‘The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.’
From the book of the Revelation to St John.
A new year and my first mudlarking blog of 2020 began with a visit to the ancient stone walls of Southwark Cathedral. Sunday 12th January is the annual ceremony of ‘The Blessing Of The River’, the river of course referring to the Thames, that glittering liquid silver artery that has its source in a remote field at Trewsbury Mead, southwest of Cirencester, Gloucestershire, gathering pace and volume as it journeys downstream, flowing through the bustling heart of the City of London before finally ending its journey out in the Estuary.
A procession leads the way from Southwark Cathedral on the southbank, meeting a similar one from St Magnus The Martyr on the northbank, in the middle of London Bridge.
Thomas à Becket gave his final sermon here in Southwark Cathedral 850 years ago before setting off to Canterbury for the very last time. 2020 is a very special year as it marks the 850th commemoration of his martyrdom.
The purpose of this ceremony is to bless those who work and look after the river and those who use it for recreation. Special blessings are also said for those who have died on or near the river. This year was particularly poignant as a small procession from St Magnus The Martyr church, en route to London Bridge, stopped by The Monument in order to leave floral tributes and say prayers for the young people killed in the recent terrorist atrocity at Fishmongers’ Hall. In previous years, prayers have also been said for victims of the Marchioness disaster which occurred in the early hours of the 20th August 1989.
We began the procession from the font at Southwark Cathedral in a cloud of incense. Bishop Peter Price, formerly Bishop of Kingston, led the group from Southwark, while Bishop Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Fulham, led the group en route from St Magnus The Martyr, based on Lower Thames Street on the north side of the river. St Magnus The Martyr church is also well worth a visit as it’s the gateway to the original London Bridge of medieval times.
We parade out of Southwark Cathedral through Borough Market en route to London Bridge, the buildings of medieval London jostling with the new while curious passers-by and tourists stop to ask what we’re doing and to take photos. Contrary to appearances, this particular ceremony is only approximately twenty years old and was the idea of Father Philip Warner of St Magnus The Martyr, although almost certainly blessing ceremonies of the river have existed in one incarnation or other for hundreds of years. This particular ceremony borrows from the Eastern Christian tradition of blessing water by dipping a cross in it, and merging with it a symbolic ritual of baptism because the ceremony is held every year on the Feast Day of the Baptism of Christ.
The Blessing of the Thames procession reaches London Bridge and crosses over to reach the other side as traffic stops to let us pass, the gold and scarlet robes of the clergy providing a bright and welcome contrast to the steel grey and sombre city skyline. The sun battled with a fierce wind that at one stage whipped up from nowhere.
The women of Southwark Cathedral clergy were particularly magnificent in their scarlet and gold chasubles, defiant in the face of the wind screaming in our ears and causing vestments to flap wildly. At one point I feared Bishop Peter was in danger of taking off and ending up in the river.
We meet with the procession from St Magnus The Martyr in the middle of London Bridge and greet each other warmly. Readings and prayers are said. A wooden cross is then ceremonially handed to the two bishops who, facing downstream (east) towards Tower Bridge, together throw it into the river.
The cross momentarily disappears under one of the arches of London Bridge before eventually the current begins to carry it on and out towards the estuary. Because the cross is made of wood it’s biodegradable and poses no risk of polluting the river.
As leaden clouds gather over the buildings in the City, the final prayer is said and we are blessed with holy water by the bishops. The ceremony concludes with everyone invited for refreshments at either St Magnus The Martyr or Southwark Cathedral.
If you’d like to take part in next year’s Blessing Of The River Ceremony next January 2021, please keep an eye on either The Southwark Cathedral or St Magnus The Martyr websites.
It’s almost farewell to 2019 and hello to 2020, not just the end of a year but the end of a decade too and the start of a new one. So, for my final mudlarking blog of the last twelve months, I thought it was timely to celebrate my favourite ‘Best Nine’ finds since I first started mudlarking approximately five years ago. This was tough, a bit like having to choose your favourite child, but I’ve finally managed to narrow it down to this little lot and I adore every single one of these objects ever since the day I first found them on the Thames. What’s particularly special for me is that these are finds that encompass many different parts of the Thames Foreshore, from Fulham and Putney upstream in south west London, to Rotherhithe and Greenwich downstream in the east of the capital. London’s history is rich, varied and spanning millennia; the Thames never ceases to surprise me with its gifts.
Now recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) by the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) at the Museum of London, I can’t reveal exactly where I found this Medieval token other than to say it was on a part of the Thames Foreshore in the centre of London where there were once multiple ancient quays and wharves for the import of various goods from other parts of the country, and from Europe and beyond. Tokens were issued in lieu of coins when there was a shortage of currency, and these could be exchanged for goods eg bread or beer, or a service such as brothel tokens, quite common from Medieval times onwards. This particular token find was made of pewter (I thought it was silver when I first caught a glimpse of it among the gravel of the foreshore) and has now been formally identified as from the later Medieval period, approximately 1400. It shows a central design of a flower comprising five petals and a stem, and is quite light and thin, the thinness itself an indicator of age as later tokens tend to be quite heavy and coarse.
The Black Death swept through Europe in the 14th Century, arriving in England in 1348. Its spread throughout these islands was quick and vicious, and many villages, towns and cities were decimated as a result. I’ve chosen this token out of the many that I’ve found because it feels very special, a turning point in history, the design of it alone showing that artistry and creativity had begun to return after the darkest of times.
At the beginning of 2019 I was lucky enough to find my first complete and undamaged Codd Bottle. More common in the Estuary and in Victorian bottle dumps but nonetheless rare in the Thames in London, in part due to children deliberately breaking them when coming across them in order to get at the Codd marble lodged inside the lugg (the pinched section of the bottle). Codd bottles were designed and patented by Hiram Codd of Camberwell in 1872, and were used to store aerated drinks such as lemonade or fizzy water. The marble pressed against a rubber washer at the neck to keep the bubbles fresh.
My Codd Bottle find was made near some chalk beds at Rotherhithe. Barges would have rested on the chalk at low tide and it’s easy to imagine careless fingers accidentally dropping these bottles into the river at high tide when unloading them for transportation and sale elsewhere.
A few years ago I was lucky to find a beautiful Victorian stoneware inkwell, known as a ‘penny pot’ or ‘pork pie’ due to its appearance. These would have been filled with black ink before being sealed with a cork and then sold. Tactile and smooth to the touch, Charles Dickens would have used an ink pot just like this when writing his novels. I discovered my ‘penny pot’ on a cold but clear early spring day while mudlarking near Newcastle Drawdock on the Isle of Dogs, directly opposite the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich. I imagine that these stoneware inkwells were probably being unloaded from a large vessel in the area when a consignment of them dropped into the Thames and this one embedded itself in river mud, waiting for me to find it over a hundred years later. I keep my Victorian inkwell on the desk in my office and it inspires me when I’m writing.
My most recent clay pipe find was this beautifully carved example discovered by me while mudlarking on the Putney foreshore early one grey and murky afternoon in December, fairly close to Putney Green, once the home of William Pitt the Younger. A strange coincidence as the pipe commemorates the Act of Union in 1801 when Ireland was forcibly joined to England, Wales and Scotland as a single Kingdom, ie the United Kingdom. The Act of Union itself was hugely controversial and passed through Parliament during George III’s reign when Pitt the Younger was First Minister, effectively in the role of Prime Minister although that title wasn’t in formal use at the time.
Unsurprisingly the Act of Union was hugely unpopular with the Irish and a short while later Pitt resigned when his proposed reforms were ignored and Irish Catholics were refused emancipation. Eventually the south and north west of Ireland separated from the Union and became a sovereign nation known as the Irish Republic or Eire, while only Northern Ireland, with its historically controversial Protestant heritage and loyalty to the English crown, remained part of the United Kingdom we know today. Who knows if we’ll still have a United Kingdom at the end of this decade? We live in worryingly unpredictable political times.
One of my most special pieces of pottery, in fact the first ever piece of 17th Century tin-glaze I found on the foreshore, is this Delft beauty. The fragment, although broken, is as clear and fresh as the day it was painted. Discovered while I was mudlarking in 2015 on the Southbank, close to the Oxo Tower, where I used to find similarly large chunks of tin glaze pottery fairly often in those earlier days. Sadly, a few years further down the line, this type of pottery find is becoming increasingly rare in this particular part of the foreshore. This sherd is from a charger, or plate, a sturdy white earthenware decorated quickly in free-style with ferns and foliage, blue on white, and then covered in a clear tin glaze. The artist had to work fast to get the bulk of the design painted on the plate before the glaze dried, hence the sometimes ‘slapdash’ look of some of these pieces from this period.
Another very special find was this post medieval die or dice (I’ve written about this in more detail in an earlier blog) also now recorded on the PAS. I found it nestling under a large rock in the centre of London, perhaps dropped by someone from an ancient barge or boat a few hundred years ago and then annoyed at its loss. Maybe this person was winning in a game of dice but couldn’t continue once the piece disappeared into the murky waters of the Thames? Who knows…. The die is known as a Potter’s Variant 16 and is linked to a group of 40 similar die discovered at excavations that took place on the site of the Fleet Prison. It’s thought to be the work of a single prisoner, whose name we’ll never know, making these from meal bones to sell. A beautifully tactile object to hold in one’s hand, its history and connection to the Fleet Prison make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. In the spirit of recycling, we use this die when we play our family board games at Christmas and, every time I hold it in my hands, I try to remember the person who first made it all those centuries ago.
About six months ago on a wet and damp autumnal day on the foreshore, I saw what I thought was the shank of an old brass button sticking up from the mud. I pulled it out and quickly placed it in my finds bag ready to clean up later. When I got home and washed it I realised it wasn’t a button at all but a hawking or hunting bell. Even better, a gentle clean with a cotton bud to remove the mud from inside the sound holes at the base of the bell led to the discovery of a tiny clay pip. Even better than this, the clay pip still rang and made a beautiful jingling noise literally bringing the sounds of the 17th and 18th Century back to life. It was a glorious moment.
The hawking or hunting bell was found by me on a part of the Thames Foreshore where ancient wharves and quays once bustled with hundreds of boats and barges importing corn and grain, as well as other goods. The area would have swarmed with rats and other vermin so hunting birds such as Harris Hawks and Kestrels would have been used as natural pest control to protect the grain supply. The person who would have trained hawks for hunting was known as an ‘Austringer’, a word that originates from medieval French.
In 2017 my year was made when I found this fragment of wedge riveted mail armour lying on a slab of rock on the Thames Foreshore in the City of London. I shudder to think that I nearly didn’t pick it up, thinking it was just rusting iron scrap from a boat or barge, but a little voice inside me made me go back, pick it up and take it home with me. I’m very glad I did. When I later took it to the Museum of London it was identified as being chain mail, once part of a suit of armour, from approximately the 12th to 16th Century although more likely to be from the late 15th or early 16th Century. It’s now recorded with the PAS and is probably part of the shoulder or arm from a full suit of armour as the links over the body would have been riveted in a different manner.
Chain mail was incredibly valuable and expensive to make and even after a soldier’s death would have been recycled. It wouldn’t have been thrown casually into the river, so who knows how it got there.
Last, but not least, my most recent mudlarking find of 2019 is this lead key. I’m not sure of its precise provenance but it definitely has quite a bit of age to it and is likely to be from Georgian times, approximately early 1800s. I’m guessing it might have been the key to a chest or something similar, and whoever lost it would have been furious. Who knows the secrets it once kept locked? Hopefully once I’ve taken this beauty to the FLO at the Museum of London in the new year I’ll be able to tell you a little more about it but, for now, we can only guess at the story this key might tell.
Thank you for reading my blog this year and hoping my key unlocks some new finds in 2020. There are many occasions when I don’t find much, if at all, on my foreshore visits so I’m always grateful when things turn up and I can share my stories of forgotten people from the past.
If you’d like to take up mudlarking or detecting, please note that it’s illegal to remove items from the foreshore without a valid permit. These can be obtained from the Port of London Authority (see Advice section of my blog for a hyperlink), who are currently issuing permits for 2020 – 2022. Please see their website for further guidance and information regarding safe access to the foreshore at low tide. I also recommend the marvellous folk at the Thames Discovery Programme, under the umbrella of the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA,) who organise guided foreshore tours suitable for everyone. These are a safe way of discovering the history and archaeology of the Thames if you feel that solitary visits to the river are not for you. Please check out their website for 2020 schedules, a hyperlink is also available in the advice section of my website.
Happy New Year to you all, and wishing everyone a peaceful and healthy 2020.
November’s drawing to a close and Christmas is fast approaching. If you’re anything like me you’re probably wondering where this year has gone as 2019 seems to have disappeared in the blink of an eye. Who knows what 2020 will bring as we face a new and potentially worrying decade. I’m always grateful I have my mudlarking trips to the Thames to bring temporary distraction from all manner of worries and anxiety about the future.
But it’s been a good and busy month so I’m grateful for my blessings. At the beginning of November I was invited by the good people of North Hertfordshire Museum, in Hitchin, to give a mudlarking lecture. It was a real pleasure to do so. The audience were a delight and it was an absolute joy to take everyone on a tour of my beloved Thames, from Teddington to the Estuary, talk about some of my favourite mudlarking finds and explain the stories behind them. Thank you again, North Herts, for inviting me. I had a blast.
The foreshore has also been very kind to me during November and my mudlarking sessions have resulted in some very nice finds, for which I’m extremely grateful. I won’t write about everything I’ve found in this blog but will save them up for future ones.
One of my favourite places to mudlark is the Putney/Fulham foreshore, not too far from my home in South West London . Some mudlarks are reticent, understandably, about revealing their favourite secret places and I totally get that. Clearly, if you find something of major historical importance you don’t reveal the precise spot, for obvious reasons, but I genuinely don’t have an issue sharing some of my favourite locations and there are never that many of us mudlarking in this particular area. The Thames is an almost hundred mile ribbon of water running through the capital and out into the Estuary so it’s difficult to keep it secret, and talking a bit about your favourite locations isn’t going to cause a mad rush of people to the foreshore. If I felt secretive about my mudlarking I wouldn’t be writing this blog, because I enjoy sharing what I’ve discovered.
But back to this month’s finds. Take a look at the photo above. Can you see what was glinting up at me from the stones? If you can’t, then the photo below will reveal all.
I’ve found rings before, a couple of silver ones and a few made from base metal and paste, but this is the first engagement ring from the foreshore. It felt both surprising and slightly sad picking it up, taking a closer look and turning it over to check for a hallmark or inscription. Heavy, white gold, five glittering diamonds in a solid rather than claw setting, in my mind’s eye I was imagining it thrown, with some force, from Putney Bridge. My first thoughts were that this was obviously the final act in the end of a relationship and a broken-hearted, weeping fiancée decided to throw it in the river where it would be lost forever.
Except, of course, it simply washed back onto the foreshore on a low tide where I found it. Life is never straightforward. The river is a depository for secrets and shattered hearts but it doesn’t always want to keep the things thrown into it. I don’t know why but I had a particular image of someone throwing this in at night, the darkness perhaps offering a better camouflage for their grief. But anyone who’s walked across Putney Bridge at any time of day or night will know it’s pretty much always busy with traffic and people, so I doubt whoever did this was able to remain completely anonymous.
And, as a few people have correctly observed to me, maybe it was thrown away by someone utterly relieved that their relationship had ended and deciding to mark the occasion with a symbolic hurling of a once precious ring into the dark waters of the Thames in a ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’ kind of way. If that was the case, I like to think of the woman (yes, I do think it was a woman – I’m not sure a man would wear a ring like this but I’m happy to be proved wrong,) turning on her heels and walking away defiantly, head held high, ready to begin a new chapter in her life. Good on you, love, if that was you and you’re reading this blog.
After putting the ring away in my finds bag (have decided with this one I’ll sell it and give the proceeds to my favourite three charities – I’m not sure what else can you do with a ring like this?) I turned and headed further upstream in the direction of some old landing steps at the far end of Bishop’s Park where once the penny ferry used to bring Fulham fans across the south side of the river to their ground at Craven Cottage nearby. The foreshore is very different from the City of London here; less of the eroding mud from which emerge glittering goodies, but more heavily built up with a hard core of rock, stones and gravel. It can be difficult to find metal items here unless you have a metal detector (I don’t) and nearby steps are always muddy and slippery. But there can often be found a fair trail of pottery sherds here, the river depositing them in random patterns on the foreshore.
It was here that on that very grey day when I found the engagement ring I later spotted a welcome flash of royal blue something hidden among some stones and rubble at the edge of the tide line, slightly submerged in the water.
A fair bit of research later and a lengthy trip down an internet rabbit hole of Victorian cosmetics manufacturers, I managed to discover what this lid was and what it looked like in its entirety. It’s a John Gosnell and Company lid from a pot of Russian Bear’s Grease, a product popular with the Victorian gentleman worried about his thinning hair. The company moved to various different locations throughout its history but at this point was located at 12, Three King Court, Lombard Street, in the heart of the City of London. Below is what a complete lid would have looked like but it’s rare to find one of these whole, certainly in the Thames, although you might be able to find one in an old Victorian bottle dump or similar.
John Gosnell and Company are the oldest manufacturer of ‘personal care’ products in the UK, the company having been originally founded in 1677. Incredibly it’s still in business today, family owned, and now located in Lewes, Sussex, specialising in soap, cosmetics, perfume and toiletries etc.
Originally founded by John Price at Three King Court, Lombard Street, the company went through various name changes over the next one hundred and fifty years. I’m particularly grateful to Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, a registered charity, and a leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. Sometimes online research can be tricky and misleading, leading you down various blind alleyways, but Grace’s are a useful resource and deserve our support. I thoroughly recommend them if this is a period you’re researching for any reason.
1790 – the original company had changed its name to John Price & Sons, Perfumer, of 150 Leadenhall Street, London
1806 – it was listed as T. Price & Co, Perfumer, 4 Leadenhall Street, London
1814 – John Gosnell became a partner and the company evolved into ‘Patey, Price & Gosnell’
1818 – Price and Gosnell continued in partnership together and became perfumers to the Prince Regent, later King George IV
1832 – John Gosnell died and the business was divided up among his family
1840 – the business was listed as J. Gosnell & Co ‘Wholesale Perfumers and Flower Distillers.’
1852 – it was listed as Gosnell, John & Co, ‘perfumers and soap makers, brush and comb manufacturers, By Appointment to Her Majesty (Victoria) and the Royal Family, 12, Three King Court, Lombard Street, London’
During Queen Victoria’s reign, the company expanded globally with its popular cherry blossom range of personal products and perfumes. It was especially innovative in its witty and clever advertising and pioneered new ways of bringing its products to the attention of the public. For example, it ran a gloriously effective campaign that involved flying perfume shaped hot air balloons over Paris and London, dropping leaflets and samples onto the people below.
By 1900 the company had moved from Lombard Street to 211-215 Blackfriars Road and in the 1920s began to face commercial decline. British products were going out of fashion internationally and the economic downturn, fallout from a global Depression, added further strain to the company’s declining profits. In 1933 the company could no longer afford London rents and left their premises in the Blackfriars Road, finally relocating to Lewes in 1939 just as Britain was on the cusp of a second world war.
The range of perfumes and toiletries the company produced was quite varied, not all as fragrant as their extremely popular rose and cherry blossom products, but the idea of slapping bear’s grease onto a bald and thinning scalp isn’t something that sounds particularly pleasant.
Bear’s Grease as a treatment for baldness has a long history. The Benedictine mystic and prolific letter writer, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), recommended bear’s grease in her ‘Physica’ while a few hundred years later Nicholas Culpeper, famous English botanist and herbalist, wrote the following in his ‘Physician’s Library’ in 1653 – ‘Bears Grease staies (stops) the fallinge off of the hair.’
A number of companies sold bear’s grease, which remained popular throughout the Victorian period until the first world war. Atkinsons (founded by James Atkinson at 44 Gerrard Street, Soho, London) marketed a similar product showing a chained bear on the lid of the pot, this supposedly symbolising the strength of the bear and therefore indicating the effectiveness of the product in facilitating the regrowth of hair for bald men.
Bear’s Grease was originally made from the fat of the brown bear mixed with beef marrow and a perfume to disguise what would have been a foul, heavy, meaty smell. Towards the end of the 19th century, unscrupulous manufacturers were breaching a probably non-existent advertising code and substituting pig, veal, suet, and lard as the massive demand for genuine bear’s fat was exceeding supply. I literally shudder to think how many of these unfortunate animals were killed to provide this product.
Companies also added lavender, thyme, rose essence or oil of bitter almonds as a perfume, after which a green dye would be added to improve the ‘fatty’ appearance of the grease mixture in the pot.
It wasn’t just British men who bought this product in their thousands. Across Europe people believed that grease from Russian bears was the best. The animal was big, furry, strong and virile, these characteristics therefore would transfer to anyone who used this substance. I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m grateful that this product has gone out of fashion although I’m fully aware that there are still parts of the world where myths about the magical curative properties of certain animals still persist, which means far too many beautiful creatures are still being hunted to extinction in order to appease our vanity. Guys, bald can be beautiful!
October has been a strange month. The crispness of autumn has been replaced by what seems like endless rain and river levels have been extremely high – much higher than usual. I haven’t been able to go mudlarking this week – a combination of work deadlines and tides at the wrong time of day for me. But I’ve missed the river and at times like this there’s nothing like a Thames Path walk to lift your jaded spirits before winter kicks in with a vengeance. So, instead of my usual mudlarking finds blog this month, I’d like you all to accompany me on a riverside jaunt from Teddington to Richmond upon Thames.
I began my walk on a beautiful day, in fact the only day last week when there wasn’t a deluge of rain, and the conditions were perfect – blue skies and sunshine. Arriving at the start of the Thames Path walk in Ferry Road, Teddington, I strolled down to the water’s edge. The tide was out but this doesn’t mean much on this stretch of river as the embankment is very different in comparison with the landscape further downstream towards the City of London and beyond. The river is meandering here, not as fast flowing or deep, picture postcard pretty and with a different foreshore history from that of the Thames in the heart of London – less grit, more goose. Here you’re unlikely to find much in the way of historic artefacts or treasure of any kind but you might find a pipe stem, some sherds of plain Victorian porcelain or an interesting fossil. As far as the landscape is concerned, this is much more the Thames of Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’ (although they’d need to avoid Teddington Weir…) than it is Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ with its powerful, brooding and much darker imagery of the river. But that doesn’t mean it’s less interesting. Just different.
As you cross over Teddington Lock footbridge there are spectacular views both down and upstream. It’s hard to know where to look first.
Upstream (right) towards Kingston you can see Teddington Weir in the distance. Although it’s relatively small as weirs go, its size is deceptive and it makes a heck of a noise as you approach it. A weir is basically a low head dam that alters the flow characteristics of water resulting in changes to the height of the river level. There are many different designs of weir but usually water will flow freely over the top of the crest of the weir before cascading down to a lower level. This is why they’re noisy beasts when you get close up to one, the powerful sound of rushing, foam-flecked water adding drama to the surrounding views.
Below is the view downstream (left) towards Richmond, a more placid, almost bucolic scene where the river is calm and still and pleasure boats, trees and river birds dominate your eye line. Every time I cross Teddington Lock footbridge and look in this direction there’s usually a grumpy heron flying overhead and landing on one of the embankments.
Once I’d made it across the river to the Surrey side of the Thames there was still some stunning autumnal foliage on display; dahlias, wildflowers, rosehips and a few blackberries left among the brambles for a lucky field mouse or two.
Here the Thames Path routes are well sign-posted and mapped out clearly for you to follow. It’s difficult to get lost, even if you’re completely new to the area. Once I’d reached the Surrey embankment I was primarily on the hunt for the famous Teddington obelisk, so I turned and headed downstream.
After a few minutes of brisk walking I reached Teddington Lock, the Lock Keeper’s cottage shown in the photograph below. Teddington Lock was originally built in 1801, of timber, which predictably began to rot fairly quickly and was soon no longer fit for purpose . It was replaced in 1856/7 with the building we see today and Jonathan Thorp Esquire laid the first stone.
In front of the Lock Keeper’s House is a moving walkway, not accessible to the public, leading to a tiny shed-like building. This should be familiar to Monty Python fans as it’s the site of the famous fish-slapping dance sketch. The Python team regularly filmed at Teddington Studios, which used to be a short walk away from here but was unfortunately demolished a couple of years ago in order to make way for luxury riverside flats; another piece of our televisual heritage now disappeared from the local area thanks to property developers. It’s particularly poignant for me because I have wonderful memories of going to Teddington Studios with my family to see many top BBC comedy shows being recorded there.
Leaving the Lock Keeper’s cottage and my memories of Teddington Studios behind me I continued walking downstream. After approximately ten minutes, I passed a mysterious little glade, set back from the main path, and there it was – the famous obelisk that marks the beginning of the Tidal Thames. I’d found what I was looking for, tucked away and hidden discreetly behind a protective circle of metal railings, autumn leaves falling gently around it every time a gentle breeze rustled through the trees.
The obelisk marks the point where the legal powers of the London Port Authority, responsible for navigation from Teddington downstream to the Estuary and out to the North Sea, morph into those of the Environment Agency who take over this role from Teddington upstream to the headwaters of the Thames. I was taken aback by the fact that you could easily walk straight past this point and not even notice the obelisk is here. In fact, while I was taking photos of it for my blog, a retired couple out for a stroll stopped to ask what the obelisk was, thinking it was perhaps a monument to a local dignitary or to the war dead. When I explained to them what it actually was they were taken aback as they wouldn’t have noticed it if they hadn’t seen me there.
Perhaps this is a bit corny but it was a special moment to be able to touch the stone at the base of the obelisk. The metal fencing around it stops visitors from being able to touch the main body of the monument and local vandals from daubing unsolicited graffiti on it. It’s well protected. However, I don’t recommend pushing your arms through the bars as you’ll probably get stuck and it would be a shame to end this Thames Path walk having to be cut free by the emergency services. But it is possible to touch the base of the stone as you pay homage to the place that is officially the start of the Tidal Thames. If this isn’t already, it should definitely be a little ritual for all mudlarks.
Once you’ve spent your moments communing with the Teddington Obelisk, continue walking downstream towards Richmond where you’ll pass Ham Lands. Here you might well come across a painter at his easel on the pathway, a squadron of low flying geese, nature reserves, ancient reedbeds, song thrushes, kestrels and the common soprano pipistrelle bat.
Approximately twenty minutes later and you should find you’re passing Eel Pie Island on your left, an 8.9 acre island in the river at Twickenham, accessible only by boat or footbridge. The historically famous eel pies are a bit thin on the ground these days but Eel Pie Island is now best known for being an iconic blues and rock venue where in the 1960s you could see the Rolling Stones play live at the Eel Pie Island Hotel, the building long since burnt to the ground. In addition to the Stones, fans could also come here to see The Who, Pink Floyd, Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men, The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, and a young David Bowie. Nowadays the island is home to a thriving artistic community who regularly hold open house sessions in their studios during the summer months.
Continuing further past Eel Pie Island, a few more minutes of brisk walking will see you drawing parallel with a beautiful and elegant building across the river on your left, visible through a gap between the trees on the north bank. This is the stunning façade of Marble Hill House, Twickenham. (NB: Twickenham, although in South West London, is actually north of the Thames while Richmond is on the south or Surrey side of the river. This can be confusing as both are neighbours, separate political constituencies, but sharing the same local borough ie: the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames.)
Marble Hill House is essentially a Palladian-style villa designed by Roger Morris and Henry Herbert, built between 1724 and 1729. Herbert, also known as the Earl of Pembroke, based the villa on Andrea Palladio’s Villa Cornaro in Italy, incorporating many of the symmetrical and classical features, plus the grand interiors of Palladio’s villa, into Marble Hill. The view you can see in the photograph above is the rear, which was once ironically the front entrance to the house because it was accessed from the river, which would have brought visitors to this location via boat or barge in the 18th and early 19th centuries when roads were either impassable or dangerous to use due to the very real threat of robbers and highwaymen. The house and gardens were intended as an Arcadian retreat from the stench, filth and horror of 18th century London.
Marble Hill was originally the home of Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, who lived there until her death in 1767. Cultured and educated, she was the mistress of King George II and the villa was built as a gift from the King although he stipulated that the building must be free from any interference from Henrietta’s estranged and unpleasant drunk and debt-ridden husband, Charles Howard, the Earl of Suffolk . The Countess regularly hosted spectacular literary salons at Marble Hill and was the friend and confidante of both Alexander Pope, a neighbour living nearby in Strawberry Hill House, and Jonathan Swift who also regularly visited her here. Marble Hill House is now owned by English Heritage who are responsible for managing both the house and the 66 acres of stunning riverside grounds and parkland that surround it.
Leaving behind the views of Marble Hill House across the river, focus again on the Thames Path in front of you towards Ham. As you continue walking, you’ll see a gap in the clearing to your right which will give you a first view of stunning Ham House and gardens. Both are well worth a visit.
Ham House was originally built in 1610, the creation of the enterprising and ambitious William Murray, who as a boy had been educated with the young Charles I. The King gifted the lease of Ham House to William in 1626, after which William and his daughter Elizabeth transformed the house into the splendid residence we see today – a rare and perfect example of 17th century Jacobean splendour, luxury and fashions. Elizabeth Murray, later Duchess of Lauderdale through her second marriage, transformed Ham House into one of the grandest Stuart houses in England. After Elizabeth’s death, Ham House remained in the hands of her descendants from her first marriage within the Tollemache family. It’s well worth a visit if you haven’t been.
Continue downstream along the river and, if you look up, you’ll see the red brick façade of the Star and Garter building straddling the top of Richmond Hill. The Star and Garter Home was built between 1921-1924 to provide accommodation and nursing facilities for 180 seriously injured servicemen, much like the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, although it was sold a while ago to property developers and has now been converted into luxury apartments. Nearby, on the Petersham Road, is the Poppy Factory, built in 1922, where hundreds of thousands of poppies are made every year for The Royal British Legion’s annual Poppy Appeal.
A path will take you up to Terrace Field where you can see spectacular views across the Thames towards Twickenham and beyond. In 1819, the painter J.M.W. Turner stood on this spot and painted this famous London scene, the landscape stretching before him across Richmond Hill towards the river. The painting was Turner’s attempt to attract the patronage of the future King George IV, which he failed to get as the then Prince of Wales thought the painting was pretentious and out of touch with the political upheaval of the times. Nonetheless, Turner’s idyllic landscape now hangs in the Tate collection.
Sir Mick Jagger still owns a home at the top of Richmond Hill and across the road, near the Star and Garter building, is a beautiful Georgian house once owned by the late actor, Sir John Mills and his family.
To conclude this Thames Path walk, make your way back down Terrace Field. Here the path leads inexorably on towards Richmond Bridge but if you’re shattered, in need of sustenance and a bit of a sit-down after your nearly eight kilometre walk, then I recommend stopping at Stein’s for lunch. This is a popular German restaurant serving Bavarian dishes such as their outstanding schnitzel, bratwurst, currywurst or nürnberger, washed down with a pint of Stein’s famous German Dunkel beer.
The river Thames deposits its finds by weight; heavy objects together, small items made from lead, pewter or brass (such as tokens, coins and buttons) often found nestling discreetly among other metal such as iron scrap from ships, boats and barges, while sherds of pottery, much lighter in weight than metal or glass, can be found strewn higher on the foreshore, nearer the Embankment wall.
And there’s a particular section of the Thames Foreshore where I often find fragments of pottery showing a logo from a long gone business, trade, restaurant or café. These broken fragments from London’s past can often be found in sweeping, elegant, parallel lines draped across the gravel and sand, and every time I come here I make a beeline for this spot to see what’s turned up on the low tide. I’m rarely disappointed.
On one occasion last year I found this fragment of a cup with the name ‘LOCK -‘, a hint of a pattern, and the word ‘COCOA’ underneath. I have a broad knowledge of Victorian and Edwardian social history but had no idea what this was or what it referred to, other than obviously something to do with a hot, sweet drink. After I’d got home and cleaned up my finds it was time to make some tea, fire up the computer and start to research where the logo had come from. It wasn’t long before I had a complete name – Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms.
Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms offered cheap, good quality refreshments and were the Victorian equivalent of our modern day coffee shops such as Caffè Nero, Starbucks and Costa, with many outlets across the country. As my photo shows they had their own plates, saucers, cups and mugs complete with the Lockhart’s logo – blue on white Victorian transferware that quickly became recognisable by all who ate in their establishments.
The Cocoa Rooms had their origins in the Victorian Temperance Movement, a social movement against the consumption of alcohol. The Temperance Movement promoted alcohol education and campaigned vigorously to pressurise Parliament to pass new laws restricting the sale of alcohol. People were encouraged to ‘take the pledge’ (ie give up alcoholic drinks) and this became a mass movement throughout the 19th Century. Essays and pamphlets were published warning against alcoholic excess and drunkenness.
The Temperance Movement was earnest and well meaning but was above all motivated by a genuine concern for those affected by alcohol and struggling to function in their day to day lives because of it. Increasing numbers of men and women were often too drunk to hold down work and provide for their families, wives and children were then evicted from their homes and women were routinely exposed to domestic violence at the hands of inebriated partners. It was a vicious cycle.
An alternative to public houses and gin palaces was therefore seen as socially imperative in order to give people practical options to alcohol. Condemnation of drinkers was not enough, so cocoa houses and billiard halls came into existence; an alternative meeting place in a teetotal environment yet offering pleasant menu choices at a reasonable price.
Originally called ‘British Workmen’s Public Houses’, in June 1875 a limited liability company of that name was formed in Liverpool under the chairmanship of Robert Lockhart, who later set up a company under his own name and established a chain of Cocoa Rooms throughout the UK that became known as ‘Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms’.
I’d never heard of Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms prior to finding this sherd of pottery and this is probably because the Cocoa House Movement is one of the least remembered of Victorian passions during the last quarter of the 19th century, so there isn’t as much information about it. Nor do I recall seeing Lockhart’s mentioned in any books I’ve read or in documentaries of this period yet plenty of grainy black and white photographs exist of branches of Lockhart’s in multiple British cities and towns.
The Cocoa House such as Lockhart’s (there were other Cocoa Houses too but with different owners and names) remained at the very centre of the Temperance campaign although its message was aimed firmly at working class men as opposed to drinkers from, say, the middle or upper classes who, it was thought, were able to exercise greater self-control over their drinking habits.
Early attempts at establishing Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms were slow and not overly successful due to them principally being religious, amateurish and well meant philanthropic efforts, but eventually a more business-like brand emerged offering a clean, pleasant environment selling decent refreshments and soft drinks, and eventually growing quickly to occupy much larger premises in most of the major towns and cities across the country.
By the end of the 19th century there were over sixty Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms outlets in London alone and approximately eleven in Glasgow, three in Leeds, nine in Newcastle, two in South Shields, with one each in Darlington, Jarrow and Gateshead. The head office of Lockhart’s was eventually located at 75, Bishop Street, Anderston, Glasgow.
Each branch of a Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms usually employed five or six members of staff from a cook to waitresses plus also a manager. Their reputation was good and they were known for being well managed and well supervised, offering tea, coffee, cocoa, aerated (fizzy) drinks and refreshments at affordable prices. They even had their own token, similar to a coin, equivalent to the amount of one old penny (1d), which entitled a customer to a penny’s worth of refreshments at any Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms of their choosing.
While researching census information for another writing project I’m currently working on, I discovered the records for the Pursglove family of Hackney, London. The 1901 Census showed them living at 95 Hertford Road, with Albert Pursglove listed as the married head of the family. He was 38 years old and his job was listed as ‘Manager of Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms.’ We aren’t told where but in all likelihood it would have been somewhere in the centre of London.
The 1911 Census showed that the Pursgloves had moved to 95 Mortimers Road, Kingsland (still in Hackney) and that Albert had been promoted to ‘Branch Manager Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms’; clearly going up in the world although how much longer he would have continued to work in this role isn’t clear. I haven’t yet been able to look at later census records for this family and Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms began to start closing branches in the 1920’s, all their premises eventually sold. A decade later in the 1930’s the country was badly hit by the global economic depression, unemployment and job loss on a huge scale and the imminent approach of a second world war looming darkly on the horizon. The era of Temperance, Cocoa Houses and specifically Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms would have felt like a distant memory from another time.
I recently watched a YouTube video of a group of mudlarks deep in the Thames Estuary searching for finds. One of them, wading far out into the mud, was seen picking out what looked like an almost intact tea pot. As the camera panned onto what he’d found in more detail I could clearly see the logo of Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms on the side of the pot. An extraordinary find.
A legal responsibility of every mudlark is to take anything they find over three hundred years of age to be checked and recorded by the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO), in my case at the Museum of London. If the find is treasure, ie gold or silver, the Treasure Act of 1900 states that it needs to be recorded with the Coroner within a month of finding.
I’ve found gold, a small piece of beautifully and intricately worked filigree jewellery, while mudlarking at a location I can’t reveal. I dutifully took it to Stuart Wyatt, my FLO, who took it away with him for checking. Although definitely gold (I knew the minute I saw it peeking out of the ground that that’s what it was – gold can be buried in the earth for a million years and will still be golden and untarnished when it’s eventually discovered) Stuart couldn’t trace exactly what it had come from as it was too small a piece, but confirmed it was gold, possibly Victorian. The lack of clarity surrounding the provenance of the fragment meant that in this instance he didn’t have to notify the Coroner and I was able to keep the piece without the need for the copious paperwork that goes hand in hand when identified treasure is found, as opposed to a less valuable find.
At my next visit to the FLO I was thrilled when he took in one of my newer finds. Of no monetary value, like the vast majority of mudlarking finds, nonetheless this remains one of my favourite pieces; a tiny bone dice. (See centre of the photo below – the little silver pieces surrounding the dice are not from the foreshore but from the much used and loved family Monopoly set.)
The dice was found by me, by eye, on a part of the foreshore where scraping, digging and metal detecting are forbidden unless you hold a more advanced Society of Mudlarks permit. I’m holding it in my fingers, turning it over, the once sharp edges now worn smooth by the river, and it feels light in my hand. Such a beautifully tactile object and I think about the person who carved it, those who played with it and the careless fingers that finally dropped in the Thames.
This is what it looks like when you have a find logged with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). Once it’s confirmed as of historical importance by the FLO it’s then researched and recorded and the item, unless treasure, is given back to the finder.
It’s described as a Post Medieval bone cuboid dice dating from the 16th to 18th Century. The numbers are indicated by a single dot; they are arranged so the opposite sides adds up to 7. The sides are in the arrangement known as Potter’s variant 16.
Egan (1997:3) writes “A remarkable degree of uniformity is emerging in London for the most recent excavated dice, that is those of the 16th to 17th Century and later, first noticed among a group of over 40 of various sizes and with numbers indicated by double-circle-and-dot, circle-and-dot or dot alone, all of 17th to 18th Century date and found at the site of the Fleet Prison. These are all regular dice, and more remarkably, all of them that are complete enough to gauge are just one variety – Potter’s variant 16. They may well have been the output of a single prisoner turning meal bones into saleable goods.”
It’s quite extraordinary to think that the dice I’m rolling around in my fingers was quite probably made by the same prisoner who fashioned these from leftover bone in the Fleet prison all those centuries ago. Sadly it seems his name will never be known. I find myself wondering what crime he was charged with committing, how long he spent deprived of his freedom and the impact that would have had on his family and the rest of his life.
The Fleet prison was originally built in 1197, near the side of the River Fleet, the area now is part of Farringdon Street. Once close to the Fleet Ditch, an open sewer, the area was filthy and unsanitary, the surrounding land being deemed perfect for the location of a prison. It was demolished and rebuilt several times. Destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, burnt to the ground during the Great Fire of London in 1666 (when it was engulfed in flames during the third day of the fire, the prisoners only just managing to escape) and was again destroyed during the Gordon Riots of 1780. It remained in use till 1844 and was sold to the Corporation of the City of London who finally demolished it in 1846.
Used primarily to incarcerate those who were charged and convicted of contempt of court by the Court of Chancery and also for those committed by the Star Chamber (a court that sat in the royal palace of Westminster from the late 15th Century to the mid 17th Century), in its latter years it was primarily used as a prison for debtors and bankrupts.
The Fleet Prison is memorably described by Charles Dickens in ‘The Pickwick Papers.’ Dickens’ own father, John, had himself been imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison (Southwark) on the 20th February 1824 under the Insolvent Debtors Act of 1813 because he owed a baker, John Kerr, forty pounds and ten shillings and was unable to pay. It was a shameful experience that haunted Charles Dickens throughout his life.
Prisons during the 18th Century were profit-making enterprises and so prisoners had to pay for food and lodging, and the Fleet was no exception. In fact it had the highest fees in England. Prisoners didn’t even have to live in the Fleet as long as they paid the keeper to compensate him for the loss of earnings. From the 17th Century onwards the prison also became notorious for the carrying out of clandestine marriages by degraded clergymen, looking to earn some money on the side, and who themselves were imprisoned among the debtors and bankrupts. At a time when divorce was difficult and you wanted to marry someone else in secret, this was the place to come. Ditto if the bride was pregnant, or had already given birth, a wedding ceremony might take place in the Fleet and the certificate of marriage conveniently back-dated to before conception.
Prisoners would have struggled to find ways to pass the time while incarcerated in the Fleet so I can well imagine someone with skill trying to earn money by fashioning dice from leftover bones in order to make their sentence more tolerable.
Dice are the oldest gaming artefacts known to mankind and have been found in Egyptian tombs dating from 3000 BC. In Greek and Roman times they were made from bone, ivory, bronze, agate, marble and, much later, porcelain or clay. The Romans played two games with dice: Tali and Tesserae. Tali used four dice and the best score was when each die showed a different number. Tesserae was played with three dice and the best score was three sixes. The dice were thrown from a cup called a ‘fritillium’ and usually played on a board made of wood, bronze or marble. Roman dice are particularly keenly treasured by those mudlarks lucky enough to find them on the Thames Foreshore.
In later centuries cheating with dice became prolific, especially during the post Medieval period. Dodgy dice were known as ‘fullums’ or ‘fulhams’, named after Fulham in south west London, an area once notorious for the manufacture of loaded dice and clearly not the respectable part of south west London it is now.
‘Fullums’ were divided into two distinct types: high ones that would run to 4, 5 and 6, and low ones that ran to 1, 2 and 3. These were made by drilling tiny holes into the dice and filling it with quicksilver (mercury,) the holes were then plugged with pitch. Sometimes the corners would be discreetly filed in order to load the dice even more.
An entire vocabulary was created to describe the way professional cheats were able to fool the innocent and naïve during games of dice and ensure they won every time:
‘Topping’ – pretending to put both dice in a box but holding one between the fingers so that it could be turned to the cheater’s advantage, also known as ‘palming’
‘Slurring’ – throwing a dice smoothly onto the table so that it didn’t roll
‘Stabbing’ – using a rigged dice cup
‘Knapping‘ – throwing the dice so that one strikes another, stopping the bottom diced from tumbling
I’ll never know who used my dice find, what games they played with it or the circumstances in which they lost it, but I can assure everyone that it’s definitely not the loaded type. Light as a feather, an indication that thankfully it’s mercury free. I can use it when the family Monopoly board comes out at Christmas and holidays with a clear conscience.
I’m pretty much recovered from my recent accident and itching to get back to mudlarking. I’ve really missed not being by the river but the last eight weeks or so have given me an opportunity to do a lot more research and writing about the Thames and sort out some recent finds in my collection.
People new to mudlarking often ask me for advice on finds identification, so I thought I’d use this month’s blog to write about the different kinds of pottery that’s most commonly found on the foreshore. When I first started mudlarking, I could have done with a mini-guide to foreshore pottery but there wasn’t anything easily to hand. There are many books and articles writing about pottery in greater depth, and quite a bit if you look online, but sometimes all you want is a quick photo guide to finds accompanied by a brief description. If you want to research pottery further then that’s something you can do once you’ve acquired some basic knowledge of the most common foreshore finds, and of course the best way to learn is to go out and mudlark. There will usually be someone else about on the foreshore who will help you ID your finds and many mudlarks are extremely knowledgeable.
I found my first ever fragment of Roman pottery fairly early on in my mudlarking career when I saw a fairly nondescript piece of a pale grey something on the Thames Foreshore near the Oxo Tower on the Southbank. I picked it up and then put it down again thinking it was probably not very much. This was also my first lesson in ‘if you’re not sure, take your find home with you’ and get someone with a bit more knowledge than you to take a look at it or post it on Instagram (using the mudlark hashtag) or one of the many mudlarking sites on Facebook.
Something about this fragment made me return to pick it up and look at it again and I eventually ended up taking it home with me, even though it looked like something someone had only recently thrown on the potter’s wheel in a nearby studio.
Six months later when I’d almost forgotten about it I took it, along with a few other finds, to my first ever appointment with the Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London. He immediately identified it as a piece of mortarium, one of a type of Ancient Roman pottery kitchen vessels. These were hemispherical, conical and shallow bowls , commonly fired with coarse sand or grit embedded into the surface which made them excellent for grinding, pounding or mixing foods. Some Roman mortaria even show the name of the potter, which helps trace the workshop where it was made and the actual journey of the piece through the Roman Empire, eg Gaul to Londinium. So useful were these vessels in the kitchen that we still use this kind of design today to crush herbs and spices. My piece of pale grey mortarium can be seen bottom right in the photo below, just underneath and to the side of the more central find (small, round terracotta base of a Roman pot recycled as a gaming counter.)
There are many other types of Roman pottery still found fairly regularly on the Thames Foreshore if you know where to look and, as fashions changed, so did the need to have pottery fulfilling various different uses. Clockwise from the top: Nene Valley colour-coated ware (the Nene Valley is in Eastern England); coarse wares eg grey wares; Moselkeramik or Trier black-slipped ware (centre of photo) used for beakers, cups and commonly decorated with rouletted motifs on the rim as well as scrolls, dots, wavy lines and other motifs, often combined with a short text or instruction eg ‘BIBE’ or ‘Drink.’
Middle left of the photo are two fragments of a greyish shell-tempered ware. This can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between Roman and Saxon although Saxon shell-tempered pottery contains more finely crushed shells, therefore identifying it as having being made at a more recent date. The cruder and bigger the pieces of shell, the older the piece is. Middle Neolithic pottery would also have been shell-tempered but with clearly visible bits of reed, sticks or even animal bones in the clay as well as shells. Anything and everything was used in more primitive pottery.
Top left of the photo is probably the most ubiquitous of all Roman pottery types found on the Thames Foreshore; black-burnished ware. Unglamorous, not particularly stylish to look at, nonetheless it was a core staple in the kitchens of Roman London so I always treat it with respect.
I still haven’t found any decent sherds of much sought after Samian pottery fragments although in my early days mudlarking frequently confused it with post medieval bits of terracotta only to find the FLO at the Museum of London gently informing me that what I’d found wasn’t Roman, or even close. As a general rule of thumb, if your piece of terracotta red pottery is covered in a shiny glaze, it’s not Roman. The Romans decoratedtheir pottery with slip, not glazes.
Samian ware is also known as ‘Terra Sigillata’ and is basically a fine red pottery with a glossy red slip made of an equally fine clay mixed with water. Unlike later medieval and post-medieval glazes which hang heavy on the surface of the outer and inner part of a pot or plate, Samian slip is light and delicate because of the high potassium and calcium content that almost melts onto the pottery. Once fired in the kiln it turns a bright terracotta red. Many mudlarks have been fortunate to find decorated Samian ware – complete with gladiatorial motifs, hunting or erotic scenes and so on – and occasionally with the name stamp of the potter too, giving an indication of where the piece was manufactured in Gaul or elsewhere. As I still haven’t found any, and as I prefer to use my own photos for my blogs, I don’t have any Samian photos to include here but if you google Samian ware you’ll see some stunning examples of it in various museums or collections.
Medieval pottery, (the word Medieval itself comes from Latin and means ‘middle age’) spans hundreds of years from approximately 500 AD to 1000 AD, known as the Early Middle Ages, followed by the High Middle Ages from 1000 to 1250 AD, the rise and dominance of the Catholic Church shaping these years. The Late Middle Ages completed the Medieval period, lasting approximately until the late 1400s. This later period in the Middle Ages was marked by war and conflict as dynasties battled for control of Europe’s borders eg The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), fought between England and France. It was also during this period that the Black Death arrived on the continent of Europe wiping out an estimated 75 to 200 million people across Europe and Asia between 1347 and 1351. The closing years of the 14th Century saw the beginnings of the Renaissance in Italy with a blossoming of painting, sculpture and architecture.
Unfortunately pottery from this period, that is the fragments that turn up on the Thames Foreshore, is mostly fairly crude, basic and functional. Sherds from the Early to High Middle Ages are found less frequently, the more common finds are from the Later Medieval period and are characterised by what’s known as the ubiquitous ‘Tudor’ green glaze, which is actually not from the Tudor period at all as this came later. Medieval pottery actually comes in a range of green, yellow and brown glazes, which was the sum total of colour the Medieval potter could manage. A lot of the sherds I’ve found from this period are simply coarse borderware, a common find on the foreshore as it supplied London’s cooking needs in the 14th and 15th Centuries.
For the purposes of this blog, and I could write about pottery forever but don’t want this blog to turn into something that’s PhD in length, it’s also worth mentioning some of the well known potteries of this period – from North Yorkshire to Surry Whiteware, Kingstonware and Surrey/Hampshire Borderware. I’m not an expert in the precise ID of these but there are interesting examples in the Museum of London and the V and A. I’d also recommend you google the excellent Richard Hemery who has a YouTube channel where he IDs various types of pottery from this and other periods. I’ve learnt a lot from Richard’s online pottery films.
The Medieval age eventually made way for the Tudor Dynasty (1485-1603) where for the first time food was becoming more refined and therefore so was pottery. This period sees the widespread manufacture of Tin glaze pottery, earthenware covered in a glaze containing tin oxide, which is white, shiny and opaque. It normally provides the background for a range of decoration, from ferns, flowers and foliage through to random geometric lines, circles and other patterns. It’s also known as Faience (German, French and Scandinavian tin glaze), Majolica and Delftware. Colours of English tin glaze are predominantly blue on white, but it’s always a joy to find other colours too such as a splash of yellow, green, orange or the rare (because expensive) manganese brownish purple. Tin glazed ceramics were the first white pottery manufactured in England, although first used in Europe by the Italians in the 12th century for simple painted wares, and then by the Spanish during the 13th Century for more colourful vessels. The use of this glaze then slowly began to spread through Europe in the following years as both Holland and England became centres of tin glaze production in the 16th and 17th Centuries.
The first examples of more recognisably common tin-glaze pottery was thought to have been made by Guido da Savino in Antwerp in 1512. The use of marl, a calcium rich clay, allowed Dutch potters to refine their technique and produce much finer ceramics. Their Delftware was a blend of three clays, one local, one from Tournai and one from the Rhineland. Dutch Delftware was also popular because it resembled the fashionable Chinese porcelain (which was only affordable to the wealthiest people), an effect achieved by covering the tin-glaze with clear glaze, which gave added depth to the fired surface and a smoothness and clarity to the vivid cobalt blue.
By the mid 17th Century, most of the major potters in England were Flemish or Dutch, many having fled the Low Countries due to religious persecution, making their way to England and bringing their secrets with them, setting up potteries in Southwark, Rotherhithe, Lambeth and Aldgate. English Delftware was harder and coarser than its Dutch equivalent, which was softer and thinner. Prior to 1620, English Delft was closer in style to Italian or Dutch but after 1620 fashions changed as the public clamoured more for the fashionable Chinese style blue on white. At the cusp of the 18th Century, English Delftware became more distinctive and less intricately decorated than its 17th Century counterpart.
I’ve found some large chunks of tin glaze in my time, mostly fragments of plates or chargers, but big pieces are becoming rarer so even the smallest sherd of this type of pottery invariably makes it home with me. Delftware came in a wide range of pottery and ceramics including punchbowls, plates or chargers, wine bottles, puzzle jugs, guglets (globular jars with a long neck), tea and coffee pots, fuddling cups (three dimensional drinking puzzle vessels) and posset pots for creamy, sugary syllabub type desserts.
Production of English Delftware had more or less stopped by the end of the 18th Century as fashions changed once more due to the Industrial Revolution, and pottery become mass produced and therefore cheaper.
The Stuart period of history lasted from 1603 to 1714 and encompassed a wide range of pottery types, from Metropolitan Slipware to Staffordshire Slipware, Delftware, Salt glaze and Westerwald Stoneware.
Slipware (see photo below) is a type of lead-glazed earthenware decorated with a coloured slip then fired in a kiln. Jacqui Pearce, Senior Finds Officer at MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) describes this period as ‘a time of vibrant growth in the potteries serving the London area.’ London-made Delftware was booming, especially in the Southwark area where extensive excavation in the 1980s uncovered huge quantities of pottery from this period. The potteries of the Surrey-Hampshire border were, from the 15th to 18th Centuries, also a prolific and important supplier of ceramics to the capital and elsewhere. In addition, a wide range of ceramics from the potteries of Devon, Somerset, the Midlands, Newcastle upon Tyne, Italy, Germany and the Low Countries also found their way to the London pottery market.
‘Slip’ refers to the decoration of the earthenware, when the runny clay mixture is applied to the clay vessel by painting, splashing or dripping. It’s then covered with a thick, glossy lead glaze that seems to stop before it reaches the edge of the rim of the piece. Every item is different and the sherds I’ve found show everything from careful application by the potter to wilder, careless decoration that looks as if it was done in a great hurry. I love its chunkiness, earthy quality and random, joyous decoration showing the potter’s freedom of expression.
I used to find fragments of Metropolitan Slipware nearly every time I stepped onto the foreshore but I’ve noticed that decent sized sherds of this pottery also seem to be much less frequent these days. My most recent finds have been slipware of a more dark chocolate brown colour instead of the more common orange-red, emphasising the differences in types of clay used, and decorated with a creamy rather than yellow coloured slip. It’s indicative of the hand made nature of this pottery that there are so many different types of colour-way within it which adds to its attractiveness. It’s a pleasing contrast to the uniform nature of factory produced pottery and porcelain where every piece is identical. Objects made in this style included pots, cups, mugs, chamber pots, candlesticks and chafing dishes (for heating food).
Another type of slip, and an extremely common find on the Thames Foreshore, is Staffordshire Combed Slipware. I have so much of it at home, and many mudlarks tend not to bother with it, but I find I can’t resist its various cheerful shapes, bold forms and ever-changing designs. It reminds me of Mr Kipling’s bakewell tarts and tea.
Staffordshire Slip pottery is solid, chunky and reassuring. Earthenware with a clear lead glaze containing iron inclusions, which gives the white slip its cream to yellow colour. The trailed slip is dragged along the surface to create the distinctive ‘combed’ look, hence the name. Originating in Staffordshire, as its name suggests, it was also produced in potteries in Yorkshire, Bristol and the Midlands. Most of the pieces were glazed on one side only but you often see traces of the glaze oozing out onto the underside, sometimes it doesn’t even reach the edge of the rim at all. My favourite pieces of this type of pottery are when the edges resemble a pie crust, and this is known as ‘coggling’ or ‘crimping.’
The common nature of this type of pottery marks a distinctive stage in a more mass market production of tableware that was specially intended for poor to middle class kitchens and dining tables as well as inns and taverns where it would have been in common use in the late 17th Century and 18th Century until it fell out of favour. I’ve noticed that much of this type of pottery often turns up on a part of the foreshore where an inn or tavern would once have been.
You can see from the photograph of some of the many pieces I’ve found of this pottery that every single sherd is different. The subtle variations in the colour of the slip and designs – from straight to thick diagonal lines and the kind of zigzag pattern you might see on a cardiac patient’s chart – is why it has so much character.
Salt-glazed stoneware was produced in Europe, predominantly Cologne, and was in common use throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries. It’s a common find on the Thames Foreshore and is also known as Bartmann or Bellarmine stoneware. Bartmann literally means ‘bearded man’ and is the fragment that all new mudlarks desperately want to find. If you haven’t found one yet, don’t worry, you will.
Bartmann pots have round squat bodies with shorter necks and a loop handle, covered in a brown or reddish brown glaze, while on the front is the face of the much sought after beardy. His toothy, often angry, snarling face glares at us from the front of stoneware jugs, bottles and pitchers. Used for transporting goods and storing food and drink they were also known as ‘witch bottles.’
In 2004 during the excavations of a house in Greenwich, a Bartmann jug sealed with a cork was found buried beneath the hearth. Further analysis of its contents showed the jug contained hair, nail clippings and urine, buried as a charm to protect the household from witchcraft. The image of the bearded face is thought to have its origins in the mythical wild man creature, popular in the medieval art and literature of Northern European folklore from the 14th century onwards where it was found in ceramics, metal, embroidery, portraiture, illuminated manuscripts and even stained glass.
Bartmann jugs also have a cartouche on the belly of the pot or jug showing the origins of the pottery eg Amsterdam or Antwerp. By 1634, they were also known as Bellarmine jugs, so named after the humourless Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542 – 1621) who held strong anti-alcohol views and was ridiculed for doing so by English and Dutch Protestants.
Westerwald is also a type of stoneware from this period, although much more colourful than its salt-glazed counterpart. Produced in German towns such as Grenzau and Grenzhausen, in the area known as Westerwald in the Rhineland. Made into jugs, tankards and other drinking vessels from the 15th Century until well into the 19th Century, moulded and decorated with circles, flowers, foliage and family crests and coats of arms. Last year I even found a fragment showing a bee collecting pollen from a flower. Predominantly a striking shiny cobalt blue on grey, some examples are pale grey, occasionally with inclusions of the much rarer brownish purple (manganese) colour. Cobalt blue and manganese were used because these were the only two colours able to withstand the high temperatures in the kiln.
Sherds of Victorian Transferware are everywhere on the Thames Foreshore and I have many favourite pieces. Long time mudlarks probably don’t give transferware a second glance anymore but I still pick up the nicer pieces, particularly where there’s a pretty little scene, an interesting face or unusual decoration. One of the most common of these types of porcelain is the famous Willow pattern, still produced today and in use in cafés, restaurants and homes. In and out of fashion yet also strangely timeless in its popularity.
Willow pattern is a distinctive chinoiserie design used on a variety of ceramic tablewares. It became popular towards the end of the 18th Century in England when pottery first became mass manufactured during the Industrial Revolution, and blue and white wares imported from China were the height of fashion. Stoke-on-Trent was one such centre of industry, making use of the speedier new process whereby a design was printed on a transfer and applied to the plate before firing, unlike the slower hand painting of before.
A huge variety of Chinese inspired waterside landscapes were produced in this way, the most popular being the ubiquitous willow pattern, usually blue on a white background although occasionally other colours were used in monochrome tints, eg green or red. Common features of this type of porcelain include scenes of lakes, bridges, fruit and foliage, willows, birds, boats and pavilions.
Thomas Minton is thought to have been the brains behind the Willow pattern creating it in 1780 before selling it to potter Thomas Turner who mass-produced it, trading on the fashion for stories from Chinese mythology. People have always been drawn to tragic Romeo and Juliet style tales of tragic lovers and here the story is of a young couple eloping, the girl’s father disapproving of her inappropriate boyfriend, being pursued by the outraged father (this shown on the porcelain by angry men waving machetes as they cross a bridge.) The couple were inevitably caught, the father setting fire to the cottage where they were hiding, burning both to death. The Gods then took pity on the young lovers and transformed them into doves so they could be together for all eternity.
There are various different versions of this story, all completely false, yet it still gives me pleasure to find a nice piece of this porcelain especially when it’s a prefect fragment of the two doves.
And last but not least, logos and things. From late 18th Century stoneware imprinted with the name of a blacking company that once employed a young Charles Dickens, a jar bearing the name of marmalade manufacturer James Keiller, the famous Hotel Metropole or the long gone Aerated Bread Company, each of these finds is worthy of a blog of its own, an important part of our social history. But that will have to be for another day…
If you’d like to read more about foreshore pottery then I recommend the following books – ‘If These Pots Could Talk’ by Ivor Noël Hume; ‘London In Fragments’ by Ted Sandling; ‘Pottery In Britain 4000BC to AD1900’ by Lloyd Laing. Check out the pottery exhibits in the Museum of London and V and A too as they have some fine examples on display.
I’ve recently had some very sweet, concerned emails from a few readers of my blog asking why I hadn’t posted anything here since March. People have been very kind but the reason for my being so uncharacteristically quiet here is because I’ve been recovering from an accident while out mudlarking. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to sit down at the old laptop and write my latest blog.
Before I terrify prospective mudlarks out there I’d just like to reassure everyone that the accident was NOT sustained while actually mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore, but rather as a result of a freak incident that occurred as I was actually sitting half way up some stone steps leading away from the foreshore, literally having packed my rucksack with finds ready to head off for a coffee and then to the station to catch the train home.
Ironically, it had been a good mudlarking session. There were quite a few other mudlarks and detectorists about as the weather was good, mild and sunny initially, with a reasonable low tide, and it wasn’t long before I made my first significant find, see the photo below. A very pretty Georgian (18th Century) pewter button with a triple heart design engraved on it. Holding it in my hand I was struck by the thought, as always, that I was the first person to touch this button since the individual who lost it in the Thames all those centuries ago. They’d have been really annoyed at doing so as the button would have been expensive and not easy to replace. Also, I can’t rule out that the heart design may have had some personal meaning to the owner so it made the find particularly special.
In fact that morning’s mudlarking session was full of haberdashery finds from the past. In addition to the Georgian pewter button I also found hooks, 16th – 17th Century brass aglets (bottom right of the photo below) which are the metal tubes found at the end of shoelaces to stop them from fraying, (some aglets are beautifully engraved) and a nice stash of brass dress pins. These can be difficult to date but are roughly from the 14th to 17th Century, and were used by both men and women to pin their clothing together at a time when buttons were rare or too expensive unless you were a high status individual. Dress pins are a bit of an obsession of mine and I’ll be doing a separate, more detailed blog about them later in the year, but what I’ve noticed about my recent mudlarking finds is the golden state in which they’re currently coming out of the mud, almost as fresh as the day they became loose from someone’s garment hundreds of years ago. Pin finds are fairly ubiquitous on the Thames Foreshore and when you’ve been mudlarking for a while there’s a tendency not to pick them up any more, or perhaps only the bigger ones, but if I see them, whatever their size, inevitably they end up coming home with me.
As the tide was starting to come in I made my way off the foreshore up a flight of stone steps and started to pack my finds away in my mud-encrusted rucksack. I’m still not quite sure what happened next but, sitting down on a step to check some of the photos I’d taken, I put my mobile phone back in my pocket and somehow ended up kicking my rucksack down the stairs. I should have just let it fall to the bottom. The tide was coming in, though not completely in, and I could have simply walked back down the stairs, picked the bag up and then walked safely back up to the top. Instead, I instinctively lunged for the rucksack as I saw it falling. In that split second I ended up falling too, head first, arms flailing, trying to grab hold of some railings as I lost my balance and in a moment of panic using my left leg as a break.
This stopped me from falling further down the stone steps but in the process I knew I’d hurt my left leg quite badly. I saved my bag and myself from pitching down to the foreshore but the pain in the leg left me under no illusion that I wasn’t going to be able to get home without help and I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t fractured a bone. When I’d got my breath back I tried to straighten my leg but couldn’t, every move was extremely painful and there was no way I could put my weight on that leg. It was very frightening and I had no choice but to call 999 for an ambulance which took me straight to St Thomas’s A and E. I’m hugely grateful to the two young women who saw I was in distress on the stairs, came to ask if I was ok and stayed with me till the ambulance came. The kindness of strangers.
This was a day of new experiences, not least my first time in the back of an ambulance. London looks very different when you’re lying on a bed in the back of one speeding past iconic London landmarks, inhaling gas and air while trying not to scream. I don’t remember much of the ambulance journey other than one of the crew asking me what mudlarking was and trying to distract me by asking me to describe what I’d found that day. I don’t know what she made of me jabbering on about different kinds of Roman pottery as I don’t think I was making any sense at all. Bless her for showing an interest though and not making me feel like a complete twat. There’s always that sense of guilt that ambulances are for people who’ve had heart attacks or seizures, not for those who end up having freak accidents on the Thames Foreshore, but the ambulance crew were quite clear to me that I shouldn’t be feeling like that. Accidents happen and their job is to assess and assist injured people, regardless of the circumstances.
A and E was packed to the gills as it was the day after a Bank Holiday, but I can’t praise highly enough the kindness and professionalism of NHS staff who treated me. X-rays done, mercifully no bones fractured, and a final diagnosis of torn lateral quad muscles. The left leg was put in a support bandage, I was supplied with more pain relief, a crutch, told to rest for a few days and given a leaflet advising sets of specific exercises to do at home, then finally discharged six hours later and my anxious family were able to take me home.
Later that night, safely back home, I was initially unsure about posting details of my accident on social media, or even blogging about it like I am now. But I’m glad I did as not only have I had wonderful ‘get well soon’ messages from the mudlarking community but I’ve had many mudlarks contacting me with their own personal horror stories of accidents or near accidents on the foreshore. Some of these have been quite terrifying; falls down ladders resulting in a broken rib or two, getting stuck in mud and twisting an ankle trying to extricate legs from the gloop, slipping on the green algae that often covers steps down to the foreshore, and mudlarks being impaled on bits of sharp and rusting metal. Many of those who contacted me told me that this was the first time they’d shared their scare stories, and my accident was a reminder for us all to be more careful when we’re out and about by the river.
I don’t want to frighten anyone with these horror stories but I think what my accident has done is to make me pause, reflect and think. Mudlarking is a wonderful thing to do but perhaps when you’ve been mudlarking for a while you become a bit lax, even casual, with your personal safety. Whereas my accident was a freak one that could have happened anywhere, it reinforced the fact that there are risks, albeit ones that can be managed, when you’re out and about searching for finds. So perhaps it’s timely to finish this blog by just reminding readers of some basic health and safety rules when mudlarking:
• always tell someone where you’re going and what time you’ll be back
• make sure you have a fully charged phone with you – I spend a lot of time filming and photographing finds for my blog and other social media accounts; it’s far too easy to end up with very little charge left, which isn’t helpful if you need to make an emergency call
• If I’m honest, I don’t really like mudlarking with other people, much preferring to mudlark on my own. Nothing personal, but it’s valuable time to myself and as I potter about I know that I only have responsibility for myself. However, I do go out with other mudlarking friends, especially to a more isolated area of the foreshore or somewhere that I’ve never visited before. There is strength in numbers and if you do get into difficulties in an unfamiliar place then it’s comforting to know there is someone with you and you’re not alone. There’s no point in mudlarking if you’re going to be worrying all the time so, if you’re new to this, take a friend with you
• I often recommend the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) to people who are new to mudlarking and advise they sign themselves up for a guided foreshore tour. These are inexpensive, safe and the perfect way to familiarise yourself with the river. TDP are primarily an organisation whose main role is to monitor and record the archaeology of the foreshore, not mudlarks as such, but most of their tours end with a bit of mudlarking allowed and then identification of finds by the tour leader that day. You can find TDP contact details in the ‘Advice’ section of my blog
• make sure you’re up to date with a tetanus jab
• I always carry a small first aid kit with me in my rucksack – this wouldn’t have helped with my accident but I did once rush to the aid of a mudlark who’d cut themselves on a sharp piece of rusting iron scrap from an old boat. My first aid kit had clean surgical gloves, antiseptic wipes and plasters – all of which came in really useful that day. I’ve also completed a St John Ambulance training course which helped regarding basic first aid
• keep a very close eye on the tides – it goes without saying that finding a gorgeous piece of Roman pottery will be of little use to you if you end up on a pinch point on the foreshore with the water coming in fast and unable to get off safely
• ensure you are fully aware of exit points from the foreshore
• don’t eat or drink on the foreshore. While it’s welcome news that the Thames is much cleaner today than ever before, there are still discharges of sewage taking place at various points and will continue to be so until Tideway complete their lengthy work upgrading new sewage systems to cope with the demands of modern London
• make sure you have a permit to search as it’s illegal to remove artefacts from the foreshore without one. Permits and other advice regarding staying safe on the river are available from the London Port Authority website (see the ‘Advice’ section on my blog)
Finally, happy mudlarking, stay safe, take care and I’m looking forward to being back on the Thames Foreshore soon. Time to end today’s blog as my feline physiotherapist has just arrived…
I met a woman on the Thames Foreshore recently who was new to mudlarking and had only been out searching for finds a few times. We got chatting, as you do, and I passed on a few tips that other mudlarks had once passed on to me. She hadn’t found an awful lot, some bits of pottery, a bovine jaw bone (she was an artist and was intending to draw the poor beast when she got back into her studio) and was eager to find some brass dress pins, a staple of any mudlark’s collection when you start out. I found a patch of eroding mud and showed her how to search for these. It wasn’t long before she was clutching a decent handful of them and she thanked me for my time.
Pins and pottery are mudlarking staples, the basics of a trip to the Thames Foreshore. Eventually, and if you’re lucky, you find coins, tokens, an item of jewellery, maybe a Roman hair pin although these are extremely rare. You get them home, clean them up and spend a happy hour or two trying to identify them on the internet. That sense of looking things up, like an antiquarian detective, is precisely why I love to find sherds of pottery or porcelain with a logo on. Perhaps the name of a long gone business, trade, café, restaurant or hotel. Sometimes the river breaks the plate or cup in the most perfect place, neat and tidy, so that the name is clear and easy to identify. At other times, The Thames is frustrating with its gifts and leaves you a broken fragment that’s just a few letters too short to make a comprehensive ID.
Last year when I was out mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore near the Southbank I found an intriguing porcelain sherd broken right through the very middle of just such a logo. Fortunately it was fairly straightforward to work out that it was from the famous Hotel Metropole, and so my blog for March is about this, one of London’s long lost hotels.
The Hotel Metropole, built in Northumberland Avenue on the north bank of the Thames, was designed by Frederick Gordon and constructed between 1883 and 1885. It was the largest hotel in Europe when it finally opened its doors in 1885 and Queen Victoria was still on the throne. It had 600 rooms and was seven storeys tall, the first and biggest of a new wave of luxury hotels in London together with The Grand Hotel and The Victoria.
When the hotel opened in 1885 it produced a comprehensive 88 page brochure which claimed –
“That the hotel’s location particularly recommends it to ladies and families visiting the West End during the Season; to travellers from Paris and the Continent, arriving from Dover and Folkestone at the Charing Cross Terminus; to Officers and others attending the levees at St James’s (Palace); to Ladies going to the Drawing Rooms, State Balls and Concerts at Buckingham Palace; and to colonial and American visitors unused to the great world of London.”
The Victorian era was a time of enormous transition carried out at lightning pace throughout the whole of Great Britain, but particularly in London where the infrastructure of the Capital was undergoing a massive transformation that would make it unrecognisable from the previous era. From Bazalgette’s new sewage systems to the construction of the Thames Embankment, roads and railways, a huge building programme was under way and the country would never be the same again. An exciting time full of new opportunities if you were wealthy and looking for adventure , less so if you were one of the Capital’s many thousands of poor living in dreadful conditions and struggling to eke out a living. For the working class the very notion of luxury was something out of reach.
Frederick Gordon built hotels with what were considered to be groundbreaking amenities for the time such as lifts, bathrooms and phones in the rooms. Wealthy travellers coming from America and Europe, arriving at the newly built Charing Cross Railway Station nearby, expected no less and luxury was an important commodity with guests prepared to pay good money in order to travel and stay in comfort.
The architecture of the Hotel Metropole on Northumberland Avenue was unmistakably French in style with classic motifs and a Haussman era style. The view of the Hotel below is taken from the Embankment looking towards Trafalgar Square. Its famous triangular shape shows Whitehall Place on the left, while beyond The Metropole sits the Hotel Victoria. Northumberland Avenue itself took its name from the townhouse of the Percy family which stood on this location until demolished in 1874.
The Hotel Metropole quickly became a popular venue for high society in the 1880s and 1890s with celebrities coming to stay and to attend events. Edward VII was a frequent visitor and the hotel held a special banquet in his honour for his coronation on June 24 1902. As Prince of Wales and later King he entertained guests here on many occasions having reserved a box in the magnificent ballroom and using the Royal Suite, on the first floor of the hotel, with bow-fronted windows overlooking Whitehall Place. The hotel inevitably benefited from the cachet bestowed on it by its Royal clientele.
The Metropole was also the base for The Aero Club and The Alpine Club, and acted as the meeting point for competitors during the first London to Brighton car rally in 1896.
In 1916, during the first world war, it was commandeered by the Foreign Office and turned into government offices in order to provide a base for necessary war work. Winston Churchill worked in the rooms here during this time and in his letters he wrote about looking out of his window and watching hundreds of Londoners pour onto the streets to celebrate the end of the war on 11th November 1918.
The night before the British Expeditionary Force journeyed to France on the outbreak of war in August 1914, its two Commanders-in-Chief, Field Marshals John French and Douglas Haig, both stayed in the building.
The Hotel reopened after World War One and guests returned to its iconic location. The twenties were in full flow, fashions and tastes were changing and ‘The Midnight Follies’ became a well-known cabaret fixture in the ballroom at The Metropole. There was also The Midnight Follies Orchestra which included Mantovani as its band leader during this period.
When the Government redeveloped the buildings at Whitehall Gardens in the mid 1930s they leased the Hotel Metropole for £300,000 per annum to provide alternate office space for the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Transport, and later for the Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence. The rise of Hitler in Germany, and Europe moving towards a second world war, meant that it was essential The Metropole was commandeered again for war purposes.
The hotel’s location close to the Houses of Parliament and Government offices in Whitehall made it ideal for additional offices. The British Secret Services were based here, monitoring German internment camps and helping troops escape or avoid capture. Room 424 became the first home of MI9 and the SOE (Special Operations Executive), and later the holding point for one of the model planning beaches for Operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy, the Allied Operation that launched the successful invasion of German-occupied Western Europe during World War Two. The Operation was launched on 6th June 1944 with the Normandy landings, also known as D-Day, and lasted until 30th August 1944, two months, three weeks and three days.
Transferred to the Crown Estates portfolio after the war, the building remained in the control of the MOD who continued to use it as an overflow building and by 1951 the Air Ministry was again a major occupant. From the mid 1960s to 1992 it housed the bulk of the Defence Intelligence Staff and the mirrored ballroom provided the setting for many press conferences.
The building has many secrets and there are reputed to be tunnels and secret passages under the road that link the hotel to other government offices nearby. A rumour persists to this day that, until fairly recently, there was an office in this building monitoring UFO sightings and activity.
In 2008 the building was eventually left empty and the Corinthia Hotel Group bought it from The Crown Estate for £130 million, determined to restore it to its original function as an upmarket hotel in one of the greatest cities in the world. After extensive renovation the hotel, now renamed the Hotel Corinthia, reopened in 2011. Some of the original features of the Hotel Metropole, such as the ceiling in the Grand Ballroom, were preserved, but much of the original Victorian design had to be adapted to the modern age as it was impossible to preserve in its entirety. Replacement stones were brought in from Italian quarries and contemporary interiors were designed by the best designers in this field. 300 guest rooms and 47 luxury suites, some with private lifts, were revamped, their views overlooking some of the most iconic sights in London.
The Hotel Metropole no longer exists as it did in the late 19th Century but it’s satisfying to know that the building lives on as the refurbished Hotel Corinthia and has had such a fascinating 20th Century history, while Northumberland Avenue is forever commemorated as a pink square on the Monopoly Board.
So, who knew that finding this broken porcelain sherd, washed up on the Thames Foreshore at low tide, would lead to uncovering the history of one of London’s lost and finest hotels.
Extra low tides so far this year have meant the chance to wade further out into the Thames mud than usual and find items that are normally just out of reach. So it was doubly thrilling to start January with a complete Victorian Codd Bottle find, and February with a vintage Bovril bottle. Well, exciting for me, but maybe not so much for the non-mudlark who doesn’t quite get the passion for finding lovely, muddy things on the Thames Foreshore when the tide is out.
This rare Artis, Capel and Company codd bottle was found by me on the Rotherhithe foreshore. It was mostly buried underneath what had once been a chalk barge bed and it took some while to gently ease it out of the chalk and mud with my trusty trowel. That done, it was a delight to find especially as it was intact and with its codd bottle marble still inside. Cleaning it was a heck of a task but was well worth it.
Artis, Capel and Company, the manufacturers of this bottle, were a Surrey Mineral Water Company based in Neate Street, Camberwell, SE London. Their business was founded in 1864 at a time when carbonated drinks were becoming increasingly popular but keeping the fizz in the bottle was proving to be a huge challenge.
In 1870, Hiram Codd invented and later patented the famous Codd bottle which made a huge difference to drinks companies producing these carbonated drinks. The bottle was made from thick, aqua green glass and contained a codd marble inside that helped keep the fizz in when the bottle was placed on its side. The design was a huge favourite with Victorian children who would smash the bottle to get at the marble. This is why complete versions of these bottles are hard to find. The photograph below shows an emerald green Codd bottle marble found by me on a previous mudlark at Rotherhithe, not far from where the bottle find was made.
My Codd bottle has a dent on both sides called a ‘lug’, which keeps the marble (above) wedged in. The bottle is inscribed with a rare Rylands of Barnsley patent on one side and the following words on the front:
‘THIS BOTTLE IS THE PROPERTY OF ARTIS, CAPEL & Co, CAMBERWELL. NO DEPOSIT CHARGED.”
Artis, Capel and Company were eventually taken over by Robert White (R White & Sons fizzy drinks manufacturers, still producing lemonade today). In 1912, two hundred women went on strike at the R White factory at Waltham Cross, protesting over the reinstatement of an unpopular supervisor. All power to these ladies!
A second extra low tide in February, where I hadn’t actually found very much when mudlarking, saw me rolling off the Thames Foreshore in the City of London just as the tide was starting to come back in. Glancing down into a rock pool I saw this Bovril bottle lying in the water.
It’s a vintage style from 1913, 2oz in weight, classic dark amber in colour, the bottle inscribed with the words ‘Bovril Limited’. These also came in a 4oz size. A classic example of the ‘What The Victorians Threw Away’ genre, Bovril quickly became a very popular food item. It’s still popular today, although you either love it or hate it, and is now rebranded as ‘Marmite.’
Invented by John Lawson Johnston, a Scottish butcher who hailed from Roslin (made infamous in Dan Brown’s novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’,) Johnston went to Canada where in 1863 he devised a recipe for a liquid beef broth which he called by the catchy name of ‘Johnston’s Fluid Beef.’ In 1874 he won a huge contract from the French Government to supply the French army with one million tins of beef, enabling him to experiment further with the offcuts and refine his liquid beef product to make it more concentrated. In 1879 he moved production to Montreal where he began to sell his beef broth warm during the winter carnivals.
After a fire, he returned to Shoreditch in London and in 1887 registered the name ‘Bovril.’ In 1888 the iconic brown Bovril bottles were introduced and production moved to 30, Farringdon Street. A popular advertising campaign followed with brightly coloured posters publicising this product to the public. Below is one of these, currently part of the extensive Victoria and Albert Museum archive.
The first Bovril bottles manufactured in the late 1880s were initially hand made. My bottle find is from 1913, just prior to the outbreak of World War One, when bottle production became automated for the first time although the neck and lip continued to be hand finished, as you can see from the photos below. On the right, there’s a clearly visible seam that runs along the neck down to the bulbous body of the bottle and, on the left, the thick, irregular shape of the lip.
These early bottles are reassuringly chunky with a dent at the base indicating their pre-war age, a design factor that continued into the 1920s as there was a shortage of glass. Inevitably my Bovril bottle research pulled me into a bit of an internet black hole of vintage Bovril bottle geekery. I discovered a site where fans happily discuss the fact that there are 35 different types of Bovril bottle, further breaking them down into 50 sub types. At this point I quietly crept away….
John Lawson Johnston became a very wealthy man as a result of his Bovril manufacture and in 1891 bought Kingswood House in Southwark. He transformed the building adding battlements and a north wing, plus extending the servants’ quarters. His extensive renovation resulted in the house being nicknamed ‘Bovril Castle.’ When he died in 1900, the house was used as a military hospital for wounded Canadian soldiers from the first world war. Eventually the Johnston Estate was sold in 1919 to Sir William Vestey, Lord Vestey of the Vestey Meat family. John Lawson Johnston was buried in Norwood Cemetery in London.
The Vesteys went on to purchase Oxo Tower Wharf, on the south bank of the River Thames, from the Leibig Extract of Meat Company, manufacturers of Oxo beef stock cubes, who had designed the original Oxo Tower so as to bypass advertising bans that existed on the south bank at that time. The illuminated tower advertising the Oxo product could be seen quite some distance away. Unfortunately, on an early morning February mudlark when I took this photo below, the lights of the Oxo Tower (just in front of the hideous tower block known as One Blackfriars) had well and truly gone out…..