A legal responsibility of every mudlark is to take anything they find over three hundred years of age to be checked and recorded by the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO), in my case at the Museum of London. If the find is treasure, ie gold or silver, the Treasure Act of 1900 states that it needs to be recorded with the Coroner within a month of finding.
I’ve found gold, a small piece of beautifully and intricately worked filigree jewellery, while mudlarking at a location I can’t reveal. I dutifully took it to Stuart Wyatt, my FLO, who took it away with him for checking. Although definitely gold (I knew the minute I saw it peeking out of the ground that that’s what it was – gold can be buried in the earth for a million years and will still be golden and untarnished when it’s eventually discovered) Stuart couldn’t trace exactly what it had come from as it was too small a piece, but confirmed it was gold, possibly Victorian. The lack of clarity surrounding the provenance of the fragment meant that in this instance he didn’t have to notify the Coroner and I was able to keep the piece without the need for the copious paperwork that goes hand in hand when identified treasure is found, as opposed to a less valuable find.
At my next visit to the FLO I was thrilled when he took in one of my newer finds. Of no monetary value, like the vast majority of mudlarking finds, nonetheless this remains one of my favourite pieces; a tiny bone dice. (See centre of the photo below – the little silver pieces surrounding the dice are not from the foreshore but from the much used and loved family Monopoly set.)
The dice was found by me, by eye, on a part of the foreshore where scraping, digging and metal detecting are forbidden unless you hold a more advanced Society of Mudlarks permit. I’m holding it in my fingers, turning it over, the once sharp edges now worn smooth by the river, and it feels light in my hand. Such a beautifully tactile object and I think about the person who carved it, those who played with it and the careless fingers that finally dropped in the Thames.
This is what it looks like when you have a find logged with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). Once it’s confirmed as of historical importance by the FLO it’s then researched and recorded and the item, unless treasure, is given back to the finder.
It’s described as a Post Medieval bone cuboid dice dating from the 16th to 18th Century. The numbers are indicated by a single dot; they are arranged so the opposite sides adds up to 7. The sides are in the arrangement known as Potter’s variant 16.
Egan (1997:3) writes “A remarkable degree of uniformity is emerging in London for the most recent excavated dice, that is those of the 16th to 17th Century and later, first noticed among a group of over 40 of various sizes and with numbers indicated by double-circle-and-dot, circle-and-dot or dot alone, all of 17th to 18th Century date and found at the site of the Fleet Prison. These are all regular dice, and more remarkably, all of them that are complete enough to gauge are just one variety – Potter’s variant 16. They may well have been the output of a single prisoner turning meal bones into saleable goods.”
It’s quite extraordinary to think that the dice I’m rolling around in my fingers was quite probably made by the same prisoner who fashioned these from leftover bone in the Fleet prison all those centuries ago. Sadly it seems his name will never be known. I find myself wondering what crime he was charged with committing, how long he spent deprived of his freedom and the impact that would have had on his family and the rest of his life.
The Fleet prison was originally built in 1197, near the side of the River Fleet, the area now is part of Farringdon Street. Once close to the Fleet Ditch, an open sewer, the area was filthy and unsanitary, the surrounding land being deemed perfect for the location of a prison. It was demolished and rebuilt several times. Destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, burnt to the ground during the Great Fire of London in 1666 (when it was engulfed in flames during the third day of the fire, the prisoners only just managing to escape) and was again destroyed during the Gordon Riots of 1780. It remained in use till 1844 and was sold to the Corporation of the City of London who finally demolished it in 1846.
Used primarily to incarcerate those who were charged and convicted of contempt of court by the Court of Chancery and also for those committed by the Star Chamber (a court that sat in the royal palace of Westminster from the late 15th Century to the mid 17th Century), in its latter years it was primarily used as a prison for debtors and bankrupts.
The Fleet Prison is memorably described by Charles Dickens in ‘The Pickwick Papers.’ Dickens’ own father, John, had himself been imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison (Southwark) on the 20th February 1824 under the Insolvent Debtors Act of 1813 because he owed a baker, John Kerr, forty pounds and ten shillings and was unable to pay. It was a shameful experience that haunted Charles Dickens throughout his life.
Prisons during the 18th Century were profit-making enterprises and so prisoners had to pay for food and lodging, and the Fleet was no exception. In fact it had the highest fees in England. Prisoners didn’t even have to live in the Fleet as long as they paid the keeper to compensate him for the loss of earnings. From the 17th Century onwards the prison also became notorious for the carrying out of clandestine marriages by degraded clergymen, looking to earn some money on the side, and who themselves were imprisoned among the debtors and bankrupts. At a time when divorce was difficult and you wanted to marry someone else in secret, this was the place to come. Ditto if the bride was pregnant, or had already given birth, a wedding ceremony might take place in the Fleet and the certificate of marriage conveniently back-dated to before conception.
Prisoners would have struggled to find ways to pass the time while incarcerated in the Fleet so I can well imagine someone with skill trying to earn money by fashioning dice from leftover bones in order to make their sentence more tolerable.
Dice are the oldest gaming artefacts known to mankind and have been found in Egyptian tombs dating from 3000 BC. In Greek and Roman times they were made from bone, ivory, bronze, agate, marble and, much later, porcelain or clay. The Romans played two games with dice: Tali and Tesserae. Tali used four dice and the best score was when each die showed a different number. Tesserae was played with three dice and the best score was three sixes. The dice were thrown from a cup called a ‘fritillium’ and usually played on a board made of wood, bronze or marble. Roman dice are particularly keenly treasured by those mudlarks lucky enough to find them on the Thames Foreshore.
In later centuries cheating with dice became prolific, especially during the post Medieval period. Dodgy dice were known as ‘fullums’ or ‘fulhams’, named after Fulham in south west London, an area once notorious for the manufacture of loaded dice and clearly not the respectable part of south west London it is now.
‘Fullums’ were divided into two distinct types: high ones that would run to 4, 5 and 6, and low ones that ran to 1, 2 and 3. These were made by drilling tiny holes into the dice and filling it with quicksilver (mercury,) the holes were then plugged with pitch. Sometimes the corners would be discreetly filed in order to load the dice even more.
An entire vocabulary was created to describe the way professional cheats were able to fool the innocent and naïve during games of dice and ensure they won every time:
‘Topping’ – pretending to put both dice in a box but holding one between the fingers so that it could be turned to the cheater’s advantage, also known as ‘palming’
‘Slurring’ – throwing a dice smoothly onto the table so that it didn’t roll
‘Stabbing’ – using a rigged dice cup
‘Knapping‘ – throwing the dice so that one strikes another, stopping the bottom diced from tumbling
I’ll never know who used my dice find, what games they played with it or the circumstances in which they lost it, but I can assure everyone that it’s definitely not the loaded type. Light as a feather, an indication that thankfully it’s mercury free. I can use it when the family Monopoly board comes out at Christmas and holidays with a clear conscience.
I’m pretty much recovered from my recent accident and itching to get back to mudlarking. I’ve really missed not being by the river but the last eight weeks or so have given me an opportunity to do a lot more research and writing about the Thames and sort out some recent finds in my collection.
People new to mudlarking often ask me for advice on finds identification, so I thought I’d use this month’s blog to write about the different kinds of pottery that’s most commonly found on the foreshore. When I first started mudlarking, I could have done with a mini-guide to foreshore pottery but there wasn’t anything easily to hand. There are many books and articles writing about pottery in greater depth, and quite a bit if you look online, but sometimes all you want is a quick photo guide to finds accompanied by a brief description. If you want to research pottery further then that’s something you can do once you’ve acquired some basic knowledge of the most common foreshore finds, and of course the best way to learn is to go out and mudlark. There will usually be someone else about on the foreshore who will help you ID your finds and many mudlarks are extremely knowledgeable.
I found my first ever fragment of Roman pottery fairly early on in my mudlarking career when I saw a fairly nondescript piece of a pale grey something on the Thames Foreshore near the Oxo Tower on the Southbank. I picked it up and then put it down again thinking it was probably not very much. This was also my first lesson in ‘if you’re not sure, take your find home with you’ and get someone with a bit more knowledge than you to take a look at it or post it on Instagram (using the mudlark hashtag) or one of the many mudlarking sites on Facebook.
Something about this fragment made me return to pick it up and look at it again and I eventually ended up taking it home with me, even though it looked like something someone had only recently thrown on the potter’s wheel in a nearby studio.
Six months later when I’d almost forgotten about it I took it, along with a few other finds, to my first ever appointment with the Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London. He immediately identified it as a piece of mortarium, one of a type of Ancient Roman pottery kitchen vessels. These were hemispherical, conical and shallow bowls , commonly fired with coarse sand or grit embedded into the surface which made them excellent for grinding, pounding or mixing foods. Some Roman mortaria even show the name of the potter, which helps trace the workshop where it was made and the actual journey of the piece through the Roman Empire, eg Gaul to Londinium. So useful were these vessels in the kitchen that we still use this kind of design today to crush herbs and spices. My piece of pale grey mortarium can be seen bottom right in the photo below, just underneath and to the side of the more central find (small, round terracotta base of a Roman pot recycled as a gaming counter.)
There are many other types of Roman pottery still found fairly regularly on the Thames Foreshore if you know where to look and, as fashions changed, so did the need to have pottery fulfilling various different uses. Clockwise from the top: Nene Valley colour-coated ware (the Nene Valley is in Eastern England); coarse wares eg grey wares; Moselkeramik or Trier black-slipped ware (centre of photo) used for beakers, cups and commonly decorated with rouletted motifs on the rim as well as scrolls, dots, wavy lines and other motifs, often combined with a short text or instruction eg ‘BIBE’ or ‘Drink.’
Middle left of the photo are two fragments of a greyish shell-tempered ware. This can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between Roman and Saxon although Saxon shell-tempered pottery contains more finely crushed shells, therefore identifying it as having being made at a more recent date. The cruder and bigger the pieces of shell, the older the piece is. Middle Neolithic pottery would also have been shell-tempered but with clearly visible bits of reed, sticks or even animal bones in the clay as well as shells. Anything and everything was used in more primitive pottery.
Top left of the photo is probably the most ubiquitous of all Roman pottery types found on the Thames Foreshore; black-burnished ware. Unglamorous, not particularly stylish to look at, nonetheless it was a core staple in the kitchens of Roman London so I always treat it with respect.
I still haven’t found any decent sherds of much sought after Samian pottery fragments although in my early days mudlarking frequently confused it with post medieval bits of terracotta only to find the FLO at the Museum of London gently informing me that what I’d found wasn’t Roman, or even close. As a general rule of thumb, if your piece of terracotta red pottery is covered in a shiny glaze, it’s not Roman. The Romans decoratedtheir pottery with slip, not glazes.
Samian ware is also known as ‘Terra Sigillata’ and is basically a fine red pottery with a glossy red slip made of an equally fine clay mixed with water. Unlike later medieval and post-medieval glazes which hang heavy on the surface of the outer and inner part of a pot or plate, Samian slip is light and delicate because of the high potassium and calcium content that almost melts onto the pottery. Once fired in the kiln it turns a bright terracotta red. Many mudlarks have been fortunate to find decorated Samian ware – complete with gladiatorial motifs, hunting or erotic scenes and so on – and occasionally with the name stamp of the potter too, giving an indication of where the piece was manufactured in Gaul or elsewhere. As I still haven’t found any, and as I prefer to use my own photos for my blogs, I don’t have any Samian photos to include here but if you google Samian ware you’ll see some stunning examples of it in various museums or collections.
Medieval pottery, (the word Medieval itself comes from Latin and means ‘middle age’) spans hundreds of years from approximately 500 AD to 1000 AD, known as the Early Middle Ages, followed by the High Middle Ages from 1000 to 1250 AD, the rise and dominance of the Catholic Church shaping these years. The Late Middle Ages completed the Medieval period, lasting approximately until the late 1400s. This later period in the Middle Ages was marked by war and conflict as dynasties battled for control of Europe’s borders eg The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), fought between England and France. It was also during this period that the Black Death arrived on the continent of Europe wiping out an estimated 75 to 200 million people across Europe and Asia between 1347 and 1351. The closing years of the 14th Century saw the beginnings of the Renaissance in Italy with a blossoming of painting, sculpture and architecture.
Unfortunately pottery from this period, that is the fragments that turn up on the Thames Foreshore, is mostly fairly crude, basic and functional. Sherds from the Early to High Middle Ages are found less frequently, the more common finds are from the Later Medieval period and are characterised by what’s known as the ubiquitous ‘Tudor’ green glaze, which is actually not from the Tudor period at all as this came later. Medieval pottery actually comes in a range of green, yellow and brown glazes, which was the sum total of colour the Medieval potter could manage. A lot of the sherds I’ve found from this period are simply coarse borderware, a common find on the foreshore as it supplied London’s cooking needs in the 14th and 15th Centuries.
For the purposes of this blog, and I could write about pottery forever but don’t want this blog to turn into something that’s PhD in length, it’s also worth mentioning some of the well known potteries of this period – from North Yorkshire to Surry Whiteware, Kingstonware and Surrey/Hampshire Borderware. I’m not an expert in the precise ID of these but there are interesting examples in the Museum of London and the V and A. I’d also recommend you google the excellent Richard Hemery who has a YouTube channel where he IDs various types of pottery from this and other periods. I’ve learnt a lot from Richard’s online pottery films.
The Medieval age eventually made way for the Tudor Dynasty (1485-1603) where for the first time food was becoming more refined and therefore so was pottery. This period sees the widespread manufacture of Tin glaze pottery, earthenware covered in a glaze containing tin oxide, which is white, shiny and opaque. It normally provides the background for a range of decoration, from ferns, flowers and foliage through to random geometric lines, circles and other patterns. It’s also known as Faience (German, French and Scandinavian tin glaze), Majolica and Delftware. Colours of English tin glaze are predominantly blue on white, but it’s always a joy to find other colours too such as a splash of yellow, green, orange or the rare (because expensive) manganese brownish purple. Tin glazed ceramics were the first white pottery manufactured in England, although first used in Europe by the Italians in the 12th century for simple painted wares, and then by the Spanish during the 13th Century for more colourful vessels. The use of this glaze then slowly began to spread through Europe in the following years as both Holland and England became centres of tin glaze production in the 16th and 17th Centuries.
The first examples of more recognisably common tin-glaze pottery was thought to have been made by Guido da Savino in Antwerp in 1512. The use of marl, a calcium rich clay, allowed Dutch potters to refine their technique and produce much finer ceramics. Their Delftware was a blend of three clays, one local, one from Tournai and one from the Rhineland. Dutch Delftware was also popular because it resembled the fashionable Chinese porcelain (which was only affordable to the wealthiest people), an effect achieved by covering the tin-glaze with clear glaze, which gave added depth to the fired surface and a smoothness and clarity to the vivid cobalt blue.
By the mid 17th Century, most of the major potters in England were Flemish or Dutch, many having fled the Low Countries due to religious persecution, making their way to England and bringing their secrets with them, setting up potteries in Southwark, Rotherhithe, Lambeth and Aldgate. English Delftware was harder and coarser than its Dutch equivalent, which was softer and thinner. Prior to 1620, English Delft was closer in style to Italian or Dutch but after 1620 fashions changed as the public clamoured more for the fashionable Chinese style blue on white. At the cusp of the 18th Century, English Delftware became more distinctive and less intricately decorated than its 17th Century counterpart.
I’ve found some large chunks of tin glaze in my time, mostly fragments of plates or chargers, but big pieces are becoming rarer so even the smallest sherd of this type of pottery invariably makes it home with me. Delftware came in a wide range of pottery and ceramics including punchbowls, plates or chargers, wine bottles, puzzle jugs, guglets (globular jars with a long neck), tea and coffee pots, fuddling cups (three dimensional drinking puzzle vessels) and posset pots for creamy, sugary syllabub type desserts.
Production of English Delftware had more or less stopped by the end of the 18th Century as fashions changed once more due to the Industrial Revolution, and pottery become mass produced and therefore cheaper.
The Stuart period of history lasted from 1603 to 1714 and encompassed a wide range of pottery types, from Metropolitan Slipware to Staffordshire Slipware, Delftware, Salt glaze and Westerwald Stoneware.
Slipware (see photo below) is a type of lead-glazed earthenware decorated with a coloured slip then fired in a kiln. Jacqui Pearce, Senior Finds Officer at MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) describes this period as ‘a time of vibrant growth in the potteries serving the London area.’ London-made Delftware was booming, especially in the Southwark area where extensive excavation in the 1980s uncovered huge quantities of pottery from this period. The potteries of the Surrey-Hampshire border were, from the 15th to 18th Centuries, also a prolific and important supplier of ceramics to the capital and elsewhere. In addition, a wide range of ceramics from the potteries of Devon, Somerset, the Midlands, Newcastle upon Tyne, Italy, Germany and the Low Countries also found their way to the London pottery market.
‘Slip’ refers to the decoration of the earthenware, when the runny clay mixture is applied to the clay vessel by painting, splashing or dripping. It’s then covered with a thick, glossy lead glaze that seems to stop before it reaches the edge of the rim of the piece. Every item is different and the sherds I’ve found show everything from careful application by the potter to wilder, careless decoration that looks as if it was done in a great hurry. I love its chunkiness, earthy quality and random, joyous decoration showing the potter’s freedom of expression.
I used to find fragments of Metropolitan Slipware nearly every time I stepped onto the foreshore but I’ve noticed that decent sized sherds of this pottery also seem to be much less frequent these days. My most recent finds have been slipware of a more dark chocolate brown colour instead of the more common orange-red, emphasising the differences in types of clay used, and decorated with a creamy rather than yellow coloured slip. It’s indicative of the hand made nature of this pottery that there are so many different types of colour-way within it which adds to its attractiveness. It’s a pleasing contrast to the uniform nature of factory produced pottery and porcelain where every piece is identical. Objects made in this style included pots, cups, mugs, chamber pots, candlesticks and chafing dishes (for heating food).
Another type of slip, and an extremely common find on the Thames Foreshore, is Staffordshire Combed Slipware. I have so much of it at home, and many mudlarks tend not to bother with it, but I find I can’t resist its various cheerful shapes, bold forms and ever-changing designs. It reminds me of Mr Kipling’s bakewell tarts and tea.
Staffordshire Slip pottery is solid, chunky and reassuring. Earthenware with a clear lead glaze containing iron inclusions, which gives the white slip its cream to yellow colour. The trailed slip is dragged along the surface to create the distinctive ‘combed’ look, hence the name. Originating in Staffordshire, as its name suggests, it was also produced in potteries in Yorkshire, Bristol and the Midlands. Most of the pieces were glazed on one side only but you often see traces of the glaze oozing out onto the underside, sometimes it doesn’t even reach the edge of the rim at all. My favourite pieces of this type of pottery are when the edges resemble a pie crust, and this is known as ‘coggling’ or ‘crimping.’
The common nature of this type of pottery marks a distinctive stage in a more mass market production of tableware that was specially intended for poor to middle class kitchens and dining tables as well as inns and taverns where it would have been in common use in the late 17th Century and 18th Century until it fell out of favour. I’ve noticed that much of this type of pottery often turns up on a part of the foreshore where an inn or tavern would once have been.
You can see from the photograph of some of the many pieces I’ve found of this pottery that every single sherd is different. The subtle variations in the colour of the slip and designs – from straight to thick diagonal lines and the kind of zigzag pattern you might see on a cardiac patient’s chart – is why it has so much character.
Salt-glazed stoneware was produced in Europe, predominantly Cologne, and was in common use throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries. It’s a common find on the Thames Foreshore and is also known as Bartmann or Bellarmine stoneware. Bartmann literally means ‘bearded man’ and is the fragment that all new mudlarks desperately want to find. If you haven’t found one yet, don’t worry, you will.
Bartmann pots have round squat bodies with shorter necks and a loop handle, covered in a brown or reddish brown glaze, while on the front is the face of the much sought after beardy. His toothy, often angry, snarling face glares at us from the front of stoneware jugs, bottles and pitchers. Used for transporting goods and storing food and drink they were also known as ‘witch bottles.’
In 2004 during the excavations of a house in Greenwich, a Bartmann jug sealed with a cork was found buried beneath the hearth. Further analysis of its contents showed the jug contained hair, nail clippings and urine, buried as a charm to protect the household from witchcraft. The image of the bearded face is thought to have its origins in the mythical wild man creature, popular in the medieval art and literature of Northern European folklore from the 14th century onwards where it was found in ceramics, metal, embroidery, portraiture, illuminated manuscripts and even stained glass.
Bartmann jugs also have a cartouche on the belly of the pot or jug showing the origins of the pottery eg Amsterdam or Antwerp. By 1634, they were also known as Bellarmine jugs, so named after the humourless Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542 – 1621) who held strong anti-alcohol views and was ridiculed for doing so by English and Dutch Protestants.
Westerwald is also a type of stoneware from this period, although much more colourful than its salt-glazed counterpart. Produced in German towns such as Grenzau and Grenzhausen, in the area known as Westerwald in the Rhineland. Made into jugs, tankards and other drinking vessels from the 15th Century until well into the 19th Century, moulded and decorated with circles, flowers, foliage and family crests and coats of arms. Last year I even found a fragment showing a bee collecting pollen from a flower. Predominantly a striking shiny cobalt blue on grey, some examples are pale grey, occasionally with inclusions of the much rarer brownish purple (manganese) colour. Cobalt blue and manganese were used because these were the only two colours able to withstand the high temperatures in the kiln.
Sherds of Victorian Transferware are everywhere on the Thames Foreshore and I have many favourite pieces. Long time mudlarks probably don’t give transferware a second glance anymore but I still pick up the nicer pieces, particularly where there’s a pretty little scene, an interesting face or unusual decoration. One of the most common of these types of porcelain is the famous Willow pattern, still produced today and in use in cafés, restaurants and homes. In and out of fashion yet also strangely timeless in its popularity.
Willow pattern is a distinctive chinoiserie design used on a variety of ceramic tablewares. It became popular towards the end of the 18th Century in England when pottery first became mass manufactured during the Industrial Revolution, and blue and white wares imported from China were the height of fashion. Stoke-on-Trent was one such centre of industry, making use of the speedier new process whereby a design was printed on a transfer and applied to the plate before firing, unlike the slower hand painting of before.
A huge variety of Chinese inspired waterside landscapes were produced in this way, the most popular being the ubiquitous willow pattern, usually blue on a white background although occasionally other colours were used in monochrome tints, eg green or red. Common features of this type of porcelain include scenes of lakes, bridges, fruit and foliage, willows, birds, boats and pavilions.
Thomas Minton is thought to have been the brains behind the Willow pattern creating it in 1780 before selling it to potter Thomas Turner who mass-produced it, trading on the fashion for stories from Chinese mythology. People have always been drawn to tragic Romeo and Juliet style tales of tragic lovers and here the story is of a young couple eloping, the girl’s father disapproving of her inappropriate boyfriend, being pursued by the outraged father (this shown on the porcelain by angry men waving machetes as they cross a bridge.) The couple were inevitably caught, the father setting fire to the cottage where they were hiding, burning both to death. The Gods then took pity on the young lovers and transformed them into doves so they could be together for all eternity.
There are various different versions of this story, all completely false, yet it still gives me pleasure to find a nice piece of this porcelain especially when it’s a prefect fragment of the two doves.
And last but not least, logos and things. From late 18th Century stoneware imprinted with the name of a blacking company that once employed a young Charles Dickens, a jar bearing the name of marmalade manufacturer James Keiller, the famous Hotel Metropole or the long gone Aerated Bread Company, each of these finds is worthy of a blog of its own, an important part of our social history. But that will have to be for another day…
If you’d like to read more about foreshore pottery then I recommend the following books – ‘If These Pots Could Talk’ by Ivor Noël Hume; ‘London In Fragments’ by Ted Sandling; ‘Pottery In Britain 4000BC to AD1900’ by Lloyd Laing. Check out the pottery exhibits in the Museum of London and V and A too as they have some fine examples on display.
I’ve recently had some very sweet, concerned emails from a few readers of my blog asking why I hadn’t posted anything here since March. People have been very kind but the reason for my being so uncharacteristically quiet here is because I’ve been recovering from an accident while out mudlarking. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to sit down at the old laptop and write my latest blog.
Before I terrify prospective mudlarks out there I’d just like to reassure everyone that the accident was NOT sustained while actually mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore, but rather as a result of a freak incident that occurred as I was actually sitting half way up some stone steps leading away from the foreshore, literally having packed my rucksack with finds ready to head off for a coffee and then to the station to catch the train home.
Ironically, it had been a good mudlarking session. There were quite a few other mudlarks and detectorists about as the weather was good, mild and sunny initially, with a reasonable low tide, and it wasn’t long before I made my first significant find, see the photo below. A very pretty Georgian (18th Century) pewter button with a triple heart design engraved on it. Holding it in my hand I was struck by the thought, as always, that I was the first person to touch this button since the individual who lost it in the Thames all those centuries ago. They’d have been really annoyed at doing so as the button would have been expensive and not easy to replace. Also, I can’t rule out that the heart design may have had some personal meaning to the owner so it made the find particularly special.
In fact that morning’s mudlarking session was full of haberdashery finds from the past. In addition to the Georgian pewter button I also found hooks, 16th – 17th Century brass aglets (bottom right of the photo below) which are the metal tubes found at the end of shoelaces to stop them from fraying, (some aglets are beautifully engraved) and a nice stash of brass dress pins. These can be difficult to date but are roughly from the 14th to 17th Century, and were used by both men and women to pin their clothing together at a time when buttons were rare or too expensive unless you were a high status individual. Dress pins are a bit of an obsession of mine and I’ll be doing a separate, more detailed blog about them later in the year, but what I’ve noticed about my recent mudlarking finds is the golden state in which they’re currently coming out of the mud, almost as fresh as the day they became loose from someone’s garment hundreds of years ago. Pin finds are fairly ubiquitous on the Thames Foreshore and when you’ve been mudlarking for a while there’s a tendency not to pick them up any more, or perhaps only the bigger ones, but if I see them, whatever their size, inevitably they end up coming home with me.
As the tide was starting to come in I made my way off the foreshore up a flight of stone steps and started to pack my finds away in my mud-encrusted rucksack. I’m still not quite sure what happened next but, sitting down on a step to check some of the photos I’d taken, I put my mobile phone back in my pocket and somehow ended up kicking my rucksack down the stairs. I should have just let it fall to the bottom. The tide was coming in, though not completely in, and I could have simply walked back down the stairs, picked the bag up and then walked safely back up to the top. Instead, I instinctively lunged for the rucksack as I saw it falling. In that split second I ended up falling too, head first, arms flailing, trying to grab hold of some railings as I lost my balance and in a moment of panic using my left leg as a break.
This stopped me from falling further down the stone steps but in the process I knew I’d hurt my left leg quite badly. I saved my bag and myself from pitching down to the foreshore but the pain in the leg left me under no illusion that I wasn’t going to be able to get home without help and I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t fractured a bone. When I’d got my breath back I tried to straighten my leg but couldn’t, every move was extremely painful and there was no way I could put my weight on that leg. It was very frightening and I had no choice but to call 999 for an ambulance which took me straight to St Thomas’s A and E. I’m hugely grateful to the two young women who saw I was in distress on the stairs, came to ask if I was ok and stayed with me till the ambulance came. The kindness of strangers.
This was a day of new experiences, not least my first time in the back of an ambulance. London looks very different when you’re lying on a bed in the back of one speeding past iconic London landmarks, inhaling gas and air while trying not to scream. I don’t remember much of the ambulance journey other than one of the crew asking me what mudlarking was and trying to distract me by asking me to describe what I’d found that day. I don’t know what she made of me jabbering on about different kinds of Roman pottery as I don’t think I was making any sense at all. Bless her for showing an interest though and not making me feel like a complete twat. There’s always that sense of guilt that ambulances are for people who’ve had heart attacks or seizures, not for those who end up having freak accidents on the Thames Foreshore, but the ambulance crew were quite clear to me that I shouldn’t be feeling like that. Accidents happen and their job is to assess and assist injured people, regardless of the circumstances.
A and E was packed to the gills as it was the day after a Bank Holiday, but I can’t praise highly enough the kindness and professionalism of NHS staff who treated me. X-rays done, mercifully no bones fractured, and a final diagnosis of torn lateral quad muscles. The left leg was put in a support bandage, I was supplied with more pain relief, a crutch, told to rest for a few days and given a leaflet advising sets of specific exercises to do at home, then finally discharged six hours later and my anxious family were able to take me home.
Later that night, safely back home, I was initially unsure about posting details of my accident on social media, or even blogging about it like I am now. But I’m glad I did as not only have I had wonderful ‘get well soon’ messages from the mudlarking community but I’ve had many mudlarks contacting me with their own personal horror stories of accidents or near accidents on the foreshore. Some of these have been quite terrifying; falls down ladders resulting in a broken rib or two, getting stuck in mud and twisting an ankle trying to extricate legs from the gloop, slipping on the green algae that often covers steps down to the foreshore, and mudlarks being impaled on bits of sharp and rusting metal. Many of those who contacted me told me that this was the first time they’d shared their scare stories, and my accident was a reminder for us all to be more careful when we’re out and about by the river.
I don’t want to frighten anyone with these horror stories but I think what my accident has done is to make me pause, reflect and think. Mudlarking is a wonderful thing to do but perhaps when you’ve been mudlarking for a while you become a bit lax, even casual, with your personal safety. Whereas my accident was a freak one that could have happened anywhere, it reinforced the fact that there are risks, albeit ones that can be managed, when you’re out and about searching for finds. So perhaps it’s timely to finish this blog by just reminding readers of some basic health and safety rules when mudlarking:
• always tell someone where you’re going and what time you’ll be back
• make sure you have a fully charged phone with you – I spend a lot of time filming and photographing finds for my blog and other social media accounts; it’s far too easy to end up with very little charge left, which isn’t helpful if you need to make an emergency call
• If I’m honest, I don’t really like mudlarking with other people, much preferring to mudlark on my own. Nothing personal, but it’s valuable time to myself and as I potter about I know that I only have responsibility for myself. However, I do go out with other mudlarking friends, especially to a more isolated area of the foreshore or somewhere that I’ve never visited before. There is strength in numbers and if you do get into difficulties in an unfamiliar place then it’s comforting to know there is someone with you and you’re not alone. There’s no point in mudlarking if you’re going to be worrying all the time so, if you’re new to this, take a friend with you
• I often recommend the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) to people who are new to mudlarking and advise they sign themselves up for a guided foreshore tour. These are inexpensive, safe and the perfect way to familiarise yourself with the river. TDP are primarily an organisation whose main role is to monitor and record the archaeology of the foreshore, not mudlarks as such, but most of their tours end with a bit of mudlarking allowed and then identification of finds by the tour leader that day. You can find TDP contact details in the ‘Advice’ section of my blog
• make sure you’re up to date with a tetanus jab
• I always carry a small first aid kit with me in my rucksack – this wouldn’t have helped with my accident but I did once rush to the aid of a mudlark who’d cut themselves on a sharp piece of rusting iron scrap from an old boat. My first aid kit had clean surgical gloves, antiseptic wipes and plasters – all of which came in really useful that day. I’ve also completed a St John Ambulance training course which helped regarding basic first aid
• keep a very close eye on the tides – it goes without saying that finding a gorgeous piece of Roman pottery will be of little use to you if you end up on a pinch point on the foreshore with the water coming in fast and unable to get off safely
• ensure you are fully aware of exit points from the foreshore
• don’t eat or drink on the foreshore. While it’s welcome news that the Thames is much cleaner today than ever before, there are still discharges of sewage taking place at various points and will continue to be so until Tideway complete their lengthy work upgrading new sewage systems to cope with the demands of modern London
• make sure you have a permit to search as it’s illegal to remove artefacts from the foreshore without one. Permits and other advice regarding staying safe on the river are available from the London Port Authority website (see the ‘Advice’ section on my blog)
Finally, happy mudlarking, stay safe, take care and I’m looking forward to being back on the Thames Foreshore soon. Time to end today’s blog as my feline physiotherapist has just arrived…
I met a woman on the Thames Foreshore recently who was new to mudlarking and had only been out searching for finds a few times. We got chatting, as you do, and I passed on a few tips that other mudlarks had once passed on to me. She hadn’t found an awful lot, some bits of pottery, a bovine jaw bone (she was an artist and was intending to draw the poor beast when she got back into her studio) and was eager to find some brass dress pins, a staple of any mudlark’s collection when you start out. I found a patch of eroding mud and showed her how to search for these. It wasn’t long before she was clutching a decent handful of them and she thanked me for my time.
Pins and pottery are mudlarking staples, the basics of a trip to the Thames Foreshore. Eventually, and if you’re lucky, you find coins, tokens, an item of jewellery, maybe a Roman hair pin although these are extremely rare. You get them home, clean them up and spend a happy hour or two trying to identify them on the internet. That sense of looking things up, like an antiquarian detective, is precisely why I love to find sherds of pottery or porcelain with a logo on. Perhaps the name of a long gone business, trade, café, restaurant or hotel. Sometimes the river breaks the plate or cup in the most perfect place, neat and tidy, so that the name is clear and easy to identify. At other times, The Thames is frustrating with its gifts and leaves you a broken fragment that’s just a few letters too short to make a comprehensive ID.
Last year when I was out mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore near the Southbank I found an intriguing porcelain sherd broken right through the very middle of just such a logo. Fortunately it was fairly straightforward to work out that it was from the famous Hotel Metropole, and so my blog for March is about this, one of London’s long lost hotels.
The Hotel Metropole, built in Northumberland Avenue on the north bank of the Thames, was designed by Frederick Gordon and constructed between 1883 and 1885. It was the largest hotel in Europe when it finally opened its doors in 1885 and Queen Victoria was still on the throne. It had 600 rooms and was seven storeys tall, the first and biggest of a new wave of luxury hotels in London together with The Grand Hotel and The Victoria.
When the hotel opened in 1885 it produced a comprehensive 88 page brochure which claimed –
“That the hotel’s location particularly recommends it to ladies and families visiting the West End during the Season; to travellers from Paris and the Continent, arriving from Dover and Folkestone at the Charing Cross Terminus; to Officers and others attending the levees at St James’s (Palace); to Ladies going to the Drawing Rooms, State Balls and Concerts at Buckingham Palace; and to colonial and American visitors unused to the great world of London.”
The Victorian era was a time of enormous transition carried out at lightning pace throughout the whole of Great Britain, but particularly in London where the infrastructure of the Capital was undergoing a massive transformation that would make it unrecognisable from the previous era. From Bazalgette’s new sewage systems to the construction of the Thames Embankment, roads and railways, a huge building programme was under way and the country would never be the same again. An exciting time full of new opportunities if you were wealthy and looking for adventure , less so if you were one of the Capital’s many thousands of poor living in dreadful conditions and struggling to eke out a living. For the working class the very notion of luxury was something out of reach.
Frederick Gordon built hotels with what were considered to be groundbreaking amenities for the time such as lifts, bathrooms and phones in the rooms. Wealthy travellers coming from America and Europe, arriving at the newly built Charing Cross Railway Station nearby, expected no less and luxury was an important commodity with guests prepared to pay good money in order to travel and stay in comfort.
The architecture of the Hotel Metropole on Northumberland Avenue was unmistakably French in style with classic motifs and a Haussman era style. The view of the Hotel below is taken from the Embankment looking towards Trafalgar Square. Its famous triangular shape shows Whitehall Place on the left, while beyond The Metropole sits the Hotel Victoria. Northumberland Avenue itself took its name from the townhouse of the Percy family which stood on this location until demolished in 1874.
The Hotel Metropole quickly became a popular venue for high society in the 1880s and 1890s with celebrities coming to stay and to attend events. Edward VII was a frequent visitor and the hotel held a special banquet in his honour for his coronation on June 24 1902. As Prince of Wales and later King he entertained guests here on many occasions having reserved a box in the magnificent ballroom and using the Royal Suite, on the first floor of the hotel, with bow-fronted windows overlooking Whitehall Place. The hotel inevitably benefited from the cachet bestowed on it by its Royal clientele.
The Metropole was also the base for The Aero Club and The Alpine Club, and acted as the meeting point for competitors during the first London to Brighton car rally in 1896.
In 1916, during the first world war, it was commandeered by the Foreign Office and turned into government offices in order to provide a base for necessary war work. Winston Churchill worked in the rooms here during this time and in his letters he wrote about looking out of his window and watching hundreds of Londoners pour onto the streets to celebrate the end of the war on 11th November 1918.
The night before the British Expeditionary Force journeyed to France on the outbreak of war in August 1914, its two Commanders-in-Chief, Field Marshals John French and Douglas Haig, both stayed in the building.
The Hotel reopened after World War One and guests returned to its iconic location. The twenties were in full flow, fashions and tastes were changing and ‘The Midnight Follies’ became a well-known cabaret fixture in the ballroom at The Metropole. There was also The Midnight Follies Orchestra which included Mantovani as its band leader during this period.
When the Government redeveloped the buildings at Whitehall Gardens in the mid 1930s they leased the Hotel Metropole for £300,000 per annum to provide alternate office space for the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Transport, and later for the Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence. The rise of Hitler in Germany, and Europe moving towards a second world war, meant that it was essential The Metropole was commandeered again for war purposes.
The hotel’s location close to the Houses of Parliament and Government offices in Whitehall made it ideal for additional offices. The British Secret Services were based here, monitoring German internment camps and helping troops escape or avoid capture. Room 424 became the first home of MI9 and the SOE (Special Operations Executive), and later the holding point for one of the model planning beaches for Operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy, the Allied Operation that launched the successful invasion of German-occupied Western Europe during World War Two. The Operation was launched on 6th June 1944 with the Normandy landings, also known as D-Day, and lasted until 30th August 1944, two months, three weeks and three days.
Transferred to the Crown Estates portfolio after the war, the building remained in the control of the MOD who continued to use it as an overflow building and by 1951 the Air Ministry was again a major occupant. From the mid 1960s to 1992 it housed the bulk of the Defence Intelligence Staff and the mirrored ballroom provided the setting for many press conferences.
The building has many secrets and there are reputed to be tunnels and secret passages under the road that link the hotel to other government offices nearby. A rumour persists to this day that, until fairly recently, there was an office in this building monitoring UFO sightings and activity.
In 2008 the building was eventually left empty and the Corinthia Hotel Group bought it from The Crown Estate for £130 million, determined to restore it to its original function as an upmarket hotel in one of the greatest cities in the world. After extensive renovation the hotel, now renamed the Hotel Corinthia, reopened in 2011. Some of the original features of the Hotel Metropole, such as the ceiling in the Grand Ballroom, were preserved, but much of the original Victorian design had to be adapted to the modern age as it was impossible to preserve in its entirety. Replacement stones were brought in from Italian quarries and contemporary interiors were designed by the best designers in this field. 300 guest rooms and 47 luxury suites, some with private lifts, were revamped, their views overlooking some of the most iconic sights in London.
The Hotel Metropole no longer exists as it did in the late 19th Century but it’s satisfying to know that the building lives on as the refurbished Hotel Corinthia and has had such a fascinating 20th Century history, while Northumberland Avenue is forever commemorated as a pink square on the Monopoly Board.
So, who knew that finding this broken porcelain sherd, washed up on the Thames Foreshore at low tide, would lead to uncovering the history of one of London’s lost and finest hotels.
Extra low tides so far this year have meant the chance to wade further out into the Thames mud than usual and find items that are normally just out of reach. So it was doubly thrilling to start January with a complete Victorian Codd Bottle find, and February with a vintage Bovril bottle. Well, exciting for me, but maybe not so much for the non-mudlark who doesn’t quite get the passion for finding lovely, muddy things on the Thames Foreshore when the tide is out.
This rare Artis, Capel and Company codd bottle was found by me on the Rotherhithe foreshore. It was mostly buried underneath what had once been a chalk barge bed and it took some while to gently ease it out of the chalk and mud with my trusty trowel. That done, it was a delight to find especially as it was intact and with its codd bottle marble still inside. Cleaning it was a heck of a task but was well worth it.
Artis, Capel and Company, the manufacturers of this bottle, were a Surrey Mineral Water Company based in Neate Street, Camberwell, SE London. Their business was founded in 1864 at a time when carbonated drinks were becoming increasingly popular but keeping the fizz in the bottle was proving to be a huge challenge.
In 1870, Hiram Codd invented and later patented the famous Codd bottle which made a huge difference to drinks companies producing these carbonated drinks. The bottle was made from thick, aqua green glass and contained a codd marble inside that helped keep the fizz in when the bottle was placed on its side. The design was a huge favourite with Victorian children who would smash the bottle to get at the marble. This is why complete versions of these bottles are hard to find. The photograph below shows an emerald green Codd bottle marble found by me on a previous mudlark at Rotherhithe, not far from where the bottle find was made.
My Codd bottle has a dent on both sides called a ‘lug’, which keeps the marble (above) wedged in. The bottle is inscribed with a rare Rylands of Barnsley patent on one side and the following words on the front:
‘THIS BOTTLE IS THE PROPERTY OF ARTIS, CAPEL & Co, CAMBERWELL. NO DEPOSIT CHARGED.”
Artis, Capel and Company were eventually taken over by Robert White (R White & Sons fizzy drinks manufacturers, still producing lemonade today). In 1912, two hundred women went on strike at the R White factory at Waltham Cross, protesting over the reinstatement of an unpopular supervisor. All power to these ladies!
A second extra low tide in February, where I hadn’t actually found very much when mudlarking, saw me rolling off the Thames Foreshore in the City of London just as the tide was starting to come back in. Glancing down into a rock pool I saw this Bovril bottle lying in the water.
It’s a vintage style from 1913, 2oz in weight, classic dark amber in colour, the bottle inscribed with the words ‘Bovril Limited’. These also came in a 4oz size. A classic example of the ‘What The Victorians Threw Away’ genre, Bovril quickly became a very popular food item. It’s still popular today, although you either love it or hate it, and is now rebranded as ‘Marmite.’
Invented by John Lawson Johnston, a Scottish butcher who hailed from Roslin (made infamous in Dan Brown’s novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’,) Johnston went to Canada where in 1863 he devised a recipe for a liquid beef broth which he called by the catchy name of ‘Johnston’s Fluid Beef.’ In 1874 he won a huge contract from the French Government to supply the French army with one million tins of beef, enabling him to experiment further with the offcuts and refine his liquid beef product to make it more concentrated. In 1879 he moved production to Montreal where he began to sell his beef broth warm during the winter carnivals.
After a fire, he returned to Shoreditch in London and in 1887 registered the name ‘Bovril.’ In 1888 the iconic brown Bovril bottles were introduced and production moved to 30, Farringdon Street. A popular advertising campaign followed with brightly coloured posters publicising this product to the public. Below is one of these, currently part of the extensive Victoria and Albert Museum archive.
The first Bovril bottles manufactured in the late 1880s were initially hand made. My bottle find is from 1913, just prior to the outbreak of World War One, when bottle production became automated for the first time although the neck and lip continued to be hand finished, as you can see from the photos below. On the right, there’s a clearly visible seam that runs along the neck down to the bulbous body of the bottle and, on the left, the thick, irregular shape of the lip.
These early bottles are reassuringly chunky with a dent at the base indicating their pre-war age, a design factor that continued into the 1920s as there was a shortage of glass. Inevitably my Bovril bottle research pulled me into a bit of an internet black hole of vintage Bovril bottle geekery. I discovered a site where fans happily discuss the fact that there are 35 different types of Bovril bottle, further breaking them down into 50 sub types. At this point I quietly crept away….
John Lawson Johnston became a very wealthy man as a result of his Bovril manufacture and in 1891 bought Kingswood House in Southwark. He transformed the building adding battlements and a north wing, plus extending the servants’ quarters. His extensive renovation resulted in the house being nicknamed ‘Bovril Castle.’ When he died in 1900, the house was used as a military hospital for wounded Canadian soldiers from the first world war. Eventually the Johnston Estate was sold in 1919 to Sir William Vestey, Lord Vestey of the Vestey Meat family. John Lawson Johnston was buried in Norwood Cemetery in London.
The Vesteys went on to purchase Oxo Tower Wharf, on the south bank of the River Thames, from the Leibig Extract of Meat Company, manufacturers of Oxo beef stock cubes, who had designed the original Oxo Tower so as to bypass advertising bans that existed on the south bank at that time. The illuminated tower advertising the Oxo product could be seen quite some distance away. Unfortunately, on an early morning February mudlark when I took this photo below, the lights of the Oxo Tower (just in front of the hideous tower block known as One Blackfriars) had well and truly gone out…..
A new year and my first blog of January is inspired by the initials A.B.C. No, not the excellent adaptation of the famous Agatha Christie thriller ‘The ABC Murders’ broadcast over Christmas, but an exploration of the story behind these two porcelain sherds I found close together under Waterloo Bridge at the beginning of last year. I haven’t blogged about them yet so now would be a good time to do so as they reveal a fascinating aspect of late 19th and early 20th Century social history.
The initials A.B.C stand for ‘The Aerated Bread Company Ltd’, founded in 1862 by Scottish medic and chemist, Dr John Dauglish, quickly becoming a large and profitable business empire comprising bakers, confectioners and tea rooms. It’s relatively easy to find references to this company online but I’ve tried to search for primary records, which have been much harder to locate as they were destroyed or damaged by flooding. The London Metropolitan Archives in the City of London hold some of the few surviving records, found in an abandoned factory once owned by the company in Camden Road.
The secret of the success of The Aerated Bread Company began with some early experiments Dr John Dauglish carried out to improve the speed of the bread making process. Traditional bread making involves the use of a raising agent (yeast) which has to be added carefully to flour and then the mixture left to rise before kneading and finally baking. This is a lengthy procedure particularly when scaled up for commercial reasons.
Dauglish used his knowledge as a chemist to invent a new method of raising bread without the use of yeast. This involved introducing carbonic acid gas, essentially carbon dioxide dissolved in a solution of water, into the bread mix to kick-start the leavening process. The resulting bread was similar in taste and texture to the ‘Mother’s Pride’ style white bread we have today; lacking taste and texture, but cheap and fast and easy to mass produce. It quickly became very popular.
In 1862, the first Aerated Bread Company bakery opened in Islington and then later moved to Soho at the turn of the century. The first tea room opened in Fenchurch Street Railway Station in 1864. By 1923 it had 150 branch shops in London and 250 tea rooms, easily rivalling the equally popular Lyons Corner House tea rooms although the Lyons branches were more upmarket and better managed. Eventually the Lyons tea rooms had overtaken their Aerated Bread Company rivals but, at the height of their popularity, A.B.C. opened branches as far away as New York, Chicago and also Australia.
The success of the first Aerated Bread Company tea rooms was based on affordability and also the introduction of an element of self-service, even though the earlier ones still had waitress service. The menu below from 1900 gives an indication of the cost of products and the basic essence of what was to morph into the first ‘greasy spoon’ cafés with their wide range of baked goods and teas.
The social importance of The Aerated Bread Company in the lives of women can’t be underestimated. They were the first tea rooms where women could go to eat a meal, alone or with women friends, without a male chaperone although it’s not without a hint of irony that I note the proliferation of moustachioed gents in the vintage photo of the Ludgate Hill branch of the A.B.C tea room below. They became known as safe havens for unescorted women from the late Victorian period onwards and were also recommended as eating places to the delegates of the International Council of Women, held in London in the week beginning 5th July 1899.
Many Aerated Bread Company tea rooms often had a women’s social club located on the floor above, thus providing a safe space for a new wave of feminist organizing and later used as the base for meetings of Suffragettes and Suffragists. The New Somerville Club, close to Oxford Circus, was one such social venue located over the Aerated Bread Company at 2, Princes Street. The social club were vocal in their support of the female employees of the A.B.C. and complained on their behalf, challenging the early inequality of the company for not sharing its huge profits with the women who worked long hours serving customers and cooking the food. However, this did not stop the female members of the Somerville from getting meals from The Aerated Bread Company sent up to the general room above during meetings. Men were occasionally admitted to this club as guests.
The Aerated Bread Company reached its peak in the mid 1920s with only Lyons having more branches. By now they were found all over London, from Aldersgate, Cannon Street, High Holborn, Cheapside, to London Bridge, Piccadilly, Pall Mall, Westbourne Grove and Kensington High Street. Interestingly, I found my fragments of ‘Aerated Bread Company’ crockery not far from Waterloo Bridge even though there was never a branch at Waterloo Station, the nearest one to the location of my find being at Victoria Street, Westminster or Westminster Railway Station. As with so many mudlarking finds one can only speculate how they ended up being dumped in the river and, since I found these pieces, I haven’t found any more on this particular stretch of the river.
In 1955, many aspects of the Aerated Bread Company were no longer profitable and tastes had begun to change. The Australian branch of the company went into liquidation in 1951 and a few years later the entire company was taken over by Allied Bakeries (owned by Canadian-born Garfield Weston) in 1955, eventually becoming a subsidiary of Associated British Foods Ltd, which it’s thought ceased trading in the early 1980s.
Not everyone was a fan of the Aerated Bread Company tea rooms. George Orwell loathed them and famously described them as a “sinister strand in English catering, the relentless industrialisation that was overtaking it: the 162 tea shops of the Aerated Bread Company….which rolled out 10 miles of swiss roll every day and manufactured millions of “frood” (frozen cooked food) meals, the milk bars that served “no real food at all….everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or is hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube.”
However, in contrast, they were much loved by George Bernard Shaw. Shaw, a vegetarian, wrote about his daily visits to restaurants and cafés in his diaries, particularly volume 2, and appears to have found very few problems in his search for vegetarian food in London. On the 12th December 1888 he wrote the following entry: “….to the Aerated Bread Shop opposite the Mansion House station and had some eggs and chocolate there.” On 27th January in 1891, Shaw wrote about a visit to the Aerated Bread Company tea room at the corner of Parliament Square in the company of Florence Farr Emery. He was also a frequent visitor to the A.B.C. tea rooms next to Charing Cross Station, Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus. His diaries feature frequent references to having eaten and enjoyed such things as lots of fried or scrambled eggs, cheese (macaroni cheese being a perennial favourite), milk, cream, butter, chocolate, sweets, ginger beer, lemonade, unspecified soups, plus cakes and buns. There were only the occasional mentions of fruit, nuts, brown bread, porridge, rice or lentils so although his diet was unquestionably meatless, I’m not convinced it was particularly healthy.
On 5th March 1933, T.S Eliot wrote to Virginia Woolf from America and described a restaurant in Los Angeles called The Brown Derby, which he noted “seems just as normal as an A.B.C.” He also mentioned The Aerated Bread Company tea rooms in his poem called ‘A Cooking Egg.’ ‘Virginia Woolf herself mentions the tea rooms in her novels ‘Night and Day’ and ‘Jacob’s Room’.
Other notable references of the A.B.C tea rooms in literature can be found in Agatha Christie’s ‘The Secret Adversary’, Graham Greene’s ‘The End Of The Affair’, ‘Cakes and Ale’ by Somerset Maugham, ‘The Old Man In The Corner’ by Baroness Orczy, ‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker and ‘Asta’s Book’ by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine.
Today the Aerated Bread Company only exists in vintage photos or sketches, a small selection of documents, a sherd of pottery washed up at low tide on the Thames Foreshore and as the occasional ‘ghost’ sign. When you’re walking about in London do remember to look up from time to time as there are still whispers of the past visible in the façade of public buildings. And if you’re ever walking down Fleet Street, you’ll see this fading remnant advertising the glory days of The Aerated Bread Company.
For this, my last mudlarking blog of 2018, I thought I’d write about something that was inspired by a weekend of talks I recently attended celebrating ten years of the Thames Discovery Programme, an organisation under the umbrella of MOLA, Museum of London Archaeology, and whose work focuses on monitoring and recording the archaeology of the tidal Thames Foreshore at low tide. During the course of the talks, one of the speakers, who was talking about famous foreshore antiquarian finds from the past, mentioned ‘The Golden Age of Mudlarking.’ This ‘Golden Age’ usually refers to the 19th Century, when antiquarians paid dredgers, labourers and others widening the Thames and building the new Embankments during the Victorian period, to find and look for important historical objects from the past. One of the many marvellous finds from this so-called ‘Golden Age’ was the famous Battersea Shield, now on display in the British Museum although an excellent copy can be seen in the Museum of London.
The next ‘Golden Age’ of Mudlarking came in the 1950s and is often referenced by the great archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume in his iconic book ‘Treasure In the Thames.’ This was an inevitable result of a period when London was recovering after the Second World War and many new archaeological and antiquarian finds were being discovered both on the Thames Foreshore and at excavations of bomb damaged buildings during the rebuilding of the capital. Ivor Noel Hume walked along the Thames Foreshore in the City of London and noted the large numbers of artefacts he discovered between Southwark and London Bridges, spanning Neolithic, Roman, Saxon, Viking, Medieval, Tudor, Georgian and Victorian times. Literally millennia of London’s history as seen through the prism of mudlarking finds.
Which brings me back to the Thames Discovery Tenth Anniversary lectures and the mention of recent spectacular and hugely significant mudlarking discoveries. From Medieval pewter pilgrim badges, to Roman pins, Roman oil lamps, rare Saxon coins and so much more. These are indicative of a new Golden Age of Mudlarking, which is a highly apt description as we’re experiencing yet another explosion of both mudlarking and metal detecting on the Thames Foreshore. And it’s this that made me want to start a little series of blogs about the modern mudlark, to look at what drew them to mudlarking and why mudlarking inspires them. So, with this in mind, I’m introducing you to number one in this series – my mudlarking friend, Fran Sibthorpe.
Fran’s first ever visit to the Thames Foreshore was in 2005 when, on an evening out with friends, they ventured down a small passageway by the side of a London pub and found themselves at steps leading down to the river. The tide was out so of course it was the perfect opportunity to explore further. Walking along the gravel and sand, inevitably the urge to pick up fragments of pottery was quite great and, like many mudlarks before and since, Fran found herself hooked on mudlarking. Attracted to the water from childhood mudlarking was a natural progression.
Life can have other plans for you at times and, shortly after, Fran found herself busy with many other projects and calls on her time so she wasn’t able to return to mudlarking until some time later when, working for a charity in the East End of London, she came back to the foreshore and began to mudlark more seriously, this time focusing on recording and researching her finds, and obtaining her London Port Authority ‘permit to search’ in December 2017. The permit is a legal requirement for anyone wishing to mudlark or detect on the Thames Foreshore.
Mudlarking for Fran is a highly enjoyable hobby. The whole experience of walking slowly, searching, looking for interesting shapes, metals, textures and other potential finds, eyes peeled and head down, is one that many mudlarks will recognise. Fran’s personal motto when out mudlarking is to “expect the unexpected.”
In addition to searching for historical artefacts, Fran is also keen on photographing and filming her finds before writing about them within the context of the history of the foreshore where they were found.
On one memorable occasion Fran was so absorbed in searching a particular area of the foreshore that she found herself completely surrounded by a large flock of Canada Geese. Such are some of the ever present dangers that are faced by the modern mudlark.
Sometimes the Thames Foreshore can be one of the quieter places in London and perfect for escaping the pressures and stresses of modern life for a couple of precious hours. Fran believes that these unhurried, contemplative times enhance the sounds of the river and accentuate the moments when you hear broken glass rolling with the water as a wave crashes onto the shore, or sherds of pottery being dragged across the gravel making its own unique sound. These can be very special, a time of stillness amid the ever present bustle and hum of the busy City above the Embankment.
Fran is an ‘eyes only’ mudlark and has made all her finds by careful searching rather than using a metal detector. She is a big presence on Instagram and can be found at @franjoy7 where she posts photographs and short films of her finds. Instagram is a useful resource for mudlarks and Fran appreciates the knowledge of others who will often chip in with information and identification when she’s unsure of the provenance of a particular find.
Mudlarks are very selective about what they take and what they leave behind on the foreshore and Fran is no exception to this, often bringing back finds that she no longer has room for. Like many experienced mudlarks she has frequent appointments with the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) at the Museum of London, as it is a statutory requirement of every permit holder to report any finds that are particularly valuable or over three hundred years old. She has recently presented the FLO with a seal matrix inscribed with the initials ‘GM’, surrounded by leaves, an unusual floral clay marble, a rare silver hammered Elizabethan coin and an East India Company (EIC) trading token. Fran will eventually get these back once they’ve been formally identitifed and recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS.)
This year, 2018, has seen the launch of Fran’s first mudlarking book called ‘Curios Of The River Thames Foreshore.’
‘Curios’ is a beautifully presented photographic notebook that groups some of Fran’s favourite finds together (much like the river does when it deposits particular types of finds by weight on the foreshore) yet also has plenty of space between the photos which allows you to research, sketch or draw your own finds too. It’s a great addition to any mudlarking library, especially as there are still far too few books by and about modern mudlarks.
The first two weeks of November saw a continuation of above average temperatures and some spectacular autumn weather, the perfect background for visiting the Thames Foreshore during the annual Richmond Draw-Off. This takes place every year during the first three weeks of November and is when the London Port Authority lifts Richmond Lock and Weir in order to carry out vital repairs and clear out accumulations of sediment. At low tide this results in the river between Richmond and Teddington Locks looking as if someone’s pulled the plug. It’s a stunning sight. The annual Draw-Off also provides a welcome opportunity for volunteers to clear the river bed at Richmond, mudlarks and detectorists to chance their luck with finds in areas that aren’t normally accessible at other parts of the year, and for Thames Discovery to come down to do some vital monitoring of the structures on the foreshore here.
Thames Discovery checking out the low tide by the Georgian jetty.
So this was a great reason to stroll along the embankment from Twickenham to Richmond on a sunny November morning in order to join the Thames Discovery team, helped by the ever knowledgeable George from the Richmond Archaeological Society, for the annual monitoring visit.
The Richmond upon Thames area is rich in history and archaeology, though the archaeology tends to be less well known. In prehistoric times, mounds and caves stretched from what are now Richmond Hill and Richmond Park along the ancient embankment of the river, which was much wider than it is now. Archaeological finds from pre-history often turn up on the river foreshore during the Draw-Off period and George from the RAS had brought along some finds he’d made on previous November visits to the Richmond foreshore. These finds included a spectacular worked flint hand axe discovered in the river, and which is approximately a mind-blowing 43,000 years old.
The oldest and earliest flint hand tools date back even further into prehistory to approximately 700,000 BC although would have been found in what is now Ethiopia rather than the landscape of South West London as early man was not yet present on the European continent. The first people living in this area in prehistory would have used carefully worked flint tools to hunt mammoths, bison and reindeer. Ritualistic marks on human bones also found in this area from that time show evidence of cannibalism, ie that humans were deliberately and carefully dismembering other humans in order to eat them. It’s safe to say that cannibalism isn’t normally associated with the green, leafy and affluent landscape of South West London, but it’s always fascinating to add a touch of the macabre to South West London’s history.
Fossil finds are also reasonably frequent on the South West London foreshore and it’s always a pleasure to find a nice example or two. This year’s Draw-Off proved lucky for me when I found an unusual heart-shaped Echinoid, from the late Ordovician period, and a mind-blowing 400-450 million years old. We can never be a hundred per cent certain how fossils end up in the Thames as it’s possible they’re washed in from the South Downs via the Thames Estuary. Equally we know that they may be more closely linked to the Neolithic and other ancient settlements along the river in this area. Echinoid fossils were thought to contain magical and spiritual properties and often turn up at Neolithic burial sites. In the Middle Ages, Echinoids were known as ‘Faerie Loaves.’
Worked flint hand axe, approx. 43,000 years old, found by the RAS.
Echinoid fossil, late Ordovician period, 400- 450 million years old.
The current river embankment is man made and the subsequent dumping of hard core has resulted in a much narrower river that frequently floods at high tide. If you’re travelling in to Richmond by train or car you can often see flooded areas of grass adjacent to the Old Deer Park. It’s important to remember that, although sea levels are rising and therefore so are river levels, the flooding of Richmond Riverside is essentially the river returning to its natural and ancient embankment. If you’re familiar with the White Swan pub in Old Palace Lane you might not know that this was the original site of the moat from the old Tudor Palace.
Car park in Old Palace Lane, the site of Richmond Palace moat.
The demolition of Richmond Palace, and its subsequent loss to history, was a huge shame. Henry VII built Richmond Palace on the site of the former Palace of Shene which was badly damaged by fire in 1497 when the King was there to celebrate Christmas. Inevitably after the fire Henry wanted to rebuild the palace. The Royal Apartments had been situated in the Privy Lodgings area, the side that faced the river, and it’s thought that much of this area escaped the inferno so the same ground plan was incorporated in the new design.
A bridge over the moat, surviving from Edward III’s time, linked the Privy Lodgings to a central courtyard , flanked by the Great Hall and the Chapel. The Great Hall was built of stone, roofed with lead and supported on an undercroft used as a buttery and offices. The Chapel, also of stone, was decorated in ornate style. Underneath it were the wine cellars while above was a floor devoted to rooms for court officials. The Chapel’s ceiling was of a chequered timber design, the plaster decorated with roses and portcullis badges.
The West Front of Richmond Palace, drawn by Antony Wyngaerde, dated 1562
The gate opened up into the Great Court which had red brick buildings on the east, west and north sides. These included the palace wardrobe where the soft furnishings were stored. It was essential for the Monarch to travel regularly from palace to palace, or other grand residence, on Royal business and to show himself to his subjects. As the King did so his soft furnishings – tapestries, furniture, paintings and other decorative, portable items – would travel with him. The photo below shows the palace wardrobe area today.
The area formerly known as the Palace Wardrobe.
In 1501, Henry VII, having ‘rebuilt it up again sumptuously and costly….’decided to change the name from Shene Palace to Richmond. The reason for the change of name is thought to have been because both he and his father had been Earls of Richmond (in Yorkshire.)
For a brief, glorious time, Richmond Palace was one of the palatial stars of the Kingdom. The wedding celebrations of Prince Arthur, Henry VII’s eldest son, to Catherine of Aragon took place at Richmond, as did the engagement of Princess Margaret to King James of Scotland in 1503. Henry VII himself died here on 21 April 1509, as did Elizabeth I on 24th March 1603. Richmond was thought to be Elizabeth’s favourite palace.
Henry, who had unexpectedly found himself king as Henry VIII on the untimely death of his older brother Arthur in 1502, (possibly from bubonic plague), married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, and in 1510 Catherine gave birth at Richmond to a son, also called Henry, but who sadly died a month later. Catherine gave birth to only one surviving child, Princess Mary.
Henry VIII preferred to spend much of his time in the bigger Hampton Court Palace, further upstream and originally built by the ambitious Cardinal Wolsey for himself, so Richmond eventually became a home for discarded queens – first Catherine and her daughter Mary, and later it was given to Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, as part of the canny Queen’s divorce settlement.
Both Mary and Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn, made more use of Richmond during their reigns. Elizabeth adored Richmond as her winter home, probably in large part due to the fact its compact design made it easier to keep warm, no mean feat where draughty stone palaces were concerned. Elizabeth enjoyed having plays specially performed for her at Richmond, especially by the company of actors that included William Shakespeare as a member. It’s perfectly possible therefore that Shakespeare himself may have visited Richmond in order to entertain the Queen.
When the Tudor Dynasty ended due to lack of a direct heir (Elizabeth never married), James I of the House of Stuart and the Queen’s closest relative, was next in line to the throne. James I gave Richmond Palace to his eldest son, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, whose mother was Anne of Denmark. A talented, sporty and clever young man he was predicted to be a great King. However fate had different plans for him and sadly he died on the 6th November 1612 at the age of 18 having unwisely gone swimming in the freezing Thames at Richmond, contracting a severe fever which it’s thought then morphed into typhoid. His brother, Charles, stubborn in character and unsuited to ruling, became King instead and ascended the throne as Charles I. Charles expressed little interest in improving and enlarging the palace although it remained a popular home for the Royal Children until the Civil War. After Charles I’s execution in 1649, the Palace was sold on the orders of Oliver Cromwell. Some of the buildings survived but sadly the Chapel, Great Hall and Privy Lodgings were demolished and the stones sold off or thrown into the river.
What was left of Richmond Palace was leased out to various people and new houses were built, many of which can be seen today, to replace the crumbling and old brick buildings. The front facing the court still shows Tudor brickwork as does the Gate House (see photo below). ‘Maids of Honour Row’ replaced most of the buildings facing the Green, and most of the house now called ‘Old Palace’ was rebuilt in 1740. Old Palace Yard survives as the name of the road leading up to the Gate House.
Old Palace Yard, Tudor crest visible above the archway
The Richmond Draw-Off has resulted in some splendid and rare finds from the Stuart period of history. A thrusting dagger, known as a ‘dirk’ or ‘bollock dagger’, for obvious reasons, was found on the Thames Foreshore by a member of the Richmond Archaeological Society. The handle is a new one based on the design of the Stuart period, the blade is original.
A Stuart ‘Dirk’ found by the Richmond Archaeological Society
Also found on the Thames Foreshore during the Richmond Draw-Off by the RAS, is this very early and beautiful sherd of stoneware pottery, possibly from 1700, and showing an image of Queen Anne, last of the Stuart Dynasty, second daughter of James II and his wife Ann Hyde.
Stoneware from 1700 showing an image of Queen Anne
The November Draw-Off reveals other things that aren’t normally visible at other times of year. On our recent monitoring trip it was good to see this beautiful eel. The poor thing was literally drawing its last breath as we carefully approached to check it out, probably exhausted by both spawning and its mammoth journey from the Sargasso Sea all the way to South West London. The good news though was that the sight of the eel is evidence of the improved cleanliness of the Thames. Long may this continue.
Richmond Eel, straight from the Sargasso Sea
Rivers have been linked to various religious rituals throughout history, even used as burial sites in the past. Hindu offerings, such as the ones in my photo below, turn up frequently on the Thames Foreshore and we always leave them where we find them.
Hindu Offerings on the Richmond Foreshore
The 2018 November Draw-Off has now come to an end and the foreshore is no longer so visible at low tide. The end of our monitoring visit this year ended on Richmond Green, beautiful and golden in the late autumn sunlight.
So, bidding you a fond farewell from the Richmond Foreshore until next year. See you all in November 2019 to see what treasure the Thames will be generous enough to show us.
September has come to an end, I’m back from a holiday in France and we’re well into autumn, “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” as John Keats memorably wrote in his poem ‘To Autumn’. This has been the month of ‘Totally Thames’ Festival, an event that celebrates the life of the river with a wonderful calendar of activities, exhibitions and other events across the Capital.
It was therefore the perfect opportunity for me to go on my first ever TDP (Thames Discovery Programme) guided foreshore walk in a part of London I’m ashamed to say I’ve never visited before – Deptford, and therefore an excellent topic for another blog. Deptford isn’t visited nearly as much as its more famous neighbour Greenwich, but it has an interesting history. Playwright, translator and poet Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death here, allegedly in a brawl over a tavern bill, in 1593. Sculptor and wood carver Grinling Gibbons, known as the British Bernini, was born in Rotterdam but moved to England and settled in Deptford in approximately 1667. Gibbons created exquisite wood carvings for churches and palaces, such as Hampton Court Palace, Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral, also working in stone.
I arrived at Watergate Street early so took myself off to see the rather disturbing monument to Tsar Peter The Great, described as London’s ‘weirdest’ statue. It overlooks the foreshore at Glaiser Street and you can hardly miss it – the 6 foot 8 inches (2.03m) Tsar with his favourite dwarf and travelling throne. A reminder of this eccentric Russian monarch’s four month visit to Deptford in 1698 when he and his entourage stayed at the house of the writer, diarist and gardener, John Evelyn, in Sayes Court, and successfully managed to trash both house and garden with their drunken antics. Poor John Evelyn had already let out his precious house to Captain John Benbow, described as an ‘impolite tenant’, who further outraged Evelyn by subletting the house to the ‘right nasty’ Peter the Great, who was travelling incognito as Peter Mikhailov. One of the Sayes Court servants described the following carnage:
‘No part of the house escaped damage. All the floors were covered in grease and ink, and three new floors had to be provided. The tiled stoves, locks to the doors, and all the paint work had to be renewed. The curtains, quilts and bed linen were ‘tore in pieces.’ All the chairs in the house, numbering over fifty, were broken, or had disappeared, probably used to stoke the fires. Three hundred window panes were broken and there were ‘twenty fine pictures very much tore and all frames broke.’ The garden which was Evelyn’s pride and joy was ruined.’ (Ian Grey, ‘Peter The Great In England’, p229.)
When not vandalising Evelyn’s house and garden, the Tsar spent time in the Deptford shipyards learning the shipbuilding trade. A journeyman-shipwright employed there at that time noted that ‘the Tsar of Muscovy worked with his own hands as hard as any man in the yard.’ Peter eventually took the shipbuilding knowledge he’d acquired at Deptford back to Russia, thus laying the foundations for the Russian Navy and establishing the country as an emerging major European power.
As we walked down Watergate Stairs onto the foreshore it was easy to imagine the busy wharves and waterfront at the turn of the 19th Century but harder to envisage this area in Peter the Great’s time. What is now Deptford Creek was once the mouth of the River Ravensbourne, overlooked by what would have once been a relatively small fishing village. Our TDP foreshore guide, archaeologist Eliott Wragg, pointed out the stranded remains of a Lighter, a type of flat-bottomed boat, visible at low tide at the entrance to Deptford Creek. A Lighter would have been used to transfer goods and passengers to and from ships moored out on the Thames.
Henry VIII founded a naval dockyard at Deptford in 1513, a good location for the monarch due to its proximity to the Royal Palace downstream at Greenwich. From this moment on Deptford’s importance re the shipbuilding trade can’t be underestimated. LM Bates has said of the Deptford waterfront: ‘This was the ground from which , more than any other, grew the British Empire. In 1577, Francis Drake sailed from Deptford via Plymouth for a three year circumnavigation of the globe and on his return was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. His ship, The Golden Hinde, was moored at Deptford and became one of the biggest tourist attractions of the age with people frequently stealing parts of the ship to take home as souvenirs and talismans. (NB The Golden Hinde at Southwark is a replica.)
Along the Deptford waterfront we could see across the Thames to historic Burrell’s Wharf, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument (or S.A.M.) It was here that Isambard Kingdom Brunel watched over the ill-fated launch of his great new ship, the massive SS Great Eastern, on 31 January 1858. Brunel and his business partner Scott Russell were under tight financial constraints at the time of building the SS Great Eastern and there was no money available to build a brand new dock or launch site, hence the choice of Napier’s Yard at Burrell’s Wharf, next to the Millwall Iron Works. The soft peat and clay of the foreshore made it ill-suited for the launch of such a big and heavy ship and the foundations of the slipway couldn’t support the 12,000 tonne vessel, the first one of her time to be almost entirely constructed of metal. The ship was also far too long for a traditional launch into the Thames, which would have seen it in danger of shooting up Deptford High Street, so the decision was made to launch it sideways. Even so, when the moment of launch finally came, the ship refused to budge. Thousands of people had turned up to see this huge spectacle so it was a hugely embarrassing moment for Brunel who’d have preferred to keep the public away. It took another three launches over three months to finally get the SS Great Eastern into the river.
The Deptford dockyards soon became large centres of industry in their own right hosting a wide range of businesses supplying the local community and Navy, plus overseeing the building of important war ships during the 17th and 18th centuries. Hundreds of men were employed in the shipyards at Deptford both constructing and repairing warships. At the western end of the dockyard was once the Victualling Yard, which by 1742 was extremely busy providing supplies such as food and other vital provisions to the Navy. By Victorian times, such was the importance of the Navy to British foreign policy and the accumulation and governance of the Oversees Territories, the Victualling Yard had to expand to meet this need. This resulted in the addition of slaughter houses, a brewery and facilities for pickle production, biscuit making and milling pepper. The Victualling Yard eventually closed in 1961 when ships became larger and the Thames was found to be too shallow for them to navigate safely. The era of Deptford Historic Shipyard had therefore come to an end and ships began to head to Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth for repair. In the 1950s/60s when the London Docks finally closed, commercial shipping moved downstream to Tilbury and this part of the shipbuilding history on the Thames Foreshore fast became a distant memory.
However, even by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Deptford was already in major decline. It had a brief respite in the 1840s and 1850s to accommodate the era of small steam-powered ships but this didn’t last long and Deptford Dockyard finally closed at the same time as Woolwich in 1869. While mudlarking a bit further upstream on the Thames Foreshore I’d found a sherd of pottery from a porcelain plate advertising the London, Leith, Edinburgh and Glasgow Shipping Company, a legacy of the small steamships, some of which had been built or repaired at Deptford and Woolwich. Picking up passengers at one of three Scottish ports of Leith, Edinburgh or Glasgow they then sailed to St Katharine’s Wharf in London. These steam ships would have once been deemed to be the height of luxury and passengers could eat off porcelain crockery with the company’s logo emblazoned across it.
It’s addictive pottering around on the Thames foreshore here and the maritime history of Deptford is fascinating. The cat and I are currently engrossed in a book TDP’s Eliott Wragg recommended to further our knowledge of this period in British History, called ‘Shipbuilders Of The Thames And Medway’ by Philip Banbury.
Totally Thames Festival is over for 2018 but the Thames Discovery Programme tours continue, an excellent and safe way of learning about many different parts of the foreshore. Check out their website (link is on the home page under ‘Advice’) to see what events they’ll be organising for 2019.
Yesterday I went all the way to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets to mudlark at Trinity Buoy Wharf, the site of London’s only lighthouse, sitting at the confluence of the river Thames and Bow Creek, the mouth of the river Lea. One of the things I love about mudlarking is the challenge of taking myself out of my usual SW London/Southbank/City of London comfort zones and going further out to the Isle of Dogs and the old London Docks to breathe in the atmosphere, take photos and try my luck in the Thames mud. This place is steeped in maritime history and doesn’t disappoint. A recent flux of new builds and development have breathed much needed life into a previously deprived and ignored area and brought about huge changes to the surrounding landscape.
Turning left out of East India DLR station I walked in the direction of the East India Dock Basin. I’m going to blog about the East India Company on another occasion but couldn’t help thinking abut the transient nature of history; a once massive trading beast with a complex and controversial history, the dock where its ships (East Indiamen) were the largest merchant ships in the British marine is now transformed into a wildlife sanctuary. You could see the effects of the recent prolonged heatwave in the photo below as the mud of the former basin was cracked and dry but it’s a beautiful space – coots, mallards, herons, grebes, greater spotted woodpeckers, green and goldfinches, sparrowhawks and countless other varieties of birds can be seen on or around the water. A woman sitting on one of the benches overlooking the reserve told me she’d seen a kingfisher here earlier that morning.
The photo below is all that’s left of any visible trace that the basin was once home to ships bringing in precious cargo of teas, silks, saltpetre, Madeira, wine and countless spices. I’d like to say you could still smell these in the air but that would be fanciful although I did pick up the scent of coffee beans being ground and wafting out from the open window of a nearby kitchen. Someone had clearly leant over the rail a bit too far to take a photo as I could see a mobile phone bobbing about in the bubbling waters below the entrance to the dock. Well, we’ve all done it…
Below is Orchard Place, now flanked by Industrial Units, but once hugely important in the history of shipbuilding from 1803-1987. It was home to the great shipyards of Perry, Wigram & Green, the Samuda Brothers, Ditchburn & Mare and the Thames Ironworks. Eventually shipbuilding migrated north from the Thames to the Tyne and the Clyde although some repairs continued here till the 1970s. HMS Thunderer was one of the last ships built in the Thames Ironworks in 1911.
Trinity Buoy Wharf at its shipbuilding height employed hundreds of engineers, riveters, platers, pattern makers, smiths, carpenters, painters, chain testers and office staff. The Wharf was responsible for every lighthouse, lightship and buoy between Southwold in Suffolk and Dungeness in Kent.
The lighthouse on this site isn’t the original one and nor was it specifically built to aid river traffic, but its main function was as a base for conducting experiments with different coloured lights, the results monitored and checked at Charlton across the river. It was here that scientist Michael Faraday discovered a way of clearing the residual gases produced by the huge oil lighthouse lamps and which obscured the light rays. The shed in the photo was installed to commemorate Faraday’s work at Trinity Buoy Wharf although his actual workshop was at the top of the lighthouse. There’s no doubt that Faraday’s experiments saved the lives of countless numbers of those working and travelling on ships, boats and barges on the river and out at sea. After the war, the lighthouse was used to train lighthouse keepers.
There’s a darkness to this place too and on an earlier visit a shiver ran up and down my spine as I read the information board below. Directly across the mouth of the river Lea stood the magnificent Italianate building that housed the main office of The Thames Ironworks & Shipbuilding Company, that built and repaired sizeable ships. 120 ships were launched from this site including HMS Warrior in 1860 (now berthed at Portsmouth) and the battleship HMS Thunderer in 1912. However, in June 1896, spectators, dignitaries and employees of the Ironworks looked on in horror as the wave from the launch of HMS Albion washed thirty seven onlookers from a pontoon to their deaths. Shipbuilding and maintenance was dangerous work and health and safety regulations were not the priority years ago that they are now. I’ve often wondered how many others might have died on this and adjoining sites in the course of their day’s work due to industrial accidents.
I’d mentioned the East Indiamen earlier and my first finds of the day reflected that part of this foreshore’s history. As the tide went out I pottered about in some rockpools and noticed a piece of grapeshot and then a musket ball washed up by the Thames. Grapeshot (below, left photo) consisted of small round balls, usually of lead or iron, used as an antipersonnel weapon. Usually these were grouped in clusters of three (like a cluster of grapes, hence the name) and broke up when a gun was fired, spreading out in flight like a shotgun charge, spraying the target area and causing significant injuries. Grapeshot was widely used in wars of the 18th and 19th centuries at short range against massed troops.
Musket balls (below, right photo) were used in battle from the early 17th century onwards. Also made from lead and, unlike grapeshot, these are not usually dark gray but cream or light tan due to being buried in preservative Thames mud for centuries. This results in the musket ball developing a coating of lead carbonates, sulphides and oxides, hence the colour. On a previous visit to the Trinity Buoy Foreshore I found some much bigger canister shot. Smaller than a naval cannon ball (designed to blow a hole in the side of a ship) canister shot was also designed to be fired at short range against troops. It was a lethal weapon, capable of blowing a large hole in a man’s skull.
It’s almost impossible to walk more than a few yards on the foreshore here, or other parts of the Isle of Dogs, without coming across signs of World War Two combat and damage. I recently read that the Luftwaffe had been conducting reconnaissance over the London and other key cities of the UK for at least five years prior to the outbreak of war. These reconnaissance flights resulted in the taking of thousands of aerial photos of key installations such as power stations, docks, gas works and factories. When the Germans began their infamous bombing offensive, known as The Blitz, on 7 September 1940, the intelligence gleaned from these aerial photos helped the Luftwaffe pilots locate vital targets. The easiest shape for bomber pilots to recognise from the air as they swooped over the capital was the distinctive U-shaped loop in the Thames, ie the Isle of Dogs, so this was also why the area was principally targeted.
West India and Millwall Docks sustained maximum damage in a matter of days. The East End at that time was densely populated with families and dock workers. Badly misplaced bombs that veered off target fell on surrounding residential areas such as Canning Town, Cubitt Town and the streets of Millwall causing horrific numbers of casualties. On the first night of the Blitz, 430 civilians were killed and over 1500 wounded. In another raid on the Isle of Dogs, it was estimated that 2000 Eastenders died while 47000 houses were completely destroyed. Eventually The Blitz ended on 11 May 1941 after eight months and 5 days of sustained bombing and leaving behind it immense damage and unimaginable numbers of casualties.
I’m always conscious of this when mudlarking on the foreshore here and so it’s no surprise to find a range of World War Two bullets, or shrapnel from anti-aircraft fire, lying in rock pools that become visible as the tide goes out. The most common type of bullet find is the 303 round (see middle photo). On this visit I found a total of four spent bullets, all with the case but minus the shell.
Further along this part of the foreshore a range of concrete fortifications and barge bed timbers indicate that this spot was once a hive of activity at low tide. Here I found someone’s brass PORT LOCKER key tag and also a brass button with the distinctive word ‘INTERNATIONAL’ clearly visible. The joy of mudlarking is getting home, cleaning up your finds and then sitting in front of your computer with a cuppa trying to identify them. Any words, names and logos help but I haven’t as yet been able to discover much more about either of these items. However, clumsy fingers have always dropped things into the river, especially on sites where they would have been busy loading and unloading goods from barges to the shore, so I’m always grateful for anything interesting that turns up.
But the absolute highlight of my day mudlarking at Trinity Buoy Wharf was definitely the moment when I found what looked like half of a Ten Franc clipped coin from 1965. As a general rule, mudlarks are less interested in modern coin finds than they are old ones but I was intrigued as to why this coin had been cut in this manner or who might have dropped it here. Returning to the same spot fifteen minutes later I was staggered to find what looked like the other half to the same or similar coin and the words ‘Republique Francaise’ plus ‘Égalité.’ The chances of two pieces of the same coin turning up within a few feet of each other on the Thames Foreshore was nothing short of staggering and I was intrigued as to how they’d ended up here, tossed up on the low tide by the river.
Coin clipping is illegal in most currencies unless as a result of a Government directive so my initial theories were of a more romantic nature and I was convinced that a coin had been deliberately cut in half as a love token, one piece being held by each of two lovers about to separate until one day they’d be reunited again. As often with some of my wilder mudlarking suppositions, this turned out to be complete tosh.
One of the wonderful things about social media is that very often a more experienced and knowledgeable mudlark, or mudlarks, will see what you’ve posted on Twitter or Instagram and get in touch with you to provide a more accurate and sensible explanation for the provenance of a find. I’m therefore indebted to Flo who directed me to an interview given by a well known mudlark called Steve Brooker, nicknamed Mudlark Mud God, who was interviewed by a newspaper some years ago:
“After several years of finding the coins -roughly the size of a two pence piece and cut with a serrated edge” – on a stretch of river adjacent to a former smelting works close to the Millennium Dome, he (Brooker) met a former docker who provided the answer to the riddle. “I mentioned how I kept on finding these odd coins. It turned out that he had worked on that stretch of the river during the fifties/sixties when the French Government was sending excess coinage to London to be melted down. The dockers would cut loose a few cases from each shipment so it would fall into the mud and these guys would come back later under cover of darkness to recover the coins. They would then use the money to take their families on holiday to France. You have this lovely image of Greenwich dockers all going off on holiday to Brittany or whatever with their pockets full of this coinage they’ve nabbed. The French obviously caught on to this because they then started cutting all the coins in half before they sent them off to London.”
So there you have it. The Mystery of the Clipped Coins solved
The tide comes in very fast on this stretch of the foreshore and you need to keep a close eye when it turns. There’s not enough exposed foreshore to mudlark on unless the low tide is at least 0.50m or less, and when the low tide point has passed you have approximately 45 minutes to make sure you’re back by the steps near the boat called the ‘Knocker White’. You don’t have the indulgence of lingering here for another hour and a half as you might on other wider parts of the Thames Foreshore so please don’t get caught out on a pinch point otherwise you’ll find yourself in serious difficulties.
So, with the tide coming in, it was time to grab my rucksack and trowel and head off up onto the embankment and to the gloriously named ‘Fatboy’s Diner’ (see below) for a well deserved cup of tea and cake. Trinity Buoy Wharf delights at every corner with a wealth of interesting art installations and surprising buildings, and Fatboy’s is no exception. It’s a genuine 1940s Diner brought over from New Jersey in the USA. Eager-eyed movie fans might just recognise it from the film ‘Sliding Doors’ (starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah) and it’s also featured in many other music videos and glossy magazine photoshoots.