It’s been a difficult and challenging last few weeks for me which is why my latest mudlarking blog is a little bit late this month. Unfortunately we recently had to say farewell to our beautiful boy cat Clyde, who was in his nineteenth year and becoming increasingly unwell and fragile. We knew his time to leave us had come. It’s been very upsetting for my family as he’s been with us for so long and our children have literally grown up with him, he was present in their lives for so many years while they were growing up. We still have our girl cat with us but she’s also quite elderly now, in reasonably good health for her age albeit a touch arthritic in the back legs.
So Godspeed and go well, dear lad – the George Clooney of the cat world, bon viveur, chief mouser and mudlarking finds assistant. It’s been a joy and privilege having you in our lives. We will miss you.
Two weeks ago we had some excellent low tides and I managed to visit parts of the Thames Foreshore I hadn’t been to for a fair old while, well before the pandemic began. One of these was the Chelsea foreshore, a favourite haunt of mine for many years and somewhere that not many mudlarks tend to go to, probably because you need to work much harder to find things such as small metal objects, and also maybe because it’s harder to get to than, say, the City of London Foreshore.
But Chelsea has long been somewhere I love to visit and I alternate coming to the north side of the river with visits to the Battersea foreshore on the south side of the river.
Early Chelsea was a small Saxon village, originally called ‘cealc hythe’, which is Saxon for ‘chalk wharf’ – ‘cealc’ meaning chalk and ‘hythe’ meaning wharf or landing place. The Anglo-Saxon period in Britain spans approximately six centuries from the end of Roman Britain in 410 AD to the Norman Conquest in 1066. It’s still unfairly referred to as the Dark Ages, probably becasue the early Saxon period has little in the way of written documents that have survived. It was also a time of battles and wars as Roman Britain was carved up by various war lords who divided Britain up into competing kingdoms. The Anglo-Saxon period also saw the conversion of these islands to Christianity, heavily reflected in the art and culture of these times, and it also experienced multiple Viking invasions.
Whereas up on the Chelsea Embankment the evidence of early Saxon habitation has long gone, nonetheless the Thames still has traces of local Saxon history in the form of a stunning fish trap which is visible at very low tides. I’m always amazed at how few people notice or are even interested in the fish trap as they go about their business, but it’s still very prominent in the river for those interested, its presence fiercely guarded by Bruce the bulldog, resident of one of the Chelsea Houseboats, who barks ferociously at anyone approaching to take photos. (Don’t worry, Bruce is extremely vocal but harmless.)
I’m indebted to the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) and their book ‘The River’s Tale’ (available from MOLA publications which I’ve referenced before as a book well worth reading) for my knowledge of fish traps in general, and this one in particular. Fish traps are temporary or permanent structures that use intertidal or fluvial flows to trap fish or eels. As you can see in my photo of the Chelsea fish trap, two sides form a V-shaped structure with a narrow gap at the point of the ‘V’ where a wattle or net trap was placed. As the water level drops at the lowering of the tide, fish trapped between the sides are forced towards the narrow gap where they were collected. Anglo-Saxon fish traps could be very large and often linked to the presence of monastic or other big estates controlled by a Lord of the Manor, and in fact a manorial estate once existed in Chelsea near the river. After the conversion to Christianity in the 7th century AD, fish was an extremely important part of the diet especially on Fridays, Holy days, fast-days and during the period of Lent.
The Chelsea fish trap is extremely well preserved and has been radio-carbon dated to cal AD 660-890. Incredibly it was only discovered by Thames archaeologists during the late 1990s. This structure had survived in the river for over a thousand years without anyone paying much attention to it.
Chelsea remained a small but growing village until the Tudor period. Thomas More – lawyer, judge, writer, philosopher, Lord High Chancellor of England, friend and servant to Henry VIII – moved here in 1520 and owned a spacious property in the area of what is now Beaufort Street, covering many acres of land and stretching to the river where his barge was moored ready to take him to Hampton Court Palace or Westminster on the King’s business.
Thomas More was executed by King Henry VIII in 1535 because he refused to bend his strongly held religious beliefs for Henry’s political agenda and for his refusal to sign the Act of Supremacy in 1534 (which established the Monarch, not the Pope, as the head of the church in England.) Robert Bolt’s play, later made into a 1966 film ‘A Man For All Seasons’ – starring Paul Scofield as Thomas More and Robert Shaw as Henry VIII – is excellent and well worth watching as it depicts these religious and spiritual conflicts of More’s final years.
There is no longer anything left of Thomas More’s house and estate in Chelsea other than a tiny bit of original garden wall and what is now known as Roper’s Garden, a sunken garden situated on land that was once part of the orchard belonging to the More estate, eventually given as a gift to More’s brilliant daughter Margaret on her marriage to William Roper in 1521. During the 18th century houses were built on what had once been the orchard but were destroyed by a German parachute mine dropped on 17th April 1941. The council insisted this land should be left as a public garden in memory of those who had lost their lives.
Margaret Roper (More) 1505-1544 was one of the most educated women in 16th century England, a writer and translator. I’m a huge admirer of her intelligence and bravery. Daughter of Thomas More and his first wife Jane Colt (who sadly died in childbirth), Margaret was briefly imprisoned after she set out on a dangerous journey by boat from Chelsea towards the Tower of London on a mission to collect her father’s head after his execution. For this act alone she herself could have paid with her life but she was brave to the core and determined to restore some dignity to what was left of her father’s body, insistent that he should have a proper Christian burial. Otherwise his remains would have been left to rot on London Bridge as was the norm for the victims of executions at that brutal time, whose heads were left on spikes as a warning to others.
Thomas More’s head was finally buried with Margaret in Chelsea Old Church but modern scholarship has now established that Margaret’s remains, and her father’s head, were eventually removed from here and re-interred in the Roper family grave, together with her husband William, in St Dunstan’s church, Canterbury. Church records tell us that the rest of Thomas More’s body lies in an unmarked grave within the walls of the Tower of London.
There is a striking miniature of Margaret Roper painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1535-36. In it I think she looks tired, dark circles under her eyes, but this isn’t the slightest bit surprising if you realise the portrait was painted a year after the trauma of her father’s execution. Visitors to Chelsea Old Church can see a statue of the Saint (Sir Thomas More was quickly canonised by the Pope), just outside (see photo below), his face and hands a striking gold colour, glittering in the sun. I’m not sure whether More himself would have approved of this statue but it’s certainly eye-catching and I often see people taking snaps of it.
Today’s Chelsea has the reputation of being a mecca for the very wealthy and indeed the prices of property in this borough are pretty eye-watering, especially those homes in famous Cheyne Walk with its river views. Author George Eliot once lived here for a while as did poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, co-founder of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Chelsea has long been a place with an arty, bohemian reputation, and many other artists, writers and creative people have also in the past chosen to make it their home. William De Morgan, ceramicist, potter, friend of William Morris and heavily influenced by the ideology of the arts and crafts movement, set up a pottery in Chelsea in 1872 where he stayed until 1881. The area obviously agreed with him as this decade was one of the most fruitful in his professional life. On my mudlarking list of ‘things I’d like to find’ is a complete William De Morgan wall tile, but so far these have eluded me. There are some examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum so they will have to do for now.
One of my favourite novels is ‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald. Her third novel, and which won the Booker Prize, it’s inspired by the time the author lived on an old Thames barge moored on this very part of the Thames at Chelsea Embankment. The book explores the emotional restlessness of the houseboat community here who live neither fully on the water nor on the land and end up dependent on each other for support when their lives become challenging. The main character is Nenna, living on a houseboat called Grace, who is an abandoned wife and distant mother to her two very young daughters, Martha and Tilda. The girls rarely go to school, are running wild, and spend much of their time mudlarking on the river. There is a glorious passage in the book describing them finding a stash of William De Morgan tiles on an old sunken barge at low tide, which they then sell for a very good price to an antiques dealer on the King’s Road.
On this recent mudlarking visit to the Chelsea foreshore the tide was an unusually low one. I found myself sharing the foreshore with a couple of metal detectorists, one of whom ended up on the wrong end of a police launch which had pulled in to check his detecting permit, a lesson to everyone who searches for historical items on the foreshore that we always need to make sure we have our permits with us at all times.
The exceptional low tide exposed parts of the foreshore not usually visible during normal low tides and I was pleased to come away with a more than satisfactory haul of brass buttons, pearl buttons, beads, dress hooks and other fastenings. Also parts of lead toys, possibly thrown into the river by a badly behaved child or maybe accidentally disposed of as rubbish. Vintage photographs from this area, prior to the building of the embankment during the Victorian period, show that the river in this area was once dominated by old wharves and warehouses from which items were lost and dropped into the Thames as goods were loaded and unloaded from boats and barges all the way up to Lot’s Road Power Station.
It’s always nice to find a button with the name of a local button maker or outfitter and I wasn’t disappointed with the numerous button finds I made that day, the photograph above showing a small selection. Below is a favourite find showing an Edwardian gent’s fly button, made of brass and manufactured by Noble of Chelsea. I haven’t been able to discover very much about Noble as yet and this is one of those occasions where the internet hasn’t been particularly helpful with my research. I need to look into primary sources, maps, electoral rolls, Victorian business directories and so forth, and have just emailed the archivist at Chelsea Library to arrange a visit to search through local archives. Unfortunately the pandemic has seriously affected access to archives and the Chelsea library, like many others up and down the UK, is currently open for only two afternoons a week. But I hope to be able to research this button properly soon.
And just as I was leaving the foreshore I saw this pretty sherd of late 19th century blue on white transferware porcelain showing a delightful little scene of two swans gliding on a lake, the piece broken in the most perfect place. I don’t take much transferware away with me from the foreshore these days as I have so much at home, but if I find something like this then it just has to come home with me.
So a really fruitful return to the Chelsea foreshore, a bit of light in an otherwise sad month. As I made my way back to the station and home, I was particularly struck with how beautiful the local houses were, their gardens bursting with blowsy, gorgeously scented purple wisteria. A perfect spring day on this part of the river in South West London.