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.