The Totally Thames festival is the perfect opportunity to discover the fragments of London’s history that can be found by any Londoner by the banks of the River Thames.
When the tide is out, you can walk along the city’s beaches and pick up precious objects that no-one else has touched for hundreds of years. The Thames foreshore, all the way from Greenwich to Putney and beyond, is littered with treasures: pottery, old clay tobacco pipes, brass buttons and glass bottles. Picking these up is an incredible sensation, and makes one feel deeply part of London’s ever-continuing history; finding them is called mudlarking.
It’s an old word, and used to be one way the very poorest Londoners were able to scrape together a living. In the 19th century, mudlarks went out at low tide in search of scrap: wading through the mud, they picked up things like copper rivets or coal, anything that their pawnbroker, or dolly, might buy from them.
Henry Mayhew wrote about them in the 1850s, describing them as:
‘half covered by tattered indescribable things that serve them for clothing; their bodies are grimed with the foul soil of the river, and their torn garments stiffened up like boards.’
The river was a sewer in those days, and the ’foul soil’ was truly disgusting.
Nowadays, mudlarks walk along much cleaner river banks. They look for objects the original mudlarks might once have spurned, choosing finds that give a powerful connection to the London of the past. I picked up many of the fragments in my book because they were beautiful, because they were rare, and because, through them, I could tell remarkable stories of how London was founded, grew, and became the city we live in today.
Find out more about the fascinating history of the Thames at our Maritime Lecture Series
For more information about visiting the Thames foreshore and restrictions on digging
Find out more about mudlarking in a group