Choice Shards

Much of the approved Thames path, forever negotiating between private and public, opts for the virtual over the actual, thereby spurning the essence of what London has always been about: its river highway. That restless, sediment-heavy movement. The sound and smell of dying centuries. The pre-human gravity. To begin to understand the complexity of migration and settlement, patterns of trade, fashions in architecture, we have to learn to read the hard evidence, as it has been deposited on the foreshore. The impulse is forensic: bones, smoothed corners of brick, masonry nails, coins, relics hidden among gravel and coal bruises to tempt future detectorists and amateur historians. From these fugitive traces past lives can be assembled like novels missing vital chapters. In the golden hour, when the liquid carpet rolls back, we are free to comb and trawl without challenge, to carry home choice shards from which we can almost taste the biographies of those who were here before us.

Iain Sinclair, London in Fragments (Foreword), Ted Sandling (2016)

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will have probably jaloused by now that I prefer to do my research in the field, and will find any excuse to go wandering off around parks and neighbourhoods in search of traces of my ancestors. Sometimes this limitation is enforced upon me as I am often only in London for a weekend, when it is usually not possible to visit the record offices (apart from occasionally for a few hours on a Saturday). In general, though, I like to combine both types of research during my sojourns to the city, taking my cue from the fickle London weather. And so it was that I ended up on a mudlarking expedition one bright morning in early spring, during one of those rare weekends when the temperature in the capital rivalled that of Athens and the attractions of the city were laid out before me like a particularly ravishing picnic.

First up on that metaphorical blanket of goodies was a Bankside mudlarking trip run by London Walks, one of my favourite guiding companies (I am trying to work my way through their portfolio, joining all the walks that have any connection to my genealogical quest). I had never been in the capital on a weekend which coincided with one of their popular mudlarking expeditions, such walks being restricted to a combination of low tides, weekend dates and the availability of their resident archaeologist. But on this Saturday in March there was a serendipitous collision of these factors, with the sunshine thrown in to boot, and as I waited at Monument Station for our guide, alongside the miscellany of other ingénue mudlarkers, I felt a happy wave of anticipation course through me. (Apart from the moment when I had a quick apprehensive re-reading of the walk’s description as rubber-booted families popped out from the underground carrying metal detectors and bulging rucksacks).

Mudlarking as a modern activity (as opposed to its unfortunate historical counterpart) had always appealed to me. Whenever I had followed the Thames path at low tide (particularly on the south bank of the river) I had always spotted people poking about on the exposed foreshore, either absent-mindedly or with the intense concentration of the serious artefact hunter. And when I first visited the Thames-side neighbourhood of Horsleydown and descended the old waterman’s steps to the river (see The Tailor of Horsleydown) I automatically started searching about in the stones and mud for some long-forgotten sign that my ancestors had once lived in the vicinity. I pocketed a piece of willow-pattern pottery that I imagined could have been part of a bowl from my great-great grandfather’s cramped kitchen at the back of the brick 18th century house in nearby Horsleydown Lane. Had his first wife, Sarah Vaughan, used such crockery in the 1830s, or was this just wishful thinking and I was in fact woefully inaccurate with my historical knowledge of porcelain dating? More strangely, on the unprepossessing foreshore there was also a scattering of strange fingers of pale white stone with dark shiny interiors. They almost looked as if they could have once been prehistoric tools of some sort, and I knew that I needed to find out more about what was in this muddy treasure trove.

Later I discovered that what I and most of those waterside ramblers were doing on the riverbank was called mudlarking – searching for historical ‘artefacts’ that were regularly exposed by the fast-flowing tidal Thames. Some of those engaged in the activity seemed to take their efforts extremely seriously, using metal detectors and spades, not to mention sporting rubber waders and gloves. Others with cameras and smart-casual city clothes looked as if they had accidently ended up close to the water, but while there could not resist the lure of the objects which protruded at their feet as they picked their way along the exposed strips of riverside.

The mudlarking expedition I joined was unsurprisingly a popular one, and thankfully the detectorists were soon dissuaded from the notion of digging for buried treasure: we were told that an approved license was needed for such activity, and even then there was restrictions to where it could be carried out. That explained why I had always seen the professional-looking mudlarks on the north shore, whereas the incidental day-tripping types were mostly to be found on the accessible beach in Bankside below the Tate Modern.

However, those spontaneous tourist mudlarkers were not entirely wrong with their instinctive choice of location. Our archaeologist guide, Fiona, pointed out that there were rich pickings to be had at this site due to its proximity to the old industries which had lined this stretch of the river. Not only were there the remains of boat building (nails and other iron artefacts), but there were also lumps of molten glass which had come from the glassworks further upstream towards Blackfriars, and fragments from the Lambeth potteries. And that was before the ubiquitous clay pipe stems, red terracotta roof tiles, ancient animal bones, discarded oyster shells, and other by-products of several centuries of London life.

Once Fiona had given us a basic introduction to the role of the river, and Bankside in particular, she issued us with plastic bags and latex gloves, along with strict instructions to scrub our hands clean afterwards to guard against the possibility of catching Weil’s disease (a bacterial infection transmitted by rats). Then the mudlarking code of conduct was pointed out – essentially common sense – and we were let loose on the foreshore. There was a fun, competitive spirit among the group as we each tried to outdo each other with our finds. Fiona stood in a prominent part of the beach, and we were at liberty to approach her with anything interesting we found – in particular those items which seemed unusual and which we had problems identifying ourselves.

I soon realised that to gain the most from the session, it would make more sense to curtail my searching relatively quickly and focus instead on listening to the explanations of the findings of the group (most who presented them to Fiona with an endearing child-like enthusiasm and desire to impress). That way, I figured I would learn more about the artefacts in the mud and be better equipped for future solo mudlarking expeditions, particularly around Horsleydown, a place to which I was keen to return with my new-found knowledge.

And so I came to learn the difference between Victorian terracotta roof tiles (a small nail hole) and ones from earlier generations (a larger hole for a wooden peg). Many of these Tudor peg-tiles had been dumped into the Thames during the rebuilding of the City after the Great Fire, and Fiona enthused us all by explaining that it was  even possible to find ones still with the scorch marks of the flames upon them. I learnt that clay pipes were discarded almost like cigarette butts are today, but that to find one with both the stem and bowl intact was rare. I learnt, too, that the long white fingers of stone with the shiny dark interiors  that had so puzzled me on my trip to the foreshore at Horsleydown Old Stairs were actually nodules of flint which came from the chalk downs up river. In fact, many fragments of flint found in the Thames have been naturally flaked by their movement downstream and may resemble prehistoric tools to the untrained eye.



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My Finds: (1) Tiles (2) Clay Pipe Stems (3) Bones & Shells (4) Flint

As the morning wore on I could see how, as a professional archaeologist, Fiona had to strike a tricky balance between imparting her enthusiasm for mudlarking with tempering the group’s urge to gather all and sundry without regard to the long-term effects of over-collecting. She encouraged us to search selectively, patiently re-explaining why we were not to dig around in the mud, even if we could see part of an exposed artefact (objects must be able to be picked up from the surface), and took some of our more important finds away to be catalogued, making sure they would eventually be returned to their ’owners’. These included an intact clay pipe from the 17th century, and some Victorian railway crockery to mark the Golden Jubilee. Fiona also explained how any rare pre-1700 finds should be reported to the Museum of London to be catalogued. (Even if it turns out that they are, in fact, neither rare or old, and it has purely been wishful thinking on the part of the collector).

Shortly after the mudlarking expedition finished and everyone started stowing away their plastic bags of finds and drifting off for lunch, I rushed along the south bank to Horsleydown Old Stairs to try to reach the foreshore before the tide came in, longing to search there now that I had a better idea of what I was looking for. And although it was certainly more interesting to scour the debris at my feet with all the new information I’d acquired, my search did not yield anything particularly exciting. Certainly the Bankside area had been more forthcoming in giving up its watery (muddy?) secrets.


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HORSLEYDOWN_FORESHORE (2).JPGHorsleydown Old Steps and Foreshore

I must confess that I felt quite deflated at my lack of success, and hunger and high tide drove me up Horsleydown Lane to The Anchor Tap (the local pub my ancestors would have been familiar with). Over a cold pint I thought about the architectural interloper of Tower Bridge arriving slap bang in the middle of the neighbourhood, centuries after it had been established, and all the dredging and filling in and general destruction to the river bank the building of the bridge had necessitated. On the mudlarking trip we had learnt about the damage that the construction of the Millenium Bridge had done to the nearby riverside, resulting in loss of areas of potential interest to archaeologists. Every new bridge across the Thames has wreaked a certain degree of havoc on the river bank and changed the flow of the water in some way.

I vowed to make mudlarking an integral part of any subsequent fairweather London trips (tides permitting) – particularly on the foreshore at the foot of  Horsleydown Old Stairs in the hope I might eventually discover something that might link back to my ancestors’ lives in the neighbourhood. Access to the river is not as common as it once was – from the numerous watermen’s stairs that lined the banks of the river there are only a few that still exist, (and which are protected from future destruction) – and it always seems a miracle to me that Horsleydown Old Stairs are still there, particularly given their close proximity to Tower Bridge. Every time I descend the tricky steps to the river, I thrill to the fact that my ancestors would have walked this same way, and feel as I am connecting with those riverside Skeltons who went before me.

As both Iain Sinclair and Ted Sandling point out in London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures, it can sometimes seem almost like trespassing when you descend to the river, away from the hurly-burly of the surrounding crowds, and reconnect with the vast watery highway that both links and divides London. And being able to spontaneously collect the remains of the activities of past Londoners feels like a very special privilege. As Sinclair points out: The practice of strolling and stooping turning over likely stones with boots poulticed in noxious slop, is one of the surviving liberties of the city.   

Yet it would seem as if this liberty is currently under threat, as new guidelines from the Port of London Authority (here) appear to indicate that from 2017 even picking up exposed items will now need a mudlarking licence due to the increase in the number of people collecting on the foreshore. A past-time formerly associated with only  a few ‘eccentrics’ has now become a fast-growing hobby – perhaps through the democratic spread of information, and the tantalising images on the internet of the artefacts that can be found through a combination of luck, patience and know-how. 

But whatever your thoughts are on the matter (and there are clearly arguments for and against the new restrictions), there is no doubt that the original 19th century (and earlier) practice of mudlarking seems horrific to our modern sensibilities. Those who had no other employment opportunities (mostly the very young and the very old) would take to the river in search of anything they could find to sell on: usually lumps of coal, scraps of iron, wood or bone. It was a hand-to-mouth existence in conditions that are unimaginable to us today.

When Henry Mayhew interviewed young mudlarks at one of the watermen’s stairs near the Pool of London in the 1840s, he remarked in London Labour and the London Poor that: It would be almost impossible to describe  the wretched group, so motley was their appearance, so extraordinary their dress, and so stolid and impressive their countenances. He describes the experiences of one juvenile mudlark as such: At first he found it difficult to keep his footing in the mud, and he had known many beginners fall in. He came to my house, at my request, the morning after my first meeting with him. It was the depth of winter, and the poor little fellow was nearly destitute of clothing. His trousers were worn away up to his knees, he had no shirt, and his legs and feet (which were bare) were covered with chilblains. And not only was this affliction  part and parcel of the perilous life on the edge of the river, but Mayhew later mentions that: The lad suffered much from the pieces of broken glass in the mud. Some little time before I met with him he had run a copper nail into his foot. This lamed him for three months, and his mother was obliged to carry him on her back every morning to the doctor. As soon, however, as he could ‘hobble’ (to use his mother’s own words) he went back to the river, and often returned (after many hours’ hard work in the mud) with only a few pieces of coal, not enough to sell even to get them a bit of bread.


For my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, and his family, the presence of mudlarks congregating at certain points in the river would have been a fact of life. I do not know what James thought about the poverty which was endemic in London at that time, but I like to think that his second marriage to Mary Ann Hawkins (see When I Grow Rich) showed him to be someone who believed in equality and the fairer distribution of wealth. His own beginnings in North Yorkshire in the early 1800s would indicate that he knew about hardship and the precariousness of existence in 19th century England. And however much it might be exciting to find a piece of plate or pottery or glass from the quarter century period that James spent living and working as a tailor in Horsleydown Lane (perhaps even an actual fragment from some of those objects itemised in his Sun Fire Insurance documents – see Where There’s a Will . . . and the Sun), there is no escaping from the truth of the matter that these ‘choice shards’ will never tell us what this man thought or felt as an individual. And so, like so much of genealogical research, we are pulled tantalisingly close only to be pushed away again by the impossibility of our task.

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2017

P.S. Those wishing to find out more about modern mudlarking can access the plethora of information on the web devoted to the subject, with the colourful website of Thames and Field being a particularly interesting (and eccentric) one to peruse.

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