How are you all doing? If you’re anything like me, you’ll be relieved to see the back of the recent heatwave. I love the sunshine but excessive temperatures are too much and, coupled with a lack of rain for weeks on end, are definite signs that the climate is changing. Thankfully we’ve now had some extremely welcome rain in London, its gardens and green spaces looking uncharacteristically parched and dry for some while now. And, of course, we’re now braced for Thames Water (who waste so much of our precious water themselves by not repairing millions of gallons of leaks promptly) bringing in a hosepipe ban this week. Tant pis, as they say in France.
But, in spite of this, August has been busy and I’ve been grateful to have had the opportunity to go mudlarking a few times this month. In addition to this, another highlight of my summer was the visit of the stunning ship, The Götheborg of Sweden.
The largest ocean-going wooden sailing ship, this is a replica of the original Swedish East Indiaman Götheborg I, launched in 1738, and which tragically sank just off Gothenburg, Sweden, on 12th September 1745 while approaching the harbour. Mercifully, all the crew on board were rescued.
The Götheborg is currently undertaking a long expedition to Asia, recreating her original 18th century voyages and sailing to various destinations in Europe before reaching the Asian continent in 2023. En route she’ll be stopping off at various ports and docks to give the public a rare opportunity to come on board.
This ship is a wonderful example of maritime wood carving as seen in the figurehead, quarter galleries and stern decorations. The two-galleried stern measures over 20 feet across and is decorated with a variety of carvings including a cockerel (bottom left), plus central crest, fish and sea nymphs blowing conches. These are in French Baroque style, as commonly seen in Swedish ships of the period.
My favourite carving though was the magnificent beast of a lion at the bow (see my photo above). Figureheads are meant to make a statement, and this one definitely does. Standing 15 feet tall, the lion started out as three tons of timber before the expert hands of a master wood carver gave him shape and form.
The Götheborg of Sweden spent nearly five days docked at Canary Wharf before sailing to Bremerhaven, from where she’ll be setting sail on the next stage of her voyage on Monday 22nd August. I wish her and her crew Godspeed and a fair wind.
I’ve avoided the foreshore during the extreme temperatures we’ve had this month – there isn’t anywhere to shelter on the river when it’s baking hot – and when I’ve gone out to the Thames it’s been either early morning or when the temperatures have dropped. It’s been a great month for some lovely finds.
As you can see from the image above, marble finds have featured quite majorly, from Victorian striped chinas (used in games of carpet boules), to mocha swirls, codd bottle marbles and a large clay marble that might have been used for industrial purposes but may also have been played with by a Victorian/Edwardian child before tossing it naughtily into the river.
I’ve also found some early medieval shell-tempered ware pottery fragments (which might even be Saxon), a fragment of medieval floor tile covered in moss green glaze, a Charles I rose farthing, an 18th century bone button form and a lot of bullets. (NB: important health and safety note regarding bullet finds on the river. The Thames has an abundance of rogue military material that often gets washed up on a low tide – much of it is World War Two ammunition but some of it, like my recent bullet finds, are reasonably modern, possibly dumped as a result of criminal activity. If you find bullets of any description, don’t take them – they might still be live and therefore dangerous if allowed to dry out. It’s recommended that you put them carefully in the river where they will remain stable. On no account take them home with you, however tempting.)
But this beauty below is my favourite find of the summer.
Spotted with the base sticking out of Thames mud was this mint condition Hooper Struve mineral bottle. When I pulled it out, I was sure it would be smashed but, praise be, it wasn’t. It’s only the third complete vintage bottle find I’ve made on the foreshore in seven years of mudlarking. The river flows fast in London and many old bottles are inevitably unable to withstand being tossed about over the centuries, emerging chipped and broken at low tide. A complete one, such as this, is a rare treat and an added bonus is that it makes a very cool little vase too.
Beautifully embossed with the words ‘TO H.I.M THE KING -BY APPOINTMENT’ and the name ‘HOOPER STRUVE & Co LTD’ on the other side of the bottle. It’s not clear precisely which King it refers to but the style of bottle dates from 1901-1936 so it’s likely to be either Edward VII or George V. It would also have had a vulcanite-style screw top to keep the fizz in.
I’m indebted to the Brighton Argus for providing some backstory to the history of the company that made this bottle, and the link to Brighton itself.
In the early part of the 19th century, spas became fashionable all over Europe. In 1825, Friedrich Struve, a German chemist from Dresden, invented a machine that reproduced the characteristics of natural mineral water using chemicals. This enabled him to set up the Pump Room of his German Spa in Brighton, which had no natural spring of its own.
His curative waters received huge patronage from the fashionable and wealthy classes, including King William IV, who flocked to Brighton to ‘take the waters’ for the benefit of their health.
As often happens with fashions, they quickly become unfashionable, and by the 1850s the practice of taking the waters had begun to decline resulting in the closure of the Pump Room. Brighton could not compete with the more established natural spa towns of Bath, Cheltenham or Baden-Baden in Germany.
After his death in 1840, Struve’s family continued to sell his mineral water and in 1891, a soft drinks firm established by London chemist William Hooper, merged with Struve’s. The new company took the name Hooper Struve & Co Ltd. They continued production in Brighton until approximately 1963, after which the original Pump Room becamed derelict and a magnet for vandals.
It was eventually demolished by Brighton Council leaving only the neo-classical frontage. A nursery school now exists on the site.
On a sadder note, searching the Company’s records on the GOV.UK Companies House website this week while digging into its history, I found this recent entry, dating from just a few weeks ago. It seems that whatever had existed of the original Hooper Struve business was now no longer trading, and going through the legal process of being struck off the Companies House Register.
A sad end for the makers of my Thames-found mineral water bottle. But I’m grateful that spotting this on the foreshore opened a door to a piece of social history I knew nothing about. This is why I love mudlarking; the sheer pleasure of discovering the story behind an artefact spotted on the foreshore.
On a final note, as August grinds slowly to an end, I’m looking forward to September and this year’s Totally Thames Festival, a month long celebration of the river organised by The Thames Festival Trust.
There’ll be mudlarking exhibitions, walks, talks and so much more throughout the month, click on the link below for the full schedule of events. I’ll be displaying some of my favourite medieval and post-medieval finds at St Paul’s Cathedral on Saturday 17th September, entry is free.
June has been a busy month with not much time for mudlarking as I’ve been away on holiday in France and having a wonderful time in the Provençal sunshine with my family. This blog is going to be a bit of a mishmash but still finds-related because that’s what my passion is. The searching bug is always there, no matter where I am, so please welcome to the world of vinelarking.
I was recently talking to a mudlark who, on a walk through some fields near where he lives, found a small number of Mesolithic worked flints. Which just goes to show that you don’t have to be near the river to find artefacts, or even metal detecting on someone’s land (but please make sure you’ve asked permission first.) Beaches, gardens, even the humble pavement can be a source of something interesting if you keep your eyes peeled.
I’ve always spent a lot of time with my head bent down, staring at the ground, searching for bits and pieces. This has become my default position, even on holiday. So it was that on a walk a few weeks ago I found myself strolling through literally acres of vines owned by the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape and even here I managed to find a few bits and pieces to keep me happy.
The vines in the area of Provence where we stayed are planted on top of land that was once part of the Roman Empire, and the Romans grew vines in this locality too. Sadly, no Roman pottery sherds to be found on my walks but I did spot a few interesting items, among them this fragment of local Provencal terracotta roof tile.
Made by the famous Monier company of Marseille who’ve been producing roof tiles since the 19th century, the tile is instantly recognisable by their symbol, the bee.
This particular tile fragment is likely to be 1950s/1960s.
The ground all around these vineyards is full of rocks, stones and broken sherds of pottery as well as tiles. I initially thought this was to keep moisture in the ground but later found out that it’s more to keep the soil around the vines warm and also to stop wild boar from digging holes and ruining the planting.
The forests round here are still full of boar, destructive creatures that would lay waste to every vineyard in the area if the vines weren’t protected.
In the autumn the boar are hunted to keep their numbers down otherwise the area would be overrun by them. And, as I was told many times, if they get into your garden you’ve had it.
So of course I’ve been knee-deep in books about Roman Provence since we got back and this is one of many tomes I’ve been engrossed in. Until I read this book I had no idea that there are more Roman monuments in Provence than anywhere else in the Roman occupied world, including Italy itself.
In Provence, the Romans have left behind bridges, aqueducts, amphitheatres, baths, temples, triumphal arches and roads that still bisect the countryside all around. I’m determined to return soon to visit areas such as Orange, Vienne, Arles, St Remy and Aix-en-Provence, just a few of the towns and cities here worth visiting that are full of Roman remains.
One of my favourite areas of Provence with a well-documented Roman history is Nîmes. I last visited here in the autumn of 2018 and was pleased to see the long awaited Musée de la Romanité was open. I thoroughly recommend it as it’s one of the best Roman museums I’ve ever seen, beautifully curated and with a stunning range of artefacts.
The Roman museum is also slap bang next door to the Arena de Nîmes, or old amphitheatre, so if you time your visit perfectly you can get to see two Roman attractions together.
In addition to books on Roman Provence, I really want to recommend a new mudlarking book that has just hit the shelves.
Written by fellow mudlark Malcolm Russell (please follow him on Instagram @mudhistorian) this beautifully written tome is called ‘Mudlark’d: Hidden Histories From The River Thames’, published by Thames and Hudson. I’ve blogged about mudlarking books before and this is the latest in what is promising to be a real golden age for new authors writing on this subject.
Malcolm’s book is perfect for anyone who loves the history of London and the Thames, telling vivid stories of forgotten people through objects found on the foreshore.
Each chapter introduced me to a great many facts that, even as a seasoned mudlark and historian, were completely new to me. Malcolm covers a comprehensive range of fascinating objects revealing the stories and voices of criminals, prisoners, enslaved peoples, immigrants, traders, queer folk, entertainers, smokers, gamblers, firefighters and many more. The book is a perfect people’s history, a welcome addition to what we tell ourselves about our past. I read Malcolm’s book in one weekend and can’t recommend it highly enough.
Last but not least, summer is definitely here and London is about to showcase a range of exhibitions and activities celebrating the Thames. Kicking off is a Mudlarking Day at Southwark Cathedral on Saturday 16th July, from 10.30am to 5pm, this being part of the National Festival of Archaeology 2022 and well worth supporting.
I’ll be at Southwark that day exhibiting some of my favourite finds along with other mudlarking friends, so do please pop along if you can and say hello. The event promises to be great fun and the Cathedral is a stunning venue.
There will also be a range of other activities at Southwark on that day including medieval tile making, foreshore walks, lectures, finds ID and an opportunity to see the casting of medieval pilgrim badges. Literally something for everyone so please put the date in your diaries.
I haven’t been out mudlarking as much as I’d like during the last month or so but, when I’ve been able to make the time, I’ve been finding some splendid artefacts, some of which have been on my lengthy wish list of ‘Things I’d Love To Find On The Foreshore’ for quite some time. On one of my most recent trips the finds included three stunning Roman objects, which makes them very special. So, thank you, River Thames. I’m extremely grateful.
Londinium, or Roman London, was the capital of Roman Britain during the period of Roman rule in Britain. Early Londinium was established on the current site of the City of London in approximately 47-50 AD, or mid-1st century, and was roughly half the area of the current City of London.
Archaeologists are still arguing about the precise date but it’s believed that in 60 AD a rebellion by Boudicca (or Boadicea), leader of the Iceni, resulted in newly established Roman London being torched to the ground. Excavations show clear traces of burnt soil from this period at a layer synonymous with Roman London, indicating how savage Boudicca’s assault was. The Roman response to her revolt was typically brutal and she was eventually defeated by the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius. It’s not clear whether Boudicca then killed herself, as thought by Tacitus, or died of severe wounds, as documented by Cassius Dio. Nonetheless, archaeological evidence is clear that this was a horrifically violent period of early London’s history.
After this grim period the City of London had to be rebuilt and it expanded rapidly. Its location on the Thames, at a key crossing point over the river, contributed to it becoming a major port enabling it to trade easily with the rest of the Roman Empire and further afield. The rebuilt Londinium was provided with large public buildings, most of which have sadly long since disappeared, such the forum and amphitheatre, and also a London Wall to define the landward side of the city, some of which can still be seen today near the Museum of London.
Roman London was at its height during the second century AD but then the population began to shrink again. By the 5th century, with very few Roman troops left in Britain, Londinium and other Romano-British towns began to decline drastically, buildings and infrastructure falling into ruin and decay. Trade broke down as the Roman Empire began to collapse, for reasons still argued about by historians, but attacks by barbarian tribes and famine were clear contributory factors. Over the next century Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians arrived from Northern Europe and began to establish tribal areas and Kingdoms while Londinium fell further into decay.
It wasn’t until the Viking invasions of England in the 9th century that King Alfred the Great resurrected the settlement within the old Roman London Walls. At its height, Roman London had been a very ethnically diverse city with inhabitants from across the entirety of the Roman Empire – as well as Britons, there were folk from Continental Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
When considering its relationship with the river as it is today, the embankment during the Roman period was located on Lower Thames Street, much further back than it is now. For those interested in the history of the Roman Port of London the evidence is still there to be seen, and to this end I highly recommend a visit to the beautiful old church of St Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street. Not only does it contain an archway that was once one of the pedestrian entrances to the Medieval London Bridge, but attached to one of its ancient stone walls as you enter is a nearly 2,000 year old piece of timber that gives me the shivers every time I come to see it.
It’s a segment of an old Roman Wharf dating from 75 AD, and found on Fish Street Hill in 1931. Many visitors to the church just walk straight past it but, if you happen to be in the area, please stop and give it a stroke. You are literally touching a piece of Roman London. If you’d like to read about this in greater depth I recommend a book called ‘The Port of Roman London’ by Gustav Milne. Gustav is a MOLA and Citizan archaeologist who first introduced me to this timber when a group of us did our FROG (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group) training with the archaeologists at Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) in 2018. Prior to this I didn’t even know the wharf timber existed. It’s a beautifully tactile piece of wood and very special.
Roman era artefacts from the river are very special and I recently made an absolute dream find on the Thames Foreshore; a Roman hair pin made of bone. On a day when the low tide wasn’t particularly good due to an unexpected storm surge in the Thames Estuary, I wasn’t expecting to discover anything of consequence. Which is absolutely fine; it’s what sometimes happens. But that then made it even sweeter when I spotted this beauty poking out from the gravel and stones, trapped in their rocky embrace.
Pins during the Roman period, whether Romano-Britain or elsewhere in the vast Roman Empire, were an essential part of a high status woman’s coiffure, especially as hair styles during this period of history were highly elaborate and complicated. The idea of ‘Wash’n’Go’ would have given a wealthy Roman woman a fit of the vapours. Natural hairstyles were associated with barbarian tribes who the Romans believed hadn’t the money or culture to style their tresses properly.
A Roman woman’s hair was twisted and coiled, then pinned to keep the complicated, elaborately curled shape. Hair pins from this period have been found in a wide range of materials, from wooden pins for poorer women to ones made of gold, bronze, glass or decorated bone for high status women.
Some pins were hugely ornate in design while others were simpler and plainer.
Bone pins came in a variety of different lengths from short to very long. I suspect a small bit of my pin find might have broken off at some point as it seems to be missing a possible half to one centimetre at the tip, yet it still remains functional.
The importance of highly elaborate hairstyles for wealthy Roman women came with a very dark side. Wigs and other hair pieces were very popular and fashionable – blonde hair from females of conquered Germanic tribes being highly prized as was black hair from India.
The photo below shows a marble bust featuring a typically ostentatious hairstyle worn by a wealthy woman from the Flavian period, 69 -96 AD. The bust is thought to be Julia, daughter of Emperor Titus, and it shows a literal beehive of dramatic curls stacked high on Julia’s head. Her hair would have taken hours to style.
Another recent dream find, and which might not appear to be that extraordinary on first viewing but is special to me, is this sherd of Samian ware pottery. Sherds of Roman Samian always bring a smile to my face, especially as they turn up much less frequently on the foreshore these days. Decorated fragments are a particular bonus.
Samian ware, or Terra Sigillata, was a fine tableware characterised by a vibrant glossy-red slip that was fired in both plain and decorated forms. The decorative Samian ware often shows a range of designs from flowers and foliage to hunting scenes, created by moulding onto the main body of the bowl.
Samian ware was mass-produced, the finished pieces often showing manufacturers’ stamps which help identify date and distribution. It was found throughout the Roman Empire, originally manufactured during Augustine’s reign in Arretium (Arezzo) in Italy before production moved elsewhere, particularly to Gaul, modern day France. Eventually, by the second century, Samian pottery was being produced in Roman Britain itself, principally in Pulborough in Sussex, Colchester in Essex and also in London itself. But it was generally of a poorer quality than its Gaulish counterpart.
I am grateful to fellow mudlark, artist and architect Ed Bucknall (please follow Ed on Instagram @edjbucknall) for his huge knowledge of Roman finds from the river. Ed immediately recognised that my piece of found Samian ware is from a more unusual type than is normally spotted in the Thames, ie, an Antonine period import.
The Antonine era of the Roman Empire spanned from 96-192 AD during which time a total of seven emperors ruled – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus and Commodus. The first five were known as the ‘Five Good Emperors’, although the murder of the last of them, the feeble Commodus in 192 AD, is thought to have signalled the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire.
And this sherd is different when compared with other, more common types of Samian ware found at low tide. It has a pattern of incised leaves, produced in a similar style to etching on glass, and it’s likely the complete item would have shown roundels featuring floral motifs and tendrils, flanked by leaves, such as in my example.
Last but not least, the final item in my trio of recent Thames Roman finds is this tiny, pale green/yellow bead, made of glass. Foreshore beads are notoriously difficult to date. On land, archaeologists analyse the order and position of layers of archaeological remains to help them place artefacts in an accurate historical context. This is known as stratigraphy. But in the mud of the river it’s much harder (though not impossible) to pin down the precise provenance of an artefact because the movement of the tides will wash items in from further afield. Nonetheless, it’s perfectly appropriate to assume that when a find is spotted in an area of the Thames where Roman artefacts routinely turn up at low tide, and we know was busy with activity during the peak of Londinium’s importance, the chances of it being Roman are high.
The colour, irregularity and general rough feel of this small glass bead definitely indicate Roman to me.
It’s been a difficult and anxious few weeks as war wages brutally in Ukraine, the rest of the world looking on powerless. I try to avoid politics in these blogs, or real life worries creeping in (this is a historical blog, when all is said and done, a distraction from the present) but sometimes it’s impossible to ignore terrible events that affect us all. This is one of those times. We can’t turn our backs on awful atrocities and it’s important to acknowledge this and bear witness. Meanwhile my family, along with many others, have tried to do what we can, including donating to the hugely experienced people at the International Red Cross who have well established operations in both Ukraine and Poland where so many displaced refugees have ended up. I hope and pray that peace comes to Ukraine soon.
Sometimes, in the light of my opening paragraph, mudlarking seems quite trivial in comparison with grim world events, and I must admit my heart hasn’t been in the last few trips to the Thames. But life continues, we put one foot in front of the other, and on we go.
My first blog of 2022 was about discovering a family link to Limehouse on my husband’s side of the family and this blog is a continuation of that. It features a mudlarking find on the foreshore here which tells the history of a particular group of people within the Limehouse community that isn’t perhaps as well known as it should be.
There’s an area by the embankment wall where I’ve previously noticed lots of metal gathering together in a clump at low tide. Deep within this cluster of scrap – iron nails, chains and corroding rivets from old boats and barges – I spotted what I thought was an unusual coin. Made of brass/copper alloy, with four Chinese characters visible, it has a square hole in the centre. On the reverse side there’s what looks like a serpent, or maybe two serpents intertwined, it’s difficult to say for sure. A fellow mudlark came over to check out what I’d found and told me this wasn’t a coin at all but a Chinese gaming token.
Limehouse has long been associated with the beginnings of the first Chinese community in London from 1880 onwards, divided into two distinct groups. Northern Chinese and those speaking the Shanghai dialect settling around Pennyfields in the east, while the Cantonese community from Hong Kong or Guangzhou (Canton) settled nearer the docks on Limehouse Causeway.
The years leading to the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901) saw the British determined to expand their influence in China. Soldiers, merchants and missionaries set sail from Limehouse Reach to China, while ships returning to Limehouse and other UK ports, such as Liverpool and the Tiger Bay area in Cardiff, saw Chinese sailors, employed by British ships as cheap labour, jump ship when they arrived here. They tended to settle wherever they’d alighted and quickly opened up shops, cafés, laundries and gambling houses. It’s likely that my token find may have been used in a game known as Fan Tan played in a Limehouse gambling den. The romantic in me has even speculated this token may have been touched by the hands of my husband’s great-grandfather George who lived on Narrow Street nearby. But that’s wishful thinking, I know. We have no evidence he gambled but he may well have indulged in the occasional flutter.
Limehouse quickly became dubbed ‘Chinatown’ by the newspapers, and initially the new arrivals were viewed in a positive light bringing a dash of exotic colour to a grey, grimy and busy docklands area.
Inevitably hostility to the new community began to creep in. Limehouse women began to marry Chinese men, who they viewed as a better catch than many of the local males. Chinese men were seen as hard-working, non-drinking, exotic and therefore more reliable husband material than much of what was normally on offer. This led to resentment and anger. In 1901 The Morning Post wrote about an incident where an angry mob stoned the first Chinese Laundry that had just opened its doors in the Pennyfields area. It was sadly the precursor of similar acts to come.
By 1910 powerful, sinister myths began to develop around the Chinese community in Limehouse, politicians manipulating fears around cheap and plentiful immigrant labour (a familiar and effective anti-immigration trope still deployed today) and writers of popular fiction began to use Chinese Limehouse as a setting for their books. Drug trafficking (opium), gambling and the sexual ensnarement and exploitation of white women featured prominently in these best-selling stories.
The most famous of these writers was Sax Rohmer (real name Arthur Henry Ward) who published the first of his evil Dr Fu-Manchu novels set in the exotic underworld of Limehouse in 1913.
But even at its height, Limehouse residents of Chinese origin only numbered about 300 or so. The 1920s slum clearances eventually contributed to the decline of this community here and it began to move slowly to Soho and the West End where it remains today.
There is a strange twist to this tale of the history of the Chinese community in Limehouse and my gaming token find on the foreshore. Shortly after I’d posted the story of this artefact on social media, a fellow mudlark contacted me to say that a local man, for reasons that remain unclear, had apparently bought a large number of modern Chinese gaming tokens from the website of the world’s largest online retailer and been seen throwing them into the river at Limehouse. Perhaps to tease, frustrate or even annoy the mudlarking community who come down here to search for finds, but it’s unfortunate if so. Inevitably it seems that mudlarks have been finding these ‘fake’ Chinese gaming tokens, believing they’ve discovered the real thing. It would seem these particular tokens are anything but.
I hope that the token I found is an original one. I spotted it a bit further downstream from where the newer interlopers seem to be ending up and it looks much thinner than these ‘fake’ types. Also my token has traces of wear and tear, plus some green discolouration round the edge, typical of brass/copper alloy when it’s been immersed in water for some time. So I think, and hope, it’s the real McCoy. But who knows?
Still not too late, just, to wish everyone a Happy New Year and to welcome you all, plus new readers, to my first blog of 2022.
January has begun with some cracking finds for me from the Thames Foreshore, including a particularly special one, a dream find, if you will, that I’ll be writing about at some future point. You can be sure of that!
But this blog is a slight deviation from my usual mudlarking round-ups and if you read on you’ll understand why.
January has seen the 1921 census for England and Wales released online (if you’re waiting for Scotland’s 1921 census records, these have been delayed) – a timely opportunity to investigate the past especially as there will be, unfortunately, no 1931 census records for England and Wales. This is because during the night of Saturday 19 December 1942, an extensive fire broke out at an Office of Works store in Hayes, Middlesex and destroyed all the census records. The Scottish ones were thankfully unaffected as they were safely stored in Edinburgh at the time, but an absolute catastrophe for anyone trying to trace their English/Welsh ancestry and family tree.
And there was no 1941 census either because the world was at war.
But the 1921 census for England and Wales threw up fascinating new information about my husband’s family and I really wanted to write about some of the things we discovered, especially as this links in with one of my favourite areas for mudlarking, which I haven’t written about before; Limehouse. There is also something incredibly compelling about exploring one’s past and I think the last two years of the pandemic has made us keener than ever to look for things that root and reassure us, even if what we discover isn’t necessarily what we want to hear. Nonetheless this can open a door to a greater understanding of past times when our ancestors were facing difficult challenges of their own, much as we are now.
So, one January Sunday afternoon as the 1921 census was released, Mr A spent many hours engrossed in discovering new details about his great-grandfather George who, it was revealed, was living on Narrow Street, Limehouse, as a retired seaman. Intriguingly the sea features frequently in this side of the family and many of the men on my husband’s father’s line have a long established association with the docks, ships, seafaring and careers in the navy. It was known that at least one branch of the family had had some association with living and working in Poplar, at the docks, not far from Limehouse, but Limehouse itself had never been mentioned in the family history.
For those unfamiliar with this area, Limehouse is a district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in East London, within shouting distance of Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs.
As a seaman, great-grandfather George would have known Limehouse Basin well. It’s now more commonly referred to as Limehouse Marina, with its pretty, jewel-coloured narrow boats and barges jostling for place. The area is clean, sparkling and trendy, benefiting from recent redevelopment and modernisation. Lung busting, toxic, smoke-filled air is no more, the factories, lime kilns and industrial furnaces a thing of the past.
The vintage black and white photograph above gives an indication of the Basin when George was living in Limehouse and he would have been familiar with it, especially as it’s a short walk from here to Narrow Street where he lived. The basin was then deep enough to accommodate large vessels competing for space with literally hundreds of boats and barges bringing in goods from far afield. In fact, so packed and busy was Limehouse Basin in George’s day, you could walk across it stepping from one barge to the other.
The house where George lived is, amazingly, still there so of course we went to see it. Set on Narrow Street it’s the tall, thin white one nestling comfortably between J & R Wilson and Co of Limehouse Wharf on the right and the vibrant blue corner building on the left. The blue building had once been a pub called The Old King’s Head, more than likely to have been George’s local rather than The Grapes, further along Narrow Street. The pub was eventually sold and became a banana merchants before being sold again. It is now in private ownership.
We managed to find an old black and white photo from the 1930s, we think, showing the house on the corner next to the white house where George lived. The photo shows the building in use as a banana merchants owned by B. A. Lambert. Narrow Street has since been modernised extensively but it’s astonishing to think this part of it remains structurally unchanged and would still be largely recognisable to anyone from the early to mid 1900s walking down it today.
Behind Narrow Street, in Three Colt Street, George would have been aware of Limehouse Pottery. The name Limehouse comes from the lime oasts or kilns which were established here in the 14th century. Originally used to produce lime for building mortar, pottery manufacture quickly followed. The original Limehouse Pottery, on the site of today’s Limekiln Wharf, was established in the 1740s as England’s first soft paste porcelain factory.
Many of the Limehouse wharves and buildings were destroyed during the terrible bombing raids of the Blitz in 1940/1941 but some core buildings remain which give a hint of the history and heritage of this special area. I particularly loved Sailmakers House, beautifully restored and decorated with original windows, pulley and hoist still visible. The sailmakers and ropemakers on Narrow Street would have been familiar sights to George.
There’s so much that my husband has yet to find out about the life George lived while resident in Narrow Street. For example, we’re currently looking into whether he rented or owned his house outright, and we think his house was once a shop (the black and white photo shows signage displayed on the front.) We know that at the time of the census he was living with one of his widowed daughters. The 1921 census took place just a few years after the end of the first world war so that may explain why she was widowed. The first world war had had a devastating effect on communities, wiping out entire generations of men, destroying families and leaving a legacy of untold grief and economic hardship. Whether a war widow or not, George’s daughter would have struggled financially so moving in with her father would have been the only option for her. There is still a great deal we need to discover.
While we were in Limehouse I couldn’t resist a quick spot of mudlarking to end our visit here. It was a gloomy, overcast day weather-wise, with an ominous threat of rain as we stepped down onto the Thames Foreshore. We couldn’t help wondering what George would have made of the steel and glass skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in the near distance, the tops of the tall buildings shrouded that day in mist and fog.
While Mr A wandered about taking photos I walked off to some familiar areas to see if I could find any interesting finds and struck lucky when I quickly spotted a lead bale seal, which would have been attached to a sack bringing in goods to the wharves above the foreshore on the embankment. I also found some pretty tin-glazed pottery, possibly once used by a resident of late 17th century or 18th century Limehouse.
George would have experienced the bustle and noise of the many wharves and businesses at Limehouse while he was living here and, although inevitably there’s been a lot of new building and development in the area over the last few decades, in places it’s still just as recognisable as in the days when great-grandfather George called this place home.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s been a difficult and challenging last few weeks for me which is why my latest mudlarking blog is a little bit late this month. Unfortunately we recently had to say farewell to our beautiful boy cat Clyde, who was in his nineteenth year and becoming increasingly unwell and fragile. We knew his time to leave us had come. It’s been very upsetting for my family as he’s been with us for so long and our children have literally grown up with him, he was present in their lives for so many years while they were growing up. We still have our girl cat with us but she’s also quite elderly now, in reasonably good health for her age albeit a touch arthritic in the back legs.
So Godspeed and go well, dear lad – the George Clooney of the cat world, bon viveur, chief mouser and mudlarking finds assistant. It’s been a joy and privilege having you in our lives. We will miss you.
Two weeks ago we had some excellent low tides and I managed to visit parts of the Thames Foreshore I hadn’t been to for a fair old while, well before the pandemic began. One of these was the Chelsea foreshore, a favourite haunt of mine for many years and somewhere that not many mudlarks tend to go to, probably because you need to work much harder to find things such as small metal objects, and also maybe because it’s harder to get to than, say, the City of London Foreshore.
But Chelsea has long been somewhere I love to visit and I alternate coming to the north side of the river with visits to the Battersea foreshore on the south side of the river.
Early Chelsea was a small Saxon village, originally called ‘cealc hythe’, which is Saxon for ‘chalk wharf’ – ‘cealc’ meaning chalk and ‘hythe’ meaning wharf or landing place. The Anglo-Saxon period in Britain spans approximately six centuries from the end of Roman Britain in 410 AD to the Norman Conquest in 1066. It’s still unfairly referred to as the Dark Ages, probably becasue the early Saxon period has little in the way of written documents that have survived. It was also a time of battles and wars as Roman Britain was carved up by various war lords who divided Britain up into competing kingdoms. The Anglo-Saxon period also saw the conversion of these islands to Christianity, heavily reflected in the art and culture of these times, and it also experienced multiple Viking invasions.
Whereas up on the Chelsea Embankment the evidence of early Saxon habitation has long gone, nonetheless the Thames still has traces of local Saxon history in the form of a stunning fish trap which is visible at very low tides. I’m always amazed at how few people notice or are even interested in the fish trap as they go about their business, but it’s still very prominent in the river for those interested, its presence fiercely guarded by Bruce the bulldog, resident of one of the Chelsea Houseboats, who barks ferociously at anyone approaching to take photos. (Don’t worry, Bruce is extremely vocal but harmless.)
I’m indebted to the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) and their book ‘The River’s Tale’ (available from MOLA publications which I’ve referenced before as a book well worth reading) for my knowledge of fish traps in general, and this one in particular. Fish traps are temporary or permanent structures that use intertidal or fluvial flows to trap fish or eels. As you can see in my photo of the Chelsea fish trap, two sides form a V-shaped structure with a narrow gap at the point of the ‘V’ where a wattle or net trap was placed. As the water level drops at the lowering of the tide, fish trapped between the sides are forced towards the narrow gap where they were collected. Anglo-Saxon fish traps could be very large and often linked to the presence of monastic or other big estates controlled by a Lord of the Manor, and in fact a manorial estate once existed in Chelsea near the river. After the conversion to Christianity in the 7th century AD, fish was an extremely important part of the diet especially on Fridays, Holy days, fast-days and during the period of Lent.
The Chelsea fish trap is extremely well preserved and has been radio-carbon dated to cal AD 660-890. Incredibly it was only discovered by Thames archaeologists during the late 1990s. This structure had survived in the river for over a thousand years without anyone paying much attention to it.
Chelsea remained a small but growing village until the Tudor period. Thomas More – lawyer, judge, writer, philosopher, Lord High Chancellor of England, friend and servant to Henry VIII – moved here in 1520 and owned a spacious property in the area of what is now Beaufort Street, covering many acres of land and stretching to the river where his barge was moored ready to take him to Hampton Court Palace or Westminster on the King’s business.
Thomas More was executed by King Henry VIII in 1535 because he refused to bend his strongly held religious beliefs for Henry’s political agenda and for his refusal to sign the Act of Supremacy in 1534 (which established the Monarch, not the Pope, as the head of the church in England.) Robert Bolt’s play, later made into a 1966 film ‘A Man For All Seasons’ – starring Paul Scofield as Thomas More and Robert Shaw as Henry VIII – is excellent and well worth watching as it depicts these religious and spiritual conflicts of More’s final years.
There is no longer anything left of Thomas More’s house and estate in Chelsea other than a tiny bit of original garden wall and what is now known as Roper’s Garden, a sunken garden situated on land that was once part of the orchard belonging to the More estate, eventually given as a gift to More’s brilliant daughter Margaret on her marriage to William Roper in 1521. During the 18th century houses were built on what had once been the orchard but were destroyed by a German parachute mine dropped on 17th April 1941. The council insisted this land should be left as a public garden in memory of those who had lost their lives.
Margaret Roper (More) 1505-1544 was one of the most educated women in 16th century England, a writer and translator. I’m a huge admirer of her intelligence and bravery. Daughter of Thomas More and his first wife Jane Colt (who sadly died in childbirth), Margaret was briefly imprisoned after she set out on a dangerous journey by boat from Chelsea towards the Tower of London on a mission to collect her father’s head after his execution. For this act alone she herself could have paid with her life but she was brave to the core and determined to restore some dignity to what was left of her father’s body, insistent that he should have a proper Christian burial. Otherwise his remains would have been left to rot on London Bridge as was the norm for the victims of executions at that brutal time, whose heads were left on spikes as a warning to others.
Thomas More’s head was finally buried with Margaret in Chelsea Old Church but modern scholarship has now established that Margaret’s remains, and her father’s head, were eventually removed from here and re-interred in the Roper family grave, together with her husband William, in St Dunstan’s church, Canterbury. Church records tell us that the rest of Thomas More’s body lies in an unmarked grave within the walls of the Tower of London.
There is a striking miniature of Margaret Roper painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1535-36. In it I think she looks tired, dark circles under her eyes, but this isn’t the slightest bit surprising if you realise the portrait was painted a year after the trauma of her father’s execution. Visitors to Chelsea Old Church can see a statue of the Saint (Sir Thomas More was quickly canonised by the Pope), just outside (see photo below), his face and hands a striking gold colour, glittering in the sun. I’m not sure whether More himself would have approved of this statue but it’s certainly eye-catching and I often see people taking snaps of it.
Today’s Chelsea has the reputation of being a mecca for the very wealthy and indeed the prices of property in this borough are pretty eye-watering, especially those homes in famous Cheyne Walk with its river views. Author George Eliot once lived here for a while as did poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, co-founder of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Chelsea has long been a place with an arty, bohemian reputation, and many other artists, writers and creative people have also in the past chosen to make it their home. William De Morgan, ceramicist, potter, friend of William Morris and heavily influenced by the ideology of the arts and crafts movement, set up a pottery in Chelsea in 1872 where he stayed until 1881. The area obviously agreed with him as this decade was one of the most fruitful in his professional life. On my mudlarking list of ‘things I’d like to find’ is a complete William De Morgan wall tile, but so far these have eluded me. There are some examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum so they will have to do for now.
One of my favourite novels is ‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald. Her third novel, and which won the Booker Prize, it’s inspired by the time the author lived on an old Thames barge moored on this very part of the Thames at Chelsea Embankment. The book explores the emotional restlessness of the houseboat community here who live neither fully on the water nor on the land and end up dependent on each other for support when their lives become challenging. The main character is Nenna, living on a houseboat called Grace, who is an abandoned wife and distant mother to her two very young daughters, Martha and Tilda. The girls rarely go to school, are running wild, and spend much of their time mudlarking on the river. There is a glorious passage in the book describing them finding a stash of William De Morgan tiles on an old sunken barge at low tide, which they then sell for a very good price to an antiques dealer on the King’s Road.
On this recent mudlarking visit to the Chelsea foreshore the tide was an unusually low one. I found myself sharing the foreshore with a couple of metal detectorists, one of whom ended up on the wrong end of a police launch which had pulled in to check his detecting permit, a lesson to everyone who searches for historical items on the foreshore that we always need to make sure we have our permits with us at all times.
The exceptional low tide exposed parts of the foreshore not usually visible during normal low tides and I was pleased to come away with a more than satisfactory haul of brass buttons, pearl buttons, beads, dress hooks and other fastenings. Also parts of lead toys, possibly thrown into the river by a badly behaved child or maybe accidentally disposed of as rubbish. Vintage photographs from this area, prior to the building of the embankment during the Victorian period, show that the river in this area was once dominated by old wharves and warehouses from which items were lost and dropped into the Thames as goods were loaded and unloaded from boats and barges all the way up to Lot’s Road Power Station.
It’s always nice to find a button with the name of a local button maker or outfitter and I wasn’t disappointed with the numerous button finds I made that day, the photograph above showing a small selection. Below is a favourite find showing an Edwardian gent’s fly button, made of brass and manufactured by Noble of Chelsea. I haven’t been able to discover very much about Noble as yet and this is one of those occasions where the internet hasn’t been particularly helpful with my research. I need to look into primary sources, maps, electoral rolls, Victorian business directories and so forth, and have just emailed the archivist at Chelsea Library to arrange a visit to search through local archives. Unfortunately the pandemic has seriously affected access to archives and the Chelsea library, like many others up and down the UK, is currently open for only two afternoons a week. But I hope to be able to research this button properly soon.
And just as I was leaving the foreshore I saw this pretty sherd of late 19th century blue on white transferware porcelain showing a delightful little scene of two swans gliding on a lake, the piece broken in the most perfect place. I don’t take much transferware away with me from the foreshore these days as I have so much at home, but if I find something like this then it just has to come home with me.
So a really fruitful return to the Chelsea foreshore, a bit of light in an otherwise sad month. As I made my way back to the station and home, I was particularly struck with how beautiful the local houses were, their gardens bursting with blowsy, gorgeously scented purple wisteria. A perfect spring day on this part of the river in South West London.