Mudlarkers Dig Up Shards of London History

Susan Lendroth

The concrete stairs to the river were not designed for heavy traffic. No signpost directed visitors, the railings ended halfway down, and each individual step dropped steeply. I didn’t care. Twenty centuries of London’s trash waited to be found.

My journey began years before when I read an article by a woman who scored a house-sitting gig at the curator’s cottage of Samuel Johnson’s house, a museum dedicated to the wordsmith who said: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

That house-sitter described walking along the River Thames at low tide to pick up bits of 18th century porcelain, scattered like blue-patterned seashells on the rocky shore. Beachcombing in the heart of London? Count me in.

It’s called mudlarking, and it once offered a subsistence living to Victorian urchins, who scrounged the muddy banks for scraps of iron and coal to sell. Today’s mudlarkers range from casual strollers to serious chaps toting metal detectors. The foreshore of the River Thames is one of England’s richest archaeological sites, a treasure trove of finds stretching back to prehistoric times.

My challenge was how to reach it during my last trip to London. Access points to the river were few in a modern city built well above the tide line. Finally, I learned of a stairway on the north shore just east of the Millennium Bridge and scouted it out one afternoon at low tide.

The shingle looked red, brick red, as if all of London’s vanished Victorian walkways had crumbled onto the shore. Most of the fragments actually began life as Roman and medieval roof tiles. I picked up a piece shaped like a tiny kite; a hole for a wooden peg marked it as medieval. Romans roofed with interlocking tiles.

Clay pipes

Dozens of short white tubes also lay scattered among the rocks – bits of long-stemmed clay pipes that clinked underfoot. For 300 years, Londoners smoked disposable pipes and tossed them away like cigarette butts.

I also found plenty of the blue and white shards of porcelain that drew me to mudlarking in the first place. Centuries in the river mud had polished off all sharp edges, leaving behind smooth ceramic pebbles.

Bits of yellow, green and brown pottery spoke of other eras, other uses. Was that green crumb part of a platter that graced King Henry VIII’s kitchen? Maybe the tiny brown rosette once decorated an ale jug passed around by Will Shakespeare and his acting troupe at their favorite tavern.

The shingle seemed a metaphor for London itself, a hodgepodge of eras thrown together the way glass-and-steel skyscrapers towered over the city’s narrow streets and courtyards. A tinge of brine in the air reminded me that the Thames once bristled with ships’ masts, from Roman triremes carrying olive oil and fish sauce to graceful tea clippers that raced the wind to China.

As a casual mudlarker, I was allowed an “eyes only” search. To dig required a permit from the Port of London Authority. To dig along that historically rich stretch of river was restricted even further to members of the Society of Mudlarks, who had to show all finds to the Museum of London. I was happy with my beachcombing-only status.

Blackened bones

Less-savory bits also littered the ground, including blackened bones from a thousand years of roasting and stewing and hungry householders yelling, “What’s for dinner, wife?”

I left those where they lay.

But I did pick up a weathered button – maybe wood, maybe bone – and wondered whose fingers fastened it on cold dark mornings.

My first journey to the Thames was at the beginning of a three-week trip. I paid a final visit the day before I left England, and carried my plastic bag of finds with me to Samuel Johnson’s House. But the museum was closed that morning.

Instead, I sat on a bench by a statue of Johnson’s cat, Hodge, and chatted with the elderly gentleman who shared the square with me. He asked to see my river haul, and reminisced about an archaeological dig he once joined.

Our talk turned to Hodge, and he told me his grandchildren sometimes put cat kibble in the bronze oyster shells at the foot of the statue. It was always gone the next day.

Did his grandchildren live nearby?

Right there, he pointed, in the curator’s cottage. His daughter-in-law was curator of the Samuel Johnson Museum, and he and his wife were house-sitting that weekend.

Could my story really have come full circle? Apparently so in London, where the tides of time conceal and reveal a thousand years of stories every day.

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