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Mudlarking in London

Treasure Hunting on the River Foreshore

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Mudlarking in London
© Laura Porter
We may not have a beach in London but we do have the River Thames running right through our city and, as it's a tidal river, the riverbanks become uncovered every day.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many of London's poor would search the riverbanks for trinkets to sell that had been dropped in the water and cargo that had fallen off passing boats, as London was a busy port. A Mudlark was a recognized occupation until the early 20th century but mudlarking these days is more like beachcombing or basic treasure hunting for those interested in London's past.

Mudlarking Along The Thames

The Thames is now one of the cleanest metropolitan rivers in the world, but throughout history was treated more as the rubbish bin of London. Thames mud is anaerobic (without oxygen) and preserves whatever it consumes which makes the 95-mile foreshore of the tidal Thames one of the richest archaeological sites in the country.

This is the urban equivalent of beachcombing - looking on the beach for 'treasures' washed in by the sea. There are serious mudlarking enthusiasts who are registered and have all the equipment and there are amateur archaeologists and the rest of us who are intrigued by London's past being displayed on the foreshore every day.

Do I Need a Licence?

You may have heard about mudlarking licences but the basic rule is 'surface finds' are OK but if you disturb one rock, even just to look underneath, you should have a licence. You can apply to the Port of London Authority (PLA) for a licence and this application form lists prices and gives clear guidance on what you will be allowed to do and where. But if you are just interested in history and wonder what mudlarking is all about then an 'eyes only' (no digging equipment) search is allowed everywhere without a licence.

Can I Keep Everything I Find?

Mudlarking in London

Can you see the broken clay pipe on the surface?

© Laura Porter
It is very important that any object found on the foreshore which could be of archaeological interest is reported to the Museum of London so that potentially everybody can benefit from the find. Through this scheme, the mudlarks have helped build an unparalleled record of everyday life on a medieval river.

What Might I Find?

This is an urban setting so you are most likely to find everyday objects that people have thrown away: pottery, buttons, tools, etc. It is extremely unlikely you will find a bag of diamonds or a sack of gold - sorry! - as no-one would bury valuables in the river.

The most common item to find is a clay pipe - usually broken and often sitting right on the surface (see photo). These were smoking pipes and were sold pre-filled with tobacco yet, although they could be re-used, they were generally thrown away, especially by the dock workers which explains why there are so many in the river. While that sounds like the equivalent of a modern 'cigarette butt' and not exciting, they are from the 16th century and that still makes them treasures to me. I've learned more about clay pipes from Heather at Dawnmist who has collected them for many years and also makes replica clay pipes.

Remember to take plastic bags with you for your finds and do wash everything in clean water before letting others handle it.

Safety

The most important information for you need for mudlarking safely is the daily tide tables. The Thames rises and falls by over 7.0 meters twice a day as the tide comes in and out and the water is cold.

Check your exit points as the river rises very quickly and has an exceptionally strong current. Remember the steps can be slippery so climb with care.

Wash your hands or wear disposable gloves as the area is not only muddy but there is a danger of Weil's disease, spread by rats urine in the water, plus sewage in storm conditions is still discharged into the river. Infection is usually through cuts in the skin or through eyes, mouth or nose. Medical advice should be sought immediately if ill effects are experienced after visiting the foreshore, particularly "flu like" symptoms i.e. temperature, aching, etc. All in all, be careful not to touch your eyes or face before your hands are clean. Anti-bacterial wash can help before you give those hands a good scrub.

Wear study footwear as it can be muddy and slippery in places. I've been mudlarking with my daughter and we wore wellington boots as we chose an area with more stones than mud. I've also been mudlarking in old waterproof sneakers/trainers for good grip.

Be sensible, and don't go mudlarking on your own.

Finally note, anyone going on the foreshore does so entirely at their own risk and must take personal responsibility for their safety and that of anyone with them. In addition to the tide and current mentioned above there are hazards from raw sewage, broken glass, hypodermic needles and wash from vessels.

Where to Mudlark

Mudlarking in London

Never go too far from the steps.

© Laura Porter
You can try this treasure hunting in some prime locations in central London. I first tried under the Millennium Bridge outside Tate Modern on the south bank and didn't find much but once I moved over to the north bank, near St Paul's Cathedral, there were hundreds of clay pipes laying on the surface! Here's the 'treasure' my daughter and I brought home that day. As she's young, she's enjoyed threading the pieces of pipe and who knows? She may be onto something as I've since met someone who makes and sells this wonderful jewelry created from these clay pipes.

Outside Gabriel's Wharf can be a fun place to check the 'beach' and I've been told around Southwark Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge on the north bank are worth checking out too. I also want to have a look around Canary Wharf next time I'm visiting the Museum of London Docklands.

If you enjoy London's waterways, you may well enjoy a visit to the London Canal Museum.

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