Trinity Buoy Wharf And The Mystery Of The Clipped Coins.

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

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


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


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



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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A brief history of mudlarking

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Start of the journey….


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

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

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

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


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


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

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