Return To The Foreshore And A Mystery Mudlarking Find

Return to the Fulham Foreshore June 2020
Return to the Thames Foreshore

Two weeks ago I returned to the Thames Foreshore for the first time in nearly four months. A beautiful day, dry and warm, the most perfect conditions for being near the river. Other mudlarks had returned to the foreshore almost as soon as the first lockdown restrictions were lifted but I’ve had to be more cautious. The Mayor of London continues to advise that public transport is only used for essential travel and so I knew I could only go to a part of the Thames that wasn’t too far from my home, and therefore one that I knew I could get a lift to. Fulham/Putney, north and south banks of Putney Bridge, a very special part of the Thames Foreshore for me, was the perfect place for a mudlarking return.

Fulham June 2020
Mud, mud, glorious mud

It was a relief to stand at the top of Bishop’s Park river steps and see that to all intents and purposes nothing had changed much since my last visit here five months ago at the end of January 2020. But stepping carefully down the stone access steps to the river it was clear that things were different. There was gloopy green mud everywhere, far more than was normal before lockdown, and I knew I literally had to tread very carefully.

Fulham June 2020 Mud
Glorious green and gloopy Thames mud

There are always patches of mud on every part of the Thames Foreshore as well as stones, gravel and rocky hardcore but there was far more mud on the Fulham foreshore than normal, and this was due to the lack of river traffic as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown.

The Thames Clippers had stopped running mid March – the lack of tourists and people using them to get to work (so many folk now advised to work from home if they could) meant that the usual ‘churn’ of the river wasn’t taking place. This had therefore inevitably resulted in much more thick gloopy mud in certain places than would normally be the case, and it had built up steadily during the months of lockdown.

On the positive side, as I walked up and down the foreshore on my return, I noticed that the Thames Clipper at Putney Pier was doing a trial run on the river, this a hopeful sign of boat activity beginning slowly to return to some sort of normal.

London At War GM
‘The Thames At War; Saving London From The Blitz’ by Gustav Milne with TDP

While being stuck at home and not being able to go out mudlarking I’d used the time to sort out my extensive river-based photo collection, read, research and write. I’ve particularly enjoyed re-reading, and highly recommend, ‘The River’s Tale’ by Nathalie Cohen and Eliott Wragg, and also engrossed in the newly published ‘The Thames At War: Saving London From The Blitz’ by Gustav Milne with the Thames Discovery Programme. This book is especially timely as this year we commemorated the 75th anniversary of VE Day on May 8th, when Britain and its Allies formally accepted Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender after almost six years of war.

Fulham Mason Brick 2
Mystery Mudlarking Find from the Fulham Foreshore

At the beginning of 2020, when the world was still normal, I was mudlarking on this very same stretch of the Fulham Foreshore on a bitterly cold and windy day when I found a mystery stone object the size of a large brick but made of concrete. I didn’t know what it was, nor did other mudlarks nearby, and I initially wrongly identified it as a lead token mould before realising it couldn’t possibly be. Token moulds have a clear design and also a channel for molten lead or other metal to be poured into the stone before setting. When I looked at my mystery find again, whatever it was, it clearly wasn’t a token mould. So, what was it?

Fulham Mason Brick 2020
Mystery find from another angle

I posted the photos (see above) on social media and very quickly a stonemason got in touch with me. He’d recognised this as a stonemason’s tool specifically for making plugs needed to make a quick, temporary repair to either a wall or building and was a method in common usage during the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s.

Other mudlarks who are regulars on the Fulham Foreshore have found similar carved brick or concrete, more or less in the same area, and it’s likely these would also have been used by stonemasons for the same purpose, often recycling a range of stone materials for quick repairs.

The location of these in this particular area is interesting. In ‘The Thames At War’ there are photographs showing bomb damage done to the river wall at the upstream end of Craven Cottage, home to Fulham Football Club, while on 16 October 1940, following further bombing raids by the Luftwaffe, a hundred foot of the river wall at Bishop’s Park collapsed onto the foreshore. Semi-permanent repairs were made involving pitched tiers of 5,000 concrete bags while arguments raged about which local authority should pay for permanent repairs.

My stonemason contact believed that in the light of the wartime history of this area, as in the rest of London, repairs would have been made to other bomb damaged structures using stone plugs fashioned quickly from these concrete bricks. There would have been no time for carefully cut masonry so shortcuts were necessary, and it looks as though small stone plugs would have been part of the repair process.

The first bombs fell on the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham on Monday 9th September 1940 with a number of high explosive devices landing on St Dunstan’s Road in Fulham and Hamlet Gardens in Hammersmith. During the night there was a direct hit on Fulham Hospital, the current site of Charing Cross Hospital, and also to Fulham Power Station in Townmead Road, which caused blackouts in much of West London. There were many more raids to come with September 13th 1940 being a particularly grim night when 38 people died as a result of a direct hit on an air raid shelter in Bucklers Alley, Fulham. There was considerable damage to houses and other buildings and structures. Fulham Power Station and Gasworks, riverside industries and factories were important targets for Luftwaffe Bombers.

Records show that a total number of 419 high explosive bombs were dropped on Hammersmith and Fulham from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941, 12 of them on Fulham Broadway. Stonemasons therefore would have been busy carrying out a constant stream of emergency repairs to the more important buildings in order to try to keep them functioning.

Fulham Palace Foreshore With View Downstream To Putney Bridge. Photo from 2018

I didn’t find a huge amount this time on my June return to the Fulham Foreshore – some fragments of 17th Century tin glaze pottery sherds, a couple of 18th century clay pipe bowls and a blue marble. But it felt so good to be back and that’s all that matters. The restrictions on using public transport remain in force as I write this blog so my mudlarking trips will continue to be limited for the time being, but I’m hoping to be able to get to the river at least once a month, and I’m grateful for that.


A Chandler’s Token and London History Day

Two weeks ago the UK Government took its first step in permitting a gradual lifting of some of the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown regulations. This resulted in the Port of London Authority allowing a return of leisure activity such as boating and mudlarking on the Thames. However, even though some mudlarks have returned to the river, it’s still a little too early for me to visit the foreshore just yet. As I write this blog public transport remains only for essential use, and the infection rate of Covid-19 is still not as low as I’d like, so I’m going to wait a few more weeks before even thinking of resuming pottering about on the river. The Thames will still be there for me when I’m ready and in the meantime this has given me the opportunity to sort out and research a small backlog of finds made in January and February this year.

On my penultimate mudlarking session prior to lockdown, twinkling up at me from the mud and scrap of the Thames foreshore was a late 17th century trader’s token, made of copper alloy, and the fifth one of this type I’ve found so far. Minted post 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, these tokens are always a delight to find and, unless in atrocious condition, usually end up being recorded on the PAS (Portable Antiquities Scheme.) They’re a mine of information for the historian as they give you so much detail – a trade, a name, a crest or symbol, the very street where the business was located. Tokens like this were once issued in lieu of change at a time when small coins were in short supply. Whoever had a token like this could exchange it for goods such as beer or bread, or services such as prostitution. I’ve yet to find a brothel token but these have been found by other mudlarks.

TG token
Thomas Giltman Chandler’s Token in situ on the Thames Foreshore

This particular one is a Tallow Chandler’s token issued by Thomas Giltman of Gosswell Street in Clerkenwell, a street which is still there to this day although now known as Goswell Street. I was particularly thrilled with this find as I’d discovered it on a part of the foreshore I hadn’t been to for some while and viewed by many mudlarks as not being worth searching. I’m glad I went back that day because I found some interesting objects. It goes to show how unpredictable the river can be with what it leaves behind at low tide.

Thomas Giltman Chandlers token in situ
Rescued from the mud and gravel of the Thames Foreshore

The definition of what a Chandler does has changed over the centuries. Today it refers to someone who sells equipment for ship and boats, but historically it had two meanings; someone who worked in the wax and tallow business making candles (and soap) from the compressed fat of butchered animals, and also people who sold oil (known as ‘Oylemen’,) paint, household goods and groceries. Tallow Chandlery was especially important at this period in history when candles remained the only source of lighting dangerous streets and the home, pushing back the darkness and creating a small patch of light. There’s a sixteenth century meditation which says, ‘All would be horror without candles’ and this is difficult for us to understand when, thanks to electricity, we’re used to multiple lights coming on at the flick of a switch.

I’m grateful to the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers located at 4 Dowgate Hill in the City of London who opened up their archives for me to search for Thomas Giltman and the history of some of their other members for this blog.

It appears Thomas Giltman wasn’t a member of the Tallow Chandlers Guild even though Gosswell Street was a veritable hub of Chandlers’ activity from medieval times to the 18th century, when their livelihoods were threatened and eventually destroyed by the inevitable coming of oil, lighting houses and streets instead of candles.

The Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers’ archives record four of their members living in Gosswell Street at the same time as Thomas Giltman – the sassy Mary Jackson, a ‘Corne Chandler’, who held her own in a trade dominated by men. It’s likely Mary took over the business of her husband on his death as this was the only way women could be admitted into a Guild at this time; Richard Norwood, an ‘Oyleman’; Edward Smith, a butcher chandler (the links between butchery and chandlery were close because Tallow Chandlers based themselves near butchers and abattoirs in order to have access to the fat of slaughtered animals); and Daniel Stepto, a Tallow Chandler ‘made Free’ (that is, he became a Freeman of the Guild) in 1747.

Gosswell Street would have been a filthy and stinking area to live and work in. Chandlers were often forced to move elsewhere when residents complained of the stench their trade was causing.

Obverse of Thomas Giltman’s token showing the symbol of the Tallow Chandlers

Today is also London History Day. I’m not quite sure who decides these things but there we are. It’s an opportunity however for me to share some of my favourite finds from the river with you.  The Thames has been London’s rubbish tip for millennia and the reason for the city’s very existence. Pottery, pins, pipes and other detritus have been thrown away or lost by ordinary folk whose names we mostly don’t know but whose stories live on in these objects. See how many items you think you can find in the photo below.


And on that note, I hope it won’t be too long before I’m back on the foreshore adding to my collection of mudlarking finds. I hope you all stay healthy and well over the next few weeks and months as we officially roll into summer.


At time of writing, we’ve just completed three weeks of lockdown and are into the fourth, our Government deciding that it’s still far too early to lift the current restrictions and that we must ‘Stay At Home, Save Lives, and Protect The NHS.’ Unprecedented times for all of us.

I have to admit I’ve been struggling with writing at the moment. Normally I find my mudlarking blogs hugely enjoyable to do but these aren’t normal times. My brain feels slow and addled right now, as if a thick fog has descended; words won’t come, sentences don’t form. Time has almost ceased to have any meaning as we all struggle to remember what day of the week it is. I’m also currently writing a book but have been struggling with that too, I don’t really know why, but perhaps this is what some people refer to as writer’s block. A friend, also a writer and historian with numerous books to her name, has emailed me to say she’s going through similar and the best advice is to not push it. Perhaps limit your writing to a manageable 200 words a day. It doesn’t sound much but it quickly mounts up and at least means you’re keeping your writing project going, whatever it happens to be. Above all, be realistic and kind to yourself. The mojo will return.

I’d written a blog about clay pipes intending to upload it this month, but in the last minute decided to leave that for another time. Somehow it didn’t feel appropriate and I wanted to mark this strange time with something a bit more current. So this particular lockdown blog is more a collection of rambling thoughts about the river and what I’m doing right now while not able to access my beloved foreshore. And perhaps it needs to be said loud and clear, mudlarking is very much off limits right now. Sadly, social media  has seen many people reporting sights of some mudlarks ignoring the clear instruction of the Port of London Authority, who manage the tidal Thames, that all leisure activity must stop until such a time as the Government lifts the current restrictions. It’s sad that there’s a tiny minority of people who think the law doesn’t apply to them.

And yet…. there is always hope.

Blossom lockdown 2020
Spring blossom, Twickenham Riverside.

I’m eternally grateful for my health, my family remains well and the weather has been glorious in London with one of the most stunning Springs I can remember for a long time. Perhaps everything is heightened by the restrictions of lockdown, I don’t know; but bird song is louder, more beautiful; the air crisper and cleaner; the sky a Mediterranean blue; blossom is blowsier than I remember, the scent intense, its colour deeper and more vivid. All around me I see simple acts of kindness as so many people help out those who are self-isolating and can’t do their own shopping or pick up medicines, while hundreds of thousands signed up to become NHS Volunteers and to help in any way they can. Crises can bring out the best in ordinary people.

I’m also extremely grateful to live ten minutes walk away from the river at Twickenham and this is often where my ‘one a day’, state sanctioned walk takes me in the afternoons to stretch my legs and get some fresh air.

Twickenham downstream 2020
View from Radnor Gardens downstream towards Eel Pie Island and St Mary’s Parish Church, Twickenham.

I’ve been keeping myself busy doing things that perhaps involve a different type of focus and concentration, namely creative projects such as restoring a vintage Edwardian Lepidopterist’s cabinet, kindly bought for me by the other half after a successful bid on eBay. The cabinet involved a long car journey (prior to lockdown) in order to pick it up from the seller, an eccentric young man who lived in a house reeking of mothballs. The mothball factor has meant the cabinet has been outside in our garden, in the fresh air, for the better part of the last four weeks or so while we try to get rid of that particularly pungent smell. Someone on Instagram helpfully recommended charcoal bags as being highly effective for getting rid of the stench of mothballs so, if you can get hold of some during these difficult times, they’re well worth trying. As of today, thankfully, there’s only the very faintest of traces of mothball smell left.

Vintage cabinet 6
Restoration of a vintage Edwardian Lepidopterist’s Cabinet, with the assistance of one of my cats.

When the cabinet has finally been cleaned up to my exacting standards it’ll be the perfect place to display my growing collection of Thames treasures; from pottery sherds spanning Roman to Victorian, trading tokens, coins, beads, aiglets, Tudor dress pins, clay pipes and numerous other personal objects telling the stories of long forgotten Londoners from the past. I look forward to blogging about it and showing a few more photos when it’s completely restored.

Vintage cabinet 5
My collection of Delft tin-gaze pottery sherds, from approx. 1650-1730.

One item that will definitely be joining my collection of treasure Thames finds is this key, found on my final mudlarking trip to the Thames Foreshore before lockdown.

Post medieval iron key 2
Post Medieval key after cleaning.

I’d been mudlarking near the City of London that day and was about to head off home as the tide was coming in when, by sheer chance, the wash from a passing Thames Clipper threw this glorious item at my feet. Slightly encrusted, hardly surprising after hundreds of years immersed in the river, I glanced down and saw this small, blackened, heavy, post-medieval key, made of iron, possibly belonging to a casket or something similar. A fellow mudlark suggested it might be a key to an old door or a cellar but I think it’s far too small and for that. When lockdown is over I’ll be showing it to the Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London, in case he wants to record it on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and it’ll be an opportunity to hear a bit more about the possible history of this key.

Post medieval iron key
Post medieval key, found by me on the Thames Foreshore.

Meanwhile, who knows its secrets or how it got into the river? Maybe someone running away from the plague or Great Fire in 1666, leaping into a wherry on the north bank near London Bridge in order to get to the relative safety of the south bank at Southwark. In my mind’s eye I’m imagining someone, a resident of London, carrying with them an old wooden chest containing important documents or deeds made from parchment or vellum, perhaps also coins or maybe a locket and other personal items. They would have been very cross to have lost the key in the dark and swirling waters of the Thames. The owner of this key would have known nothing of modern times, of electricity, international travel, the internet and so on, yet would have shared our hopes and dreams, our fears about death, illness and a plague that was an invisible enemy, then as now. I literally shivered when I held this key in my hands, the first person to do so for nearly four hundred years.

Samuel Pepys

Coincidentally I’ve just been reading ‘The Diary of Samuel Pepys’, an intimate account of a life lived in very dangerous times. Pepys was an eyewitness to some of the most significant and spectacular events in seventeenth century English history including the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 (Pepys was a passenger on the ship that brought Charles II from exile), the plague that ravaged the capital in 1665-1666, and the Great Fire of 1666, described with such vivid language and clarity and bringing to life the horror and despair of those times. Pepys writings, once distant and from another century, now take on a familiarity for us as we live through our very own Covid-19 pandemic.

Pepys’ diary entry for August 30th, 1665 is as follows:

‘Up betimes, and to my business of settling my house and papers; and then abroad and met with Hadly our Clerke, who upon my asking how the plague goes, he told me it increases much, and much in our parish; “For,” he says, “there died nine this week, though I have returned but six” – which is very ill practice, and makes me think it is so in other places, and therefore the plague much greater then people take it to be.’

On the 31st August, 1665 Pepys’ diary entry continues:

‘….the plague having a great increase this week beyond all expectation, of almost 2000…. Thus this month ends, with great sadness upon the public through the Kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its encrease. In the City died this week 7496; and of them, 6102 of the plague. But it is feared that the true number of the dead this week is neare 10000 – partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them.’

While on the 20th October 1665 Pepys writes:

‘But Lord what a sad time it is, to see no boats upon the River -‘

One of the more noticeable features of our current situation is how similarly quiet and still the river is with virtually no traffic on the water at the moment. Boats and barges remain tied up at moorings, while the Thames Clippers, normally busy transporting tourists, have fallen silent. In Pepys’ time, the river was already a liquid super highway bustling with small ships, boats, barges, wherries and lighters moving people and goods around London, and indeed trade was at the very heart of the economic growth of the capital. It’s therefore particularly poignant that he notes the effects of the plague on the Thames and how difficult it was for him to see this.

And yet there’s always an upside. The absence of humans and our destructive ways means that nature now has an opportunity to recuperate, regenerate and repair. Friends living by the river in other parts of London report a crystal clarity in the water; mooring features, wharves, jetties and ancient timbers from old ships, usually covered by mud, have become visible again. River birds such as cormorants, coots, Egyptian Geese and swans are currently nesting and hatching their young in bigger numbers, safer than ever before from humans. There’s also an abundance of fish and seal sightings in the Thames are increasing. We’ll all benefit from this period of quiet and it shows how much damage people can do to the natural world.

Normal life, if things can ever be described as normal again, will resume at some point albeit slowly, gradually and with great difficulty for many businesses and employees. My heart goes out to them.

The Thames will still be there when this period is over and I look forward to returning to the solace of the foreshore again. To all my readers, please stay safe and well. Remember, everything passes.

Me at Woolwich - EJ
Me mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore at Woolwich in happier times. Photo courtesy Emma Jackson.


Pins and things…

This has been a cold and blustery week on the Thames Foreshore and one where I was pleased to be able to make two unscheduled visits for a spot of mudlarking. Storm Dennis was beginning to blow itself out, Storm Jorge not yet unleashing its fury so I was pleased that some good finds were made, including a very special early medieval dress pin from approximately 1000-1200 AD. It’s the oldest pin I’ve ever found and was literally thrown at my feet by the wash from a passing Thames Clipper. This sort of magic happens rarely, but it does happen. Oh yes. And it’s magical when it does.

Made from lead or pewter (see the photo below) and approximately 4 cms in length, it has a bobbly, globular head that’s beautifully tactile to the touch. Whoever lost it would have been very cross and, as I hold it in my hands, can only speculate as to its background story. Who owned it? What did they pin with it – a veil, a shawl, a linen headdress, a jewel? I’ll never know, but nearly a thousand years later I was the lucky finder as it was flung from the river, and this is definitely a keeper. After all those years, I’m amazed it’s still in one piece. Strong and sturdy in design though, it still has a great deal of wear left in it.

Medieval pin b & w
Early Medieval dress pin, made from pewter or lead, with a bobbly, globular head, circa 1000 to 1200 AD.

I love pins – fat pins, thin ones, thick ones, shawl pins – the more the merrier. I dream of finding a gold one, and maybe I will one day. Pins are a staple of a mudlark’s collection and I suspect many of my fellow foreshore foragers probably don’t even bother to pick them up any more, or at the very least, only take away the bigger, heftier ones. But not me. I’m drawn to their ordinariness, their functionality, longevity, uniqueness and the fact that for centuries they literally pinned working Londoners into their clothing. I can’t get enough of them and however many I pick up, thousands more appear on the foreshore the next time I visit, seemingly multiplying as they erode from  the mud. Pins are literally the gift that keeps on giving.

And they continue to have their uses even now. After cleaning mine up I’ve used them to pin up curtains and hems. A Scottish mudlark I know, who often mudlarks late at night due to work commitments, once told me he has a collection of Thames pins pinned to the underside of his jacket collar. A few years ago he was the victim of an attempted mugging in a dark and narrow alleyway leading down to an isolated spot of the foreshore and, fortunately for my mudlarking friend, as the mugger grabbed hold of his collar he ended up with a fistful of sharp pins embedded in the palm of his hand. Yelping in pain he ran off into the night hopefully having learnt a lesson. Who knew you could use Tudor pins as self-defence?

Dress pins are ubiquitous on the Thames Foreshore. The vast majority seen poking out of Thames mud are 14th to 18th century, made from brass, and found in their hundreds of thousands, probably millions. I’m indebted to Geoff Egan and Frances Pritchard and their book ‘Dress Accessories: 1150 – 1450’ for filling in so many gaps in my knowledge of pins and the pin making process. They’ve studied various archaeological sites from the 14th and early 15th century and confirm that deposits of pins from these sites is extensive. The abundance of pins is not surprising especially when considering the trousseau of Princess Joan, daughter of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, who was contracted to be married to Pedro of Castile in 1348. The trousseau included ‘12,000 pins for her veils alone, while the cargoes of two Venetian galleys calling at Southampton in April 1440 on their way back from Flanders included 83,000 pins, which was the merchandise of seven merchants.’ Sadly, Joan never made it to the marriage ceremony as she died en route in Bordeaux of the Black Death.

Dress Accessories

Egan and Pritchard have also traced the changes in manufacturing methods that lead to a transformation in the size of pins from the 12th century onwards and which continued into subsequent centuries. The pin shank became finer due to a greater availability of drawn wire and the head, made separately from the shank, was made smaller and soldered on at the final stage of the pin making process. The decrease in size affected how the pins were worn and reflected changes in dress and fashions during this period. Pins could now be used to hold together more delicate materials such as silks, linen headdresses or to secure transparent veils to the hair or around the shoulders, and there are many examples of this shown in 15th Century art.

Triptych Stefan Lochner 1440 Cologne
Triptych c 1440 from Cologne by Stefan Lochner, showing ladies wearing pins in their hair and dress

It’s thought that brass pins were first used in the late 13th century, the quality and fineness of the metal making it particularly ideal for the fashion of fine veiling. High status women from the period also wore pins where the heads were made from coral or coloured glass. Black glass pinheads, similar to onyx, have been found at archaeological excavations complete with matching finger rings popular in this period.

In the days before buttons were widely available, or indeed affordable, both rich and poor were literally pinned into their clothing. The pins would frequently come loose, drop into the gutter and be flushed into the Thames, which is why so many of them turn up in the river. Hand made, often by children, the 14th century saw a huge expansion in the pin making process.

14th to 18th century handmade brass pins (from my own collection)

Wealthy women might even have pins made from silver or gold. Some were beautifully elaborate, including Tudor ball-headed pins with filigree decoration, while others were plain. Each pin was unique.

The phrase ‘pin money’ originated from Tudor times and refers to the small coins that a man might give his wife in order to treat herself to a little luxury now and then, money that ensured she could buy herself some pins to hold her clothing together. By and large, poorer working women needed far fewer pins than their high status counterparts.

In the Tudor period there was no more high status a woman than Queen Elizabeth I. It would take over two hours for the Queen to be pinned into her clothing every day. Several maids were necessary to assist with the process of dressing the Royal Personage, pinning the Queen into her kirtle (garment worn over a chemise and under a formal outer garment), farthingale, petticoats, overgown, stomacher and detachable sleeves. It would take almost as long to unpin the Queen at the end of the day, her servants needing to take care not to actually touch the Royal body as they did so.

The Queen’s pin maker was a man called Robert Careles. In 1565 a Royal Inventory of 20th October shows he supplied the Queen with the following:

‘xviii thousande Great verthyngale Pynnes, xx thousande Myddle verthyngale Pynnes, xxv thousande Great velvet Pynnes, xxx and nine thousande Small velvet Pynnes; ix thousande Small velvet Pynnes; xi thousande Small helde Pynnes.’

Careles delivered a Royal Order of ‘Pynnes’ like this to the Queen’s Household every six months and the sheer quantity of pins used was staggering. His pin inventory to the Royal Household is frequently quoted in many a posting about Thames pins and yet, while I’ve been doing further research, there’s often very little mention of pins in articles about clothing or costume, especially considering they were needed to keep everything in place including ruffs, cuffs, veils and jewels. And although Careles supplied the Queen with a large collection of pins I’m surprised Her Majesty’s household didn’t need more. The fact that they didn’t is probably indicative of the fact that the Queen was careful with her expenditure and pins would have been looked after, casual loss of them would have been frowned on.

When not in use, pins were removed from clothing so as not to rip the precious fabric, or stain it through oxidisation. They were straightened if they got bent and were periodically sharpened. Pins not in use were stored in pin cushions. Not Liberty print as below from my own collection, but in similar designs probably using off-white silk in a satin weave or undyed linen in a plain weave and embroidered in fine silk floss or a metallic wire. Pin cushions were given as gifts and often carried on the person in order to carry out emergency repairs.

14th century to 18th century brass pins from the Thames Foreshore displayed in a Liberty print pin cushion

Pins came in different lengths with little consistency regarding their size. I’ve found both small, thin and delicate pins suitable for pinning more fragile fabrics, as well as thicker, sturdier, hefty pins used for pinning thicker, coarser fabric. Made with a drawn wire shank and, separately, an attached ball head that came in two different types – solid or wound-wire -then melted and soldered to the head of the shank. According to Egan and Pritchard, pins with wound-wire heads appear to have been introduced into London at a similar period to those with solid heads and to have been made in very large numbers. Some of the more solid headed pins are round, while others from this period are flatter in shape. Later 15th century pins have been found that have been highly decorative, including those found with the head in the shape of an acorn, but these more decorative pins are usually made of gunmetal rather than brass and they are rare finds.

Length of pins
Selection of brass pin finds showing a variety of length, width and different types of ball head

Favourite pin finds of mine include the very thickest varieties, their thickness, width and heftiness indicating these may have been used as shawl pins.

Shawl pins 14-18th century
14th to 18th century possible shawl pins, also showing a variety of different design of the pin head

Last year when returning from a mudlarking trip to the Thames Foreshore I walked back through London Bridge station. There are now a number of display cabinets in the station, near Accessorise and The Body Shop, showing a variety of finds discovered by archaeologists during the recent renovations of the station in 2016. Of particular significance to the pin lover is a case showing some fine examples of pinning tools. These were made from the leg bone of a cow, shaped and cut in half, and with grooves on the cut end deliberately fashioned in order to hold a pin for sharpening.

LB display
Examples of pinning tools found during recent archaeological excavations at London Bridge station

This method of sharpening and making pins by hand was in use from the 14th century till at least the end of the Tudor period in 1603. When The Mary Rose was discovered in May 1971, and finally raised from her watery grave in The Solent in 1982, among the finds extricated from the wreck of the ship were some fine examples of pinning tools (similar to above and below) and a large number of pins, all beautifully preserved in the Solent’s anaerobic mud.

Pins and bone
Broken fragment of cow bone with groove, possibly used as a pinning tool

Pin makers, known as pinners, would attach lengths of copper alloy wire to cattle bones and sharpen them with a file. Small grooves in the bone would show where the handmade pin sat so the point could be filed sharp by the pinner. After the pins had been sharpened, tiny coiled heads of twisted copper alloy were soldered on in a ball shape. Each pin was unique, as was the ball head.

Pinners often shared workshops with aiglet makers (aiglets being the metal sheaths worn at the end of lace to stop it from fraying) and also jewellers as they shared the same tools for the job.

Towards the middle to end of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution was under way and pins were no longer handmade but produced in factories instead, the mechanisation ensuring that, sadly, the pinners’ skills were no longer needed.

Pin ties in different shapes and sizes, a common find on the foreshore

And no blog about pins would be complete without mention of pin ties, the twisted bits of brass that once bound groups of pins together in varying sizes, prior to them being sold. When I first started mudlarking and finding pins I’d frequently spot these pin ties without being sure what they were until another mudlark was kindly able to identify them for me.

14th to 18th century pins in their pin ties, from my personal collection

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has numerous examples of pins recorded on their database spanning millennia of history. From Roman through to Anglo-Saxon (these being particularly rare finds on the Thames Foreshore), early to late Medieval and unusual pins from the Tudor period, all found among the rubbish deposited by the Thames at low tide. Pins will always be a joy to find.


The Blessing Of The River

‘The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.’

From the book of the Revelation to St John.

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A new year and my first mudlarking blog of 2020 began with a visit to the ancient stone walls of Southwark Cathedral. Sunday 12th January is the annual ceremony of  ‘The Blessing Of The River’, the river of course referring to the Thames, that glittering liquid silver artery that has its source in a remote field at Trewsbury Mead, southwest of Cirencester, Gloucestershire, gathering pace and volume as it journeys downstream, flowing through the bustling heart of the City of London before finally ending its journey out in the Estuary.

A procession leads the way from Southwark Cathedral on the southbank, meeting a similar one from St Magnus The Martyr on the northbank, in the middle of London Bridge.

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Southwark Cathedral jostling with The Shard

Thomas à Becket gave his final sermon here in Southwark Cathedral 850 years ago before setting off to Canterbury for the very last time. 2020 is a very special year as it marks the 850th commemoration of his martyrdom.

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The majestic, soaring interior of Southwark Cathedral.

The purpose of this ceremony is to bless those who work and look after the river and those who use it for recreation. Special blessings are also said for those who have died on or near the river. This year was particularly poignant as a small procession from St Magnus The Martyr church, en route to London Bridge, stopped by The Monument in order to leave floral tributes and say prayers for the young people killed in the recent terrorist atrocity at Fishmongers’ Hall. In previous years, prayers have also been said for victims of the Marchioness disaster which occurred in the early hours of the 20th August 1989.

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The procession commences from the font of Southwark Cathedral
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Bishop Peter Price preparing to lead the procession from Southwark Cathedral

We began the procession from the font at Southwark Cathedral in a cloud of incense. Bishop Peter Price, formerly Bishop of Kingston, led the group from Southwark, while Bishop Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Fulham, led the group en route from St Magnus The Martyr, based on Lower Thames Street on the north side of the river. St Magnus The Martyr church is also well worth a visit as it’s the gateway to the original London Bridge of medieval times.

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The procession leaves Southwark Cathedral en route for London Bridge

We parade out of Southwark Cathedral through Borough Market en route to London Bridge, the buildings of medieval London jostling with the new while curious passers-by and tourists stop to ask what we’re doing and to take photos. Contrary to appearances, this particular ceremony is only approximately twenty years old and was the idea of Father Philip Warner of St Magnus The Martyr, although almost certainly blessing ceremonies of the river have existed in one incarnation or other for hundreds of years. This particular ceremony borrows from the Eastern Christian tradition of blessing water by dipping a cross in it, and merging with it a symbolic ritual of baptism because the ceremony is held every year on the Feast Day of the Baptism of Christ.

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The procession approaches London Bridge
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Crossing London Bridge

The Blessing of the Thames procession reaches London Bridge and crosses over to reach the other side as traffic stops to let us pass, the gold and scarlet robes of the clergy providing a bright and welcome contrast to the steel grey and sombre city skyline. The sun battled with a fierce wind that at one stage whipped up from nowhere.

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The procession from Southwark Cathedral begins to cross London Bridge
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Processing across London Bridge

The women of Southwark Cathedral clergy were particularly magnificent in their scarlet and gold chasubles, defiant in the face of the wind screaming in our ears and causing vestments to flap wildly. At one point I feared Bishop Peter was in danger of taking off and ending up in the river.

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Female clergy from Southwark Cathedral glorious in their bright vestments

We meet with the procession from St Magnus The Martyr in the middle of London Bridge and greet each other warmly. Readings and prayers are said. A wooden cross is then ceremonially handed to the two bishops who, facing downstream (east) towards Tower Bridge, together throw it into the river.

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The procession from St Magnus The Martyr meets us in the middle of London Bridge
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The wooden cross is handed to the two Bishops

The cross momentarily disappears under one of the arches of London Bridge before eventually the current begins to carry it on and out towards the estuary. Because the cross is made of wood it’s biodegradable and poses no risk of polluting the river.

The blessed cross floating on the grey waters of the Thames before heading downstream and into the Estuary

As leaden clouds gather over the buildings in the City, the final prayer is said and we are blessed with holy water by the bishops. The ceremony concludes with everyone invited for refreshments at either St Magnus The Martyr or Southwark Cathedral.

The final blessing

If you’d like to take part in next year’s Blessing Of The River Ceremony next January 2021, please keep an eye on either The Southwark Cathedral or St Magnus The Martyr websites.

LB Jan 2020

Farewell to 2019

End of 2019 top finds
Best Nine Finds From The Last Five Years

It’s almost farewell to 2019 and hello to 2020, not just the end of a year but the end of a decade too and the start of a new one. So, for my final mudlarking blog of the last twelve months, I thought it was timely to celebrate my favourite ‘Best Nine’ finds since I first started mudlarking approximately five years ago. This was tough, a bit like having to choose your favourite child, but I’ve finally managed to narrow it down to this little lot and I adore every single one of these objects ever since the day I first found them on the Thames. What’s particularly special for me is that these are finds that encompass many different parts of the Thames Foreshore, from Fulham and Putney upstream in south west London, to Rotherhithe and Greenwich downstream in the east of the capital. London’s history is rich, varied and spanning millennia; the Thames never ceases to surprise me with its gifts.

Late Medieval token, approx. 1400

Now recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) by the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) at the Museum of London, I can’t reveal exactly where I found this Medieval token other than to say it was on a part of the Thames Foreshore in the centre of London where there were once multiple ancient quays and wharves for the import of various goods from other parts of the country, and from Europe and beyond. Tokens were issued in lieu of coins when there was a shortage of currency, and these could be exchanged for goods eg bread or beer, or a service such as brothel tokens, quite common from Medieval times onwards. This particular token find was made of pewter (I thought it was silver when I first caught a glimpse of it among the gravel of the foreshore) and has now been formally identified as from the later Medieval period, approximately 1400. It shows a central design of a flower comprising five petals and a stem, and is quite light and thin, the thinness itself an indicator of age as later tokens tend to be quite heavy and coarse.

The Black Death swept through Europe in the 14th Century, arriving in England in 1348. Its spread throughout these islands was quick and vicious, and many villages, towns and cities were decimated as a result. I’ve chosen this token out of the many that I’ve found because it feels very special, a turning point in history, the design of it alone showing that artistry and creativity had begun to return after the darkest of times.

Victorian Codd Bottle

At the beginning of 2019 I was lucky enough to find my first complete and undamaged Codd Bottle. More common in the Estuary and in Victorian bottle dumps but nonetheless rare in the Thames in London, in part due to children deliberately breaking them when coming across them in order to get at the Codd marble lodged inside the lugg (the pinched section of the bottle). Codd bottles were designed and patented by Hiram Codd of Camberwell in 1872, and were used to store aerated drinks such as lemonade or fizzy water. The marble pressed against a rubber washer at the neck to keep the bubbles fresh.

Green Codd Bottle Marble, highly prized by the Victorian child

My Codd Bottle find was made near some chalk beds at Rotherhithe. Barges would have rested on the chalk at low tide and it’s easy to imagine careless fingers accidentally dropping these bottles into the river at high tide when unloading them for transportation and sale elsewhere.

Victorian Stoneware Inkwell

A few years ago I was lucky to find a beautiful Victorian stoneware inkwell, known as a ‘penny pot’ or ‘pork pie’ due to its appearance. These would have been filled with black ink before being sealed with a cork and then sold. Tactile and smooth to the touch, Charles Dickens would have used an ink pot just like this when writing his novels. I discovered my ‘penny pot’ on a cold but clear early spring day while mudlarking near Newcastle Drawdock on the Isle of Dogs, directly opposite the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich. I imagine that these stoneware inkwells were probably being unloaded from a large vessel in the area when a consignment of them dropped into the Thames and this one embedded itself in river mud, waiting for me to find it over a hundred years later. I keep my Victorian inkwell on the desk in my office and it inspires me when I’m writing.

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Clay pipe bowl commemorating the Act of Union in 1801

My most recent clay pipe find was this beautifully carved example discovered by me while mudlarking on the Putney foreshore early one grey and murky afternoon in December, fairly close to Putney Green, once the home of William Pitt the Younger. A strange coincidence as the pipe commemorates the Act of Union in 1801 when Ireland was forcibly joined to England, Wales and Scotland as a single Kingdom, ie the United Kingdom. The Act of Union itself was hugely controversial and passed through Parliament during George III’s reign when Pitt the Younger was First Minister, effectively in the role of Prime Minister although that title wasn’t in formal use at the time.

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Front view of the pipe bowl showing the Royal Crest and four shields of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales

Unsurprisingly the Act of Union was hugely unpopular with the Irish and a short while later Pitt resigned when his proposed reforms were ignored and Irish Catholics were refused emancipation. Eventually the south and north west of Ireland separated from the Union and became a sovereign nation known as the Irish Republic or Eire, while only Northern Ireland, with its historically controversial Protestant heritage and loyalty to the English crown, remained part of the United Kingdom we know today. Who knows if we’ll still have a United Kingdom at the end of this decade? We live in worryingly unpredictable political times.

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First piece of Delft Tin Glaze, approx. 1650-1750, discovered by me on the Thames Foreshore

One of my most special pieces of pottery, in fact the first ever piece of 17th Century tin-glaze I found on the foreshore, is this Delft beauty. The fragment, although broken, is as clear and fresh as the day it was painted. Discovered while I was mudlarking in 2015 on the Southbank, close to the Oxo Tower, where I used to find similarly large chunks of tin glaze pottery fairly often in those earlier days. Sadly, a few years further down the line, this type of pottery find is becoming increasingly rare in this particular part of the foreshore. This sherd is from a charger, or plate, a sturdy white earthenware decorated quickly in free-style with ferns and foliage, blue on white, and then covered in a clear tin glaze. The artist had to work fast to get the bulk of the design painted on the plate before the glaze dried, hence the sometimes ‘slapdash’ look of some of these pieces from this period.

Post Medieval Bone Die, 16th to 18th Century

Another very special find was this post medieval die or dice (I’ve written about this in more detail in an earlier blog) also now recorded on the PAS. I found it nestling under a large rock in the centre of London, perhaps dropped by someone from an ancient barge or boat a few hundred years ago and then annoyed at its loss. Maybe this person was winning in a game of dice but couldn’t continue once the piece disappeared into the murky waters of the Thames? Who knows…. The die is known as a Potter’s Variant 16 and is linked to a group of 40 similar die discovered at excavations that took place on the site of the Fleet Prison. It’s thought to be the work of a single prisoner, whose name we’ll never know, making these from meal bones to sell. A beautifully tactile object to hold in one’s hand, its history and connection to the Fleet Prison make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. In the spirit of recycling, we use this die when we play our family board games at Christmas and, every time I hold it in my hands, I try to remember the person who first made it all those centuries ago.

Post Medieval Hawking or Hunting Bell, 17th to 18th Century

About six months ago on a wet and damp autumnal day on the foreshore, I saw what I thought was the shank of an old brass button sticking up from the mud. I pulled it out and quickly placed it in my finds bag ready to clean up later. When I got home and washed it I realised it wasn’t a button at all but a hawking or hunting bell. Even better, a gentle clean with a cotton bud to remove the mud from inside the sound holes at the base of the bell led to the discovery of a tiny clay pip. Even better than this, the clay pip still rang and made a beautiful jingling noise literally bringing the sounds of the 17th and 18th Century back to life. It was a glorious moment.

Medieval Manuscript illustration showing the training of hunting birds

The hawking or hunting bell was found by me on a part of the Thames Foreshore where ancient wharves and quays once bustled with hundreds of boats and barges importing corn and grain, as well as other goods. The area would have swarmed with rats and other vermin so hunting birds such as Harris Hawks and Kestrels would have been used as natural pest control to protect the grain supply. The person who would have trained hawks for hunting was known as an ‘Austringer’, a word that originates from medieval French.

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Wedge riveted chain mail from 12th to 16th Century

In 2017 my year was made when I found this fragment of wedge riveted mail armour lying on a slab of rock on the Thames Foreshore in the City of London. I shudder to think that I nearly didn’t pick it up, thinking it was just rusting iron scrap from a boat or barge, but a little voice inside me made me go back, pick it up and take it home with me. I’m very glad I did. When I later took it to the Museum of London it was identified as being chain mail, once part of a suit of armour, from approximately the 12th to 16th Century although more likely to be from the late 15th or early 16th Century. It’s now recorded with the PAS and is probably part of the shoulder or arm from a full suit of armour as the links over the body would have been riveted in a different manner.

Chain mail covering shoulder and arms

Chain mail was incredibly valuable and expensive to make and even after a soldier’s death would have been recycled. It wouldn’t have been thrown casually into the river, so who knows how it got there.

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Lead key, approximately 1800s

Last, but not least, my most recent mudlarking find of 2019 is this lead key. I’m not sure of its precise provenance but it definitely has quite a bit of age to it and is likely to be from Georgian times, approximately early 1800s. I’m guessing it might have been the key to a chest or something similar, and whoever lost it would have been furious. Who knows the secrets it once kept locked? Hopefully once I’ve taken this beauty to the FLO at the Museum of London in the new year I’ll be able to tell you a little more about it but, for now, we can only guess at the story this key might tell.

Thank you for reading my blog this year and hoping my key unlocks some new finds in 2020. There are many occasions when I don’t find much, if at all, on my foreshore visits so I’m always grateful when things turn up and I can share my stories of forgotten people from the past.

If you’d like to take up mudlarking or detecting, please note that it’s illegal to remove items from the foreshore without a valid permit. These can be obtained from the Port of London Authority (see Advice section of my blog for a hyperlink), who are currently issuing permits for 2020 – 2022. Please see their website for further guidance and information regarding safe access to the foreshore at low tide. I also recommend the marvellous folk at the Thames Discovery Programme, under the umbrella of the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA,) who organise guided foreshore tours suitable for everyone. These are a safe way of discovering the history and archaeology of the Thames if you feel that solitary visits to the river are not for you. Please check out their website for 2020 schedules, a hyperlink is also available in the advice section of my website.

Happy New Year to you all, and wishing everyone a peaceful and healthy 2020.



John Gosnell & Company, Russian Bear’s Grease and Diamonds

November’s drawing to a close and Christmas is fast approaching. If you’re anything like me you’re probably wondering where this year has gone as 2019 seems to have disappeared in the blink of an eye. Who knows what 2020 will bring as we face a new and potentially worrying decade. I’m always grateful I have my mudlarking trips to the Thames to bring temporary distraction from all manner of worries and anxiety about the future.

But it’s been a good and busy month so I’m grateful for my blessings. At the beginning of November I was invited by the good people of North Hertfordshire Museum, in Hitchin, to give a mudlarking lecture. It was a real pleasure to do so. The audience were a delight and it was an absolute joy to take everyone on a tour of my beloved Thames, from Teddington to the Estuary, talk about some of my favourite mudlarking finds and explain the stories behind them. Thank you again, North Herts, for inviting me. I had a blast.

Me and my powerpoint at North Herts museum

The foreshore has also been very kind to me during November and my mudlarking sessions have resulted in some very nice finds, for which I’m extremely grateful. I won’t write about everything I’ve found in this blog but will save them up for future ones.

Spot the find

One of my favourite places to mudlark is the Putney/Fulham foreshore, not too far from my home in South West London . Some mudlarks are reticent, understandably, about revealing their favourite secret places and I totally get that. Clearly, if you find something of major historical importance you don’t reveal the precise spot, for obvious reasons, but I genuinely don’t have an issue sharing some of my favourite locations and there are never that many of us mudlarking in this particular area. The Thames is an almost hundred mile ribbon of water running through the capital and out into the Estuary so it’s difficult to keep it secret, and talking a bit about your favourite locations isn’t going to cause a mad rush of people to the foreshore. If I felt secretive about my mudlarking I wouldn’t be writing this blog, because I enjoy sharing what I’ve discovered.

But back to this month’s finds. Take a look at the photo above. Can you see what was glinting up at me from the stones? If you can’t, then the photo below will reveal all.

Someone’s engagement ring

I’ve found rings before, a couple of silver ones and a few made from base metal and paste, but this is the first engagement ring from the foreshore. It felt both surprising and slightly sad picking it up, taking a closer look and turning it over to check for a hallmark or inscription. Heavy, white gold, five glittering diamonds in a solid rather than claw setting, in my mind’s eye I was imagining it thrown, with some force, from Putney Bridge. My first thoughts were that this was obviously the final act in the end of a relationship and a broken-hearted, weeping fiancée decided to throw it in the river where it would be lost forever.

Except, of course, it simply washed back onto the foreshore on a low tide where I found it. Life is never straightforward. The river is a depository for secrets and shattered hearts but it doesn’t always want to keep the things thrown into it. I don’t know why but I had a particular image of someone throwing this in at night, the darkness perhaps offering a better camouflage for their grief. But anyone who’s walked across Putney Bridge at any time of day or night will know it’s pretty much always busy with traffic and people, so I doubt whoever did this was able to remain completely anonymous.

And, as a few people have correctly observed to me, maybe it was thrown away by someone utterly relieved that their relationship had ended and deciding to mark the occasion with a symbolic hurling of a once precious ring into the dark waters of the Thames in a ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’ kind of way. If that was the case, I like to think of the woman (yes, I do think it was a woman – I’m not sure a man would wear a ring like this but I’m happy to be proved wrong,) turning on her heels and walking away defiantly, head held high, ready to begin a new chapter in her life. Good on you, love, if that was you and you’re reading this blog.

After putting the ring away in my finds bag (have decided with this one I’ll sell it and give the proceeds to my favourite three charities – I’m not sure what else can you do with a ring like this?) I turned and headed further upstream in the direction of some old landing steps at the far end of Bishop’s Park where once the penny ferry used to bring Fulham fans across the south side of the river to their ground at Craven Cottage nearby. The foreshore is very different from the City of London here; less of the eroding mud from which emerge glittering goodies, but more heavily built up with a hard core of rock, stones and gravel. It can be difficult to find metal items here unless you have a metal detector (I don’t) and nearby steps are always muddy and slippery. But there can often be found a fair trail of pottery sherds here, the river depositing them in random patterns on the foreshore.

It was here that on that very grey day when I found the engagement ring I later spotted a welcome flash of royal blue something hidden among some stones and rubble at the edge of the tide line, slightly submerged in the water.

Victorian lid fragment from a pot of Russian Bear’s Grease

A fair bit of research later and a lengthy trip down an internet rabbit hole of Victorian cosmetics manufacturers, I managed to discover what this lid was and what it looked like in its entirety. It’s a John Gosnell and Company lid from a pot of Russian Bear’s Grease, a product popular with the Victorian gentleman worried about his thinning hair. The company moved to various different locations throughout its history but at this point was located at 12, Three King Court, Lombard Street, in the heart of the City of London. Below is what a complete lid would have looked like but it’s rare to find one of these whole, certainly in the Thames, although you might be able to find one in an old Victorian bottle dump or similar.

John Gosnell & Co pot of Genuine Bears Grease

John Gosnell and Company are the oldest manufacturer of ‘personal care’ products in the UK, the company having been originally founded in 1677. Incredibly it’s still in business today, family owned, and now located in Lewes, Sussex, specialising in soap, cosmetics, perfume and toiletries etc.

Originally founded by John Price at Three King Court, Lombard Street, the company went through various name changes over the next one hundred and fifty years. I’m particularly grateful to Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, a registered charity, and a leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. Sometimes online research can be tricky and misleading, leading you down various blind alleyways, but Grace’s are a useful resource and deserve our support. I thoroughly recommend them if this is a period you’re researching for any reason.

1790 – the original company had changed its name to John Price & Sons, Perfumer, of 150 Leadenhall Street, London

1806 – it was listed as T. Price & Co, Perfumer, 4 Leadenhall Street, London

1814 – John Gosnell became a partner and the company evolved into ‘Patey, Price & Gosnell’

1818 – Price and Gosnell continued in partnership together and became perfumers to the Prince Regent, later King George IV

1832 – John Gosnell died and the business was divided up among his family

1840 – the business was listed as J. Gosnell & Co ‘Wholesale Perfumers and Flower Distillers.’

1852 – it was listed as Gosnell, John & Co, ‘perfumers and soap makers, brush and comb manufacturers, By Appointment to Her Majesty (Victoria) and the Royal Family, 12, Three King Court, Lombard Street, London’


During Queen Victoria’s reign, the company expanded globally with its popular cherry blossom range of personal products and perfumes. It was especially innovative in its witty and clever advertising and pioneered new ways of bringing its products to the attention of the public. For example, it ran a gloriously effective campaign that involved flying perfume shaped hot air balloons over Paris and London, dropping leaflets and samples onto the people below.

Gosnell’s Cherry Blossom Parisian advertising campaign leaflet
Gosnell’s advert from Christmas 1892 promoting special presentation cases under the witty banner of ‘Nun Nicer’

By 1900 the company had moved from Lombard Street to 211-215 Blackfriars Road and in the 1920s began to face commercial decline. British products were going out of fashion internationally and the economic downturn, fallout from a global Depression, added further strain to the company’s declining profits. In 1933 the company could no longer afford London rents and left their premises in the Blackfriars Road, finally relocating to Lewes in 1939 just as Britain was on the cusp of a second world war.

John Gosnell’s Rose Perfume label

The range of perfumes and toiletries the company produced was quite varied, not all as fragrant as their extremely popular rose and cherry blossom products, but the idea of slapping bear’s grease onto a bald and thinning scalp isn’t something that sounds particularly pleasant.

Bear’s Grease as a treatment for baldness has a long history. The Benedictine mystic and prolific letter writer, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), recommended bear’s grease in her ‘Physica’ while a few hundred years later Nicholas Culpeper, famous English botanist and herbalist, wrote the following in his ‘Physician’s Library’ in 1653  – ‘Bears Grease staies (stops) the fallinge off of the hair.’

Medieval illustration showing the merits of bear’s grease

A number of companies sold bear’s grease, which remained popular throughout the Victorian period until the first world war. Atkinsons (founded by James Atkinson at 44 Gerrard Street, Soho, London) marketed a similar product showing a chained bear on the lid of the pot, this supposedly symbolising the strength of the bear and therefore indicating the effectiveness of the product in facilitating the regrowth of hair for bald men.

Bear’s Grease was originally made from the fat of the brown bear mixed with beef marrow and a perfume to disguise what would have been a foul, heavy, meaty smell. Towards the end of the 19th century, unscrupulous manufacturers were breaching a probably non-existent advertising code and substituting pig, veal, suet, and lard as the massive demand for genuine bear’s fat was exceeding supply. I literally shudder to think how many of these unfortunate animals were killed to provide this product.

Companies also added lavender, thyme, rose essence or oil of bitter almonds as a perfume, after which a green dye would be added to improve the ‘fatty’ appearance of the grease mixture in the pot.

It wasn’t just British men who bought this product in their thousands. Across Europe people believed that grease from Russian bears was the best. The animal was big, furry, strong and virile, these characteristics therefore would transfer to anyone who used this substance. I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m grateful that this product has gone out of fashion although I’m fully aware that there are still parts of the world where myths about the magical curative properties of certain animals still persist, which means far too many beautiful creatures are still being hunted to extinction in order to appease our vanity. Guys, bald can be beautiful!

Black and white fragment of lid from a pot of Price and Company’s Russian Bear’s Grease found on a previous mudlark



From Teddington Lock to Richmond

October has been a strange month. The crispness of autumn has been replaced by what seems like endless rain and river levels have been extremely high – much higher than usual. I haven’t been able to go mudlarking this week – a combination of  work deadlines and tides at the wrong time of day for me. But I’ve missed the river and at times like this there’s nothing like a Thames Path walk to lift your jaded spirits before winter kicks in with a vengeance. So, instead of my usual mudlarking finds blog this month, I’d like you all to accompany me on a riverside jaunt from Teddington to Richmond upon Thames.

Teddington Lock from the direction of Ferry Road

I began my walk on a beautiful day, in fact the only day last week when there wasn’t a deluge of rain, and the conditions were perfect – blue skies and sunshine. Arriving at the start of the Thames Path walk in Ferry Road, Teddington, I strolled down to the water’s edge. The tide was out but this doesn’t mean much on this stretch of river as the embankment is very different in comparison with the landscape further downstream towards the City of London and beyond. The river is meandering here, not as fast flowing or deep, picture postcard pretty and with a different foreshore history from that of the Thames in the heart of London – less grit, more goose. Here you’re unlikely to find much in the way of historic artefacts or treasure of any kind but you might find a pipe stem, some sherds of plain Victorian porcelain or an interesting fossil. As far as the landscape is concerned, this is much more the Thames of Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’ (although they’d need to avoid Teddington Weir…) than it is Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ with its powerful, brooding and much darker imagery of the river. But that doesn’t mean it’s less interesting. Just different.

Egyptian Geese wishing me ‘Bon Voyage’ as I start my Thames Path walk.

As you cross over Teddington Lock footbridge there are spectacular views both down and upstream. It’s hard to know where to look first.

Teddington Lock Footbridge

Upstream (right) towards Kingston you can see Teddington Weir in the distance. Although it’s relatively small as weirs go, its size is deceptive and it makes a heck of a noise as you approach it. A weir is basically a low head dam that alters the flow characteristics of water resulting in changes to the height of the river level. There are many different designs of weir but usually water will flow freely over the top of the crest of the weir before cascading down to a lower level. This is why they’re noisy beasts when you get close up to one, the powerful sound of rushing, foam-flecked water adding drama to the surrounding views.

Teddington Weir as seen from the north side of the river

Below is the view downstream (left) towards Richmond, a more placid, almost bucolic scene where the river is calm and still and pleasure boats, trees and river birds dominate your eye line. Every time I cross Teddington Lock footbridge and look in this direction there’s usually a grumpy heron flying overhead and landing on one of the embankments.

View downstream from Teddington Lock Footbridge

Once I’d made it across the river to the Surrey side of the Thames there was still some stunning autumnal foliage on display; dahlias, wildflowers, rosehips and a few blackberries left among the brambles for a lucky field mouse or two.


Here the Thames Path routes are well sign-posted and mapped out clearly for you to follow. It’s difficult to get lost, even if you’re completely new to the area. Once I’d reached the Surrey embankment I was primarily on the hunt for the famous Teddington obelisk, so I turned and headed downstream.


After a few minutes of brisk walking I reached Teddington Lock, the Lock Keeper’s cottage shown in the photograph below. Teddington Lock was originally built in 1801, of timber, which predictably began to rot fairly quickly and was soon no longer fit for purpose . It was replaced in 1856/7 with the building we see today and Jonathan Thorp Esquire laid the first stone.

Teddington Lock Keeper’s House

In front of the Lock Keeper’s House is a moving walkway, not accessible to the public, leading to a tiny shed-like building. This should be familiar to Monty Python fans as it’s the site of the famous fish-slapping dance sketch. The Python team regularly filmed at Teddington Studios, which used to be a short walk away from here but was unfortunately demolished a couple of years ago in order to make way for luxury riverside flats; another piece of our televisual heritage now disappeared from the local area thanks to property developers. It’s particularly poignant for me because I have wonderful memories of going to Teddington Studios with my family to see many top BBC comedy shows being recorded there.

Teddington Lock – the site of the Monty Python fish-slapping sketch
John Cleese and Michael Palin

Leaving the Lock Keeper’s cottage and my memories of Teddington Studios behind me I continued walking downstream. After approximately ten minutes, I passed a mysterious little glade, set back from the main path, and there it was – the famous obelisk that marks the beginning of the Tidal Thames. I’d found what I was looking for, tucked away and hidden discreetly behind a protective circle of metal railings, autumn leaves falling gently around it every time a gentle breeze rustled through the trees.

The Teddington Obelisk

The obelisk marks the point where the legal powers of the London Port Authority, responsible for navigation from Teddington downstream to the Estuary and out to the North Sea, morph into those of the Environment Agency who take over this role from Teddington upstream to the headwaters of the Thames. I was taken aback by the fact that you could easily walk straight past this point and not even notice the obelisk is here. In fact, while I was taking photos of it for my blog, a retired couple out for a stroll stopped to ask what the obelisk was, thinking it was perhaps a monument to a local dignitary or to the war dead. When I explained to them what it actually was they were taken aback as they wouldn’t have noticed it if they hadn’t seen me there.

Teddington Obelisk
The base of the Obelisk

Perhaps this is a bit corny but it was a special moment to be able to touch the stone at the base of the obelisk. The metal fencing around it stops visitors from being able to touch the main body of the monument and local vandals from daubing unsolicited graffiti on it. It’s well protected. However, I don’t recommend pushing your arms through the bars as you’ll probably get stuck and it would be a shame to end this Thames Path walk having to be cut free by the emergency services. But it is possible to touch the base of the stone as you pay homage to the place that is officially the start of the Tidal Thames. If this isn’t already, it should definitely be a little ritual for all mudlarks.

Once you’ve spent your moments communing with the Teddington Obelisk, continue walking downstream towards Richmond where you’ll pass Ham Lands.  Here you might well come across a painter at his easel on the pathway, a squadron of low flying geese, nature reserves, ancient reedbeds, song thrushes, kestrels and the common soprano pipistrelle bat.


Approximately twenty minutes later and you should find you’re passing Eel Pie Island on your left, an 8.9 acre island in the river at Twickenham, accessible only by boat or footbridge. The historically famous eel pies are a bit thin on the ground these days but Eel Pie Island is now best known for being an iconic blues and rock venue where in the 1960s you could see the Rolling Stones play live at the Eel Pie Island Hotel, the building long since burnt to the ground. In addition to the Stones, fans could also come here to see The Who, Pink Floyd, Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men, The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, and a young David Bowie. Nowadays the island is home to a thriving artistic community who regularly hold open house sessions in their studios during the summer months.

Continuing further past Eel Pie Island, a few more minutes of brisk walking will see you drawing parallel with a beautiful and elegant building across the river on your left, visible through a gap between the trees on the north bank. This is the stunning façade of Marble Hill House, Twickenham. (NB: Twickenham, although in South West London, is actually north of the Thames while Richmond is on the south or Surrey side of the river. This can be confusing as both are neighbours, separate political constituencies, but sharing the same local borough ie: the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames.)

Marble Hill House, Twickenham

Marble Hill House is essentially a Palladian-style villa designed by Roger Morris and Henry Herbert, built between 1724 and 1729. Herbert, also known as the Earl of Pembroke, based the villa on Andrea Palladio’s Villa Cornaro in Italy, incorporating many of the symmetrical and classical features, plus the grand interiors of Palladio’s villa, into Marble Hill. The view you can see in the photograph above is the rear, which was once ironically the front entrance to the house because it was accessed from the river, which would have brought visitors to this location via boat or barge in the 18th and early 19th centuries when roads were either impassable or dangerous to use due to the very real threat of robbers and highwaymen. The house and gardens were intended as an Arcadian retreat from the stench, filth and horror of 18th century London.

Marble Hill was originally the home of Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, who lived there until her death in 1767. Cultured and educated, she was the mistress of King George II and the villa was built as a gift from the King although he stipulated that the building must be free from any interference from Henrietta’s estranged and unpleasant drunk and debt-ridden husband, Charles Howard, the Earl of Suffolk . The Countess regularly hosted spectacular literary salons at Marble Hill and was the friend and confidante of both Alexander Pope, a neighbour living nearby in Strawberry Hill House, and Jonathan Swift who also regularly visited her here. Marble Hill House is now owned by English Heritage who are responsible for managing both the house and the 66 acres of stunning riverside grounds and parkland that surround it.

Ham House and grounds, Ham, Richmond

Leaving behind the views of Marble Hill House across the river, focus again on the Thames Path in front of you towards Ham. As you continue walking, you’ll see a gap in the clearing to your right which will give you a first view of stunning Ham House and gardens. Both are well worth a visit.

Ham House was originally built in 1610, the creation of the enterprising and ambitious William Murray, who as a boy had been educated with the young Charles I. The King gifted the lease of Ham House to William in 1626, after which William and his daughter Elizabeth transformed the house into the splendid residence we see today – a rare and perfect example of 17th century Jacobean splendour, luxury and fashions. Elizabeth Murray, later Duchess of Lauderdale through her second marriage, transformed Ham House into one of the grandest Stuart houses in England. After Elizabeth’s death, Ham House remained in the hands of her descendants from her first marriage within the Tollemache family. It’s well worth a visit if you haven’t been.

Continue downstream along the river and, if you look up, you’ll see the red brick façade of the Star and Garter building straddling the top of Richmond Hill. The Star and Garter Home was built between 1921-1924 to provide accommodation and nursing facilities for 180 seriously injured servicemen, much like the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, although it was sold a while ago to property developers and has now been converted into luxury apartments. Nearby, on the Petersham Road, is the Poppy Factory, built in 1922, where hundreds of thousands of poppies are made every year for The Royal British Legion’s annual Poppy Appeal.

A path will take you up to Terrace Field where you can see spectacular views across the Thames towards Twickenham and beyond. In 1819, the painter J.M.W. Turner stood on this spot and painted this famous London scene, the landscape stretching before him across Richmond Hill towards the river. The painting was Turner’s attempt to attract the patronage of the future King George IV, which he failed to get as the then Prince of Wales thought the painting was pretentious and out of touch with the political upheaval of the times. Nonetheless, Turner’s idyllic landscape now hangs in the Tate collection.

View from the top of Richmond Hill across the river Thames towards Twickenham

Sir Mick Jagger still owns a home at the top of Richmond Hill and across the road, near the Star and Garter building, is a beautiful Georgian house once owned by the late actor, Sir John Mills and his family.

To conclude this Thames Path walk, make your way back down Terrace Field. Here the path leads inexorably on towards Richmond Bridge but if you’re shattered, in need of sustenance and a bit of a sit-down after your nearly eight kilometre walk, then I recommend stopping at Stein’s for lunch. This is a popular German restaurant serving Bavarian dishes such as their outstanding schnitzel, bratwurst, currywurst or nürnberger, washed down with a pint of Stein’s famous German Dunkel beer.

Enjoy! You’ve deserved it.

Stein’s German restaurant, Richmond riverside



Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms

The river Thames deposits its finds by weight; heavy objects together, small items made from lead, pewter or brass (such as tokens, coins and buttons) often found nestling discreetly among other metal such as iron scrap from ships, boats and barges, while sherds of pottery, much lighter in weight than metal or glass, can be found strewn higher on the foreshore, nearer the Embankment wall.

And there’s a particular section of the Thames Foreshore where I often find fragments of pottery showing a logo from a long gone business, trade, restaurant or café. These broken fragments from London’s past can often be found in sweeping, elegant, parallel lines draped across the gravel and sand, and every time I come here I make a beeline for this spot to see what’s turned up on the low tide. I’m rarely disappointed.

Lockharts Cocoa Rooms sherd, from a cup, found by me on the Thames Foreshore.

On one occasion last year I found this fragment of a cup with the name ‘LOCK -‘, a hint of a pattern, and the word ‘COCOA’ underneath. I have a broad knowledge of Victorian and Edwardian social history but had no idea what this was or what it referred to, other than obviously something to do with a hot, sweet drink. After I’d got home and cleaned up my finds it was time to make some tea, fire up the computer and start to research where the logo had come from. It wasn’t long before I had a complete name – Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms.

Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms offered cheap, good quality refreshments and were the Victorian equivalent of our modern day coffee shops such as Caffè Nero, Starbucks and Costa, with many outlets across the country. As my photo shows they had their own plates, saucers, cups and mugs complete with the Lockhart’s logo – blue on white Victorian transferware that quickly became recognisable by all who ate in their establishments.

The Cocoa Rooms had their origins in the Victorian Temperance Movement, a social movement against the consumption of alcohol. The Temperance Movement promoted alcohol education and campaigned vigorously to pressurise Parliament to pass new laws restricting the sale of alcohol. People were encouraged to ‘take the pledge’ (ie give up alcoholic drinks) and this became a mass movement throughout the 19th Century. Essays and pamphlets were published warning against alcoholic excess and drunkenness.

The Temperance Movement was earnest and well meaning but was above all motivated by a genuine concern for those affected by alcohol and struggling to function in their day to day lives because of it. Increasing numbers of men and women were often too drunk to hold down work and provide for their families, wives and children were then evicted from their homes and women were routinely exposed to domestic violence at the hands of inebriated partners. It was a vicious cycle.

Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms, photo courtesy Newcastle Library. The precise location here isn’t known as the buildings have long since been demolished, but is thought to be somewhere in the Newcastle area.

An alternative to public houses and gin palaces was therefore seen as socially imperative in order to give people practical options to alcohol. Condemnation of drinkers was not enough, so cocoa houses and billiard halls came into existence; an alternative meeting place in a teetotal environment yet offering pleasant menu choices at a reasonable price.

Originally called ‘British Workmen’s Public Houses’, in June 1875 a limited liability company of that name was formed in Liverpool under the chairmanship of Robert Lockhart, who later set up a company under his own name and established a chain of Cocoa Rooms throughout the UK that became known as ‘Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms’.

I’d never heard of Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms prior to finding this sherd of pottery and this is probably because the Cocoa House Movement is one of the least remembered of Victorian passions during the last quarter of the 19th century, so there isn’t as much information about it. Nor do I recall seeing Lockhart’s mentioned in any books I’ve read or in documentaries of this period yet plenty of grainy black and white photographs exist of branches of Lockhart’s in multiple British cities and towns.

Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms, Bradmore Grove, Hammersmith, photo courtesy Hammersmith Library. The Lyric Theatre has been rebuilt and is now located in King Street.

The Cocoa House such as Lockhart’s (there were other Cocoa Houses too but with different owners and names) remained at the very centre of the Temperance campaign although its message was aimed firmly at working class men as opposed to drinkers from, say, the middle or upper classes who, it was thought, were able to exercise greater self-control over their drinking habits.

Early attempts at establishing Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms were slow and not overly successful due to them principally being religious, amateurish and well meant philanthropic efforts, but eventually a more business-like brand emerged offering a clean, pleasant environment selling decent refreshments and soft drinks, and eventually growing quickly to occupy much larger premises in most of the major towns and cities across the country.

By the end of the 19th century there were over sixty Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms outlets in London alone and approximately eleven in Glasgow, three in Leeds, nine in Newcastle, two in South Shields, with one each in Darlington, Jarrow and Gateshead. The head office of Lockhart’s was eventually located at 75, Bishop Street, Anderston, Glasgow.

Each branch of a Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms usually employed five or six members of staff from a cook to waitresses plus also a manager. Their reputation was good and they were known for being well managed and well supervised, offering tea, coffee, cocoa, aerated (fizzy) drinks and refreshments at affordable prices. They even had their own token, similar to a coin, equivalent to the amount of one old penny (1d), which entitled a customer to a penny’s worth of refreshments at any Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms of their choosing.

1901 and 1911 Census details of the Pursgloves of Hackney, showing Albert Pursglove as Manager and later Branch Manager of a Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms.

While researching census information for another writing project I’m currently working on, I discovered the records for the Pursglove family of Hackney, London. The 1901 Census showed them living at 95 Hertford Road, with Albert Pursglove listed as the married head of the family. He was 38 years old and his job was listed as ‘Manager of Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms.’ We aren’t told where but in all likelihood it would have been somewhere in the centre of London.

The 1911 Census showed that the Pursgloves had moved to 95 Mortimers Road, Kingsland (still in Hackney) and that Albert had been promoted to ‘Branch Manager Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms’; clearly going up in the world although how much longer he would have continued to work in this role isn’t clear. I haven’t yet been able to look at later census records for this family and Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms began to start closing branches in the 1920’s, all their premises eventually sold. A decade later in the 1930’s the country was badly hit by the global economic depression, unemployment and job loss on a huge scale and the imminent approach of a second world war looming darkly on the horizon. The era of Temperance, Cocoa Houses and specifically Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms would have felt like a distant memory from another time.

I recently watched a YouTube video of a group of mudlarks deep in the Thames Estuary searching for finds. One of them, wading far out into the mud, was seen picking out what looked like an almost intact tea pot. As the camera panned onto what he’d found in more detail I could clearly see the logo of Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms on the side of the pot. An extraordinary find.

















Roll of the dice…

A legal responsibility of every mudlark is to take anything they find over three hundred years of age to be checked and recorded by the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO), in my case at the Museum of London. If the find is treasure, ie gold or silver, the Treasure Act of 1900 states that it needs to be recorded with the Coroner within a month of finding.

I’ve found gold, a small piece of beautifully and intricately worked filigree jewellery, while mudlarking at a location I can’t reveal. I dutifully took it to Stuart Wyatt, my FLO, who took it away with him for checking. Although definitely gold (I knew the minute I saw it peeking out of the ground that that’s what it was – gold can be buried in the earth for a million years and will still be golden and untarnished when it’s eventually discovered) Stuart couldn’t trace exactly what it had come from as it was too small a piece, but confirmed it was gold, possibly Victorian. The lack of clarity surrounding the provenance of the fragment meant that in this instance he didn’t have to notify the Coroner and I was able to keep the piece without the need for the copious paperwork that goes hand in hand when identified treasure is found, as opposed to a less valuable find.

At my next visit to the FLO I was thrilled when he took in one of my newer finds. Of no monetary value, like the vast majority of mudlarking finds, nonetheless this remains one of my favourite pieces; a tiny bone dice. (See centre of the photo below – the little silver pieces surrounding the dice are not from the foreshore but from the much used and loved family Monopoly set.)

16th-18th Century cuboid bone dice found by me on the Thames Foreshore.

The dice was found by me, by eye, on a part of the foreshore where scraping, digging and metal detecting are forbidden unless you hold a more advanced Society of Mudlarks permit. I’m holding it in my fingers, turning it over, the once sharp edges now worn smooth by the river, and it feels light in my hand. Such a beautifully tactile object and I think about the person who carved it, those who played with it and the careless fingers that finally dropped in the Thames.

My bone dice find, logged in July 2019 with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS.)

This is what it looks like when you have a find logged with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). Once it’s confirmed as of historical importance by the FLO it’s then researched and recorded and the item, unless treasure, is given back to the finder.

It’s described as a Post Medieval bone cuboid dice dating from the 16th to 18th Century. The numbers are indicated by a single dot; they are arranged so the opposite sides adds up to 7. The sides are in the arrangement known as Potter’s variant 16.

Egan (1997:3) writes “A remarkable degree of uniformity is emerging in London for the most recent excavated dice, that is those of the 16th to 17th Century and later, first noticed among a group of over 40 of various sizes and with numbers indicated by double-circle-and-dot, circle-and-dot or dot alone, all of 17th to 18th Century date and found at the site of the Fleet Prison. These are all regular dice, and more remarkably, all of them that are complete enough to gauge are just one variety – Potter’s variant 16. They may well have been the output of a single prisoner turning meal bones into saleable goods.”

It’s quite extraordinary to think that the dice I’m rolling around in my fingers was quite probably made by the same prisoner who fashioned these from leftover bone in the Fleet prison all those centuries ago. Sadly it seems his name will never be known. I find myself wondering what crime he was charged with committing, how long he spent deprived of his freedom and the impact that would have had on his family and the rest of his life.

Map showing the Fleet Prison.

The Fleet prison was originally built in 1197, near the side of the River Fleet, the area now is part of Farringdon Street. Once close to the Fleet Ditch, an open sewer, the area was filthy and unsanitary, the surrounding land being deemed perfect for the location of a prison. It was demolished and rebuilt several times. Destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, burnt to the ground during the Great Fire of London in 1666 (when it was engulfed in flames during the third day of the fire, the prisoners only just managing to escape) and was again destroyed during the Gordon Riots of 1780. It remained in use till 1844 and was sold to the Corporation of the City of London who finally demolished it in 1846.

Used primarily to incarcerate those who were charged and convicted of contempt of court by the Court of Chancery and also for those committed by the Star Chamber (a court that sat in the royal palace of Westminster from the late 15th Century to the mid 17th Century), in its latter years it was primarily used as a prison for debtors and bankrupts.

The Fleet Prison is memorably described by Charles Dickens in ‘The Pickwick Papers.’ Dickens’ own father, John, had himself been imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison (Southwark) on the 20th February 1824 under the Insolvent Debtors Act of 1813 because he owed a baker, John Kerr, forty pounds and ten shillings and was unable to pay. It was a shameful experience that haunted Charles Dickens throughout his life.

Entrance to the Fleet Prison.

Prisons during the 18th Century were profit-making enterprises and so prisoners had to pay for food and lodging, and the Fleet was no exception. In fact it had the highest fees in England. Prisoners didn’t even have to live in the Fleet as long as they paid the keeper to compensate him for the loss of earnings. From the 17th Century onwards the prison also became notorious for the carrying out of clandestine marriages by degraded clergymen, looking to earn some money on the side, and who themselves were imprisoned among the debtors and bankrupts. At a time when divorce was difficult and you wanted to marry someone else in secret, this was the place to come. Ditto if the bride was pregnant, or had already given birth, a wedding ceremony might take place in the Fleet and the certificate of marriage conveniently back-dated to before conception.

Fleet Prison print: The Racquet Ground by Joseph Stadler, published 1808.

Prisoners would have struggled to find ways to pass the time while incarcerated in the Fleet so I can well imagine someone with skill trying to earn money by fashioning dice from leftover bones in order to make their sentence more tolerable.

Dice are the oldest gaming artefacts known to mankind and have been found in Egyptian tombs dating from 3000 BC. In Greek and Roman times they were made from bone, ivory, bronze, agate, marble and, much later, porcelain or clay. The Romans played two games with dice: Tali and Tesserae. Tali used four dice and the best score was when each die showed a different number. Tesserae was played with three dice and the best score was three sixes. The dice were thrown from a cup called a ‘fritillium’ and usually played on a board made of wood, bronze or marble. Roman dice are particularly keenly treasured by those mudlarks lucky enough to find them on the Thames Foreshore.

In later centuries cheating with dice became prolific, especially during the post Medieval period. Dodgy dice were known as ‘fullums’ or ‘fulhams’, named after Fulham in south west London, an area once notorious for the manufacture of loaded dice and clearly not the respectable part of south west London it is now.

‘Fullums’ were divided into two distinct types: high ones that would run to 4, 5 and 6, and low ones that ran to 1, 2 and 3. These were made by drilling tiny holes into the dice and filling it with quicksilver (mercury,) the holes were then plugged with pitch. Sometimes the corners would be discreetly filed in order to load the dice even more.

An entire vocabulary was created to describe the way professional cheats were able to fool the innocent and naïve during games of dice and ensure they won every time:

‘Topping’ – pretending to put both dice in a box but holding one between the fingers so that it could be turned to the cheater’s advantage, also known as ‘palming’

‘Slurring’ – throwing a dice smoothly onto the table so that it didn’t roll

‘Stabbing’ – using a rigged dice cup

‘Knapping‘ – throwing the dice so that one strikes another, stopping the bottom diced from tumbling

I’ll never know who used my dice find, what games they played with it or the circumstances in which they lost it, but I can assure everyone that it’s definitely not the loaded type. Light as a feather, an indication that thankfully it’s mercury free. I can use it when the family Monopoly board comes out at Christmas and holidays with a clear conscience.

Group of cuboid bone dice found during excavations of the Fleet Prison, identical in design to mine. Photograph courtesy of the Museum of London.