 1376, thought not their detailed accounts, which began to be kept much later. From the late 15th century onwards they had also become associated with the guild of wire-workers, and later in 1567/8 with the Girdlers’ Company.
But by 1605, the Pinmakers’ Company received their own charter of incorporation. Seven years earlier, in 1598, the Company left the Hall in Addle Street, west of Mansion House and bordering Addle Hill, just off Carter Lane, west of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Pinmakers’ Company had rented the Addle Street Hall from the Plaisterers’ Company, after which they decamped to a site in St Mary At Hill, and eventually to St Katherine Cree, which they abandoned in 1723.
The most detailed records of the Worshipful Company of Pinmakers are from the 17th to 19th centuries, the latter date surprising as it shows that full scale industrialistion hadn’t fully put paid to the hand-made pinning business although by this time pins were being mass-produced in factories.
The next stage of my research is to look in more detail at the wills of women actively involved in the pinning trade, and see what new light this might shed on their status and role in business during the late Medieval period.
Welcome to my final mudlarking blog of 2022 and my most important find of the year, possibly ever. The perfect way to round off twelve months in which many other wonderful finds have been made, though this tops the lot. The river Thames has been very good to me so it’s fitting that I’ve saved the best for last.
In January, at the very start of the year, I returned to a part of the Thames where I hadn’t been for a while. I have many favourite areas of the foreshore, with secret spots that I’ve become familiar with over the years, and try to balance my mudlarking trips so that I visit all of them regularly, time constraints allowing.
It wasn’t the best of tides that day, the weather was dreich (bleak, nippy and dreary, as the Scots say), the stretch of foreshore busy. It was good to catch up with mudlarking friends I hadn’t seen for a while though no one seemed to have found much that morning. (NB Social media can make it seem as if we find exciting things all the time but the reality is very different and there are many occasions when we come away empty-handed.) Fingers and toes numb with cold, the tide was beginning to come in. I was about to call it a day when I decided to return to a spot I’d already searched and give myself a final ten minutes – in mudlarking parlance we call this ‘last knockings.’
I’m so glad I did.
A large wave from a passing Thames Clipper caught me unawares (I will never learn to step out of the way quickly enough) and managed to fill my wellies with water. As the wash began to recede, I looked down and spotted a small pewter item at my feet. It definitely hadn’t been there a few minutes before. My reflexes were clearly very slow that day and the soggy feet weren’t helping. I remember standing on that spot, as if in a trance, while the wash continued to rush in and out again, carrying off the small item with it.
But sometimes tiny Thames miracles happen.
Having been washed out, probably lost forever, the pewter ‘thing’ was dropped at my feet a second time. Seriously. This really happened. The River Gods were smiling down on me that day and I was determined not to lose it again. I lunged at it with frozen fingers (my gloves had long since soaked through that day), picked it up, popped it in my finds box and went home to examine it later. I didn’t even take a photo of the find ‘in situ’, which is an absolute mudlarking rule.
I need to add that, at the time, I had no idea what I’d found. Picking it up, it was initially upside down in a ‘W’ not in an ‘M’ form. So, what was it? Decoration from a belt? From a shoe? From something else entirely? Turning it over, I noticed the ghostly trace of what was once a pin on the back, which intriguingly suggested a badge… If it was a badge, I was sure it must have secular origins though it was a mystery what these might be.
A week after I’d found it, and still not a clue what it was, I took it to the Museum of London to show the FLO (Finds Liaison Officer) who immediately identified it as a Pilgrim Badge. At which point I nearly fell backwards out of my chair.
I’d found a small, but perfectly formed, medieval pilgrim badge, something I never thought would happen.
It’s now been recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database and I’m grateful to both Stuart Wyatt, and Brian Spencer for his book ‘Pilgrim Souvenirs And Secular Badges’ (MOLA publications) which contains a wealth of information, including many examples of pilgrim badge similar to mine.
My pilgrim badge is one of a type featuring the Lombardic ‘M’, the letter standing for Maria, Queen of Heaven, mother of Christ. Letters often formed the substance or framework of 14th/15th century pilgrim badges. Other letters that appear in these badges are the Lombardic ‘V’, for Virgo or The Virgin, and the Lombardic ‘T’ for Thomas (Becket.)
On the subject of Becket pilgrim badges, without a doubt the Holy Grail of pilgrim badge finds, my mudlarking friend Caroline Nunneley (@carolinenunneleymudlark on Instagram) has done spectacularly well. Please check out Caroline’s Instagram site to see photos of a fragment of pilgrim badge, discovered by her a few years ago, featuring Thomas Becket’s leg on a horse. Caroline then found a second piece from the very same badge when she later returned to that exact location where she’d spotted the first.
A relatively big badge (mine is tiny in comparison) the chance of finding two pieces of the same Becket pilgrim badge a few years apart, at the same spot, is nothing short of miraculous. The river works in mysterious ways etc etc.
Caroline’s Thomas Becket pilgrim badge dates to the 14th century and features exquisite detail including some medieval graffiti scratched onto the leg of the horse. The complete badge depicts Becket’s triumphant return from exile in France and his journey home from Sandwich to Canterbury on December 1st, 1170. The Cheapside born lad, and London’s very own saint, was assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral a few weeks later on the 28th December by four knights who believed they were acting on behalf of Henry II.
According to Brian Spencer, the ‘M’ was one of the most popular badges of Our Lady. Pilgrims would often buy more than one badge; to keep as souvenirs once blessed but also, it’s thought, although there is no written evidence anywhere from this period to confirm this, to throw into the Thames as an act of thanksgiving once they’d returned safely home.
The downstrokes of my ‘M’ have curled slightly (I won’t be uncurling them) and the pin is missing from the back though its imprint is still visible if you look closely. The curved letter ‘M’ is crowned with pearl-like pellets above the central fleuron of the crown, pearls symbolising the purity of Mary.
It’s a poignant thought that whoever lost this pilgrim badge all those centuries ago, or threw it in the Thames, was returning from a long tiring journey to Walsingham, Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela or the long forgotten Syon Abbey.
Syon was a dual monastery of men and women from the Bridgettine Order, and one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Europe, located on the banks of the Thames in Isleworth, South West London. Henry V had laid the foundation stone in 1415 though the building itself was completed during the reign of Henry VI. Governed by an abbess, it was renowned for its library and dedication to reading, learning, meditation and contemplation. This of itself made it a threat to those pushing religious reform, such as Thomas Cromwell, a key driver of the English Reformation. Cromwell closed Syon Abbey down in 1539 on the orders of Henry VIII and it was eventually demolished in 1547. I am currently deeply immersed in learning more about Syon, the bulk of existing documentation that survived the Reformation now held in the University of Exeter archives. I hope to be blogging and writing in greater detail about Syon Abbey soon as it has a story that deserves to be better known.
St Bridget, or St Birgitta, the founder of the Swedish Bridgettine Order that settled at Syon, has her own pilgrim badge which features her sitting at a desk, reading a book. Beautifully appropriate, it would be very special to spot one of these on the Thames Foreshore.
If you’d like to immerse yourself more deeply in the world of the medieval pilgrim then I recommend Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I studied this at school for English A level and it’s stayed with me all this time, my fondness for the book mercifully unaffected by having to translate it from Middle to Modern English plus the many essays we were made to write about it as students. There are no references to pilgrim badges within its pages but undoubtedly these would have been bought as souvenirs.
The Canterbury Tales tells the story of a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the holy shrine of St Thomas Becket, who begin their journey at the Tabard Inn, a tavern in Southwark. Each of the pilgrims takes turns as the main storyteller and a banquet is promised to the best story. The book also provides a colourful picture of daily life and social class in medieval England. I still have my school copy of Neville Coghill’s translation of these tales, heavily marked in pencil, battered and dog-eared, the colourful characters leap from the pages.
Mudlarks are often asked what makes a particular find special and, for me, my pilgrim badge find has made me feel deeply connected with the individual who last held it in their hands all those centuries ago. The badge speaks of long tiring journeys made to far away places in order to ask for Our Lady’s intercession by ancient people who shared the same hopes, fears and dreams we all do today.
Finally, if you’re looking for a Christmas present for the mudlark in your life, or if you’re interested in learning more about mudlarking yourself, this beauty ‘Mudlarks: Treasures From The Thames’ by Jason Sandy has just been published.
A celebration of the mudlarking community, the book also includes many fascinating artefacts found in the Thames over the years, and also the stories of mudlarks themselves. It was a huge privilege and honour to be included in Jason’s book along with many larking legends and FLO Stuart Wyatt, who have taught me so much over the years and shared their mudlarking knowledge and tips with me.
I am forever grateful for the many friendships that have been made on the banks of the river Thames during my years wading through the mud searching for snippets from the past; these friendships have enriched my life enormously.
The book is also a visual treat and beautifully put together, a four year labour of love and tribute to the river and its mudlarks. It is over 300 pages long and contains more than 500 colour photos, illustrations and art work by people such as Coral Pierce (@coral.pearce54 on Insta) and Tom Harrison (@tom.harrison.photos)
Available to buy from Barnes and Noble, Blackwell’s, Book Depository, Kobo, Waterstones, Amazon and many other online bookstores.
Thank you also to all those who have subscribed to my Thames warblings over the years – I always enjoy reading your comments and am happy to answer any mudlarking queries and questions. WordPress have just informed me that this blog has now had over 50,000 all-time views and this has made me very happy.
On that pleasing note, wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful and healthy New Year, 2023.
The last six weeks or so since my most recent blog have been incredibly busy – birthdays, anniversaries, and a variety of Thames-related activities. I was chuffed to be invited to join a group of Thames mudlarks asked to appear on Channel 5’s ‘Digging For Treasure Today’, with archaeologist Raksha Dave and presenters Michaela Strachan and Dan Walker, which was great fun.
September’s mudlarking exhibitions for the annual Totally Thames Festival have also now come to an end. Unfortunately, the mudlarking exhibition where I was scheduled to exhibit (St Paul’s Cathedral) had to be cancelled due to the official mourning period for the late Queen Elizabeth II. I was sad not to be able to take part in this but it couldn’t be helped; sometimes world events overtake everything else. And there will always be next year. Although the mudlarking exhibitions at St Paul’s had to be cancelled, there were well attended mudlarking exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, Waterman’s Hall and the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London, once the site of the Roman amphitheatre in Londinium.
After all the September excitement, I needed a break away so we booked a welcome holiday to Amsterdam, one of my favourites cities in Europe. If you’ve never been here, Eurostar now does a direct link from St Pancras to Amsterdam Centraal Station, via Brussels and Rotterdam.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a great place to visit. We were last here in 2014 and there have been a lot of changes. It’s particularly good for those of us who mudlark as we can see complete examples of the pottery and glass we usually find in broken sherds and fragments on the Thames Foreshore.
Amsterdam originated as a fishing village around the 12th century and developed quickly after the building of a dam on the River Amstel. It was granted city rights in the 1300s.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, Amsterdam underwent further rapid development which laid the foundation for its famous Golden Age, 1585-1672. During this period, it became one of the most prosperous trading centres in the world and its characteristic cityscape began to develop. This included buildings such as the Town Hall in Dam Square, the Westerkerk (the church is located at Prinsengracht 281 and is where Rembrandt is buried), as well as a large number of the ubiquitous, gabled townhouses overlooking canals, so firmly associated with ‘the look’ of Amsterdam today.
Amsterdam’s Golden Age came to an end in 1672 when both the French and English attacked, though the city managed to cling on to its prosperity and business reputation as the financial centre of Europe. An even greater number of canal townhouses were built during this period, reflecting the wealth of many of its citizens. It was considered a stable, safe and tolerant place to live. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Amsterdam was a city where immigrants formed the majority of the population. Most of these new arrivals were either Lutheran Protestant Germans, French Huguenots, Portuguese/Spanish Jews and Flemish refugees who no longer felt safe in Antwerp.
Amsterdam entered a period of recession and decline during 1795-1813 when the French temporarily occupied the country, followed by further periods of economic recovery and recession. In the 20th century, it suffered during two world wars and economic depression that had far-reaching affects on many countries around the globe.
The influence of the Golden Age of Amsterdam is reflected in its culture and extensive trade networks. The large number of artefacts that mudlarks retrieve from the Thames are evidence of the reach of Dutch impact.
The Rijksmuseum has a number of spectacular examples of Westerwald, a type of salt-glazed stoneware, a common sight in the townhouses of wealthy Dutch citizens. Originally produced in German towns such as Grenzau and Grenzhausen, in the area known as Westerwald, it originates from the 15th century to the present day. It is moulded, stamped with dyes and sometimes incised.
Westerwald pottery comes predominantly in shades of white and bluish grey, also decorated in contrasting black, dark purple and dark blue. High status Dutch homes would have owned many pieces of this colourful stoneware, the jugs used as containers for beer and wine.
By sheer coincidence, I spotted two lovely pieces of Westerwald on my first mudlarking session after returning home from Amsterdam. The rim of a jug in grey and dark blue stripes, and a moulded decorative circular design in dark blue on grey. It was a joy to see complete items of this type of stoneware in the museum and compare them with my broken fragments. An intact example of Westerwald would be a rare Thames find indeed.
I’ve blogged about Thames pottery before but it’s worth repeating that, for mudlarks, Bartmann pottery sherds hold a particular place in our hearts. Bartmann faces are particularly highly prized and almost certainly in the top ten of ‘things we would quite like to find’, thank you very much.
Bartmann jugs were commonly made in the Rhineland region of Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries, the name taken from the German word ‘Bartmann’, meaning ‘bearded man.’ You can see some fine examples of cheerful and sometimes rather grumpy bearded men in the glorious examples held in the Rijksmuseum collections as seen in the photos below.
Also a type of salt-glazed stoneware, these jugs have round, squat bodies with shortish necks and loop handles and are covered in a brown, sometimes reddish brown glaze. The bearded man is on the front of the neck while beneath is a cartouche showing the crest of a city, eg Amsterdam, or one belonging to a wealthy family. (Some of the smaller Bartmann jugs don’t have the cartouche.)
The image of the bearded man is believed to originate with the myth of the wild man, a figure popular in medieval art and literature of Northern Europe. They were used predominantly for storing food and drink and for decanting wine. They were also used as ‘witch bottles’, and some have been found containing pins, iron nails, fingernail clippings, hair and even human urine – all thought to be an indication of their use as a charm against witchcraft.
I’ve found some very nice pieces of Bartmann stoneware during my years mudlarking, including the highly prized complete grumpy face ( see photo below.) Though it can be quite unnerving when you spot a partial fragment showing a dismembered grimace or part of a snarling bearded mouth with big teeth, poking out of the Thames mud.
But the best artefacts from our visit to the Rijksmuseum had to be the displays of ancient glass which shimmered and shone in the display cabinets. Berkemayer shaped goblets, stems with pointed prunts extending into a funnel-shaped bowl, the perfect example of the 16th century glassmakers’ skill. Some of these beautiful objects looked as fresh as if they’d been made yesterday.
I am proud to say I have two green glass raspberry prunts in my collection, so it was a particular treat to see examples of Roemer glass circa 1650-1660. The Roemer, like the Berkemayer, also became fashionable during the 16th century, though its overall look was slightly different. It had an ovoid bowl more reminiscent of our current wine glasses, the stem decorated with raspberry prunts (prunt is SUCH a gorgeous word) to help fat, greasy fingers cling on to the vessel when drinking.
Most green glass was initially imported from Germany but a few centres producing glass of this colour began to emerge in the Netherlands towards the end of the 16th century.
One of my favourite still life paintings hangs in the Rijksmuseum. By William Claesz, painted in 1635, it features the perfect tableau of drinking vessels, including a Roemer, pictured in front of a rather ostentatious gilt cup. I’ve placed my own two glass prunts, which closely resemble boiled sweets, on a postcard of this still life, bought in the museum gift shop.
It would be too much to hope to find a complete Roemer in the Thames and I don’t think anyone will ever find one. We have to be grateful for the broken fragments of this beautiful glass that still occasionally turn up on the foreshore at low tide.
My last Rijksmuseum treat was to see complete versions of examples of medieval pottery. These (see photo below) are known as Siegburg jugs, a type of early, crude attempt at stoneware from the 14th and 15th century.
Also known as Jacoba jugs because in the 17th century they were found in the moat of the hunting lodge of Teylingen, once the home of the 15th century Countess of Holland, Jacoba van Beieren. It was said that she made these jugs herself because she was often bored. And why not.
Although thought to have originated in the Netherlands, their real place of origin was Siegburg in Germany, hence the name.
I recently had a bit of a clear out of ‘stuff’ from our loft and came across an old box of pottery finds from my early days of mudlarking when I would often bring things home and not have a clue what they were. Thanks to the visit to Amsterdam, the trip to the Rijksmuseum must have triggered an ancient memory regarding Siegburg jugs. Opening up the the old box of finds, I was thrilled to find the base of a Siegburg, sad and forgotten, in all its pie-crust splendour. Here it is pictured with the complete version for comparison. I’m so pleased my ‘bottom’ is now seeing the light of day again.
If you’re new to mudlarking, I hope this brief run-through of a few examples of Thames-found pottery and their complete versions in the Rijksmuseum, has given you inspiration to keep searching. And, if you’ve never been, I recommend a visit to the glorious city of Amsterdam and all it offers.
Walking round its museums, streets and canals, I felt a strong connection between this vibrant and ever-changing city and the fragments of glass and pottery I’ve found in the Thames over the years. A deep sense of the interweaving of European history through its artefacts and shared culture that still bind us together today.
How are you all doing? If you’re anything like me, you’ll be relieved to see the back of the recent heatwave. I love the sunshine but excessive temperatures are too much and, coupled with a lack of rain for weeks on end, are definite signs that the climate is changing. Thankfully we’ve now had some extremely welcome rain in London, its gardens and green spaces looking uncharacteristically parched and dry for some while now. And, of course, we’re now braced for Thames Water (who waste so much of our precious water themselves by not repairing millions of gallons of leaks promptly) bringing in a hosepipe ban this week. Tant pis, as they say in France.
But, in spite of this, August has been busy and I’ve been grateful to have had the opportunity to go mudlarking a few times this month. In addition to this, another highlight of my summer was the visit of the stunning ship, The Götheborg of Sweden.
The largest ocean-going wooden sailing ship, this is a replica of the original Swedish East Indiaman Götheborg I, launched in 1738, and which tragically sank just off Gothenburg, Sweden, on 12th September 1745 while approaching the harbour. Mercifully, all the crew on board were rescued.
The Götheborg is currently undertaking a long expedition to Asia, recreating her original 18th century voyages and sailing to various destinations in Europe before reaching the Asian continent in 2023. En route she’ll be stopping off at various ports and docks to give the public a rare opportunity to come on board.
This ship is a wonderful example of maritime wood carving as seen in the figurehead, quarter galleries and stern decorations. The two-galleried stern measures over 20 feet across and is decorated with a variety of carvings including a cockerel (bottom left), plus central crest, fish and sea nymphs blowing conches. These are in French Baroque style, as commonly seen in Swedish ships of the period.
My favourite carving though was the magnificent beast of a lion at the bow (see my photo above). Figureheads are meant to make a statement, and this one definitely does. Standing 15 feet tall, the lion started out as three tons of timber before the expert hands of a master wood carver gave him shape and form.
The Götheborg of Sweden spent nearly five days docked at Canary Wharf before sailing to Bremerhaven, from where she’ll be setting sail on the next stage of her voyage on Monday 22nd August. I wish her and her crew Godspeed and a fair wind.
I’ve avoided the foreshore during the extreme temperatures we’ve had this month – there isn’t anywhere to shelter on the river when it’s baking hot – and when I’ve gone out to the Thames it’s been either early morning or when the temperatures have dropped. It’s been a great month for some lovely finds.
As you can see from the image above, marble finds have featured quite majorly, from Victorian striped chinas (used in games of carpet boules), to mocha swirls, codd bottle marbles and a large clay marble that might have been used for industrial purposes but may also have been played with by a Victorian/Edwardian child before tossing it naughtily into the river.
I’ve also found some early medieval shell-tempered ware pottery fragments (which might even be Saxon), a fragment of medieval floor tile covered in moss green glaze, a Charles I rose farthing, an 18th century bone button form and a lot of bullets. (NB: important health and safety note regarding bullet finds on the river. The Thames has an abundance of rogue military material that often gets washed up on a low tide – much of it is World War Two ammunition but some of it, like my recent bullet finds, are reasonably modern, possibly dumped as a result of criminal activity. If you find bullets of any description, don’t take them – they might still be live and therefore dangerous if allowed to dry out. It’s recommended that you put them carefully in the river where they will remain stable. On no account take them home with you, however tempting.)
But this beauty below is my favourite find of the summer.
Spotted with the base sticking out of Thames mud was this mint condition Hooper Struve mineral bottle. When I pulled it out, I was sure it would be smashed but, praise be, it wasn’t. It’s only the third complete vintage bottle find I’ve made on the foreshore in seven years of mudlarking. The river flows fast in London and many old bottles are inevitably unable to withstand being tossed about over the centuries, emerging chipped and broken at low tide. A complete one, such as this, is a rare treat and an added bonus is that it makes a very cool little vase too.
Beautifully embossed with the words ‘TO H.I.M THE KING -BY APPOINTMENT’ and the name ‘HOOPER STRUVE & Co LTD’ on the other side of the bottle. It’s not clear precisely which King it refers to but the style of bottle dates from 1901-1936 so it’s likely to be either Edward VII or George V. It would also have had a vulcanite-style screw top to keep the fizz in.
I’m indebted to the Brighton Argus for providing some backstory to the history of the company that made this bottle, and the link to Brighton itself.
In the early part of the 19th century, spas became fashionable all over Europe. In 1825, Friedrich Struve, a German chemist from Dresden, invented a machine that reproduced the characteristics of natural mineral water using chemicals. This enabled him to set up the Pump Room of his German Spa in Brighton, which had no natural spring of its own.
His curative waters received huge patronage from the fashionable and wealthy classes, including King William IV, who flocked to Brighton to ‘take the waters’ for the benefit of their health.
As often happens with fashions, they quickly become unfashionable, and by the 1850s the practice of taking the waters had begun to decline resulting in the closure of the Pump Room. Brighton could not compete with the more established natural spa towns of Bath, Cheltenham or Baden-Baden in Germany.
After his death in 1840, Struve’s family continued to sell his mineral water and in 1891, a soft drinks firm established by London chemist William Hooper, merged with Struve’s. The new company took the name Hooper Struve & Co Ltd. They continued production in Brighton until approximately 1963, after which the original Pump Room becamed derelict and a magnet for vandals.
It was eventually demolished by Brighton Council leaving only the neo-classical frontage. A nursery school now exists on the site.
On a sadder note, searching the Company’s records on the GOV.UK Companies House website this week while digging into its history, I found this recent entry, dating from just a few weeks ago. It seems that whatever had existed of the original Hooper Struve business was now no longer trading, and going through the legal process of being struck off the Companies House Register.
A sad end for the makers of my Thames-found mineral water bottle. But I’m grateful that spotting this on the foreshore opened a door to a piece of social history I knew nothing about. This is why I love mudlarking; the sheer pleasure of discovering the story behind an artefact spotted on the foreshore.
On a final note, as August grinds slowly to an end, I’m looking forward to September and this year’s Totally Thames Festival, a month long celebration of the river organised by The Thames Festival Trust.
There’ll be mudlarking exhibitions, walks, talks and so much more throughout the month, click on the link below for the full schedule of events. I’ll be displaying some of my favourite medieval and post-medieval finds at St Paul’s Cathedral on Saturday 17th September, entry is free.
June has been a busy month with not much time for mudlarking as I’ve been away on holiday in France and having a wonderful time in the Provençal sunshine with my family. This blog is going to be a bit of a mishmash but still finds-related because that’s what my passion is. The searching bug is always there, no matter where I am, so please welcome to the world of vinelarking.
I was recently talking to a mudlark who, on a walk through some fields near where he lives, found a small number of Mesolithic worked flints. Which just goes to show that you don’t have to be near the river to find artefacts, or even metal detecting on someone’s land (but please make sure you’ve asked permission first.) Beaches, gardens, even the humble pavement can be a source of something interesting if you keep your eyes peeled.
I’ve always spent a lot of time with my head bent down, staring at the ground, searching for bits and pieces. This has become my default position, even on holiday. So it was that on a walk a few weeks ago I found myself strolling through literally acres of vines owned by the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape and even here I managed to find a few bits and pieces to keep me happy.
The vines in the area of Provence where we stayed are planted on top of land that was once part of the Roman Empire, and the Romans grew vines in this locality too. Sadly, no Roman pottery sherds to be found on my walks but I did spot a few interesting items, among them this fragment of local Provencal terracotta roof tile.
Made by the famous Monier company of Marseille who’ve been producing roof tiles since the 19th century, the tile is instantly recognisable by their symbol, the bee.
This particular tile fragment is likely to be 1950s/1960s.
The ground all around these vineyards is full of rocks, stones and broken sherds of pottery as well as tiles. I initially thought this was to keep moisture in the ground but later found out that it’s more to keep the soil around the vines warm and also to stop wild boar from digging holes and ruining the planting.
The forests round here are still full of boar, destructive creatures that would lay waste to every vineyard in the area if the vines weren’t protected.
In the autumn the boar are hunted to keep their numbers down otherwise the area would be overrun by them. And, as I was told many times, if they get into your garden you’ve had it.
So of course I’ve been knee-deep in books about Roman Provence since we got back and this is one of many tomes I’ve been engrossed in. Until I read this book I had no idea that there are more Roman monuments in Provence than anywhere else in the Roman occupied world, including Italy itself.
In Provence, the Romans have left behind bridges, aqueducts, amphitheatres, baths, temples, triumphal arches and roads that still bisect the countryside all around. I’m determined to return soon to visit areas such as Orange, Vienne, Arles, St Remy and Aix-en-Provence, just a few of the towns and cities here worth visiting that are full of Roman remains.
One of my favourite areas of Provence with a well-documented Roman history is Nîmes. I last visited here in the autumn of 2018 and was pleased to see the long awaited Musée de la Romanité was open. I thoroughly recommend it as it’s one of the best Roman museums I’ve ever seen, beautifully curated and with a stunning range of artefacts.
The Roman museum is also slap bang next door to the Arena de Nîmes, or old amphitheatre, so if you time your visit perfectly you can get to see two Roman attractions together.
In addition to books on Roman Provence, I really want to recommend a new mudlarking book that has just hit the shelves.
Written by fellow mudlark Malcolm Russell (please follow him on Instagram @mudhistorian) this beautifully written tome is called ‘Mudlark’d: Hidden Histories From The River Thames’, published by Thames and Hudson. I’ve blogged about mudlarking books before and this is the latest in what is promising to be a real golden age for new authors writing on this subject.
Malcolm’s book is perfect for anyone who loves the history of London and the Thames, telling vivid stories of forgotten people through objects found on the foreshore.
Each chapter introduced me to a great many facts that, even as a seasoned mudlark and historian, were completely new to me. Malcolm covers a comprehensive range of fascinating objects revealing the stories and voices of criminals, prisoners, enslaved peoples, immigrants, traders, queer folk, entertainers, smokers, gamblers, firefighters and many more. The book is a perfect people’s history, a welcome addition to what we tell ourselves about our past. I read Malcolm’s book in one weekend and can’t recommend it highly enough.
Last but not least, summer is definitely here and London is about to showcase a range of exhibitions and activities celebrating the Thames. Kicking off is a Mudlarking Day at Southwark Cathedral on Saturday 16th July, from 10.30am to 5pm, this being part of the National Festival of Archaeology 2022 and well worth supporting.
I’ll be at Southwark that day exhibiting some of my favourite finds along with other mudlarking friends, so do please pop along if you can and say hello. The event promises to be great fun and the Cathedral is a stunning venue.
There will also be a range of other activities at Southwark on that day including medieval tile making, foreshore walks, lectures, finds ID and an opportunity to see the casting of medieval pilgrim badges. Literally something for everyone so please put the date in your diaries.
I haven’t been out mudlarking as much as I’d like during the last month or so but, when I’ve been able to make the time, I’ve been finding some splendid artefacts, some of which have been on my lengthy wish list of ‘Things I’d Love To Find On The Foreshore’ for quite some time. On one of my most recent trips the finds included three stunning Roman objects, which makes them very special. So, thank you, River Thames. I’m extremely grateful.
Londinium, or Roman London, was the capital of Roman Britain during the period of Roman rule in Britain. Early Londinium was established on the current site of the City of London in approximately 47-50 AD, or mid-1st century, and was roughly half the area of the current City of London.
Archaeologists are still arguing about the precise date but it’s believed that in 60 AD a rebellion by Boudicca (or Boadicea), leader of the Iceni, resulted in newly established Roman London being torched to the ground. Excavations show clear traces of burnt soil from this period at a layer synonymous with Roman London, indicating how savage Boudicca’s assault was. The Roman response to her revolt was typically brutal and she was eventually defeated by the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius. It’s not clear whether Boudicca then killed herself, as thought by Tacitus, or died of severe wounds, as documented by Cassius Dio. Nonetheless, archaeological evidence is clear that this was a horrifically violent period of early London’s history.
After this grim period the City of London had to be rebuilt and it expanded rapidly. Its location on the Thames, at a key crossing point over the river, contributed to it becoming a major port enabling it to trade easily with the rest of the Roman Empire and further afield. The rebuilt Londinium was provided with large public buildings, most of which have sadly long since disappeared, such the forum and amphitheatre, and also a London Wall to define the landward side of the city, some of which can still be seen today near the Museum of London.
Roman London was at its height during the second century AD but then the population began to shrink again. By the 5th century, with very few Roman troops left in Britain, Londinium and other Romano-British towns began to decline drastically, buildings and infrastructure falling into ruin and decay. Trade broke down as the Roman Empire began to collapse, for reasons still argued about by historians, but attacks by barbarian tribes and famine were clear contributory factors. Over the next century Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians arrived from Northern Europe and began to establish tribal areas and Kingdoms while Londinium fell further into decay.
It wasn’t until the Viking invasions of England in the 9th century that King Alfred the Great resurrected the settlement within the old Roman London Walls. At its height, Roman London had been a very ethnically diverse city with inhabitants from across the entirety of the Roman Empire – as well as Britons, there were folk from Continental Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
When considering its relationship with the river as it is today, the embankment during the Roman period was located on Lower Thames Street, much further back than it is now. For those interested in the history of the Roman Port of London the evidence is still there to be seen, and to this end I highly recommend a visit to the beautiful old church of St Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street. Not only does it contain an archway that was once one of the pedestrian entrances to the Medieval London Bridge, but attached to one of its ancient stone walls as you enter is a nearly 2,000 year old piece of timber that gives me the shivers every time I come to see it.
It’s a segment of an old Roman Wharf dating from 75 AD, and found on Fish Street Hill in 1931. Many visitors to the church just walk straight past it but, if you happen to be in the area, please stop and give it a stroke. You are literally touching a piece of Roman London. If you’d like to read about this in greater depth I recommend a book called ‘The Port of Roman London’ by Gustav Milne. Gustav is a MOLA and Citizan archaeologist who first introduced me to this timber when a group of us did our FROG (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group) training with the archaeologists at Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) in 2018. Prior to this I didn’t even know the wharf timber existed. It’s a beautifully tactile piece of wood and very special.
Roman era artefacts from the river are very special and I recently made an absolute dream find on the Thames Foreshore; a Roman hair pin made of bone. On a day when the low tide wasn’t particularly good due to an unexpected storm surge in the Thames Estuary, I wasn’t expecting to discover anything of consequence. Which is absolutely fine; it’s what sometimes happens. But that then made it even sweeter when I spotted this beauty poking out from the gravel and stones, trapped in their rocky embrace.
Pins during the Roman period, whether Romano-Britain or elsewhere in the vast Roman Empire, were an essential part of a high status woman’s coiffure, especially as hair styles during this period of history were highly elaborate and complicated. The idea of ‘Wash’n’Go’ would have given a wealthy Roman woman a fit of the vapours. Natural hairstyles were associated with barbarian tribes who the Romans believed hadn’t the money or culture to style their tresses properly.
A Roman woman’s hair was twisted and coiled, then pinned to keep the complicated, elaborately curled shape. Hair pins from this period have been found in a wide range of materials, from wooden pins for poorer women to ones made of gold, bronze, glass or decorated bone for high status women.
Some pins were hugely ornate in design while others were simpler and plainer.
Bone pins came in a variety of different lengths from short to very long. I suspect a small bit of my pin find might have broken off at some point as it seems to be missing a possible half to one centimetre at the tip, yet it still remains functional.
The importance of highly elaborate hairstyles for wealthy Roman women came with a very dark side. Wigs and other hair pieces were very popular and fashionable – blonde hair from females of conquered Germanic tribes being highly prized as was black hair from India.
The photo below shows a marble bust featuring a typically ostentatious hairstyle worn by a wealthy woman from the Flavian period, 69 -96 AD. The bust is thought to be Julia, daughter of Emperor Titus, and it shows a literal beehive of dramatic curls stacked high on Julia’s head. Her hair would have taken hours to style.
Another recent dream find, and which might not appear to be that extraordinary on first viewing but is special to me, is this sherd of Samian ware pottery. Sherds of Roman Samian always bring a smile to my face, especially as they turn up much less frequently on the foreshore these days. Decorated fragments are a particular bonus.
Samian ware, or Terra Sigillata, was a fine tableware characterised by a vibrant glossy-red slip that was fired in both plain and decorated forms. The decorative Samian ware often shows a range of designs from flowers and foliage to hunting scenes, created by moulding onto the main body of the bowl.
Samian ware was mass-produced, the finished pieces often showing manufacturers’ stamps which help identify date and distribution. It was found throughout the Roman Empire, originally manufactured during Augustine’s reign in Arretium (Arezzo) in Italy before production moved elsewhere, particularly to Gaul, modern day France. Eventually, by the second century, Samian pottery was being produced in Roman Britain itself, principally in Pulborough in Sussex, Colchester in Essex and also in London itself. But it was generally of a poorer quality than its Gaulish counterpart.
I am grateful to fellow mudlark, artist and architect Ed Bucknall (please follow Ed on Instagram @edjbucknall) for his huge knowledge of Roman finds from the river. Ed immediately recognised that my piece of found Samian ware is from a more unusual type than is normally spotted in the Thames, ie, an Antonine period import.
The Antonine era of the Roman Empire spanned from 96-192 AD during which time a total of seven emperors ruled – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus and Commodus. The first five were known as the ‘Five Good Emperors’, although the murder of the last of them, the feeble Commodus in 192 AD, is thought to have signalled the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire.
And this sherd is different when compared with other, more common types of Samian ware found at low tide. It has a pattern of incised leaves, produced in a similar style to etching on glass, and it’s likely the complete item would have shown roundels featuring floral motifs and tendrils, flanked by leaves, such as in my example.
Last but not least, the final item in my trio of recent Thames Roman finds is this tiny, pale green/yellow bead, made of glass. Foreshore beads are notoriously difficult to date. On land, archaeologists analyse the order and position of layers of archaeological remains to help them place artefacts in an accurate historical context. This is known as stratigraphy. But in the mud of the river it’s much harder (though not impossible) to pin down the precise provenance of an artefact because the movement of the tides will wash items in from further afield. Nonetheless, it’s perfectly appropriate to assume that when a find is spotted in an area of the Thames where Roman artefacts routinely turn up at low tide, and we know was busy with activity during the peak of Londinium’s importance, the chances of it being Roman are high.
The colour, irregularity and general rough feel of this small glass bead definitely indicate Roman to me.
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?
Still not too late, just, to wish everyone a Happy New Year and to welcome you all, plus new readers, to my first blog of 2022.
January has begun with some cracking finds for me from the Thames Foreshore, including a particularly special one, a dream find, if you will, that I’ll be writing about at some future point. You can be sure of that!
But this blog is a slight deviation from my usual mudlarking round-ups and if you read on you’ll understand why.
January has seen the 1921 census for England and Wales released online (if you’re waiting for Scotland’s 1921 census records, these have been delayed) – a timely opportunity to investigate the past especially as there will be, unfortunately, no 1931 census records for England and Wales. This is because during the night of Saturday 19 December 1942, an extensive fire broke out at an Office of Works store in Hayes, Middlesex and destroyed all the census records. The Scottish ones were thankfully unaffected as they were safely stored in Edinburgh at the time, but an absolute catastrophe for anyone trying to trace their English/Welsh ancestry and family tree.
And there was no 1941 census either because the world was at war.
But the 1921 census for England and Wales threw up fascinating new information about my husband’s family and I really wanted to write about some of the things we discovered, especially as this links in with one of my favourite areas for mudlarking, which I haven’t written about before; Limehouse. There is also something incredibly compelling about exploring one’s past and I think the last two years of the pandemic has made us keener than ever to look for things that root and reassure us, even if what we discover isn’t necessarily what we want to hear. Nonetheless this can open a door to a greater understanding of past times when our ancestors were facing difficult challenges of their own, much as we are now.
So, one January Sunday afternoon as the 1921 census was released, Mr A spent many hours engrossed in discovering new details about his great-grandfather George who, it was revealed, was living on Narrow Street, Limehouse, as a retired seaman. Intriguingly the sea features frequently in this side of the family and many of the men on my husband’s father’s line have a long established association with the docks, ships, seafaring and careers in the navy. It was known that at least one branch of the family had had some association with living and working in Poplar, at the docks, not far from Limehouse, but Limehouse itself had never been mentioned in the family history.
For those unfamiliar with this area, Limehouse is a district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in East London, within shouting distance of Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs.
As a seaman, great-grandfather George would have known Limehouse Basin well. It’s now more commonly referred to as Limehouse Marina, with its pretty, jewel-coloured narrow boats and barges jostling for place. The area is clean, sparkling and trendy, benefiting from recent redevelopment and modernisation. Lung busting, toxic, smoke-filled air is no more, the factories, lime kilns and industrial furnaces a thing of the past.
The vintage black and white photograph above gives an indication of the Basin when George was living in Limehouse and he would have been familiar with it, especially as it’s a short walk from here to Narrow Street where he lived. The basin was then deep enough to accommodate large vessels competing for space with literally hundreds of boats and barges bringing in goods from far afield. In fact, so packed and busy was Limehouse Basin in George’s day, you could walk across it stepping from one barge to the other.
The house where George lived is, amazingly, still there so of course we went to see it. Set on Narrow Street it’s the tall, thin white one nestling comfortably between J & R Wilson and Co of Limehouse Wharf on the right and the vibrant blue corner building on the left. The blue building had once been a pub called The Old King’s Head, more than likely to have been George’s local rather than The Grapes, further along Narrow Street. The pub was eventually sold and became a banana merchants before being sold again. It is now in private ownership.
We managed to find an old black and white photo from the 1930s, we think, showing the house on the corner next to the white house where George lived. The photo shows the building in use as a banana merchants owned by B. A. Lambert. Narrow Street has since been modernised extensively but it’s astonishing to think this part of it remains structurally unchanged and would still be largely recognisable to anyone from the early to mid 1900s walking down it today.
Behind Narrow Street, in Three Colt Street, George would have been aware of Limehouse Pottery. The name Limehouse comes from the lime oasts or kilns which were established here in the 14th century. Originally used to produce lime for building mortar, pottery manufacture quickly followed. The original Limehouse Pottery, on the site of today’s Limekiln Wharf, was established in the 1740s as England’s first soft paste porcelain factory.
Many of the Limehouse wharves and buildings were destroyed during the terrible bombing raids of the Blitz in 1940/1941 but some core buildings remain which give a hint of the history and heritage of this special area. I particularly loved Sailmakers House, beautifully restored and decorated with original windows, pulley and hoist still visible. The sailmakers and ropemakers on Narrow Street would have been familiar sights to George.
There’s so much that my husband has yet to find out about the life George lived while resident in Narrow Street. For example, we’re currently looking into whether he rented or owned his house outright, and we think his house was once a shop (the black and white photo shows signage displayed on the front.) We know that at the time of the census he was living with one of his widowed daughters. The 1921 census took place just a few years after the end of the first world war so that may explain why she was widowed. The first world war had had a devastating effect on communities, wiping out entire generations of men, destroying families and leaving a legacy of untold grief and economic hardship. Whether a war widow or not, George’s daughter would have struggled financially so moving in with her father would have been the only option for her. There is still a great deal we need to discover.
While we were in Limehouse I couldn’t resist a quick spot of mudlarking to end our visit here. It was a gloomy, overcast day weather-wise, with an ominous threat of rain as we stepped down onto the Thames Foreshore. We couldn’t help wondering what George would have made of the steel and glass skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in the near distance, the tops of the tall buildings shrouded that day in mist and fog.
While Mr A wandered about taking photos I walked off to some familiar areas to see if I could find any interesting finds and struck lucky when I quickly spotted a lead bale seal, which would have been attached to a sack bringing in goods to the wharves above the foreshore on the embankment. I also found some pretty tin-glazed pottery, possibly once used by a resident of late 17th century or 18th century Limehouse.
George would have experienced the bustle and noise of the many wharves and businesses at Limehouse while he was living here and, although inevitably there’s been a lot of new building and development in the area over the last few decades, in places it’s still just as recognisable as in the days when great-grandfather George called this place home.
This will be the last mudlarking blog for 2021 so I thought it would be appropriate to look back across the past year and write about some of my favourite finds. It hasn’t been an easy year for anyone, and my trips to the Thames Foreshore have unfortunately been intermittently interrupted by lockdowns and restrictions, but this has meant that time spent on the river has been very precious these last twelve months and for that I’m extremely grateful. We’re in a new and worrying phase of Covid again, London currently having the highest Omicron infections in the UK, so I don’t know when I’ll next be able to get to the foreshore in 2022, but hopefully it won’t be too long. Fingers crossed!
I love finding sherds of pottery with little scenes on; sometimes the break is almost perfect in its imperfection, other times you find a piece where you wish the break wasn’t frustratingly in the place it actually is. There’s a hint of something interesting but you want the river to have left you a bit more of the fragment. C’est la vie. After our last lockdown I found myself returning to a particular part of the Thames Foreshore that I hadn’t visited for quite a few years. As I walked down the weathered and battered stone steps I immediately spotted a beautiful piece of blue on white 19th century transferware pottery, just as it is in the photo below. On picking it up I was delighted to see it featured a pair of swans gliding on a lake.
There’s something stately, unruffled and serene about swans. I call them the guardians of the river and everytime I’m out mudlarking there’s always a pair in the vicinity. Elegant, beautiful, sometimes fierce, always curious, they will often make their way over to see what I’m doing. Actually, it’s more likely they’re hoping I’ve got some food for them and when they find I haven’t their outraged grunts can be quite something.
Talking of feeding swans, there are some clear do’s and don’ts regarding what you should give them and the RSPB gives good advice about this. Swans are herbivores, which means they mainly eat greens, preferring to feed on plants floating on or near the surface of the water. There is no harm in feeding swans but you need to be careful what you give them. There’ve long been arguments that you shouldn’t give swans bread as their digestive tract isn’t suitable for refined flour or sugar and therefore bread can disrupt their normal nutrition. So I was therefore surprised to see a recent revision of the RSPBs advice on their website. Whereas they once wanted to deter the public from feeding bread to swans (as already mentioned it’s not the most nutritious food for them) nonetheless the RSPB now feels bread is ok as long as it’s in small amounts and not mouldy. So; no mouldy bread, sugar, chocolate, dairy or salt in anything you give to a swan.
If you can get hold of some, the preferred foods are either specialist swan or duck food which contains grains. But they also love lettuce, a bit of cabbage and other leafy greens. Swans are also quite keen on vegetable peelings so things such as potato or carrot peelings are good for them too. If you rock up to the foreshore with any of the above food items in your rucksack Thames swans will give you a grunt of approval.
In May while I was mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore at Fulham in south west London, I saw what looked like a large gobstopper (a very hard, spherical sweet) poking out of the mud. To my great delight when I picked it up I realised it was a marble. A bit battered on one side thanks to a century or so rolling around in the river but still in one piece, nonetheless.
This is a German ribbon swirl marble with a divided core, and handmade. These were first produced in 1850 and were made until 1918, just after the First World War ended, after which they were mass-manufactured to a more uniform design. German clay and agate marbles from this period are also highly sought after by mudlarks, each marble being individually crafted by skilled glassworkers.
There is an excellent article by Alicia Cockrum in Beachcombing Magazine which gives the history of the making of these beautiful things. I’ve posted the link below:
No one can be certain as to why so many marbles are found on the Thames Foreshore. Many will have ended up there dumped as household waste, but there is probably a more basic reason and that is that children just love throwing things into the river.
This has been an excellent year for finding cufflinks, or partial cufflinks (sometimes either the cufflink setting but no stone, other times the stone but sans the cufflink – I’m quite happy with either, to be honest.) This beauty was thrown at my feet, as occasionally happens, by wash from a passing Thames Clipper.
I was immediately drawn to a swirl of blue on white opaque glass, likely to be Venetian in origin. The shank on the back was missing but it’s still beautiful. The cufflink would have been one of a pair and would have once adorned the shirt sleeves at a Georgian gentleman’s wrists. Indicating wealth and status, cufflinks became hugely popular during the 18th century.
Examining it carefully in my hand, as ever, all the questions rattled through my mind. Who lost this pretty thing? How annoyed would they have been? Did this once belong to a Georgian gentleman who had taken a wherry across from the north bank of the Thames to the south in pursuit of pleasure, got drunk, and lost his precious cufflink as he stepped into the boat, unsteady on his feet after his night on the tiles? I will never know but finds like this raise more questions than answers. This is why I love mudlarking; the stories that these lost and found items unlock.
I’ve found a few of these now and they’re always a joy. This is a Tudor dress pin, approximately 16th century, although these continued to be worn well into the 17th century. If an item was still functional it would have remained in daily use. Handmade from brass, with an oblate head comprising of two metal discs pressed together, this is substantial enough to have been worn as a shawl pin. Longer and thicker than a traditional dress pin, of which hundreds and thousands are found on various stretches of the Thames Foreshore, this particular pin was designed for use with thicker, coarser fabric from this period.
Pins are some of my favourite foreshore finds immediately transporting me back in time as I pick them out of the mud and hold them in my hand. Who wore this pin? What did they pin with it? Perhaps a veil, a shawl, a linen headdress, a jewel. This particular pin had been buried in preservative Thames mud for over 500 years until I spotted it and plucked it out for my collection.
I love pins – fat pins, thin ones, thick ones, shawl pins – the more the merrier. Pins are a staple of a mudlark’s collection. I’m drawn to their ordinariness, their functionality, longevity, uniqueness (each one is different) and that for centuries they literally pinned Londoners into their clothing. I found this pin just before we went into the January lockdown at the beginning of this year and it was particularly poignant because I knew that I wouldn’t be returning to the foreshore for the next few months.
Favourite find number five from 2021 is this chunky aqua green glass bottle stopper. From the Victorian period, these are still relatively common finds on the Thames Foreshore and many are found whole, though occasionally slightly chipped. Hardly surprising if you consider they’ve been buffeted about on the tide for over a hundred years.
The aqua colour reminds me of the Mediterranean (the photo above shows an almost cerulean blue river and skies on a perfect early autumn day this year, St Paul’s in the background) and holding these bottle stoppers to the light you can often see large air bubbles deep within them. This is an indication of the age of these beauties and that glass wasn’t factory mass-produced until after the First World War.
The oldest glass bottle stoppers date back much further than people realise. They’ve been found in Egyptian tombs as far back as 2,000 BC, although glass bottles from earlier periods were stoppered by bits of rag, leather or other materials.
Wine bottles tended to be corked to stop the oxidisation process, allowing the wine to age slowly over a period of time without being ruined. Corks allow a minimum amount of oxygen into the wine and are still the favoured method of sealing these bottles.
But glass bottle stoppers began to be more widely used in the 19th century, particularly for bottles that were in frequent use such as perfume, sauce, decanters and apothecary bottles. My aqua glass bottle stopper is likely to have come from an apothecary bottle, although not a poison one as these are ridged and either cobalt blue or emerald green in colour.
Mudlarks all have wish lists of ‘things they really want to find’ and this year I was fortunate to be able to tick off two of the items on my list. Here is the first.
This is an annular (ring-shaped) shoe buckle from the 14th century. Annular shoe buckles are similar in style to annular brooches, though differ in that brooches have a fixed constriction for the pin ensuring it doesn’t move about the outer rim. In a shoe buckle, the pin is not constricted therefore is able to move around the metal perimeter. They can be easily missed on the foreshore because they’re tiny things, often heavily corroded due to being made of iron, and sometimes badly damaged with the central pin missing.
Shoe buckles from this period were symbols of status and prestige. Archaeological excavations at Baynard’s Castle in London (situated just east of what is now Blackfriars Station, the original Norman castle built at the point where the old Roman walls and the River Fleet meet the Thames) revealed a surprising number of different types of medieval footwear, both below the ankle leather ones and also full boots up to the knee. The plain design of shoes excavated here show a clear need for practical, simple footwear that wouldn’t interfere with work. These working shoes wouldn’t have been buckled (too expensive) but would have resembled a basic slip-on.
Shoes of a buckled variety, such as the one I found this year on the Thames Foreshore, would have seen the buckle positioned much as they are today; at one side of the shoe, a piece of leather from the other side of the foot threaded through it and kept in place by the pin. Buckles would have been treated like jewellery, with care and recycled, re-attached to a new pair of shoes when the old ones were no longer fit for purpose.
London’s shoemakers were known as the Cordwainers, who had their own Guild by 1272, based in Cordwainer Street, on the boundary of Cheapside, Poultry and Walbrook in the City of London. ‘Cordwain’ is a corruption of ‘Cordovan’, the English word for fine Spanish leather.
It was quite a few months after returning to the river post- lockdown before I found any significant metal finds. So it made me very happy to see this military item glinting up at me, partially buried among the gravel and mud of the foreshore. It’s a Royal Fusiliers (London Regiment) cap badge, made of brass, beautifully preserved and still in excellent condition.
I was of course intrigued as to how it ended up in the river. Why would anyone throw anything like this away? And then I bumped into a fellow mudlark who told me his grandfather had been in this regiment (but who thankfully hadn’t lost his cap badge!) During periods of leave soldiers would gravitate to London to see girlfriends, prostitutes and generally let off steam and enjoy themselves. My mudlarking friend told me his grandfather would occasionally mention these amorous encounters that took place by the Embankment wall. It only took a sudden gust of wind to whip off the serviceman’s cap, sending it flying into the Thames, badge and all. Many a soldier then had an awkward time explaining the loss of their cap to the sergeant once they’d returned to barracks.
The second find on my ‘wish list’ that I was happily able to tick off this year was this stunning flint tool. I didn’t find it myself unfortunately (I’m convinced I suffer from flint tool blindness) but one day, a few weeks ago, I just happened to be mudlarking near fellow mudlark Florrie (@flo_finds on Instagram,) who has a keen eye for these things, and she spotted this beauty. Knowing how much I’ve been desperate to find a piece of worked flint for ages, Florrie kindly presented it to me. The mudlarking community can be so generous.
This particular artefact is called a microlith – a small, shaped tool, typically made from flint or chert. They are approximately one to three centimetres in length and a centimetre across, sometimes even smaller. They were typically used in spears or arrowheads.
Microliths were produced from either a small blade or a larger blade-like piece of flint by retouching. There are different shapes such as triangular, trapezoid or lunate, these types being characteristic of the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, in other words spanning approximately 35,000 – 3,000 years BC. They eventually fell out of use during the Neolithic when farming became established, therefore the need to hunter-gather diminished.
I can’t explain how overwhelming it feels to hold such a small yet perfectly made object in my hand. Still as sharp as a knife, I nearly cut myself with the microlith when I got it home, which shows how effective an item this would have been. Flo and myself were the first people to have held it in our hands for thousands of years before it was disposed of.
Microliths are fairly common finds in fields and other areas where our pre-historic ancestors used to live, but less so on the Thames Foreshore. Although there were ancient communities of people living along the Thames thousands of years ago (the river would have looked very different in those days) it’s thought that these worked flint tools are more likely to have washed into it from other smaller rivers and streams that feed the Thames.
Last, but by no means least, the most recent find from my last visit to the Thames at the beginning of December is this hefty wild boar’s tusk, the largest one I’ve found to date. Tusks come from the uncastrated male; pigs have them too but the tusks of a boar are much bigger.
I spotted it on the foreshore near a site where high status townhouses once stood, the meat of the animal destined for the dinner tables of the wealthy.
The Latin name for boar is ‘sus scrofa’ and these beasts were once widespread throughout the British Isles. Wild boar were strictly preserved in Royal forests during the medieval period for the benefit of the monarch and favoured noblemen. So unrestrained and unsustainable was the frantic pursuit of these creatures that they were inevitably hunted to extinction in England, thought by some to have been as early as the 14th century.
However, this date is likely to be inaccurate as a search through Henry VIII’s household accounts reveal the sheer amount of meat eaten by his court in 1529-1530 alone, the accounts including large numbers of boar:
53 wild boar
It’s unlikely these boar would have been imported from Europe as the state of the meat would have been quite rank by the time it got to the kitchen for preparation, so they must have been native boar, locally hunted. The date of boar extinction in the British Isles can therefore be dated more accurately to the early 17th century.
Wild boar continued to be hunted throughout Europe and remain prolific in European forests to this day. However, from the mid-1980s onwards, they have once again been re-introduced to parts of Kent, Sussex, Devon, Dorset and the Forest of Dean.
On that note, I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through my ‘Best Nine’ and it won’t be too long before I’m back mudlarking again, all being well. Thank you so much for continuing to read, send in questions and comments, and support this blog. I’m very grateful.
If you’re a reader of Good Housekeeping magazine, you might also like to keep an eye out for the February 2022 edition (will actually be available in shops in early January) and which features me taking Helen, a new mudlark, out to the Thames Foreshore to introduce her to the pleasures of mudlarking.
Wishing you all a peaceful and happy Christmas, and a healthy New Year 2022.
Tonight is Hallowe’en, a time for carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, apple bobbing, lighting bonfires, trick or treating, divination games, visiting haunted houses and telling spooky tales of ghostly happenings. Within the Christian tradition it begins the observance of Allhallowtide, a time within the liturgical year when we remember the dead, including saints, martyrs and all the faithful departed by lighting candles on family graves.
It’s thought that many Hallowe’en traditions may have been influenced by ancient Celtic harvest festival traditions, such as the Gaelic festival Samhain, which had pagan roots. This was later adopted as All Hallow’s Day, along with its Eve, by the early Christian Church. Some theologians however think that Hallowe’en had its roots solely as a Christian holiday being the vigil (evening) of All Hallow’s Day.
The Thames Foreshore is an exceptionally spooky place at this time of year, heavy with ghosts from the past, mysterious sounds and a supernatural, sometimes unearthly atmosphere. So, draw the curtains, throw an extra log on the fire and buckle up for my selection of some of the eeriest tales and places on the river.
A good starting point for ghostly atmosphere is, without a doubt, the Wapping Foreshore.
The Prospect of Whitby is one of the most atmospheric pubs in London and a favourite watering hole of mine in Wapping. Once known as The Pelican, the adjacent river stairs are still referred to by this name – Pelican Stairs. It was also known locally as The Devil’s Tavern because of its foul reputation – a haunt of pirates, thieves, cut-throats and an unsavoury assortment of criminals who frequented it, using it as their base for robbing unsuspecting sailors who’d come in for ale having disembarked from their boats and barges on the Thames.
Wapping is blessed with a number of narrow and spooky little alleyways that offer access to the foreshore, though some of the stairs have long since washed away or are damaged. Dark and dimly lit in days of yore, they were the perfect place to lie in wait for an unsuspecting individual who, perhaps the worse for wear for drink, would stagger out of the Prospect of Whitby or other taverns, only to fall victim to a mugging and wake up in the early hours without valuable possessions and sometimes even clothes. Of course, there was never a witness about when you needed one. It is probably no surprise to learn that because of the appalling crime in this area, even by the lawless standards of the day, Wapping became the home of the Thames River Police in 1798, the forefathers of modern policing and London’s first proper police force.
It is thought that Wapping Old Stairs lead to the infamous Execution Dock which had been used for executions for four hundred years. The ‘dock’ consisted of a scaffold for hanging pirates, smugglers and mutineers who had been sentenced to death by Admiralty Courts. The last executions here took place in 1830. Execution Dock was where the notorious sailor and pirate Captain Kidd, having been charged with five counts of piracy and one of murder, which he denied, was executed on 23 May 1701. Not just once, but twice, as initially the hangman’s rope broke and Kidd survived only for the process to be repeated again, this time successfully. His body was then taken and gibbeted over the river Thames at Tyburn point, where it remained for three years as a warning to others.
Moving on to the strange tale of the Blackwall Tunnel ghost, known locally as ‘The Phantom Hitchhiker.’ This is a relatively recent and strange ghost story and one in a long tradition of ghostly hitchhikers who turn up in various parts of the country.
The original Blackwall Tunnel had been built to carry a road under the Thames from Greenwich to Tower Hamlets, and has since been modernised to meet the needs of modern traffic. In 1972 however, it’s said that a motorcyclist stopped to pick up a young man he saw hitchhiking at the southern end of the tunnel. The young man gave the motorcyclist the address where he wanted to get to and then climbed up behind the rider. But when the motorcyclist left the tunnel he found that his passenger had mysteriously disappeared.
He turned and went back to look for him but to no avail. Later he went to the address he’d been given and was told a young man answering the description of his mysterious passenger had once lived there but been killed in a traffic accident some years ago.
Greenwich is also the location of another eerie ghost story. It happens to be the location of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, the photograph above showing the Island Gardens entrance and exit, the Greenwich entrance and exit located by the Cutty Sark across the river. The Greenwich Foot Tunnel runs beneath the Thames linking Greenwich, south of the Thames, with Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs, north of the Thames. It was built in 1902 to to allow workers from the south to get to London’s Docklands, specifically Millwall Docks.
The tunnel is 370 metres long and has cast iron rings surfaced with 200,000 glazed white tiles. The Northern end was damaged by enemy bombing during the Second World War and had to be repaired with a thick steel and concrete inner lining.
As you walk through the tunnel it’s common to feel uneasy as the atmosphere is cold, damp and dimly lit. Some people report feelings of being watched and followed even though there is no one else there. Others have reported sightings of a Victorian couple walking hand in hand along the tunnel, but the couple mysteriously vanish as they pass by leaving only a pocket of very cold air.
The Tower of London is also a well known eerie place where ghostly unexplained sounds and sightings proliferate throughout centuries of its bloody and gory history.
For hundreds of years prisoners have been brought to the Tower complex for incarceration and/or execution. Many of them would have been brought here by boat along the Thames and would have entered via what has now become known as Traitors’ Gate. One of the most famous prisoners who was brought here through Traitors’ Gate was Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) on the 17 March 1554, on the orders of her half -sister Mary I who suspected the young Elizabeth of plotting against her. It must have been a terrifying experience for the young princess not knowing whether she would come out of this desperate place alive.
Traitors’ Gate itself was part of a lengthy building project started by Henry III (1207-1272.) In 1240 and 1241, a series of fierce storms undermined the foundations here and the gate collapsed killing a number of labourers. As a result, various spectral sightings occur within the vicinity of this wall and a priest once claimed to have seen the ghost of St Thomas Becket banging the walls near the gate with a gold crucifix. Others claim to have seen the ghost of the Saint banging on the walls with his crosier.
Henry III’s son, Edward I, later rebuilt the wall and towers, including a chapel, as an offering to St Thomas Becket, within one of the towers where Traitors’ Gate now stands. So perhaps the ghost story isn’t as fanciful as it first sounds. Yet it wasn’t until the Reformation that the gate was formally named Traitors’ Gate, ironically thought to have been so named because some Protestants viewed St Thomas as a traitor to the then King (Henry II.)
Continuing the ghostly stories associated with the location of the Tower of London, it’s surprising how many people don’t notice a very eerie place situated under one of the arches of the bridge on the north side of the Thames.
This is Dead Man’s Hole, located in an alcove directly under the steps on the north side of Tower Bridge. Essentially a Victorian Mortuary, though no longer functioning as one, take a peek next time you’re passing the Tower of London. A remnant from the 19th century when bodies of poor souls used to regularly wash up on this particular stretch of the river. An ‘L’ shaped set of stairs curves round to the Thames under Tower Bridge to make it easier to reach the bodies. There was also once a hooked pole near the stairs to help with the retrieval of the dead.
Bodies were then kept in the mortuary until collected or buried anonymously if no one came forward to identify them. The white tiles served a useful purpose because they could be easily and quickly wiped down whenever a bloated corpse exploded due to build up of chemicals and gases.
Access to Dead Man’s Hole is fenced off and kept locked but it can be seen through the iron fencing as you walk past en route to the Tower of London. Many people walk straight past without noticing the grim history of what lies here under the bridge.
There are so many stories of ghosts and grisly happenings on the Thames that this blog has only just scratched the surface. The river lends itself so well to eerie tales and a sinister unearthly atmosphere. And as the light fades and the mist rises it’s easy to imagine you can see spirits from the past and hear the cries of lost souls.