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.


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.

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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.

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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