Just mudlarking about
Combing or ‘mudlarking’ the banks of the Thames used to be a miserable, sordid occupation. Now, it thrillingly brings to life the city’s colourful past, reports Ted Sanderling
In his diary of 1861, Arthur Joseph Munby described how a ‘young woman, with simious face and creel on back, stood by me as I looked over the rails down the Whitefriars dock, considering her chances of stray coal; then… she waded through mire and water, among dead cats and broken crockery’.
The name mudlark has since passed to those who search the foreshore for pleasure rather than survival. Mudlarking has become a way for the contemporary Londoner to connect with the city’s past, to reach across the boundaries of time and touch something that has been untouched for hundreds of years, sharing a sensation across centuries. Which is where I come in. That poor young woman’s broken crockery has transmuted into my treasure.
Mudlarking, for me, was a side effect of my explorations of London and yet, from it, I’ve had some of my most evocative encounters with the city. I love to find fragments with just the smallest hints of writing on them and trace them back to their origins in a feast of detective work. A shard of glass, say, with a just decipherable ‘…nwaring/…eckham’ was transformed with delicious research into a bottle of Royal Naval Pickle, made by Manwaring, Peckham, and displayed in the 1911 Festival of Empire. I’ve found a mysterious brass capsule containing a tight scroll of copper with arcane markings (it turned out to be a Ceylonese suraya, a holy talisman) and a Frozen Charlotte doll (named after a tragic American folk song).
Meeting a smartly dressed man on Wapping beach, I discovered the addictive quality of picking Tudor pins from the sands. Each one a sharp shaft of brass wire, another length wrapped round the top for a head. And these processes, pinched between my fingers, brought the writings of Adam Smith to life.
My companion held up a £20 note and I read for the first time upon it ‘The division of labour in pin manufacturing: (and the great increase in the quantity of work that results)’. One man would make 20 pins a day; 10 men could make 50,000.
After every trip to the river, I know a little more than I did before and I have touched history. All you need are wellies. Give it a try.
The River Thames throws up treasure and trinkets with delightful regularity, each telling a little bit more about the history of London