Spotted along the Thames foreshore when the tide is low, the term ‘mudlark’ is used to describe someone who scavenges for lost or discarded objects in the mud along the Thames river banks.
In the 18th and 19th century, mudlarks were among London’s poorest who eked out a living by selling items – lumps of coal, pieces of rope, precious metals – found on the river’s banks. They were often the young or the elderly and the working conditions, which included navigating through the raw sewage and other noxious waste which ended up on the foreshore, were horrendous.
Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew, who writes in his seminal and expansive series of reports – London Labour and the London Poor – described how mudlarks were so-named because of their need at times to wade up to their waists in mud to retrieve items.
By the 20th century, the practice appears to have somewhat died out. But in more recent years, the term mudlark has been applied to hobbyists, including those using metal detectors, to search along the Thames foreshore during the hours when the tides allow. Since the mid-1970s, The Society of Thames Mudlarks has provided some organisational structure for those involved but membership in this body is limited.
A permit from the Port of London Authority is required for modern mudlarking. As the authority’s website states: “Anyone searching the tidal Thames foreshore from Teddington to the Thames Barrier – in any way for any reason – must hold a current and relevant foreshore permit from the Port of London Authority. This includes all searching, metal detecting, ‘beachcombing’, scraping and digging”.
Finds of potential archaeological interest must be reported to the Museum of London (and human remains, of course, to police). Mudlarks are also encourage to report finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Objects found include everything from clay pipes, bits of pottery, buttons, bones and pins through to more precious items such as coins, rings and even daggers and swords.
Lara Maiklem, author of the 2019 book Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames, is among the most well-known of the modern mudlarks. As detailed in his book, her finds have included everything from a Roman amphora stopper to medieval roof tiles, a bearded man from a late 16th century Bellarmine jug and an 18th century shoe pattern.