Best Nine 2021

This will be the last mudlarking blog for 2021 so I thought it would be appropriate to look back across the past year and write about some of my favourite finds. It hasn’t been an easy year for anyone, and my trips to the Thames Foreshore have unfortunately been intermittently interrupted by lockdowns and restrictions, but this has meant that time spent on the river has been very precious these last twelve months and for that I’m extremely grateful. We’re in a new and worrying phase of Covid again, London currently having the highest Omicron infections in the UK, so I don’t know when I’ll next be able to get to the foreshore in 2022, but hopefully it won’t be too long. Fingers crossed!

Some of my favourite finds in 2021

I love finding sherds of pottery with little scenes on; sometimes the break is almost perfect in its imperfection, other times you find a piece where you wish the break wasn’t frustratingly in the place it actually is. There’s a hint of something interesting but you want the river to have left you a bit more of the fragment. C’est la vie. After our last lockdown I found myself returning to a particular part of the Thames Foreshore that I hadn’t visited for quite a few years. As I walked down the weathered and battered stone steps I immediately spotted a beautiful piece of blue on white 19th century transferware pottery, just as it is in the photo below. On picking it up I was delighted to see it featured a pair of swans gliding on a lake.

19th century transferware pottery showing a blue on white swan design

There’s something stately, unruffled and serene about swans. I call them the guardians of the river and everytime I’m out mudlarking there’s always a pair in the vicinity. Elegant, beautiful, sometimes fierce, always curious, they will often make their way over to see what I’m doing. Actually, it’s more likely they’re hoping I’ve got some food for them and when they find I haven’t their outraged grunts can be quite something.

Talking of feeding swans, there are some clear do’s and don’ts regarding what you should give them and the RSPB gives good advice about this. Swans are herbivores, which means they mainly eat greens, preferring to feed on plants floating on or near the surface of the water. There is no harm in feeding swans but you need to be careful what you give them. There’ve long been arguments that you shouldn’t give swans bread as their digestive tract isn’t suitable for refined flour or sugar and therefore bread can disrupt their normal nutrition. So I was therefore surprised to see a recent revision of the RSPBs advice on their website. Whereas they once wanted to deter the public from feeding bread to swans (as already mentioned it’s not the most nutritious food for them) nonetheless the RSPB now feels bread is ok as long as it’s in small amounts and not mouldy. So; no mouldy bread, sugar, chocolate, dairy or salt in anything you give to a swan.

If you can get hold of some, the preferred foods are either specialist swan or duck food which contains grains. But they also love lettuce, a bit of cabbage and other leafy greens. Swans are also quite keen on vegetable peelings so things such as potato or carrot peelings are good for them too. If you rock up to the foreshore with any of the above food items in your rucksack Thames swans will give you a grunt of approval.

Vintage German ribbon swirl marble

In May while I was mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore at Fulham in south west London, I saw what looked like a large gobstopper (a very hard, spherical sweet) poking out of the mud. To my great delight when I picked it up I realised it was a marble. A bit battered on one side thanks to a century or so rolling around in the river but still in one piece, nonetheless.

This is a German ribbon swirl marble with a divided core, and handmade. These were first produced in 1850 and were made until 1918, just after the First World War ended, after which they were mass-manufactured to a more uniform design. German clay and agate marbles from this period are also highly sought after by mudlarks, each marble being individually crafted by skilled glassworkers.

There is an excellent article by Alicia Cockrum in Beachcombing Magazine which gives the history of the making of these beautiful things. I’ve posted the link below:

https://www.beachcombingmagazine.com/blogs/news/for-the-love-of-german-sea-marbles

No one can be certain as to why so many marbles are found on the Thames Foreshore. Many will have ended up there dumped as household waste, but there is probably a more basic reason and that is that children just love throwing things into the river.

Georgian gentleman’s cufflink

This has been an excellent year for finding cufflinks, or partial cufflinks (sometimes either the cufflink setting but no stone, other times the stone but sans the cufflink – I’m quite happy with either, to be honest.) This beauty was thrown at my feet, as occasionally happens, by wash from a passing Thames Clipper.

I was immediately drawn to a swirl of blue on white opaque glass, likely to be Venetian in origin. The shank on the back was missing but it’s still beautiful. The cufflink would have been one of a pair and would have once adorned the shirt sleeves at a Georgian gentleman’s wrists. Indicating wealth and status, cufflinks became hugely popular during the 18th century.

Examining it carefully in my hand, as ever, all the questions rattled through my mind. Who lost this pretty thing? How annoyed would they have been? Did this once belong to a Georgian gentleman who had taken a wherry across from the north bank of the Thames to the south in pursuit of pleasure, got drunk, and lost his precious cufflink as he stepped into the boat, unsteady on his feet after his night on the tiles? I will never know but finds like this raise more questions than answers. This is why I love mudlarking; the stories that these lost and found items unlock.

Tudor pin with an oblate head

I’ve found a few of these now and they’re always a joy. This is a Tudor dress pin, approximately 16th century, although these continued to be worn well into the 17th century. If an item was still functional it would have remained in daily use. Handmade from brass, with an oblate head comprising of two metal discs pressed together, this is substantial enough to have been worn as a shawl pin. Longer and thicker than a traditional dress pin, of which hundreds and thousands are found on various stretches of the Thames Foreshore, this particular pin was designed for use with thicker, coarser fabric from this period.

Pins are some of my favourite foreshore finds immediately transporting me back in time as I pick them out of the mud and hold them in my hand. Who wore this pin? What did they pin with it? Perhaps a veil, a shawl, a linen headdress, a jewel. This particular pin had been buried in preservative Thames mud for over 500 years until I spotted it and plucked it out for my collection.

I love pins – fat pins, thin ones, thick ones, shawl pins – the more the merrier. Pins are a staple of a mudlark’s collection. I’m drawn to their ordinariness, their functionality, longevity, uniqueness (each one is different) and that for centuries they literally pinned Londoners into their clothing. I found this pin just before we went into the January lockdown at the beginning of this year and it was particularly poignant because I knew that I wouldn’t be returning to the foreshore for the next few months.

Victorian glass bottle stopper

Favourite find number five from 2021 is this chunky aqua green glass bottle stopper. From the Victorian period, these are still relatively common finds on the Thames Foreshore and many are found whole, though occasionally slightly chipped. Hardly surprising if you consider they’ve been buffeted about on the tide for over a hundred years.

The aqua colour reminds me of the Mediterranean (the photo above shows an almost cerulean blue river and skies on a perfect early autumn day this year, St Paul’s in the background) and holding these bottle stoppers to the light you can often see large air bubbles deep within them. This is an indication of the age of these beauties and that glass wasn’t factory mass-produced until after the First World War.

The oldest glass bottle stoppers date back much further than people realise. They’ve been found in Egyptian tombs as far back as 2,000 BC, although glass bottles from earlier periods were stoppered by bits of rag, leather or other materials.

Wine bottles tended to be corked to stop the oxidisation process, allowing the wine to age slowly over a period of time without being ruined. Corks allow a minimum amount of oxygen into the wine and are still the favoured method of sealing these bottles.

But glass bottle stoppers began to be more widely used in the 19th century, particularly for bottles that were in frequent use such as perfume, sauce, decanters and apothecary bottles. My aqua glass bottle stopper is likely to have come from an apothecary bottle, although not a poison one as these are ridged and either cobalt blue or emerald green in colour.

14th century annular shoe buckle

Mudlarks all have wish lists of ‘things they really want to find’ and this year I was fortunate to be able to tick off two of the items on my list. Here is the first.

This is an annular (ring-shaped) shoe buckle from the 14th century. Annular shoe buckles are similar in style to annular brooches, though differ in that brooches have a fixed constriction for the pin ensuring it doesn’t move about the outer rim. In a shoe buckle, the pin is not constricted therefore is able to move around the metal perimeter. They can be easily missed on the foreshore because they’re tiny things, often heavily corroded due to being made of iron, and sometimes badly damaged with the central pin missing.

Shoe buckles from this period were symbols of status and prestige. Archaeological excavations at Baynard’s Castle in London (situated just east of what is now Blackfriars Station, the original Norman castle built at the point where the old Roman walls and the River Fleet meet the Thames) revealed a surprising number of different types of medieval footwear, both below the ankle leather ones and also full boots up to the knee. The plain design of shoes excavated here show a clear need for practical, simple footwear that wouldn’t interfere with work. These working shoes wouldn’t have been buckled (too expensive) but would have resembled a basic slip-on.

Shoes of a buckled variety, such as the one I found this year on the Thames Foreshore, would have seen the buckle positioned much as they are today; at one side of the shoe, a piece of leather from the other side of the foot threaded through it and kept in place by the pin. Buckles would have been treated like jewellery, with care and recycled, re-attached to a new pair of shoes when the old ones were no longer fit for purpose.

London’s shoemakers were known as the Cordwainers, who had their own Guild by 1272, based in Cordwainer Street, on the boundary of Cheapside, Poultry and Walbrook in the City of London. ‘Cordwain’ is a corruption of ‘Cordovan’, the English word for fine Spanish leather.

Royal Fusiliers (London Regiment) cap badge

It was quite a few months after returning to the river post- lockdown before I found any significant metal finds. So it made me very happy to see this military item glinting up at me, partially buried among the gravel and mud of the foreshore. It’s a Royal Fusiliers (London Regiment) cap badge, made of brass, beautifully preserved and still in excellent condition.

I was of course intrigued as to how it ended up in the river. Why would anyone throw anything like this away? And then I bumped into a fellow mudlark who told me his grandfather had been in this regiment (but who thankfully hadn’t lost his cap badge!) During periods of leave soldiers would gravitate to London to see girlfriends, prostitutes and generally let off steam and enjoy themselves. My mudlarking friend told me his grandfather would occasionally mention these amorous encounters that took place by the Embankment wall. It only took a sudden gust of wind to whip off the serviceman’s cap, sending it flying into the Thames, badge and all. Many a soldier then had an awkward time explaining the loss of their cap to the sergeant once they’d returned to barracks.

Microlith

The second find on my ‘wish list’ that I was happily able to tick off this year was this stunning flint tool. I didn’t find it myself unfortunately (I’m convinced I suffer from flint tool blindness) but one day, a few weeks ago, I just happened to be mudlarking near fellow mudlark Florrie (@flo_finds on Instagram,) who has a keen eye for these things, and she spotted this beauty. Knowing how much I’ve been desperate to find a piece of worked flint for ages, Florrie kindly presented it to me. The mudlarking community can be so generous.

This particular artefact is called a microlith – a small, shaped tool, typically made from flint or chert. They are approximately one to three centimetres in length and a centimetre across, sometimes even smaller. They were typically used in spears or arrowheads.

Microliths were produced from either a small blade or a larger blade-like piece of flint by retouching. There are different shapes such as triangular, trapezoid or lunate, these types being characteristic of the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, in other words spanning approximately 35,000 – 3,000 years BC. They eventually fell out of use during the Neolithic when farming became established, therefore the need to hunter-gather diminished.

I can’t explain how overwhelming it feels to hold such a small yet perfectly made object in my hand. Still as sharp as a knife, I nearly cut myself with the microlith when I got it home, which shows how effective an item this would have been. Flo and myself were the first people to have held it in our hands for thousands of years before it was disposed of.

Microliths are fairly common finds in fields and other areas where our pre-historic ancestors used to live, but less so on the Thames Foreshore. Although there were ancient communities of people living along the Thames thousands of years ago (the river would have looked very different in those days) it’s thought that these worked flint tools are more likely to have washed into it from other smaller rivers and streams that feed the Thames.

Boar tusk, age uncertain, possibly 14th – 17th century

Last, but by no means least, the most recent find from my last visit to the Thames at the beginning of December is this hefty wild boar’s tusk, the largest one I’ve found to date. Tusks come from the uncastrated male; pigs have them too but the tusks of a boar are much bigger.

I spotted it on the foreshore near a site where high status townhouses once stood, the meat of the animal destined for the dinner tables of the wealthy.

15th century image of a boar hunt – artist anonymous

The Latin name for boar is ‘sus scrofa’ and these beasts were once widespread throughout the British Isles. Wild boar were strictly preserved in Royal forests during the medieval period for the benefit of the monarch and favoured noblemen. So unrestrained and unsustainable was the frantic pursuit of these creatures that they were inevitably hunted to extinction in England, thought by some to have been as early as the 14th century.

However, this date is likely to be inaccurate as a search through Henry VIII’s household accounts reveal the sheer amount of meat eaten by his court in 1529-1530 alone, the accounts including large numbers of boar:

1240 oxen

8200 sheep

2330 deer

760 calves

1870 pigs

53 wild boar

It’s unlikely these boar would have been imported from Europe as the state of the meat would have been quite rank by the time it got to the kitchen for preparation, so they must have been native boar, locally hunted. The date of boar extinction in the British Isles can therefore be dated more accurately to the early 17th century.

Wild boar continued to be hunted throughout Europe and remain prolific in European forests to this day. However, from the mid-1980s onwards, they have once again been re-introduced to parts of Kent, Sussex, Devon, Dorset and the Forest of Dean.

On that note, I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through my ‘Best Nine’ and it won’t be too long before I’m back mudlarking again, all being well. Thank you so much for continuing to read, send in questions and comments, and support this blog. I’m very grateful.

If you’re a reader of Good Housekeeping magazine, you might also like to keep an eye out for the February 2022 edition (will actually be available in shops in early January) and which features me taking Helen, a new mudlark, out to the Thames Foreshore to introduce her to the pleasures of mudlarking.

Wishing you all a peaceful and happy Christmas, and a healthy New Year 2022.

Christmas Tableau at City Hall, overlooking Tower Bridge. Photo taken by me en route to an early morning mudlark at the beginning of December.

Ghosts From The Thames…

Tonight is Hallowe’en, a time for carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, apple bobbing, lighting bonfires, trick or treating, divination games, visiting haunted houses and telling spooky tales of ghostly happenings. Within the Christian tradition it begins the observance of Allhallowtide, a time within the liturgical year when we remember the dead, including saints, martyrs and all the faithful departed by lighting candles on family graves.

It’s thought that many Hallowe’en traditions may have been influenced by ancient Celtic harvest festival traditions, such as the Gaelic festival Samhain, which had pagan roots. This was later adopted as All Hallow’s Day, along with its Eve, by the early Christian Church. Some theologians however think that Hallowe’en had its roots solely as a Christian holiday being the vigil (evening) of All Hallow’s Day.

The Thames Foreshore is an exceptionally spooky place at this time of year, heavy with ghosts from the past, mysterious sounds and a supernatural, sometimes unearthly atmosphere. So, draw the curtains, throw an extra log on the fire and buckle up for my selection of some of the eeriest tales and places on the river.

A good starting point for ghostly atmosphere is, without a doubt, the Wapping Foreshore.

The Prospect of Whitby

The Prospect of Whitby is one of the most atmospheric pubs in London and a favourite watering hole of mine in Wapping. Once known as The Pelican, the adjacent river stairs are still referred to by this name – Pelican Stairs. It was also known locally as The Devil’s Tavern because of its foul reputation – a haunt of pirates, thieves, cut-throats and an unsavoury assortment of criminals who frequented it, using it as their base for robbing unsuspecting sailors who’d come in for ale having disembarked from their boats and barges on the Thames.

Pelican Stairs, adjacent to the Prospect of Whitby, lead down to the Thames Foreshore

Wapping is blessed with a number of narrow and spooky little alleyways that offer access to the foreshore, though some of the stairs have long since washed away or are damaged. Dark and dimly lit in days of yore, they were the perfect place to lie in wait for an unsuspecting individual who, perhaps the worse for wear for drink, would stagger out of the Prospect of Whitby or other taverns, only to fall victim to a mugging and wake up in the early hours without valuable possessions and sometimes even clothes. Of course, there was never a witness about when you needed one. It is probably no surprise to learn that because of the appalling crime in this area, even by the lawless standards of the day, Wapping became the home of the Thames River Police in 1798, the forefathers of modern policing and London’s first proper police force.

Alleyway at the Town of Ramsgate Pub leading to Wapping Old Stairs
Wapping Old Stairs with views across to Rotherhithe and Bermondsey

It is thought that Wapping Old Stairs lead to the infamous Execution Dock which had been used for executions for four hundred years. The ‘dock’ consisted of a scaffold for hanging pirates, smugglers and mutineers who had been sentenced to death by Admiralty Courts. The last executions here took place in 1830. Execution Dock was where the notorious sailor and pirate Captain Kidd, having been charged with five counts of piracy and one of murder, which he denied, was executed on 23 May 1701. Not just once, but twice, as initially the hangman’s rope broke and Kidd survived only for the process to be repeated again, this time successfully. His body was then taken and gibbeted over the river Thames at Tyburn point, where it remained for three years as a warning to others.

Moving on to the strange tale of the Blackwall Tunnel ghost, known locally as ‘The Phantom Hitchhiker.’ This is a relatively recent and strange ghost story and one in a long tradition of ghostly hitchhikers who turn up in various parts of the country.

Photo showing the opening of the original Blackwall Tunnel by the Prince of Wales in May 1897

The original Blackwall Tunnel had been built to carry a road under the Thames from Greenwich to Tower Hamlets, and has since been modernised to meet the needs of modern traffic. In 1972 however, it’s said that a motorcyclist stopped to pick up a young man he saw hitchhiking at the southern end of the tunnel. The young man gave the motorcyclist the address where he wanted to get to and then climbed up behind the rider. But when the motorcyclist left the tunnel he found that his passenger had mysteriously disappeared.

He turned and went back to look for him but to no avail. Later he went to the address he’d been given and was told a young man answering the description of his mysterious passenger had once lived there but been killed in a traffic accident some years ago.

Island Gardens entrance/exit to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Greenwich is also the location of another eerie ghost story. It happens to be the location of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, the photograph above showing the Island Gardens entrance and exit, the Greenwich entrance and exit located by the Cutty Sark across the river. The Greenwich Foot Tunnel runs beneath the Thames linking Greenwich, south of the Thames, with Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs, north of the Thames. It was built in 1902 to to allow workers from the south to get to London’s Docklands, specifically Millwall Docks.

The tunnel is 370 metres long and has cast iron rings surfaced with 200,000 glazed white tiles. The Northern end was damaged by enemy bombing during the Second World War and had to be repaired with a thick steel and concrete inner lining.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel

As you walk through the tunnel it’s common to feel uneasy as the atmosphere is cold, damp and dimly lit. Some people report feelings of being watched and followed even though there is no one else there. Others have reported sightings of a Victorian couple walking hand in hand along the tunnel, but the couple mysteriously vanish as they pass by leaving only a pocket of very cold air.

The Tower of London is also a well known eerie place where ghostly unexplained sounds and sightings proliferate throughout centuries of its bloody and gory history.

Entry to the Traitors’ Gate, Tower of London

For hundreds of years prisoners have been brought to the Tower complex for incarceration and/or execution. Many of them would have been brought here by boat along the Thames and would have entered via what has now become known as Traitors’ Gate. One of the most famous prisoners who was brought here through Traitors’ Gate was Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) on the 17 March 1554, on the orders of her half -sister Mary I who suspected the young Elizabeth of plotting against her. It must have been a terrifying experience for the young princess not knowing whether she would come out of this desperate place alive.

Traitors’ Gate itself was part of a lengthy building project started by Henry III (1207-1272.) In 1240 and 1241, a series of fierce storms undermined the foundations here and the gate collapsed killing a number of labourers. As a result, various spectral sightings occur within the vicinity of this wall and a priest once claimed to have seen the ghost of St Thomas Becket banging the walls near the gate with a gold crucifix. Others claim to have seen the ghost of the Saint banging on the walls with his crosier.

Henry III’s son, Edward I, later rebuilt the wall and towers, including a chapel, as an offering to St Thomas Becket, within one of the towers where Traitors’ Gate now stands. So perhaps the ghost story isn’t as fanciful as it first sounds. Yet it wasn’t until the Reformation that the gate was formally named Traitors’ Gate, ironically thought to have been so named because some Protestants viewed St Thomas as a traitor to the then King (Henry II.)

Continuing the ghostly stories associated with the location of the Tower of London, it’s surprising how many people don’t notice a very eerie place situated under one of the arches of the bridge on the north side of the Thames.

Dead Man’s Hole, Tower Bridge

This is Dead Man’s Hole, located in an alcove directly under the steps on the north side of Tower Bridge. Essentially a Victorian Mortuary, though no longer functioning as one, take a peek next time you’re passing the Tower of London. A remnant from the 19th century when bodies of poor souls used to regularly wash up on this particular stretch of the river. An ‘L’ shaped set of stairs curves round to the Thames under Tower Bridge to make it easier to reach the bodies. There was also once a hooked pole near the stairs to help with the retrieval of the dead.

Bodies were then kept in the mortuary until collected or buried anonymously if no one came forward to identify them. The white tiles served a useful purpose because they could be easily and quickly wiped down whenever a bloated corpse exploded due to build up of chemicals and gases.

Access to Dead Man’s Hole is fenced off and kept locked but it can be seen through the iron fencing as you walk past en route to the Tower of London. Many people walk straight past without noticing the grim history of what lies here under the bridge.

Eerie atmosphere on a misty late afternoon on the Rotherhithe Foreshore

There are so many stories of ghosts and grisly happenings on the Thames that this blog has only just scratched the surface. The river lends itself so well to eerie tales and a sinister unearthly atmosphere. And as the light fades and the mist rises it’s easy to imagine you can see spirits from the past and hear the cries of lost souls.

Bwahahahahahahaha.

Her Ladyship in hiding, spooked by ghostly tales of the Thames

Found, lost, and found again…

A few weeks ago I’d had one of those rare but special mudlarking sessions when the finds keep coming and you return home from the Thames Foreshore with a bag of interesting items (in mudlarking circles we refer to these as ‘keepers’) to research, treasure and add to your collection.

There wasn’t a particularly good low tide that day, indeed there’d been non-stop rain and the greyest of grey skies, and I’d got drenched on the river the day before. This particular morning there weren’t too many mudlarks about, I’d got there early and initially had quite a bit of the foreshore to myself. The Thames Clippers were beginning to roar into action – it’s so good to see them busy again after such a long period of inactivity – ploughing up and down the river with their passengers.

And as happens now and then, if you’re very lucky, the wash from a passing Thames Clipper just happened to drop a brightly coloured bead at my feet as I was pottering about looking for finds. As also happens on these occasions, the waves then drag the item out again so you have to have quick reflexes and act fast to stop the find being snatched from under your nose.

There then occurred a clumsy few minutes which saw me desperately floundering about on the tide line trying to scoop up handfuls of water in an urgent attempt to find whatever it was that had just flashed before my eyes.

Then the tide finally receded, I looked down, and this is what I saw.

Some finds are so well camouflaged on the Thames Foreshore that they can be very difficult to spot but there was no mistaking this. A stunning apple green, pink, gold and rose glass bead. I knew this had some age to it but I’m not a bead expert and wasn’t sure of its exact provenance.

It wasn’t long before the online mudlarking community helped with the identification of the bead (thank you @mudika.thames and @flo_finds – please follow them both on Instagram) and I quickly learnt it was known as a Venetian ‘fiorato’ (meaning ‘flowered’), also known as a ‘wedding cake’ bead. This one was likely to be from the late 19th century or early 20th century and I fell in love with the sheer lavish gorgeousness of it.

Venetian ‘fiorato’ or ‘wedding cake’ bead, approx 19th/20th century

The Venetian glass industry moved from the mainland to the island of Murano in the 13th century. There were thought to be three main reasons for this relocation. Firstly, a practical one. The furnaces and foundries posed an ever-present danger of fire in a city where many buildings were either timber-framed or completely made of wood, so it made sense to remove the glass makers to an island away from residential areas. Secondly, restricting the glass industry to a small island allowed the Venetian authorities to ensure the glassmakers and glassblowers kept the secrets of their trade and there was less likelihood of industrial sabotage.

It has long been believed that any Murano glassmaker or glassblower who left the island with his secrets would be put to death. While this is not entirely correct it was certainly the case for a few hundred years during the Middle Ages and up to the beginning of the 16th century.

The third reason why the Venetian Republic relocated the glass industry to Murano was related to suspicions held by many people at this time that it was connected to witchcraft. Glassblowers and glassmakers were essentially alchemists – alchemy a magical process of transformation, creation and combination, essentially the medieval forerunner to modern chemistry. Glassmaking involved the smelting of metals, use of mysterious powdered substances and the manufacture of beautiful, fragile objects in dazzling colours that looked as if they’d been plucked from the very core of the earth. It was easy to see how and why the unsophisticated mind viewed these processes with a degree of deep suspicion and fear. Yet the Murano glassmakers gloried in their role as the alchemists and craftsmen of the highest order, and their work was considered an unrivalled treasure in the Venetian Republic.

By the 14th century glassmakers had become prominent citizens, were allowed to wear swords (which signalled a step towards gentrification), enjoyed immunity from prosecution by the Venetian State and their daughters married into the most prominent Venetian families. The 16th and 17th centuries were viewed as the heyday of the Murano glassmaking industry but by the mid 19th century it was in decline after five hundred years of dominance.

Fiorato bead with a rose pink gemstone from a gentleman’s cufflink

Venetian glass beads remain popular around the world and vintage ones are highly sought. They can be divided into the following types:

  • avventurina – glass containing glittering particles of copper or gold
  • smalto – enamelled glass
  • millefiori – multi-coloured
  • lattimo – milk or semi-opaque glass, also known as opalino. Created by adding lead, lime or tin to the glass composition

The fiorato, or flowered bead, was a popular design thought first to have originated in the 16th century when avventurine glass was developed by accident, although the first commercial bead of this type wasn’t made until the early 1800s. The process of making these beads begins on a copper wire which forms the hole when finished, hot coloured glass then wound around it. This centuries old process is known as ‘perle a lume’, ‘lampwork’ or ‘lampwound’. Indeed, glassmakers are also known as lampworkers.

For fiorato beads, the bead itself is decorated in glittery squiggles and rosebuds or sometimes forget-me-nots. The glitter is made by the ‘avventurina’ or ‘aventurine’ process (not to be confused with the aventurine stone, which is a type of quartz) but instead the original meaning has its roots in the Italian phrase ‘a ventura’, which means ‘by chance’, a phrase perfectly describing its accidental discovery in a Murano workshop in the early 1600s.

Glass infused with copper fillings glitters and catches the eye while the more glinting and gleaming loops there are on the bead is an indicator of age; the older the bead, the more glittery squiggles you’ll see on it. After the strands of glass are trailed in loops or zigzags around the bead, the floral details are applied.

The Venetian glassmaking industry has an ancient history and is iconic but it’s important to remember that the first man-made glass actually predates Venetian glass by many millennia. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first man-made glass was made in Egypt and Mesopotamia (the region of modern day Iraq) in 3500 BC, the first excavated glass vessels dating from 1500BC.

It’s well worth visiting the island of Murano if you get the chance although the Venetian glass industry is no longer what it once was. On my last trip here in 2013 I was treated to a beautiful Venetian glass necklace. The shops and boutiques were full of glass items – jewellery, vases, crystal chandeliers – not all of which were particularly nice and definitely not to everyone’s taste.

The island of Murano, photo taken on a visit by the author in 2013
Modern glass sculpture on Murano, photo taken by the author in 2013

And then, reader, I lost it.

I lost my beautiful Venetian fiorato bead.

When I’m out mudlarking I often get stopped by people walking along the Thames Foreshore who want to know if I’ve found anything ‘nice’ that day. I always stop and chat but on this occasion I was in a hurry to get home. After I’d shown my finds that day, including the Venetian bead, I put everything back in a small container, shoved it quickly into my rucksack (or so I thought) and headed back to the station.

It was only when I got home that I realised the finds container was missing from my rucksack because I hadn’t zipped the bag up properly after putting the container away. It must have fallen out somewhere between that spot on the foreshore where I’d stopped to chat, and a bench on the Southbank near the National Theatre where I’d sat down to change my boots.

I even returned to that very spot the next day to see if by some miracle it was still there but it wasn’t. When this kind of thing happens to you it’s important to keep things in perspective. There are terrible things happening in the world right now so the loss of a bead is hardly a matter of life or death, but I was cross with myself for a long time for not being careful enough.

A lesson learnt the hard way.

C’est la vie.

But mudlarking is a strange old thing. The river gives, takes away and gives something back to you again when you least expect it.

When I’d gone back to the Thames Foreshore the next day to try to find my Murano bead I was just heading home again when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something red being washed in by the waves.

It was another bead.

Not a Venetian one, but a beautiful, pressed Czech bead with a flower motif on both sides.

Red, pressed glass Czech bead with flower motif

Between the 12th to 14th centuries, German glassmakers had been invited to settle in the area of the Austro-Hungarian empire known as Bohemia – now the westernmost and largest historical area of the present-day Czech Republic. This region was blessed with unlimited sand, water (which provided power) and wood from the forests (used to heat the furnaces) – all the elements needed for glass production. There was also an abundance of cheap labour and good quality quartz in the mountains which, when ground down, produced silica, the core of glass production.

Glass factories here had been making glass beads for rosaries since the medieval period, plus stained glass for mosaics and windows in local churches, abbeys and monasteries. They also made buttons, beads, vases and chandeliers. German and Czech speaking Bohemians worked together in this industry.

By the mid 16th century, glass had become a major Bohemian cottage industry mainly around the towns of Jablonec (also known as Gablonz), Stanovsko and Bedrichov. Today there is a Museum of Glass and Costume Jewellery in Jablonec. Beaded costume jewellery was becoming extremely fashionable and, by the 18th century, serious bead production was increasing rapidly due to the explosion of factories and industrialisation.

Improved pressing methods and other new processes helped, such as the patenting of machines that could press beads and buttons at a fast rate. This meant that millions of beads could be manufactured and exported every year. Tools helped draw the heated glass and squeeze it into shape with the help of a tong that included a mold at the end. This resulted in what became known as ‘press-molded’ or ‘pressed’ beads, such as the red beauty I found on the Thames Foreshore.

The First World War (1914-1918) severely impacted the Bohemian bead making industry after which the nation of Czechoslovakia was created, Bohemia now absorbed into it. The global depression of the 1920s and 1930s badly affected industry and the economy. However, the bead industry benefited hugely from the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb which led to what was known as ‘Egyptian revival’, a fashion that manifested itself in Egyptian-themed jewellery design in the 1920s and 1930s and which resulted in an entire new craze.

During the Second World War, the glass industry suffered again due to the making of ammunition and weapons taking precedence over anything else, and so the production of glass beads and other decorative items was stopped. After 1945 and the imposition of Communism in Eastern Europe, all Czech glassworks were nationalised and fell into decline until the late 1950s when there was a revival, and beads and costume jewellery became fashionable again.

After the Velvet Revolution of 1989 saw the end of communism, Czechoslovakia separated into two distinct nations – the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The famous name of Swarovski, long associated with sparkling beads and now based in Austria, also originated in Czechoslovakia.

If you’d like to read more about the history of Bohemian Beads, I highly recommend ‘Baubles, Buttons and Beads’ by Sibylle Jargstorf. Beautifully illustrated, it focuses on the production of jewellery and other glass trinkets in the town of Gablonz and its outskirts, once a mark of quality among the makers of costume jewellery.

Last, but by no means least, no history of Czech glass bead making is complete without mentioning the Neiger brothers, Norbert and Max. If I hadn’t lost my Venetian bead and found my Czech pressed bead instead, I’d never have heard of the Neiger Brothers. I’m grateful that researching the history of Czech beads opened a door to their story.

Neiger Brothers’ jewellery was characterised by beautiful glass beads and detailed metal bead caps. Heavily influenced by Art Deco designs and also Egyptian Revival jewellery, as already mentioned, which became all the rage thanks to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter and Lord Caernarvon. The wealthy and fashionable couldn’t get enough of Egyptian-themed jewellery.

Norbert, the older brother, had graduated from the Gablonz technical school in jewellery design in the early 20th century, and the brothers later started their jewellery making business in the basement of their home. Eventually Norbert ended up running the business while Max (known as Moritz Max in official documents) was in charge of the workshop and designed the jewellery. The Neiger brothers also made scent bottles with stamped filigree and decorated with semi-precious or imitation stones. (Gablonz had been the centre of the Bohemian bead making jewellery business for centuries.)

Their jewellery quickly became hugely in demand with a clientele stretching from Paris to the USA. They became swamped with orders and so, in 1926, they transferred the business to bigger premises in Berbigstrasse, took on dozens of employees and distributed other aspects of bead making production to numerous cottage workers.

The brothers would show their collections to buyers who adored their gilded and chromium plated finishes, while other examples of their jewellery were composed of small enamelled elements impressed or stamped with patterns, often floral and set in glass stones.

Sometimes the Neigers copied designs brought to them from wealthy clients in Paris.

Neiger designs today are highly sought after and often copied, the Neiger family not able to easily seek legal redress in order to stop the copying. The brothers didn’t stamp their own jewellery with the Neiger name because they tended to buy many of the metal parts they used ready-made from estamperies like Scheibler. This is one of the reasons why today it can be difficult to identify a Neiger piece with a hundred per cent certainty, the descendants of the family are understandably fierce custodians of the Neiger reputation and have the final say in authenticating any newly found pieces of Neiger Brothers jewellery.

The Neigers lived with and to some extent tolerated competition. They did, however, take action against a former employee who started his own workshop in the 1920s and tried to sell Neiger imitations.

The Neigers were viewed as excellent employers at a time when not everyone who ran a business was quite so supportive of their employees as they were. They managed a total of 34 people, 16 of whom were gurtlers (a gurtler was a professional metalsmith working with non precious metals, silver and silver gilt.)

When I was researching the Neiger brothers, the moment I read that they were from a Jewish family, I instinctively dreaded how their story would end.

In 1938 Gablonz was taken over by the German Reich and the family escaped to the Czech part of Bohemia from the Polish part, where they continued to work. They were arrested in Prague and taken to the Łódź Ghetto after which they were then taken to Auschwitz concentration camp.

Deportation records from this period show Max Neiger and his wife Anna were murdered in Auschwitz in 1942, while their daughter Zuzana, Max’s brother Norbert plus Norbert’s wife Margareta, were also thought to have been murdered in 1942 although their death dates are not recorded anywhere.

The Neigers were brilliant artisans and excellent employers. They created beautiful things and brought joy through their designs. Their legacy endures through their beads and it’s some consolation that the loss of one Thames-found bead, and the discovery of another, led me to their story and life which I can celebrate in this blog.

Moritz Max Neiger 1893-1942

Buckle up!

This is the thirtieth mudlarking blog since I first started these a few years ago – BOOM! – and it seems like quite a significant milestone. During this time I’ve written about a wide range of Thames Foreshore finds from pottery to pins to pipes, tokens and much more, covering millennia of Thames history without which London wouldn’t exist.

I’m grateful to be able to get out to the river whenever I get the chance and as of today the Government have lifted all remaining Covid restrictions in England. But I’ll be honest with you all, this is a worry, especially as the data shows infection rates rising dramatically again. The rest of the world is no doubt watching this experiment with a mixture of interest and probably horror…. And even though I’m double vaccinated now, I’ll continue to be masked on public transport and in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. One thing that can be said about mudlarking during this difficult time is at least it’s an activity that takes place outdoors and that is a very a good thing.

I’m enormously grateful to all those who subscribe to and read my regular burblings from the Thames, and I will continue to write these for as long as people enjoy reading them and I feel I have something interesting to say. Thank you to everyone who has stuck with me over the last few years and to all who have responded to my posts with questions and comments. These are much appreciated.

June and July have been busy months for me and for a while I didn’t think I’d have any significant or interesting new finds to write about until one particular mudlarking session a few weeks ago.

I’d been out and about on a very early mudlark at a particularly popular part of the Thames Foreshore in the centre of London and, apart from catching up with a few other early bird mudlarks, hadn’t found anything of particular interest, much to my frustration. Then, just as I was about to leave, I went back over an area of mud and gravel I’d already checked, just to see if there was anything I’d missed. And, as luck would have it, it turned out I had.

There, among a pile of rusting metal and scrap, was something I’d been hoping to spot for a long time and on my ‘wish list’ of finds for ages. The item in question? A complete annular shoe buckle from the 14th century. You can check it out in all its splendour in the two photos below, perhaps not the most beautiful looking of objects from the Thames, but nonetheless a peach of a find.

These annular (ring-shaped) buckles were made mostly from iron or very occasionally during this period, copper alloy. The one I found below is definitely iron, as you can see from the unsurprising accumulation of a layer of rust after hundreds of years immersion in the Thames. In fact, many iron annular buckles can be so heavily corroded that they disintegrate when touched. My medieval shoe buckle was intact which, considering these are often found with the central pin missing or broken, was also a bit of a miracle.

A complete annular shoe buckle from the 14th century found by me on the Thames Foreshore. Reverse image showing pin attachment
Front image of my 14th century annular shoe buckle find.

I’m indebted as ever to Geoff Egan and Frances Pritchard for their book ‘Dress Accessories 1150-1450’ (MOLA publications) for a complete range of illustrations and descriptions of buckle finds from this period, including a comparison with annular brooches. These were similar in style to the buckle but differed in having a fixed constriction for the pin ensuring it didn’t move about the outer rim. In a shoe buckle, the pin is not constricted and is therefore free to move around the metal perimeter.

Buckles from this period were symbols of status and prestige. Archaeological excavations at Baynard’s Castle in London (situated just east of what is now Blackfriars Station, the original Norman castle built at the point where the old Roman walls and the River Fleet meet the Thames) revealed a surprising number of different type of medieval footwear, both below-the ankle-leather ones and also full boots up to the knee. The plain design of shoes excavated here show a clear need at that time for practical, simple shoes that wouldn’t interfere with work. These ‘working’ shoes would not have been buckled but would have resembled a basic type of slip-on.

Shoes of a buckled variety, such as the one I found on the Thames Foreshore, would have seen the buckle positioned much as they are today; at one side of the shoe, a piece of leather from the other side of the foot threaded through it and kept in place by the pin. Buckles would have been treated like jewellery, with care and recycled, re-attached to a new pair of shoes when the old ones were no longer fit for purpose.

London’s shoemakers were known as the Cordwainers, who had their own Guild by 1272. Cordwainer Street was where they, the Curriers and other leather workers lived and worked. Here, they had easy access to leather bought from nearby tanners. The stench from the tanneries and local abattoirs would have been foul. The Ward of Cordwainers is at the very heart of the City of London and home to two of the City’s great churches – St Mary-le-Bow and St Mary Aldermary.

Our love affair with shoes spans the ages, influenced by practical need and the fashion of the time, often set by the rich and powerful, and not always practical. Much like today, the wealthy didn’t need to worry about practical clothing or footwear.

In the Medieval period shoe styles varied throughout Continental Europe and then introduced to England. The Black Death (a bubonic plague pandemic which later mutated into a pneumonic one) reached these shores in June 1348 having originated in Asia, spread across Europe via various trade routes, and arrived here from the English province of Gascony in South Western France.

The advent of the plague resulted in huge numbers of deaths – it’s estimated that as many as 25 million people died of this disease throughout Europe – and a devastating hit to the economy, much like we’re currently experiencing with the Covid pandemic. History teaches us that nothing is new. Highly skilled craftsmen from many trades died, including shoe makers, and for decades after life was bleak and grim with little room for light, colour or frivolity. But as the plague slowly receded and life began to return to some semblance of stability the latter part of the 14th century was marked by a new wave of design in shoes and clothing. Put simply, people wanted to wear beautiful things again and enjoy themselves.

Painting (anonymous) from the early 15th century showing the new shoe fashion of Crakows or Poulaines.

Shoes became more pointed in a style known as ‘Crackows’, ‘Crackowes’ (named after the then Polish Capital of Kraków where they had originated) or alternatively called ‘Poulaines’, the French word for Poles.

The pointed shoe was not new, first becoming popular in the 12th century and inspired, it’s thought, by new Gothic architectural styles. Churches were being designed and built with windows, spires and turrets in long pointy shapes. And it wasn’t long before pointed shoes achieved new extremes in the 14th century, largely due to the influence of Richard III’s Polish wife, Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394), at whose ostentatious court fashions were as extravagant as they were wild and impractical.

Some of the shoes worn during this period were up to 24 inches long, the toes stuffed with wool, moss, hair or dried grass, or sometimes supported with whalebone to keep their shape. Toe length was decided according to the wearer’s social class which meant that not everyone was allowed the more exaggerated length. Recent work by osteologists on skeletons from this period have shown, not surprisingly, that foot problems were rife and bunions, deformities plus various inflammations of the heel and arch of the foot meant the wearers of these shoes paid a high price for this fashion fetish.

As impractical as they were visually dramatic, the Church predictably disapproved of the wearing of these pointed Crackows, objecting to the phallic shape and declaring them sinful and inappropriate. It was also felt that their dramatic pointed shape stopped worshippers from kneeling properly at prayer and therefore disrespectful in the eyes of God.

A more restrained example of a Crackow or Poulaine.

Eventually the sheer length of Crackows made the wearing of them impossible and the wearer often struggled to walk properly. It has even been recorded that the long toes had to be cut off before men could go into battle. By the end of the 15th century the shoe fashion had changed again with a more functional square toe becoming all the rage. It wasn’t until 1463 that legislation was formally introduced allowing only the aristocracy to wear the longest Crackows, although the fashion for these was already slowly diminishing by this time anyway.

Buckles on shoes also fell out of fashion, only returning in the mid-17th century when they were preferred to shoe laces which quickly became filthy on the muddy and mucky streets of London.

Part of an early 18th century shoe buckle found by me on the Thames Foreshore. Made of iron, showing two spikes attached to a chape, the central pin is intact but the tongue on the far right is incomplete. This would have been attached to an outer decorated frame which is missing.

There is an oft-quoted extract from the Diary of Samuel Pepys, an entry from 22 January 1660, where Pepys writes ‘This day I began to put buckles on my shoes.’ Less frequently quoted, but which will resonate with many of us, is the diary entry for 24 January 1660, literally two days later, where Pepys writes ‘and then called my wife and took her to Mr Pierce’s, she in the way being exceedingly troubled with a pair of new pattens…’

Pattens were overshoes that had their origins in the 14th/15th century but which continued into the 19th century. They were worn over the shoe to protect it from the filth prevalent on London’s grim, unsanitary and squalid streets. Anyone who has unwisely worn a new pair of shoes without breaking them in properly will sympathise with the discomfort Mrs Pepys was experiencing from her new pair of pattens.

By 1720 everyone except the very poorest in society was wearing buckled shoes, either on the shoe itself or knee buckles which were used to fasten knee-high boots.

During the Georgian period (1714-1837) buckles became increasingly elaborate and fancy. Made from a range of metals so there was something affordable for everyone, regardless of income – brass/copper alloy (see photo below), steel, silver gilt and silver. Many were ornately decorated and set with sparkling stones made from paste to imitate diamonds and other precious and semi-precious stones. The Georgians adored their bling.

A late 18th century shoe buckle from the later Georgian period found by me on the Thames Foreshore. Made of copper alloy, still with traces of the original gilt colour, this would have shone like gold when the item was new.

Portraits from this period are useful in shining a spotlight on the fashions worn and a particular favourite of mine is the work of German painter Johann Zoffany, a popular 18th century painter. Zoffany specialised in theatrical scenes (he was a friend of theatrical manager, actor and playwright David Garrick) and also conversation pieces. One of the most famous examples of these is of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, who posed for just such a portrait with her children.

Zoffany’s Portrait of the Academicians (of the Royal Academy, below) shows the male fashions of the late 18th century, both in dress and footwear. The men in this portrait, apart from the unclothed male models, are all wearing elaborately buckled shoes as befits their status.

Portrait Of The Academicians by Johann Zoffany, 1773.
(© National Portrait Gallery)

Buckles remained in vogue until abandoned, along with all chunky high heeled footwear, when fashions changed again after the trauma of the French Revolution (1789 – 1794), although were retained for ceremonial and court dress. It was felt inappropriate for shoe design to be so openly ostentatious -a sure symbol of the degenerate aristocracy – when people were starving. And so the wearing of more modest low-rise shoes became popular as the late 18th century morphed into the 19th.

Shoe designer Jimmy Choo once famously said ‘The right shoe can make everything different’, as true a statement now as it has been down the centuries. But I’m sure he’d agree that the perfect buckle helps too.

À bientôt!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roper’s Garden facing Danvers Street and Crosby Moran Hall

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

Sir Thomas More’s statue outside Chelsea Old Church

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

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

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

A handful of mudlarking finds from the Chelsea foreshore

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

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

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

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

Transferware pottery showing swans

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

Chelsea wisteria

Return to the Thames Foreshore

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

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

Southwark Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cannon Street Bridge at low tide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The South Bank, Waterloo Bridge in the distance

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

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

View of St Paul’s Cathedral peeking above Millennium Bridge

Thames Mudlarking Books

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

One of my many shelves of history and Thames Mudlarking books

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

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

Treasure In The Thames by Ivor Noël Hume

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

All The Best Rubbish by Ivor Noël Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identifying the Pottery of the Thames Foreshore by Richard Hemery

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

Happy reading and please stay safe!

Cloth and bale seals

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

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

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

Cloth and Bale Seals Found On The Thames Foreshore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Spectacular Chevron Trade Bead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Chevron Trade Bead found by fellow mudlark Fran Sibthorpe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clay pipes, tobacco and stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir John Hawkins

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

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

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

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

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

James I’s ‘Counterblaste to Tobacco’

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

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

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

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

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