News

From diamond rings to 19th century pins modern mudlarkers dig up Thames for treasures

Around 200 years ago, poor Londoners known as mudlarks would scour the Thames for treasure to sell to survive.

Now, history lovers are getting down and dirty on the riverbank just for the fun of the find. Keen-eyed enthusiasts can unearth lost trinkets from hundreds, even thousands of years ago.

Roman jewellery and Elizabethan clay pipes are among the discoveries so far. But sometimes, what comes to light is far more grisly with bones, skeletons and even bodies emerging from the ooze.

Anyone can apply for a permit to search the river banks, but you must declare any finds of archaeological interest.

Martin Garside, from the Port of London Authority, said: “Mudlarking is part of a wider growth of interest in Britain’s heritage.”

Here, we speak to three modern-day mudlarkers about their unusual hobby.

Tiny button revealed romping Georgians
Former BBC foreign correspondent Anna Borzello says being a mudlarker is like being a journalist because of the sense of discovery – and some of her searches have had racy results.

Anna, 55, of Hackney, north-east London, says being a mudlarker is like being a journalist because “the objects you find are like a portal into the past and you’re finding out about them just as you would with a story.”

Former BBC foreign correspondent Anna Borzello
Anna says: “My twin daughters were eight when I started six years ago and I think they were bemused, but I think they are also really glad I have something I am so keen about too.

“Now I’m trying to do the odd bit with schools where I tell them about it as a way of getting them interested about history because every piece tells such a remarkable story.

“Three years ago I was part of a mudlarking exhibition at The Thames Festival and computational artist Jessica Wolpert invented this virtual mudlarking machine and we were asked to take it into a specialist autistic school so the kids could have a go and it went down brilliantly.

“Since then I’ve spoken in several schools and over Zoom to children in America.

“I’ve taken two school classes down The Thames and it’s really magical.

“When I talk to kids I choose the finds that are gateways to weird or strange stories from the past.

“For example, I found a tiny little white pot which turned out to be used to contain medical ointments from the apothecary 350 years ago.

“When I researched it, I found out that a common ingredient was Egyptian mummy.

“It became such a popular ingredient that it even started a trade for “fake mummia” where unscrupulous people would try and pass off dried out dead bodies as Egyptian mummies.”

Anna has collected around 15,000 garment pins and says “it’s quite meditative when you pick them up.”

She said: “In mediaeval times pins were high end items, even left in wills.

“For centuries, British people’s clothes were literally held together with them – sleeves, bodicies and ruffs.

“Queen Elizabeth I even had a royal pin maker.

“And yet nowadays, they are cheap, throwaway items that I only use to take out splinters.

“For me it’s those common everyday finds from the past that we find on the foreshore that illuminate the lives of our ancestors.

“I’ve got about 1,000 clay pipes, the cigarette butts of yesteryear.

“The rarest thing I’ve found is a tiny clay pipe bowl which turned out to be from the very early 17th century of a native American design – one of the only ones found in England from this period.

“Earlier this year I found a Georgian button which is tiny but when I peered at it I saw that the picture was of two people having sex and I thought: ‘Goodness me, I love that back then, just like today, some gentleman was walking around with a saucy button thinking about sex!’

“When you can connect to human emotions, it really makes people from the past come alive.”

Anna says she’s uncovered a new social life with the mudlarking community.

She said: “I’ve always loved being by water and there’s a camaraderie with the community of people I’ve met. I like the fact that no one asks: ‘What do you do?’. It’s actually quite irrelevant.

“They’re just interested in what each other finds. It’s a real leveller.”

Thames is full of historic finds… and bodies
Extreme mudlarker’ Jason Sandy only goes out at night when the tide is low – and has made some gruesome finds.

He said: “I have found dead bodies on the foreshore of suicide victims or people who have drowned.

“Last year, I found a human femur bone at 2am and the tide was coming in quickly so I took a photo, put it against a back wall and called the police.

“I wrote a book called Thames Mudlarking: Searching for London’s Lost Treasures, with Nick Stevens.

“He found the entire skeleton of a 12-year-old girl – face up – looking at him.

“The Thames Discovery Programme excavated her and radiocarbon dated her to the 1700s.

“From the state of her teeth, they could tell that she had probably died from malnutrition.”

Property developer Jason, 47, of Chiswick, West London, comes from Virginia in the US and has always been interested in history.

He says: “As a kid, I’d walk ploughed fields and look for Native American arrowheads.

“I got here in 2007 and was living just two minutes away from the river.

“When my kids were young, we’d take them to look for shrimps and crabs at low tide but in 2012, I watched Thames Treasure Hunters on National Geographic and realised you could find historical artefacts.

“The very next day I went out and found my first 300-year-old clay pipe.

“You can tell its age because the bowl dictates the year. The smaller they are indicates they are older because people had less money to pay for tobacco to put in them then. For me, the Thames is like a liquid history book.”

Jason says mudlarking has changed his life. He said: “It’s made me want to preserve London’s history and help educate future generations.

Every object takes you on a journey. I have well over 5,000 now.”

Every mudlarker has to log objects on a British Museum website called the Portable Antiquities Scheme. When Jason first started mudlarking, he found a Roman hair pin that was almost 2,000 years old and extremely rare. He donated it to the Museum of London and now wants to establish a museum just for mudlarkers’ finds.

He says: “For me, mudlarking is about sharing the history with others and teaching people its value.”

Antiques recycled into amazing works of art
Artist Nicola White first started mudlarking in the late 1990s because she missed the beaches of Cornwall, where she grew up. Now she draws inspiration from the materials she finds in the Thames – and loves to recycle them.

Nicola, 48, said: “I’ve always had this burning passion to pick things up, as far back as I can remember.

“When I was a kid, I would collect snail’s shells and other little objects in the garden. In 1998 I moved to Greenwich.

“I hadn’t realised there were these areas where you could go down to the shore and I was missing the beaches from home. “

Nicola found it the perfect way to unwind from her then-job as a PA. One of her top finds is a brass luggage tag that reads: ‘Fred Jury, 72 Woolwich Rd.’

She said: “I did some research and found he’d fought in World War One, married his landlady and was hit by a grenade. “Suddenly, from something very small, a whole story opened up.

“He had been buried in a pauper’s grave in Greenwich and I found it, with the help of the cemetery keeper.”

Mum-of-two Nicola has also found more than 130 messages in bottles – one from a 13-year-old boy who’d written, ‘I wish I was a Dino Thunder Power Ranger’.

Nicola later found out who the boy was and sent him a Power Ranger.

“Other bottles contain resolutions,” she said. “One was from a woman saying, ‘I want to lose 20 pounds’. There’s another saying, ‘I want to get a boyfriend’.

“A huge variety are from people saying goodbye to loved ones.”

Nicola recently found a 19th century wooden dog from the Congo in Africa, which was thought to contain spiritual power.

Experts say it could be worth thousands – but Nicola insists she doesn’t mudlark for money. Instead, she repurposes many of her finds in art.

Nicola said: “I make fish, for example, out of Victorian glass I find on the foreshore. Or I might make collages out of old nails and metal.”