London's mudlarks retrieve history from the Thames

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - It’s seven in the morning and we kneel in black mud on the freezing banks of London’s River Thames in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, where a church has dominated the ancient city since the 7th century.

An undated photot od a skeleton of a child who died in the 18th century found on the Thames foreshore. REUTERS/Nick Stevens

As the tide ebbs exposing the shore, Steve Brooker casually tosses a 17th century trader’s token he has found in the dirt into his bucket.

“Remember it’s all about getting your eye in,” says Brooker, who, armed with little more than a trowel, gloves, obligatory boots and an infectious enthusiasm has been combing the foreshore for antiquities for the past 20 years.

Traders’ tokens were issued by local merchants during and after the English Civil War (1642-1651) as a form of small change at a time when lower denominations of the realm were out of circulation. Preserved by the oxygen-free mud, the tiny copper-alloy farthing bears the name Thomas Lowe of Three Nuns Alley.

The other side of the coin is stamped with the figures of three nuns and is later traced to a merchant’s house in a long-lost narrow lane that now lies buried deep somewhere beneath Threadneedle Street, home to the Bank of England.

“You can smell the history down here -- it’s everywhere,” he says as we disappear from view for a guided tour under the cavernous quay supports of Old Billingsgate Fish Market, an ancient place associated with the trade of all manner of goods, including seafood, since medieval times.

Brooker, 49, a larger than life character -- he is 6 feet 6 inches tall -- is no ordinary beachcomber however.

He is one of only 45 members of the Society of Thames Mudlarks who are licensed by the Port of London Authority to search the northern shore between Westminster, the seat of government, in the west of the old city and the Tower of London in the east.

Anyone can walk the length of the capital’s exposed shore at low tide but only mudlarks, who diligently record their finds with the museums, can excavate the archaeologically rich north bank. Members of the public can give it a go too, so long as they buy a permit, but they are only allowed to search to a depth of a few inches on the southern shore and, like mudlarks, must report anything over 300 years of age.

Discoveries are returned to the finder once they have been photographed and the find spot revealed.

The Thames has been settled for millennia and the range of items it continues to yield is testament to its rich past. Prehistoric and Celtic tribes as well as Roman, Saxon, Viking and Norman occupiers have all graced its slippery banks and left their indelible mark.


Brooker emphasizes he isn’t searching for “treasure” in the conventional sense of the word. Most finds are simply every day items of rubbish discarded centuries ago that can shed light on the city’s past, he says.

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From Tudor buttons, 17th century items of cutlery, shards of Roman pottery, fragments of richly glazed medieval floor tile, that would have adorned a palace or monastic building, to decorated clay pipes, some with their 18-inch long stems still intact -- each item has a story to tell, he says.

Clay pipes, for instance, which litter the foreshore, were the cigarette butts of their day and can be dated right back to the Elizabethan period when tobacco was first imported to Europe from the New World. As a rule of thumb the smaller the pipe bowl, the older it is, reflecting the high cost of the commodity at the time.

Kate Sumnall, an archaeologist and Finds Liaison Officer with the Museum of London who is charged with identifying mudlark finds says their work is “phenomenally important.”

“They have made a huge contribution by donating artefacts to us, but also in terms of the knowledge they bring because they have been showing us their finds for such a long time -- I often learn from them,” she told Reuters.

“The medieval toys and pilgrim badges (they have found) are two of the key collections where their contributions have really helped change archaeological interpretation of the past.”

Pewter pilgrim badges, 13th century keepsakes gathered by our god-fearing ancestors from religious shrines that dotted the land, are a mudlark’s favorite.

Brooker has scooped up thousands of artefacts from the mud over the years, and along with his peers, has recorded many historically important finds with the London and British Museum.

His own collection includes Tudor daggers, opulent 18th century Georgian century shoe buckles, ornate medieval broaches and coins from almost every realm. He has even plucked tiny pairs of perfectly preserved leather shoes from the mud that once belonged to Roman children. Many finds are displayed on his website:

Some of those items have been lost by armies returning from battle, he says. Others thrown in as votive offerings, tossed away from great sailing ships when London was the trading capital of the world, or dropped at the many ferry crossings that once lined its shores.


The Thames has a habit of throwing up the grotesque as well as the sublime. In 2009, fellow mudlark Nick Stevens came across a human skull staring up at him from the mud (see picture). A full skeleton was later recovered from the site and identified that of a 12-year-old child who died between 1735 to 1805.

The cause of the child’s death remains a mystery to this day as there was little evidence of any disease or injury. Studying an 18th century map of the area Stevens came across a chapel and a gallows close to where the child lay leading him to question whether he had stumbled across an execution.

Under the “Bloody Code” (1400-1850) children were routinely executed for minor crimes such as stealing.

“You can, if you are really lucky, literally make history by finding an unrecorded artefact or coin” says Brooker, a commercial window-fitter by trade and self-taught antiquarian, who also has an uncanny ability to turn up the exceptional.

In 2009 he made world headlines when he discovered an iron ball and chain deep in the mud. The leg irons, thought to be 300 years old, still had the lock fastened, suggesting a convict may have drowned while trying to escape its grasp.

Since then he has drawn considerable media interest, and has just finished filming an eight-part series called “Mud Men” for the international satellite channel History, formerly the History Channel which began in Britain on Monday.

In the show, dubbed “guerrilla archaeology” by the makers, a mud-spattered Brooker teams up with British radio presenter and foreshore novice Johnny Vaughan to unravel the story behind every discovery they make.

The unlikely pairing makes for compelling viewing as they explore the quirkier side of English history, sometimes with hilarious results. Experts are on hand to help with identification and give insights into each era.

“It’s about educating people about the past and what’s out there and getting them involved -- It’s archaeology for everyone,” says Brooker who eventually wants to open his own foreshore museum close to the river.

Brooker is very clear about one thing though: you won’t get rich quickly digging on the Thames. Very few artefacts have significant monetary value and if they do they will likely be subject to the Treasure Act -- which means you can kiss goodbye to any idea of holding on to your booty.

Broadly speaking any metallic object, other than a single coin, provided that at least 10 percent is gold or silver is treasure and becomes government property until the museums decide what to pay for it. The finder is awarded compensation for his trouble to be split with the landowner.

In addition, the Thames foreshore can be a forbidding place for the inexperienced and needs to be shown respect, Brooker says. The river is strongly tidal and can rise rapidly on incoming tides. Many parts of the shore can be treacherous underfoot while saturated areas of mud can act like quicksand and should be avoided at all times.

“It’s a dangerous environment down there -- it’s not like a trip to the beach,” says Sumnall. (Editing by Paul Casciato)