Farewell to Clyde the cat, and a visit to the Chelsea Foreshore

It’s been a difficult and challenging last few weeks for me which is why my latest mudlarking blog is a little bit late this month. Unfortunately we recently had to say farewell to our beautiful boy cat Clyde, who was in his nineteenth year and becoming increasingly unwell and fragile. We knew his time to leave us had come. It’s been very upsetting for my family as he’s been with us for so long and our children have literally grown up with him, he was present in their lives for so many years while they were growing up. We still have our girl cat with us but she’s also quite elderly now, in reasonably good health for her age albeit a touch arthritic in the back legs.

So Godspeed and go well, dear lad – the George Clooney of the cat world, bon viveur, chief mouser and mudlarking finds assistant. It’s been a joy and privilege having you in our lives. We will miss you.

Clyde – beloved cat of 19 years and mudlarking finds expert inspecting a wild boar’s tusk found by me on the Thames Foreshore

Two weeks ago we had some excellent low tides and I managed to visit parts of the Thames Foreshore I hadn’t been to for a fair old while, well before the pandemic began. One of these was the Chelsea foreshore, a favourite haunt of mine for many years and somewhere that not many mudlarks tend to go to, probably because you need to work much harder to find things such as small metal objects, and also maybe because it’s harder to get to than, say, the City of London Foreshore.

But Chelsea has long been somewhere I love to visit and I alternate coming to the north side of the river with visits to the Battersea foreshore on the south side of the river.

Saxon fish trap at Chelsea Embankment seen at a very low tide – photo from the summer of 2019

Early Chelsea was a small Saxon village, originally called ‘cealc hythe’, which is Saxon for ‘chalk wharf’ – ‘cealc’ meaning chalk and ‘hythe’ meaning wharf or landing place. The Anglo-Saxon period in Britain spans approximately six centuries from the end of Roman Britain in 410 AD to the Norman Conquest in 1066. It’s still unfairly referred to as the Dark Ages, probably becasue the early Saxon period has little in the way of written documents that have survived. It was also a time of battles and wars as Roman Britain was carved up by various war lords who divided Britain up into competing kingdoms. The Anglo-Saxon period also saw the conversion of these islands to Christianity, heavily reflected in the art and culture of these times, and it also experienced multiple Viking invasions.

Whereas up on the Chelsea Embankment the evidence of early Saxon habitation has long gone, nonetheless the Thames still has traces of local Saxon history in the form of a stunning fish trap which is visible at very low tides. I’m always amazed at how few people notice or are even interested in the fish trap as they go about their business, but it’s still very prominent in the river for those interested, its presence fiercely guarded by Bruce the bulldog, resident of one of the Chelsea Houseboats, who barks ferociously at anyone approaching to take photos. (Don’t worry, Bruce is extremely vocal but harmless.)

I’m indebted to the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) and their book ‘The River’s Tale’ (available from MOLA publications which I’ve referenced before as a book well worth reading) for my knowledge of fish traps in general, and this one in particular. Fish traps are temporary or permanent structures that use intertidal or fluvial flows to trap fish or eels. As you can see in my photo of the Chelsea fish trap, two sides form a V-shaped structure with a narrow gap at the point of the ‘V’ where a wattle or net trap was placed. As the water level drops at the lowering of the tide, fish trapped between the sides are forced towards the narrow gap where they were collected. Anglo-Saxon fish traps could be very large and often linked to the presence of monastic or other big estates controlled by a Lord of the Manor, and in fact a manorial estate once existed in Chelsea near the river. After the conversion to Christianity in the 7th century AD, fish was an extremely important part of the diet especially on Fridays, Holy days, fast-days and during the period of Lent.

The Chelsea fish trap is extremely well preserved and has been radio-carbon dated to cal AD 660-890. Incredibly it was only discovered by Thames archaeologists during the late 1990s. This structure had survived in the river for over a thousand years without anyone paying much attention to it.

Chelsea remained a small but growing village until the Tudor period. Thomas More – lawyer, judge, writer, philosopher, Lord High Chancellor of England, friend and servant to Henry VIII – moved here in 1520 and owned a spacious property in the area of what is now Beaufort Street, covering many acres of land and stretching to the river where his barge was moored ready to take him to Hampton Court Palace or Westminster on the King’s business.

Thomas More was executed by King Henry VIII in 1535 because he refused to bend his strongly held religious beliefs for Henry’s political agenda and for his refusal to sign the Act of Supremacy in 1534 (which established the Monarch, not the Pope, as the head of the church in England.) Robert Bolt’s play, later made into a 1966 film ‘A Man For All Seasons’ – starring Paul Scofield as Thomas More and Robert Shaw as Henry VIII – is excellent and well worth watching as it depicts these religious and spiritual conflicts of More’s final years.

There is no longer anything left of Thomas More’s house and estate in Chelsea other than a tiny bit of original garden wall and what is now known as Roper’s Garden, a sunken garden situated on land that was once part of the orchard belonging to the More estate, eventually given as a gift to More’s brilliant daughter Margaret on her marriage to William Roper in 1521. During the 18th century houses were built on what had once been the orchard but were destroyed by a German parachute mine dropped on 17th April 1941. The council insisted this land should be left as a public garden in memory of those who had lost their lives.

Roper’s Garden, Chelsea Embankment – the site of the orchard that was once part of Sir Thomas More’s garden
Roper’s Garden facing Chelsea Old Church, once briefly the resting place of Sir Thomas More’s head and his daughter Margaret Roper

Margaret Roper (More) 1505-1544 was one of the most educated women in 16th century England, a writer and translator. I’m a huge admirer of her intelligence and bravery. Daughter of Thomas More and his first wife Jane Colt (who sadly died in childbirth), Margaret was briefly imprisoned after she set out on a dangerous journey by boat from Chelsea towards the Tower of London on a mission to collect her father’s head after his execution. For this act alone she herself could have paid with her life but she was brave to the core and determined to restore some dignity to what was left of her father’s body, insistent that he should have a proper Christian burial. Otherwise his remains would have been left to rot on London Bridge as was the norm for the victims of executions at that brutal time, whose heads were left on spikes as a warning to others.

Thomas More’s head was finally buried with Margaret in Chelsea Old Church but modern scholarship has now established that Margaret’s remains, and her father’s head, were eventually removed from here and re-interred in the Roper family grave, together with her husband William, in St Dunstan’s church, Canterbury. Church records tell us that the rest of Thomas More’s body lies in an unmarked grave within the walls of the Tower of London.

Roper’s Garden facing Danvers Street and Crosby Moran Hall

There is a striking miniature of Margaret Roper painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1535-36. In it I think she looks tired, dark circles under her eyes, but this isn’t the slightest bit surprising if you realise the portrait was painted a year after the trauma of her father’s execution. Visitors to Chelsea Old Church can see a statue of the Saint (Sir Thomas More was quickly canonised by the Pope), just outside (see photo below), his face and hands a striking gold colour, glittering in the sun. I’m not sure whether More himself would have approved of this statue but it’s certainly eye-catching and I often see people taking snaps of it.

Sir Thomas More’s statue outside Chelsea Old Church

Today’s Chelsea has the reputation of being a mecca for the very wealthy and indeed the prices of property in this borough are pretty eye-watering, especially those homes in famous Cheyne Walk with its river views. Author George Eliot once lived here for a while as did poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, co-founder of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Chelsea has long been a place with an arty, bohemian reputation, and many other artists, writers and creative people have also in the past chosen to make it their home. William De Morgan, ceramicist, potter, friend of William Morris and heavily influenced by the ideology of the arts and crafts movement, set up a pottery in Chelsea in 1872 where he stayed until 1881. The area obviously agreed with him as this decade was one of the most fruitful in his professional life. On my mudlarking list of ‘things I’d like to find’ is a complete William De Morgan wall tile, but so far these have eluded me. There are some examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum so they will have to do for now.

One of my favourite novels is ‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald. Her third novel, and which won the Booker Prize, it’s inspired by the time the author lived on an old Thames barge moored on this very part of the Thames at Chelsea Embankment. The book explores the emotional restlessness of the houseboat community here who live neither fully on the water nor on the land and end up dependent on each other for support when their lives become challenging. The main character is Nenna, living on a houseboat called Grace, who is an abandoned wife and distant mother to her two very young daughters, Martha and Tilda. The girls rarely go to school, are running wild, and spend much of their time mudlarking on the river. There is a glorious passage in the book describing them finding a stash of William De Morgan tiles on an old sunken barge at low tide, which they then sell for a very good price to an antiques dealer on the King’s Road.

On this recent mudlarking visit to the Chelsea foreshore the tide was an unusually low one. I found myself sharing the foreshore with a couple of metal detectorists, one of whom ended up on the wrong end of a police launch which had pulled in to check his detecting permit, a lesson to everyone who searches for historical items on the foreshore that we always need to make sure we have our permits with us at all times.

A handful of mudlarking finds from the Chelsea foreshore

The exceptional low tide exposed parts of the foreshore not usually visible during normal low tides and I was pleased to come away with a more than satisfactory haul of brass buttons, pearl buttons, beads, dress hooks and other fastenings. Also parts of lead toys, possibly thrown into the river by a badly behaved child or maybe accidentally disposed of as rubbish. Vintage photographs from this area, prior to the building of the embankment during the Victorian period, show that the river in this area was once dominated by old wharves and warehouses from which items were lost and dropped into the Thames as goods were loaded and unloaded from boats and barges all the way up to Lot’s Road Power Station.

It’s always nice to find a button with the name of a local button maker or outfitter and I wasn’t disappointed with the numerous button finds I made that day, the photograph above showing a small selection. Below is a favourite find showing an Edwardian gent’s fly button, made of brass and manufactured by Noble of Chelsea. I haven’t been able to discover very much about Noble as yet and this is one of those occasions where the internet hasn’t been particularly helpful with my research. I need to look into primary sources, maps, electoral rolls, Victorian business directories and so forth, and have just emailed the archivist at Chelsea Library to arrange a visit to search through local archives. Unfortunately the pandemic has seriously affected access to archives and the Chelsea library, like many others up and down the UK, is currently open for only two afternoons a week. But I hope to be able to research this button properly soon.

Edwardian fly button, made of brass, showing the manufacturer was Noble of Chelsea

And just as I was leaving the foreshore I saw this pretty sherd of late 19th century blue on white transferware porcelain showing a delightful little scene of two swans gliding on a lake, the piece broken in the most perfect place. I don’t take much transferware away with me from the foreshore these days as I have so much at home, but if I find something like this then it just has to come home with me.

Transferware pottery showing swans

So a really fruitful return to the Chelsea foreshore, a bit of light in an otherwise sad month. As I made my way back to the station and home, I was particularly struck with how beautiful the local houses were, their gardens bursting with blowsy, gorgeously scented purple wisteria. A perfect spring day on this part of the river in South West London.

Chelsea wisteria

Return to the Thames Foreshore

Early morning, the tide beginning to go out on the Thames Foreshore under The Oxo Tower, South Bank

Today is the last day of March and it’s been a momentous month. I’ve had my first dose of the Oxford Astrazeneca (AZ) vaccine and am so grateful to all the people who have made this possible – the amazing scientific community, the NHS and all the volunteers who have given up so much of their time to help staff the vaccination centres and make the process as smooth as possible. I was so busy chatting to the young man who administered my vaccination I didn’t even realise it had been done. For the first time in a year there’s a real sense of hope about the future and we can start taking careful steps back to some kind of normality. As I type, 30.9 million people in the UK have now had their first dose of one of the Covid vaccines, which is enormously encouraging. There’s still a long way to go, obviously. Covid is a global problem and we need to work together to share vaccines and scientific knowledge, but I’m confident we can emerge from this awful time and forge a new road forward together. People are clever, kind and resilient.

Southwark Bridge

On Monday 29th March we also saw the start of relaxation of our third lockdown restrictions, which was hugely welcome. I think it’s safe to say we were all going stir crazy and it’s been a very long three months. As from the beginning of this week in England (the other three devolved nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have their own different schedules for exiting lockdown) the ‘Stay At Home’ rule has been lifted and we are able to travel about more freely, although not frivolously, and allowed to meet with six people outdoors but still needing to be careful and adhere to social distancing rules. Non-essential shops and hair salons will be open in the second phase of the relaxation of the rules in a fortnight, and it’s hoped the remaining restrictions will be gradually lifted in May and June. Fingers crossed.

For yours truly, this means I’m finally able to travel a bit further afield again without breaching Government regulations so this week has seen me returning to mudlark on the Thames Foreshore for the first time in three months. HURRAH!

Low tide under Bankside Wharf, a magical, eerie place to walk

It was great to revisit some of my favourite haunts on the Thames and see what’s changed in my absence. We’ve had uncharacteristically glorious weather for March this week – yesterday the temperatures felt more like July – and the sun shone brightly in the capital. This, together with one of the lowest tides we’ve had for a long time, meant the conditions for mudlarking were near perfect and, not surprisingly, many mudlarks came out of their homes to visit the river. It was good to catch up with many familiar faces. London was definitely starting to spring back to life, like a giant waking from a very long sleep.

I started my morning by visiting one of my favourite places on the foreshore, on the south side of the Thames, underneath the embankment near Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This area is known as Bankside, in the borough of Southwark. From Tudor times onwards, even as far back as the Medieval period, it was bawdy, filthy, dangerous and notorious. It was where the less salubrious, stinking industries were located – the slaughter houses and tanneries – and also where people came for their entertainments to the brothels, inns, taverns, bear-baiting pits and theatres.

Part of a Tudor Drain, possibly also part of a boundary

It’s also on this side of the Thames that the foreshore reveals one of its secrets at low tide, if you know where to look. Here it’s possible to see the remains of a Tudor drain from the 16th century. Made from wood, it’s astonishing to think it still survives to this day due to it being partially covered in protective anaerobic Thames mud, which has helped preserve it. The sewage of Tudor Southwark would have passed out from this drain straight into the Thames. Permanent preservation of the drain is impossible due to the cost and sadly one day it will no longer be there, a victim of erosion. But it’s lasted for over 400 years and will still be there a little while longer, part of the archaeology of the Thames Foreshore. It felt good to be able to say ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ to my Tudor drain after such a long time away -:)

Cannon Street Bridge at low tide

It was also good to visit one of my other favourite spots under Cannon Street Bridge, on the north bank of the river. At high tide these places are inaccessible so there’s something deliciously decadent about walking underneath old wharves and bridges at low tide. The acoustics are strange and eerie, giving an otherwordly feel to the experience. Of course you get to see a completely different view underneath – the girders, the bearings, the abutments, the pier caps and the piles driven deep into the river bed. I’m the daughter and also the mother of engineers and I find bridges fascinating, always have done. And of course when the tide comes in walking here is impossible, so you only have the briefest of windows to enjoy the view from below.

Peak low tide on the South Bank showing parts of the Thames Foreshore that are normally hidden

The wonderful weather brought many mudlarks out to the river and some were fortunate enough to make excellent finds. I didn’t find a great deal this time but it really didn’t matter. My star find was a small Hudson’s Bay Trading Bead, discovered in an area of the foreshore which is well known for bead finds. These beads are made of glass, mostly manufactured in Europe and traded to North American regions by the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company (HBTC) primarily for fur. This one is deep red in colour with a dark green core, so small that when I dropped it I thought I’d lost it for good. Thankfully its red colour made it stand out against the brown, grey and beige of the gravel and mud of the foreshore so I was able to find it. Trade beads are beautiful things but unfortunately come with a darker history that’s associated with colonisation, exploitation, empire and slavery. I always remember this whenever I find one.

Hudson’s Bay Trading Bead, red with a dark green core
Successful retrieval of my Hudson’s Bay Company Trade Bead, on a Tudor pin for safety!

Having been away from the Thames Foreshore in the City of London for such a long time I was determined to visit as much of it as possible in order to take advantage of the week’s excellent low tide. Even when the tide was on the turn there was still enough time left for me to head on upstream towards the South Bank. When I first started mudlarking here I used to regularly find lots of interesting pottery sherds but nowadays, perhaps because there are more mudlarks, there isn’t as much to be found and I don’t come across the sort of pottery finds as I once used to. I did however catch up with a fellow mudlark on this spot who was lucky enough to have found a glorious 19th century clay pipe bowl decorated with the face of a very angry Mr Punch. He hadn’t made a decent clay pipe bowl find for quite a few years and fortunately the low tide had been very generous to him yesterday.

Porcelain egg cup with gold rim and floral decoration, probably 1900s

I didn’t myself find any clay pipes this time, bowls or stems, as these are becoming a much rarer find in most areas of the Thames. But I did come across a very pretty late Victorian/early Edwardian decorated porcelain egg cup, dating approximately from the 1900s, lying peacefully in a small rock pool underneath one of the arches of Blackfriars Bridge, so I was happy with that. Apart from a slight chip at the base it had survived more or less intact. No one can be sure exactly how it ended up in the river but, like most pottery fragments, more than likely it was dumped here as household rubbish.

The South Bank, Waterloo Bridge in the distance

There was just time for a brief saunter under Waterloo Bridge on the off chance I might find some pottery sherds from long gone Victorian/Edwardian tea rooms, coffee shops or restaurants, although this area is no longer as lucrative as it once was. I was quite tired by now and, as the tide was beginning to come in, I knew I’d soon have to head off up the stairs located by the smiley face above in the photo. I don’t know who painted this but it’s a recent work of art and it was good to see that Londoners haven’t lost their sense of humour during these dark and difficult times.

It was really energising to be out and about in the sun again in my home city. The Thames was most welcoming this week and it was good to be back. On that note, stay safe, please, and continue to take care.

View of St Paul’s Cathedral peeking above Millennium Bridge

Thames Mudlarking Books

I’m still not able to bring you any new finds from the Thames as we remain in lockdown in the UK, so instead I’ve decided to blog about some of my favourite mudlarking and Thames history books. The Japanese have a word – ‘tsundoku’ -which means owning more books than you can actually read and I can really identify with this as I can’t resist adding to my collection of history books, shelves literally groaning under the weight of them. The family joke that one day they’ll come in to our study and find the bookcases collapsed, me buried underneath like an unfortunate mountaineer in an avalanche. At the very least the current pandemic and severe restrictions on travel have given me the opportunity to read and read and read.

One of my many shelves of history and Thames Mudlarking books

The first mudlarking book I ever read was by the father of modern mudlarking, Ivor Noël Hume. A self-taught archaeologist who started out as an amateur playwright and stage director in a London Theatre, eventually becoming the chief archaeologist of Colonial Williamsburg, Noël Hume often mudlarked on the Thames Foreshore in the City of London in the late 1940s and 1950s where he found many wonderful finds spanning millennia of British history. In my view, he represents a romantic yet grounded view of mudlarking and in his day, just as now, it was a popular recreational activity.

‘Treasure In The Thames’ is a very readable, informative and entertaining book about the history and archaeology of the Thames. Unfortunately it’s been out of print for some years now and has therefore become quite difficult to find, regularly changing hands for upwards of £70 for a copy of the book in good condition. It’s worth looking in charity shops as well as second hand and antiquarian book shops for a copy, but they’re quickly snapped up when they appear and people are prepared to pay quite large sums to get their hands on one. While I was writing this blog I did a quick internet search of various sites to check availability and there wasn’t a copy anywhere at the moment. I have heard rumours that there are ongoing conversations with the estate of Ivor Noël Hume, so maybe the book will be reprinted soon. Let’s hope so as there’s a keen and ready market for an updated edition, bringing it to a new generation of mudlarks. It can definitely lay claim to being described as the first ever book about Thames Archaeology.

Treasure In The Thames by Ivor Noël Hume

My other favourite book by Ivor Noël Hume is the fabulously titled ‘All The Best Rubbish’. This one is more easily available, still in print, and you should be able to pick up a copy for approximately £12, depending on the supplier. Like ‘Treasure In The Thames’ it’s an immensely readable tome about the pleasure of studying and collecting everyday objects from the past. The Thames is, after all, a liquid rubbish tip so anyone keen on searching and collecting will be able to identify with this. Our Thames found bits of tat are rubbish to some, but treasure to us, and Noël Hume really understands the passion that grips collectors of artefacts and antiquities.

All The Best Rubbish by Ivor Noël Hume

One of my favourite recent books about the archaeology of the Thames Foreshore is ‘The River’s Tale’ by Nathalie Cohen and Eliott Wragg. At the time of writing this book, both Nathalie and Eliott worked for the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) and the book is about the exploration of thousands of years of human activity along the Thames, London’s longest archaeological site. Thames Discovery and their volunteer helpers (FROGs) examine the structures and deposits left behind in the river at low tide as they monitor and record the the archaeology and use of the river. The book is a MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) publication and costs £15. It’s really worth buying and has taught me a lot about Thames archaeology.

The River’s Tale by Nathalie Cohen and Eliott Wragg – Thames Discovery Programme (TDP)

The last few years have seen what I describe as a Golden Age of mudlarking books in which a new generation of mudlarks has taken to print, writing books in which they share their modern experiences of mudlarking. This new range of books contains some very individual voices and are all well worth reading. The first of this group of books is ‘Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames’ by Lara Maiklem. This is a beautifully written book, published in 2019, and is now available in paperback as well as hardback. If you want to know what mudlarking feels like then this is the book for you. Known as ‘London Mudlark’, Lara scours the Thames from its tidal origins at Teddington in the west of London, to the Estuary in the east, searching for urban solitude as well as historical artefacts on the foreshore. I particularly enjoyed this book as it’s one of the few recent mudlarking books written by a woman and it would be good to see more females writing books about this genre. Lara’s book was also chosen as the Radio 4 ‘Book Of The Week.’

Mudlarking; Lost And Found On The River Thames by Lara Maiklem

Another ‘must read’ modern mudlarking book is ‘London In Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures’ by Ted Sandling, now available both in hard and paperback. The book is beautifully written and illustrated, and showcases over a hundred of Ted’s mudlarking finds. He writes evocatively celebrating the beauty of small finds, making sense of the hundreds of artefacts and fragments he includes in his book and the way these objects connect us with the original individuals who lost or threw away these items centuries ago. It is thanks to Ted that I first identified what a ‘prunt’ was – no, I’m not going to explain what one is. You’ll have to buy Ted’s book and find out for yourselves!

London In Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures by Ted Sandling

The latest in a pleasing line of recent mudlarking publications is this beautifully presented book published by Shire Books. ‘Thames Mudlarking: Searching For London’s Lost Treasures’ by Jason Sandy and Nick Stevens explores a fascinating and intriguing assortment of Thames finds from prehistoric to modern times. An enjoyable and informative read, it’s particularly useful for those who have recently started mudlarking as it’s very helpful regarding finds identification. I would have loved to have had access to a book like this for reference when I first started mudlarking many years ago. Reading this book this week has been a real tonic for these very difficult times when it’s been impossible to get to the river, and it’s helped assuage my mudlarking withdrawal symptoms.

Thames Mudlarking: Searching For London’s Lost Treasures by Jason Sandy & Nick Stevens

I’m going to restrict myself to just one or two more suggestions as otherwise this blog will go on forever and probably cost you all a fortune if you buy just a fraction of the books I’ve recommended, though I refuse to apologise for this as these books are all fabulous and interesting in their own individual ways.

Another book that would have been useful when I first started mudlarking was a clear and informative pottery ID book. So I was really pleased to discover this last year, available in PDF form from eBay and costing a very respectable £2.99. ‘Identifying the Pottery of the Thames Foreshore’ by Richard Hemery contains lots of handy pottery and porcelain illustrations, and I understand Richard is writing a bigger tome on Thames Pottery that will hopefully be available sometime in the future. But, in the meantime, this definitely does the job. A handy guide to a range of Thames found pottery sherds from Roman times, Medieval, German stoneware, Staffordshire slipware, Tin Glaze through to Chinese porcelain imports. Richard also has his own YouTube channel which is worth checking out.

Identifying the Pottery of the Thames Foreshore by Richard Hemery

And last but by no means least, two quite pricey but nonetheless really important books from the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme – ‘Finds Identified’ and ‘Finds Identified II’ – both by Kevin Leahy and Michael Lewis. The books retail at £30 each and are hefty but beautifully presented tomes. Arranged on a thematic basis, the book identifies a range of finds made by metal detectorists and mudlarks and recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme. I recently identified a medieval pin using the illustrations in these books, really useful at a time when lockdown has meant mudlarks are not able to show their finds personally to their Finds Liaison Officer.

Happy reading and please stay safe!

Cloth and bale seals

My first blog of 2021 and again we find ourselves in a national lockdown, the third in the UK since this pandemic began approximately a year ago. I must admit I’ve struggled with the sheer bleakness of this one more so than the others, and I know many people have felt the same. During the first lockdown we at least had the benefit of beautiful spring weather to take the edge off the awfulness while the second lockdown in November was a sort of ‘quasi’ one, so many shops were open it all felt much more casual. This time, however, as we segue into the new year, things feel much more relentless and exhausting, the endless rain and greyness doesn’t help much either. Roll on the sunshine and warmer weather.

But I’m not going to spend this blog wallowing in misery; the vaccine rollout offers hope and five members of my family have already been vaccinated successfully. I’m so grateful to all the scientists and their teams who have enabled this to happen. However, strict restrictions on travel and movement remain as we continue to be instructed to ‘Stay At Home, Protect The NHS and Save Lives.’ This means that travelling into London for anything other than the most essential of reasons is not allowed at the moment so I have to be content with a Thames Path walk near where I live. This is the nearest I can get to the river right now and I’m grateful for that.

The lack of opportunity to mudlark means that I’m having to think hard about interesting topics to write about in order to keep this blog going. I always keep a few finds ‘in reserve’, so to speak, and have a few subjects up my sleeve while I wait for restrictions to lift although realistically I don’t think this will happen until probably April at the earliest. Looking through my mudlarking finds cabinet the other day I realised I hadn’t blogged about my collection of cloth and bale seal finds; this is the opportunity to do so.

Cloth and Bale Seals Found On The Thames Foreshore

The use of lead seals for commercial reasons is thought to date back to Roman times where there is evidence that the Romans first used them to record the movement of various goods throughout their vast Empire.

In 1196 Richard I of England (1157-1199) issued an ordnance called the ‘Assize of Measures’ or the ‘Assize of Cloth’ which stated that ‘woollen cloths, wherever they are made, shall be of the same width, to wit, of two ells within the lists, and of the same goodness in the middle and sides.’ Article 35 of Magna Carta re-enforced the Assize of Cloth.

During the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) an official known as an ‘Alnager’ (from the word ‘alnage’ or ‘aulnage’, meaning to control the quality of woollen cloth) was appointed to enforce this rule and became the first official inspector of cloth. His main duty was to measure each piece of fabric and to fix on it a stamp of some description in order to show that it was of the necessary size and quality. From this moment, the use of lead cloth seals became widespread because it was important to define the sizes to which cloth should be woven in order to protect people from being deceived into buying substandard stuff. And to guard against fraudulent practice.

By the mid 14th century it had become apparent that it was becoming impossible to enforce English requirements regarding cloth manufacture as imports from abroad, specifically from Europe, involved a wide and diverse range of quality of wool and imported cloth came in various sizes.

Elizabeth’s I reign (1533-1603) saw a massive increase in the wool trade with newer and lighter drapery and cloth and this meant that a revision of trade rules was necessary including a reassessment of the sizes to which cloth should be woven.

Half of a Two Part Lead Cloth Seal showing the letters ‘WORST’, the ‘W’ faded

I found my first partial cloth seal about five years ago on a well known and popular bit of the Thames Foreshore in London where ships and galleys would once have brought in cloth from other parts of England and from Europe. Clearly visible in the photo above are the letters ‘ORST’, which on closer examination turned out to be ‘WORST’, the ‘W’ having faded away over the centuries. I had no idea what this stood for until a follower on Instagram contacted me to say it would have been from the word ‘Worsted’, meaning a fine, smooth woollen yarn of the highest quality. She told me that the word originally derives from the village of Worstead in Norfolk which together with North Walsham and Aylsham had once been the manufacturing centre for yarn and cloth in the Middle Ages from as far back as the 12th century.

Cloth and bale seals are a useful way of tracking the hugely important trade networks between Britain and the rest of the world. Cloth seals differ from bale seals in that they were cast in two parts (see the image below.) The seal was attached to the cloth until such a time as the cloth was inspected, approved, then the seal was discarded. This may well be the reason why so many are found in the Thames.

The two part seal was folded over (occasionally mudlarks are lucky to find much rarer four part seals) and are generally easy to identify because they were for commercial use, therefore the obverse will show a stamp from the town of origin while a number indicating weight of the item is stamped on the reverse. The seals were joined together by a connecting strip, also cast from lead, then folded around each side of a textile and stamped closed.

Two part 18th century lead cloth seal showing the crest from the issuing town on one side and weight of the textile on the other

Lead seals were widely used in Europe from the 13th century until the 19th century to ensure regulation of goods and quality control. In addition to cloth seals, I’ve also found quite a few bale seals while mudlarking.

In February 2020, just before the pandemic hit the UK and we entered our first lockdown in mid March, I found a complete bale seal on the City of London Foreshore. A single disc seal instead of the two in cloth seals, bale seals were also used to identify a whole range of traded goods in addition to textiles. The seal is from the 19th century and bears the arms of Riga in Latvia. The images below show the obverse of the seal, the city’s arms. The reverse records information regarding weight or length of goods. In this case it shows the figure ’10’.

Single disc lead bale seal showing the coat of arms of Riga, Latvia, found by me on the Thames Foreshore in February 2020
A closer view of the bale seal showing a clearer image of the crest of Riga

The Baltic States is a geopolitical term referring to three sovereign states on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Depending on context, the term can also refer to other countries bordering the Baltic – Denmark, Finland, Germany, Poland, Sweden and Russia.

Riga is the capital city of Latvia and the largest city of the three main Baltic States. It lies on the Gulf of Riga at the mouth of the Daugava River where it meets the Baltic Sea. From as early as the 5th century Riga served as the gateway to trade in the Baltic regions and Russia. Riga’s importance was officially established as far back as 1282 when it became a member of the famous Hanseatic League -(‘Hanse’ in German) – an association of merchants organised in a loose trade and political union of North German and Baltic cities and towns.

Riga was heavily involved in trading various commodities. In the 19th century the bale seal I found would have been originally attached to a range of goods such as hemp, furs, wax, salt as well as textiles and cloth and highly commercial amber. After the goods had been checked, this seal would have been removed and thrown casually into the river.

Riga was a highly productive and wealthy city both economically and industrially and was eventually absorbed into the Soviet Union, against its will, after World War Two, finally achieving independence in 1990.

Map of 17th century Riga showing ships sailing in and out of the harbour

Just before Christmas I was given one of those My Heritage DNA kits as a gift, so carefully followed the instructions re collecting my DNA before sending the kit back and waiting for the results. Both of my parents are Polish (they came to the UK as refugees after the Second World War) and I am the first generation born and bred in London, of solidly Polish ancestry for many generations.

So I was surprised to open up the email giving me the results of the DNA test and read I was 65% Polish/Eastern European and 35% Baltic States. Somewhere way back in my family tree therefore are strong indications of Baltic heritage and this might well have included a Baltic merchant or sailor who travelled the seas to England from Riga trading goods. I like to think that perhaps I’ve finally discovered an explanation as to what draws me to the water, to the sea and the river, looking for finds from the past. Perhaps I even share DNA with the very person who dropped this bale seal into the Thames from a Baltic vessel moored on the river. I know it’s fanciful but please indulge me.

And on that note, stay safe and well and know that we will get through these difficult times.

A Spectacular Chevron Trade Bead

This year is finally drawing to an end and I think I speak for most of us when I say what an unprecedented twelve months we’ve just lived through. Certainly not a year anyone will ever forget. Who would have thought this time last year, when I was writing my ‘farewell to 2019’ blog, that 2020 would be dominated by a global pandemic in which so many people became ill and far too many died, our lives becoming narrow and confined in order to minimise the spread of this awful virus. We’ve all suffered loss of some sort or another but I take heart from the fact that people are enormously resilient and, as I type, over half a million people have already been vaccinated in the UK, the vaccination programme being massively intensified here and globally in the new year. There is finally light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

2020 has been a challenging and difficult year for so many other reasons too. I try to avoid being overtly political in my mudlarking blog which is, after all, my escape from the horrors happening both here and around the world, but it’s impossible to close one’s eyes to other important events occurring around us and nor should we.

In this spirit, I feel it’s important to mention how much this year has seen a necessary and long overdue revisiting of Britain’s Imperial and Colonial past, the impact this has had on British history and the legacy it has left which is still with us today. This is not about eradicating or erasing history but rather about re-contextualising it and accepting that even though facts don’t change, attitudes and values do, especially among younger generations and communities whose voices aren’t always heard. Re-examining the past is always challenging but important to do if we wish to shape and redefine the kind of country we want to be going forward.

On 7th June 2020, the statue of Edward Colston, a wealthy merchant and slave trader, was pulled down from its plinth by a crowd gathering in Bristol at a Black Lives Matter protest and was rolled into the harbour by protesters. Colston had made his vast fortune through human suffering. Between 1672 and 1689, ships are believed to have transported about 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas. However, in spite of this, in Bristol, the city he called home, his memory has been honoured for centuries and on his death in 1721, he bequeathed his enormous wealth to a number of charities while his name and legacy can still be seen on Bristol’s streets, buildings, schools and memorials.

His statue, which stood in Colston Avenue in Bristol city centre, made no mention of his slave trading past. While many both in the local community and around the world cheered the loss of this statue, others had mixed responses showing that the conversations around these issues can be complex and multi-layered. From the black community who feel that their history and struggle has not been treated with the seriousness and respect it deserves, all too frequently erased from the national conversation, to others who felt that the toppling of statues was a dangerous moment. Prime Minister Boris Johnson described this as a ‘criminal act of vandalism’ and an attempt to erase history. While recognising the strength of feeling he added that if the community felt it wanted its removal then there were other, more democratic ways in which this could have been done.

However, Labour leader Keir Starmer spoke for many when he said at the time that the way the statue was pulled down was ‘completely wrong’ but it should have been removed ‘a long, long time ago. You can’t, in 21st Century Britain, have a slaver on a statue. That statue should have been brought down properly, with consent, and put in a museum.’

The statue of Colston has now been removed from the harbour and has indeed been taken to the city museum. Whether it will be displayed or not publicly remains to be seen.

It was when thinking of the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston that I decided the perfect way to end my mudlarking blog for this year was with a spectacular trade bead found on the Thames Foreshore, illustrating perfectly how mudlarking finds can tell us so much about our history and challenge the way we think about the past and our sense of ourselves.

The history of trade beads date back to the 15th Century when Portuguese trading ships arrived on the coast of West Africa to exploit its many resources, including gold, palm oil, ivory and human beings. These beautiful decorated glass beads were a major part of the currency exchanged for slaves and other products. They contain an unquantifiable magnitude of misery within their beautiful shapes and forms.

This particular bead (see photo below) was found by my friend and fellow mudlark, Fran Sibthorpe. It’s a large, Chevron bead, thought to have been made approximately in the 18th to 19th century, although Chevron beads have a very long history and were first made in Venice in 1500. The skills of Venetian glass makers, who were based on the small island of Murano, were highly prized and they faced the death penalty if they escaped and revealed their secrets. Inevitably some of their number did manage to get away from their tightly controlled and regulated industry to Amsterdam, taking their skills with them and enabling the founding of the Amsterdam glass bead manufacturing business.

A Chevron Trade Bead found by fellow mudlark Fran Sibthorpe

For almost five hundred years Chevron beads have been produced in their many millions and in several hundred different varieties. I am indebted to Lois Sherr Dubin and her book ‘The History Of Beads’ for the examples she has shown below showing specific types of Chevron, spanning different centuries, collected in West Africa – the greatest repository of antique European Trade beads – from 1968 to 1985. Fran’s Chevron bead find is very similar to number 3, visible on the top line of the examples illustrated below, but with alternating red and blue stripes on white instead of just blue.

Illustrations of Chevron Beads from ‘The History Of Beads’ by Lois Sherr Dubin

Chevrons are a specialized cane or drawn-glass bead. They are formed by blowing a single or multiple-layered gather of glass into a tapered mold with corrugated sides, which produce points on its outer surface. This pleated gather is then encased with additional glass layers of various colours, which may again be molded to produce additional outer layers with points. Finally, stripes can be applied to the surface. This ‘gather’ of glass is then drawn quickly into a cane of at least six feet, cooled, and finally sectioned into beads. These sections are often reheated to produce a more finished product or more rounded shape, such as in Fran’s bead, which has a distinctly more rounded shape.

The red chevron seen in figure 21 (above) was not found in West Africa although it is thought to be Venetian, probably manufactured in the early 1900s, one of several matched chevrons from a graduated string recently discovered in the United States. This shows that these beads can be difficult to date as the fundamental design is no different from the first beads of this type produced in 16th century Venice.

I thought it would be appropriate to end this final mudlarking blog of 2020 by letting Fran tell the story of her bead find in her own words:

‘I was just about to leave the Thames Foreshore, having found nothing, when I found this large Chevron-patterned 18th -19th century Venetian glass bead partially submerged in Thames ‘gloop’ just waiting for me.

For a moment I just looked at it wide-eyed, so poignant, and I was immediately transported back to my ancestors – it evoked my heritage. When I picked up the bead and placed it in my left hand, it immediately triggered my senses and emotions.

I knew that this particular trade bead could have been used not only to purchase commodities but, sadly, also for the slave trade.

The red, white and blue colours of the bead depict a reference to colonialism, which takes this find to another dimension. I wondered who had handled this trade bead, from manufacture to its arrival on the foreshore.

A ‘memorial’ find, never to be forgotten.’

I’m so glad it was Fran who found this bead, such an important find and with deeply personal connections to her own heritage and ancestry, a memorable and rare object with a fascinating yet dark history. Who knows the stories this bead could tell?

And on that contemplative note, wishing you all a peaceful and healthy new year. Please celebrate at home tonight, Covid loves a crowd! Let’s hope that 2021 is MUCH better for all of us.

NB You can see more of Fran’s mudlarking finds on Instagram @franjoy7

Clay pipes, tobacco and stuff

We’re just coming out of a second period of nationwide lockdown and therefore my mudlarking trips to the foreshore have been few and far between. But this time things didn’t feel quite as frightening or restrictive as the first lockdown last March. I’ve managed some local Thames Path walks so at least I’ve been fortunate to be near the river, out in the fresh air, and I’m enormously grateful for that.

On my last mudlarking trip to the City of London foreshore, just before the second lockdown, I found a beautiful clay pipe, the stem broken but the bowl more or less intact apart from a slight chip. Once I’d gently prised it from the mud and cleaned it up I could see it was decorated. This was a joy as decorated clay pipes are much harder to find on the Thames Foreshore these days. Whereas once they were quite plentiful, literally tens of thousands if not more have been thrown into the river as rubbish, they are now rarer. Decades of mudlarking have inevitably impacted on numbers of these objects in the river, and you also need to be on a particular part of the foreshore in order to stand a chance of finding one. Anywhere there were once wharves and warehouses where people unloaded goods from vessels and barges is a good bet.

This is only the second decorated clay pipe bowl I’ve found this year and I probably have about twelve or so in my entire collection. The older, plainer pipes are still reasonably plentiful, although more likely to be incomplete, but decorated ones not so much.

19th century decorated clay pipe bowl with fox and grapes motif – right hand side view
19th century decorated clay pipe bowl with fox and grapes motif – left hand side view

Initially I couldn’t tell exactly what the animal on the bowl was – my first thought was deer – but a fellow mudlark kindly identified it as a fox and grapes design, the fox rearing up on its hind legs in order to eat the grapes on the vine. The vulpine pointy ears, a better view visible in the photo above showing the left side of the bowl, was the clincher.

Most likely this is a Victorian tavern pipe from an actual ‘Fox and Grapes’ public house. Tavern pipes were extremely popular in the 1800s and spawned a variety of different designs, the decorated bowl advertising particular drinking establishments. A customer would usually buy the clay pipe with a pint of ale or beer, the tobacco included in the price, and would smoke it while drinking. Contrary to some thoughts that these clay pipes were smoked once and then thrown away, my own view is that people didn’t just dispose of things casually in the way we do now. Items cost money so were re-used, the clay pipe re-filled with tobacco and smoked again. Only when the pipe broke would it have been thrown away, discarded, much like cigarette stubs are today. This is probably why we see clay pipes at low tide, either the bowl on its own or with a tiny bit of stem attached. I often imagine someone from centuries past, leaning on the embankment wall, clay pipe to hand, puffing away and thinking deep thoughts about life while looking out over the Thames.

The maker’s initials – TF – can be seen on the heel of the pipe bowl. There were quite a few clay pipe makers with these initials and it took me a while to trace the likely maker. I think this ‘TF’ refers to Thomas Fitt, who lived in and ran a pipe making business at Old Ford Road, Bow, East London, during the latter part of the 1800s. A map search of Bow during this period shows a ‘Fox and Grapes’ pub on the Mile End Road, near Thomas Fitt’s clay pipe making business.

Unfortunately, like so many others, this pub has long since been demolished although there were other pubs in London also called ‘The Fox and Grapes’. There is a similar pipe to mine on display in the Gunnersbury Museum, West London, the work of another clay pipe maker called Paul Balme. This showed how popular this design of clay pipe was during this era.

Sir John Hawkins

It’s commonly thought that tobacco was first introduced to England when Sir Walter Raleigh (writer, poet, soldier, explorer and spy) brought it back from Virginia in the Americas in 1586, but it’s more likely that tobacco was probably introduced here by Sir John Hawkins, possibly as early as 1565. Hawkins was a pioneering naval commander and heavily involved in the Atlantic slave trade.

Bizarrely, tobacco was initially seen as being good for one’s health. The 16th century Spanish physician Nicolas Monardes had written extensively about the benefits of tobacco and recommended it for the relief of toothache, damaged fingernails, worms, halitosis, lockjaw and even cancer.

By the late 1580s, those sailors and adventurers who had returned from their journeys abroad had started a smoking craze at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and it was even said that the Queen herself had been encouraged to take up the pipe. Whether she did or not is undocumented.

By 1660 the tobacco craze had begun to spread much further afield, popular with all classes of society, and was causing concern. King James I, who had succeeded the childless Elizabeth to the throne of England (in Scotland he was known as King James VI,) wrote a treatise called ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’ in which he described smoking as a ‘custome lothesome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black and stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.’

James went further and imposed an import tax on tobacco to deter smokers and make it more expensive, while the Catholic Church declared the use of tobacco to be sinful and banned it from churches. But, despite this, tobacco’s popularity had taken root and it was a difficult habit to quit.

James I’s ‘Counterblaste to Tobacco’

Clay pipes are fairly easy to date when you’re lucky enough to find one while out mudlarking. The high cost of tobacco when it was first introduced in the mid to late 16th century meant that the pipe bowl itself was initially quite small, the clay pipe makers reflecting this expense in the size of the bowl, which only allowed for one smoke of what was still then a very costly product, out of the reach of all but the wealthiest in society.

A guide to the age and ID of clay pipe bowls from the earliest period – late 16th century – to the bigger decorated bowls of the Victorian era

As tobacco became cheaper this was also reflected in the size of the bowl which invariably got bigger, taller, the pipe maker teasing out a more slender shape that contrasted with the more rounded, chunky bowl of the earlier years. By the 1800s clay pipe bowls were often made with a variety of different decorations, not just tavern pipes but also designs that showed a range of crests, masonic emblems, flowers, foliage, hunting scenes and ones depicting famous historical events.

I’m hoping to return to the foreshore soon but I suspect my chances of finding another decorated clay pipe bowl anytime soon aren’t great, although I’ll keep my fingers crossed for next year. In the meantime I’m more than happy with my small but precious (to me) collection of pipes found on mudlarks during the last five years.

My clay pipe collection – mostly bowls and stems but a few complete examples too

An Unexpected Apothecary Jar

The summer has been and gone, segueing quietly into autumn which arrived with strong winds and what felt like non-stop rain, resulting in some very high recent tide levels. This is also the time of year when Europe’s flood barriers are tested to ensure they’re fit for winter. The Thames Flood Barrier was tested on the 4th October and, when the Barrier is closed, this means that tides stay low much longer than normal, which is the perfect scenario for mudlarks. I wasn’t able to go mudlarking on that particular day of Thames Barrier closure so I don’t know whether that resulted in some interesting mudlarking finds, but I know these closure dates are always of special interest to the Thames Mudlarking community.

In my part of South West London Thames water levels have seen very high fluvial flows following almost three days of non-stop rain and wind, and also culminating with the end of this particular period of what’s known as a spring tide. Contrary to what’s commonly thought, spring tides are nothing to do with the season of spring. There are two spring tide periods in the lunar cycle during dates close to the new and full moon. This means we get spring tides all year round as the term actually refers to a ‘coiled spring’, or that the river is ‘springing up’ as a result of the cycle of the moon. The spring tide can also result in both exceptionally high and exceptionally low tides. Low-lying roads and pathways adjacent to the river are prone to flooding at this time, resulting in regular flood alerts due to excess water flow coming into the tidal part of the Thames. The flooding risk passes once astronomical tide levels fall. Continuous heavy rain also creates problems.

Apothecary Bottle Found On The South West London Foreshore

A star find from the last few weeks mudlarking was my very first complete apothecary bottle, photo above, literally thrown at my feet by wash from a passing Thames Clipper. This doesn’t happen often but, when it does, it’s a magical moment and totally unexpected. Made in clear glass by Pascall, the stopper was, not surprisingly, missing after so many years although these are often found separately by mudlarks. It’s staggering how many of them survive the ebb and flow of the tides and tumbling about in the river for centuries. And yet they still emerge in one piece.

Pascall Apothecary Bottle. The Medicine It Contained Has Long Since Gone

The label has long since washed off in the river but it’s possible the bottle contained something like Laudanum. Laudanum is an opium tincture containing opium alkoloids; morphine and codeine. Popular throughout Victorian society as a muscle relaxant, cough suppressant, cure for rheumatism, nerves and just about every ailment you can think of, it was even given to children to keep them quiet and stop them crying. A highly addictive substance, it was nonetheless the Victorians’ favourite drug of choice. Twenty or twenty five drops of laudanum could be bought for a single penny, meaning it was easily affordable.

In contrast to our more tightly regulated times, in the Victorian period it was relatively straightforward for someone to walk into a chemist and buy, without prescription, laudanum, cocaine or arsenic. All manner of different opium preparations were freely and easily sold in towns and country markets, the consumption and use of opium was as popular in country areas as it was in cities. Many opium-based medicines were specifically targeted at women and widely prescribed to ease menstrual cramps and for pain during childbirth. These were also prescribed for hysteria, depression and fainting fits known in this era as ‘the vapours.’

In the late 18th and throughout the 19th century, many well known people used laudanum as a painkiller. These included writers such as Charles Dickens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey (who specifically wrote about his experiences in ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’), George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley suffered terrible laudanum-induced hallucinations and used opium, flavoured with saffron and cinnamon, to help with the chronic pain of nephritis. Lord Byron, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lewis Carroll were also laudanum addicts as was Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of US President Abraham Lincoln, who began to use opium when suffering severe depression after the death of one of her sons.

By the mid-1800s, the English chemist and druggist was a well established professional offering a range of medical goods and services and selling a variety of items from toiletries through to ointments, pills and preparations. This period witnessed a boom in advertising and the term ‘apothecary’, the more archaic word used for someone who made and sold drugs and potions, still continued to be used on posters. An apothecary had initially been the lowest ranking (untrained) medical practitioner serving as a pharmacist and prescribing all manner of medicines. Apothecaries considered themselves as physicians and doctors but were nothing of the sort.

Victorian Apothecary Poster Advertising Powders, Elixirs, Tonics and Tinctures

In 1852 and 1868 Parliament tried to regulate the sale of pharmaceuticals by passing a Pharmacy Act, attempting to control the sale of opium-based preparations by insisting these were only sold by registered chemists. Unfortunately this wasn’t as effective as hoped and unregistered chemists and apothecaries continued to sell drugs to the public. This period also saw special schools established in order to teach pharmacy, however not all chemists were properly trained and many continued to dispense unwisely and illegally, offering cures using substances such as whale oil and a variety of herbal treatments.

A Victorian chemist’s would have contained within it hundreds of different bottles and pots, the colour of each glass container hinting at the contents within. Cobalt blue and emerald green indicated poison, the bottles decorated with a warning ‘NOT TO BE TAKEN’ or even ‘POISON’, in capital letters. But because so many people were unable to read these bottles were also helpfully designed with long, raised ridges down the side, tactile to the touch, and therefore distinguished them from non-poison bottles. This helped to avoid fatal accidents due to the unwitting consumption of poisonous contents. The ridging was also helpful when someone taken ill at night, and blundering about in the dark by candlelight looking for pain relief, was less likely to be poisoned by the contents of their medicine cabinet.

Intact Green Poison Bottle Found By Me On The Thames Foreshore

Last year I was thrilled to find my first green poison bottle. Slightly chipped on the rim nonetheless, much like my recent Pascall apothecary bottle find, it had also survived a hundred years plus of being buffeted about in the river. I’ve yet to find a cobalt blue one (the ones in my photo have been given to me by fellow mudlarks) but I live in hope. They still turn up in the river and in old Victorian bottle dumps so they can be found if you know where to look.

Restored Edwardian Lepidopterist’s Cabinet Complete with Thames Bottle And Other Finds

During Lockdown my recently purchased Edwardian Lepidopterist’s Cabinet was faithfully restored by my other half and placed ceremoniously in its new home, our recently converted garage/now dining room, where it now proudly displays my Thames found bottles and other Thames Treasures.

Happy bottle hunting!

Finding a 16th century Nuremberg token

Last week I made my third trip to the Thames Foreshore since lockdown restrictions were eased in June, and only the second visit to mudlark in the City of London. I’m still careful about travelling on public transport – the trains are on the quiet side but getting a little bit busier – and I’m limiting my use of trains and buses, for obvious reasons. It’s now de rigeur to pack a couple of face masks into my mudlarking rucksack as well as hand gel and protective gloves, but this is the world we’re living in right now and we have to get used to behaving responsibly and safely when we’re out and about. As someone said to me the other day, ‘this is a global pandemic and we’re all in it together’.

I haven’t found a great deal on my limited trips to the foreshore in June, July and August so far – a few glass beads, a broken clay pipe bowl, some post medieval pottery sherds – but it’s been a joy to return even though everything in London is still muted and offices and buildings remain empty. There’s also a sadness about the City of London at the moment that I’ve never seen before and I’m not sure whether things will ever completely return to normal although it is, slowly, becoming busier and restaurants and museums, but unfortunately not theatres, have re-opened. The Thames Clippers have started running again, albeit not in the numbers they once did, and tourists travelling on them are still few and far between. The gloopy green Thames mud that built up when the river fell silent at the end of March, and there was no boat traffic to create ‘churn’ or movement, has now more or less cleared away which makes it easier to find smaller items again.

Thames Clippers August 2020
New Thames Clipper Uber Boat, St Paul’s in the background

Last week I was thrilled to hear that BBC Travel had posted an article about mudlarking. Written by journalist Ben Gazur and titled ‘The Lost Treasures of London’s River Thames’ it featured input from myself and other mudlarks about our favourite finds and passion for the history and archaeology of the river. As a result of this article traffic to my blog has increased considerably which is thrilling. So, if you’re new to this blog and to mudlarking along the river Thames in London, you’re most welcome and I’m very pleased you’ve found my mudlarking page. I’ve had so many emails from people all round the world and if you’ve sent me a question or other enquiry I’ll be replying to you as soon as I can, I promise. I’m enormously grateful to Ben for featuring me in this piece.

I also hope to be starting my very own mudlarking channel on YouTube at some point before the end of the year. If YouTube is your thing and you like the idea of checking out mudlarking videos there are lots to choose from. I hesitate to mention names as I’m bound to leave people out and I don’t want to offend anyone, but some of my own favourite mudlarks who have their own channels are Nicola White (also known as Tideline Art), Richard Hemery (an expert on Thames pottery and much more knowledgeable about pottery sherds than I will ever be), Simon Bourne (known as ‘Si-Finds’) and the Northern Mudlarks (a mother/daughter partnership who mudlark in the North of England and who show that mudlarking isn’t just about London and the Thames, you can mudlark wherever there is a tidal river). Do please check them all out and subscribe to their channels.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog and missed Ben’s article, here is the link to the BBC Travel website

April finds for FLO 2020
Pre lockdown finds from February 2020 (the modern penny is for scale)

This week I’ve been researching a find from earlier in the year, prior to lockdown. In February I was mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore when wash from a passing Thames Clipper threw something glittering and exciting at my feet. This doesn’t happen often but it does happen occasionally and, when it does, it’s a very special moment. A passing mudlark identified it immediately as a jeton, or jetton, even though at first I thought that it was a coin.

Ship's Penny token 1550 in situ
Mid 16th century Nuremberg jeton in situ

The word ‘jeton’ originates from the French verb ‘jeter’, to throw. Jetons were important in medieval and post medieval times for keeping accounts, tracking commercial transactions and financial calculations. They were used to help keep accounts at the Royal Exchequer and the word ‘exchequer’ itself means chessboard, a board divided into squares. It was on these tables that jetons were placed in order to carry out calculations. In England, the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer originated because previous holders of this role once presided over similar chequered counting boards.

Woodcut showing a counting table
German woodcut showing a counting table

Woodcut counting table
15th century woodcut showing a counting table

Calculations on a chequer board were done in the following way; vertical columns were marked with values eg £ (pounds), s (shillings) and d (pence) while the horizontal rows showed the transaction details. For each group of twelve penny counters (twelve old English pennies equalled one English shilling) a single counter or jeton was added to the shillings square, while the twelve pennies were removed from the pennies square. And so on until the transaction was complete.

I’ve found a couple of medieval German woodcuts featuring financial calculations taking place around a counting table. Sadly, very few examples of counting tables exist to the present day, probably because they would have been repurposed for something else when no longer in use. The second one is a particular favourite as it shows a woman present in what appears to be a central role. It’s not completely clear what she’s doing in this but she’s in this woodcut for a reason, a child by her side. It’s a commonly held opinion that women were by and large excluded from business during the medieval period but this isn’t necessarily the case. Although women were not allowed to be members of Guilds French, German and English records of this period show widows taking over from dead husbands and continuing with his business or trade, particularly the import and export of wool, where there were many powerful women present. Also in the aiglet (shoelace) making business in Paris where a woman was able, with the support of a Guild, to continue with the work of her late husband and thus provide her family with an income.

Ship's penny token mucky hands
Obverse of the Ship’s Penny jeton showing a French Galley

The jeton I found washed up at my feet on the Thames Foreshore is known as a ‘Ship’s Penny’ and dates from approximately 1550. Made from brass/copper alloy (jetons are not made from gold or other precious metal although the gilt of the copper gives them the appearance of gold) the obverse shows a stylized French Galley (ship) in a circle, the lettering or legend surrounding this circle reads ‘HANS SCHULTES GEMACHT’, which is the German for ‘Engraved by Hans Schultes.’

Ship's Penny token Bankside
Reverse of the jeton showing a fleur-de-lis design

The reverse of the Ship’s Penny jeton shows four fleur-de-lis set in a diamond shaped lozenge or shield, the lettering surrounding this is more faded but is likely to repeat the name of Hans Schultes and include a series of initials indicating the number of these tokens made.

Throughout the 15th century, the French dominated the manufacture of jetons. By the end of this century and into the 16th century their dominance began to decline as Nuremberg (Germany) began to establish itself as the main centre of cheap, mass-produced jetons and France could no longer compete.

There were many famous Nuremberg jeton-making families and mudlarks frequently find Nuremberg jetons on the Thames Foreshore. They’re always a lovely find, some are quite ubiquitous in number (eg Hans Krauwinckel jetons) while others like my Ship’s Penny are rarer, particularly when found in a good condition.

The Schultes jeton makers were Jorg, Hans I, Hans II and Hans III. I’ve previously found a Hans Krauwinckel ‘Lion of St Mark’ jeton although it was so battered and faded it was hard to identify, it’s nonetheless a fairly common find on the Thames foreshore. The Krauwinckels – Damianus, Hans I, Egidius and Hans II – were also prolific jeton manufacturers from Nuremberg, as were generations of the Hoffmans, Koch, Vogel, Weidinger and Zwingel families. I’m grateful to Michael Mitchiner for his book ‘Jetons, Medalets and Tokens – The Medieval Period and Nuremberg’, a really useful resource if you want to know more about these items.

The Hans Schultes’ Ship’s Penny jeton has been modelled on an original and earlier French design, perhaps to show continuity and a link to the French jeton makers, and this can be seen in the use of the French Galley design plus fleur-de-lis, common in the crest of many European Royal families but particularly associated with the French Bourbon monarchs.

I’ll never know who dropped this jeton in the Thames or how it got there – perhaps a merchant disembarking from a ship, a small velvet pouch containing these tokens falling from his hands straight into the river – but whoever lost this would have known nothing of modern times, of electricity, flight, mobile phones, the internet and the way we live now. The thought that I was the first person for five hundred years to have touched this item still makes me shiver to this day.

And that is why I love mudlarking.

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.