Lara Maiklem was just 10 years old when she found her first human bone, a lower jaw complete with teeth, lying in a rose bed at Southwark Cathedral. She promptly scooped it into an empty chip bag and brought the jaw home, where it briefly occupied a place of honor in her budding collection of found artifacts, then stored inside a chest of drawers in her family’s barn. Since those days, Maiklem’s passion for uncovering the artifacts and stories of previous Londoners has only grown (though the jaw was returned to a local church by her mother).
“The objects they lost are all that’s left of these people who’ve been forgotten by history.”
Maiklem’s childhood in the countryside, where relics of previous inhabitants are regularly combed from fields and streams, led to an adulthood interest in archaeology and anthropology, though she’d mostly left her digging days behind when she moved to London after university in the 1990s. However, after finding herself drawn to the Thames, Maiklem realized the banks of this tidal river were laden with all types of treasure—from ancient Roman pottery to Victorian-era coins to more modern discoveries, like eyeglasses or a set of false teeth.
As a self-identified “mudlark,” Maiklem began scouring the muddy foreshore of the Thames—the strip of land between the high- and low-water marks—for little bits of history from the prehistoric era to the modern day. Over many years of mudlarking, Maiklem has found objects as varied as Venetian glass chevron beads, printer’s lead type, pieces of green-glazed Tudor money boxes, an ivory pocket sundial, pewter medieval pilgrim badges, a 16th-century child’s shoe, and even a centuries-old ring bearing the inscription “I LIVE IN HOPE X.” Eventually, Maiklem also found a community of fellow mudlarks who search the edge of the river for remnants of those who came before.
London’s mudlarks are a mix of amateur archaeologists, professional historians, and regular folks who live for the hunt. As Maiklem writes in her 2019 book, Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames, “For just a few hours each day, the river gives us access to its contents, which shift and change as the water ebbs and flows, to reveal the story of a city, its people and their relationship with a natural force.” We recently spoke to Maiklem about this lengthy and complicated relationship, and the long-lost things that wash up with the tides.
Collectors Weekly: How has the word ‘mudlark’ shifted over the decades?
Maiklem: The first time that mudlarks are mentioned or written about in connection with the Thames was at the end of the 1700s. And they were written about by a man called Patrick Calhoun who was looking for a way to protect the ships that were sitting at anchor in the River Thames because, at the time, it was the world’s biggest port. Ships could wait for up to six months at a time for a berth to unload their precious cargoes, and they were being preyed on by these gangs of criminals with wonderful names like Scuffle Hunters and Night Horsemen and River Pirates.
At the bottom of this list of miscreants were the mudlarks, and they were the sort of pathetic wretches that were poking around in the mud near the hulls of the ships, looking for anything they could find that had been dropped by these other criminals. There were packages of spices and sugar, and bladders of rum that came off the West Indian ships, which had the richest cargoes. They’d throw them off the side and the mudlarks would pick them up from the mud and convey them into the black market through the taverns in Wapping and Rotherhithe.
This is the first time that the mudlarks are properly mentioned and written about, but they really came into their own in the mid-19th century when the social commentators of the time—most famously Henry Mayhew—wrote about them. They described mudlarks very beautifully, if you can say that. The Victorians had this morbid curiosity for poverty: They’d go to the poorest parts of town just to look at the poor people and see how they lived.
These social commentators, who tended to be rich, upper-middle-class people, had a fascination for the mudlarks. They were basically the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. Mudlarks were mainly women, old people, and children who couldn’t earn a living doing much else, and there were armies of them all along the River Thames. They would wait until low tide and then walk down these rickety river stairs and plod around in the mud, looking for rope or bones, or if they were lucky they might find a copper nail, bits of coal, or some tools that might have been dropped—anything that they could sell to survive.
They’d take it back to the streets and sell it to the rag collectors, and sell the bones to the glue factories, and it was just enough to keep them out of the workhouse. It was preferable to wander around in what would’ve been basically thick shit—because the river then was a moving cesspit—to plod around without any shoes on, cutting their feet on the nails and the glass looking for anything. That was more preferable than going into the workhouses; they were such dreadful places.
I’m quite sure there’ve been river scavengers ever since London existed, so those were the original mudlarks. Fast-forward through to the mid-20th century and mudlarking became a phrase used for people who started to look for historic objects on the foreshore. There was a man called Ivor Noël Hume who actually moved to America and worked at Jamestown, Virginia. Hume was the godfather of modern mudlarks; he discovered this wealth of artifacts lying on the foreshore of the Thames with no historic context at all. They were overlooked by many archaeologists, but he found value in them. He built up an incredible collection of things that he found on the river, and since the mid-20th century, many people have been doing it for fun, recreation, and as a hobby.
Collectors Weekly: When did you first start scouring the foreshore?
Maiklem: Well, I grew up on a farm with a Victorian dump, and when they plowed up that field, all the bottles and 19th-century junk would come to the surface, so we’d go looking in there. We also had the ruins of a medieval village in our top fields, and whenever they plowed that up, we’d find medieval pottery. The house itself was built in the reign of Henry VIII, so I grew up surrounded by history. My uncle also had a farm on the edge of the North Downs where there are lots of fossils. I was always looking for fossils. And there was a river at the bottom of the garden as well, so that’s where I got my love for rivers.
I moved to London in the early ’90s, and I think because I’d grown up on a farm, I was used to my own company and peace and quiet. But I really wanted to be in the city. I was looking for somewhere quiet to go, and that’s when I discovered the river. For years and years, I walked along the side of the river on some fantastic river paths. Then one day, around 15 years ago, I found myself at the top of a set of river stairs, wondering why I hadn’t gone down on to the foreshore before.
The River Thames is tidal, so the water level goes up and down. Twice every 24 hours you can get access to the riverbed, and that’s where mudlarks do their mudlarking. For some reason, a lot of people in London think that the river’s out of bounds and you can’t go down there. I’d probably always thought that until this day, when I decided I’d go down and have a look. In the mud, I found a piece of clay pipe stem—something that’s very common and not that interesting to me now—but it was the key to another world for me then: Having found lots of clay pipe stems in the fields at home, it made me realize that there was interesting stuff down there, so I went back. And the more I went back, the more I found, and I started gradually building a collection and visiting other places along the Thames. I lived five minutes from the river, so it was easy for me to get down there. It became my go-to place.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have any background in history or anthropology?
Maiklem: I’m really fascinated by history. I did do anthropology at university, though, and in my first year, I did archeology, which I rather
embarrassingly failed. So it’s just an interest or a hobby.
Collectors Weekly: What’s your system for tracking your finds?
Maiklem: I have a notebook that I’ve written everything in with a sort of code. I know where everything came from—when I found it, where I found it. A lot of it’s in my head as well, which is a terrible, dreadful thing to do. I need to decipher my code because if I fall under a bus tomorrow, nobody’s going to understand any of it.
Collectors Weekly: How has human intervention in the river’s natural form contributed to the human debris in the Thames?
Maiklem: There are lots of reasons for all the stuff in the river. Obviously, it’s been used as a rubbish dump. It was a useful place to chuck your household waste. It was essentially a busy highway, so people accidentally dropped things and lost things as they traveled on it. Of course, people also lived right up against it. London was centered on the Thames so houses were all along it, and there was all this stuff coming out of the houses and off the bridges. It was the biggest port in the world in the 18th century, so there was all the shipbuilding and industry going on.
“We’re so lucky here—we’re literally walking on history all the time.”
And then of course, there’s the rubbish that was used to build up the foreshore and create barge beds. The riverbed in its natural state is a V shape, so they had to build up the sides next to the river wall to make them flatter so the flat-bottom barges could rest there at low tide. They did that by pouring rubbish and building spoil and kiln waste, anything they could find—industrial waste, domestic waste. When they dug into the ground further up, they’d bring the spoil down and use it to build up the foreshore, and cap it off with a layer of chalk, which was soft and didn’t damage the bottom of the barges.
One of the reasons we’re finding so much in the river now is because there’s so much erosion. While it was a “working river,” these barge beds were patched up and the revetments, or the wooden walls that held them in, were repaired when they broke. But now, they’re being left to fall apart, and these barge beds are eroding as the river is getting busier with river traffic.
Every tide, something new will turn up, and the contents date right back to Roman times in central London. When they dug cellars or basements in the 18th and 19th centuries—this is when they created the barge beds—they’d dig down into medieval Roman layers, and then bring that spoil down to the river to build up the barge beds. So that’s possibly why we’re finding Roman objects next to Victorian objects next to Georgian objects. Such a mess of history in there.
The beauty of the Thames is that it’s muddy and anaerobic, so if something falls into the mud, it’s preserved as perfectly as the day it fell in. It’s not too acidic, it’s not too alkaline, and no oxygen gets to it, which means there’s no degradation at all. It’s like suspended animation until you find it—it’s not like finding things in fields or archaeological digs. What we’re pulling out of the mud is pristine: Sometimes you’ll pull a pin out, and it’ll still be shiny, or you’ll find coins that have absolutely no damage on them at all, like they fell out of someone’s pocket yesterday. It’s incredible. Centuries-old leather and wood and even fabrics have been found, which is quite incredible. The key is, though, getting to it before it washes away or it starts to erode. The wave action starts to damage these objects.
Collectors Weekly: Are there any efforts to restore the Thames to its natural form?
Maiklem: No, the river hasn’t been natural for many hundreds of years. The original river was a very wide and shallow river. We forced it into the channel that it is today, so we could never return it to what it once was without demolishing London. But you have to remember that the tidal Thames goes from Teddington in the west out to the estuary in the east. If you go to Teddington, it’s a much more natural river, a rural river almost. Then when you are out in the estuary, it’s a wild, wild place. It’s completely natural there. There’s nothing man-made about it. So it’s just that little wiggle in the center of town that’s the very artificial river.
Collectors Weekly: Has the relationship between Londoners and the river shifted over time?
Maiklem: London’s only there because of the river, so it’s been very important. In the 1960s, the river was mostly forgotten about in central London. Anybody who remembers the Thames from the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s, it was desolate. Nobody wanted to live beside it; nobody wanted anything to do with it. But we rediscovered it from the ’90s onward, and it’s become a lot more important. It’s a lot busier, and it costs a fortune to live anywhere near it now.
Collectors Weekly: Has your experience mudlarking changed your understanding of London’s evolution?
Maiklem: I’m not sure if it’s changed my understanding because I’ve always been very aware of how London grew. If you live in London, you’re surrounded by it all the time. The history is just under your feet, and you live in it. What it has done is brought to life some of the people, given some of the nameless people from history a voice, almost. The objects they lost are all that’s left of these people who’ve been forgotten by history. So when you find something that somebody scratched their initials into, all of a sudden it makes history very personal. It brings these forgotten Londoners to life. So I think mudlarking has connected me to the Londoners rather than London.
Collectors Weekly: What are some previously commonplace but now unfamiliar objects you’ve learned about while mudlarking?
Maiklem: Well, I didn’t know anything about shoe pattens at all until I found one. I didn’t know what it was at first, and then the shape of it rang a bell. I’d actually seen one in the Museum of London. Shoe pattens were these iron hoops screwed to the bottom of wooden shoe soles, which were strapped onto shoes. It was mainly women who wore them, and it raised their feet up enough to keep them out of all the muck and sludge on the streets and keep the bottom of their skirts clean and their shoes nice.
“Sometimes you’ll pull a pin out, and it’ll still be shiny, or you’ll find coins that have absolutely no damage on them at all, like they fell out of someone’s pocket yesterday.”
I’ve also found a glass sugar crusher from the 19th century. It’s like somebody took a piece of molten glass and pulled it out and made a bubble on the end. I didn’t know anything about those either: Londoners used to buy sugar in cones, and break off a piece with tongs and use these crushers to break it further once it was in the drink. They’re very beautiful.
I’ve also learned about the sugar-cone molds, and we find lots of pieces of those on the foreshore. And Roman hypocaust systems or box flues. I didn’t know much about those, and I find lots of Roman hypocaust pieces. The Romans were very clever: They basically invented central heating. They embedded these square-shaped clay pipes in the walls and floors of their villas, and they’d have some poor slave down in the basement, controlling a fire and blowing the heat underneath the house. The hot air would be drawn up through the walls in these box flues and would heat the rooms.
But the great thing about these box flues is they patterned the outside, so they all have different swirls or geometric stamped patterns on them to help the plaster of the walls stick to the outside. But it’s thought these different patterns were the tile makers’ signatures. That was a bit of a revelation to me when I first started finding them.
Collectors Weekly: I’d never heard of the Bellarmine jugs with the bearded guys on them until I read your book. And also the aglets, I think they’re called, those metal ends of laces or clothing ties.
Maiklem: Yes, but you’ve got them on your shoe, if you’ve got laces on your shoes today. You learn some really great words mudlarking, like “raspberry prunt.” That’s my favorite.
Collectors Weekly: What’s that?
Maiklem: “Raspberry prunt” is an applied blob of bumpy glass that looks like a raspberry. They use to put them on Roemer glasses, these German glass goblets, to stop your hands from slipping and to make them look pretty. I just think that’s a great word.
Collectors Weekly: When you find an item you’ve never seen before, how do you research it? What’s your process like?
Maiklem: I have a library of weird and unusual books. I do a lot of searching on the internet. I’ve got my Facebook and Instagram and Twitter pages, and I have access to such a phenomenal hive mind that, very often, I’ll put a picture up of something I’m not familiar with, and somebody will know what it is.
Failing that, we have what’s called the Portable Antiquities Scheme here in the U.K. It’s a project of the British Museum, whereby they’re trying to record all the objects found in fields and gardens and beaches and rivers. Obviously, these objects are out of context but they want a record of them all because it’s our history. Otherwise, they’d be lost. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has recorded over a million objects now, and every part of the country has a Finds Liaison Officer, and you report your objects to them. They have access to experts in all sorts of museums, and they can usually tell you what something is if you don’t know. So it’s fantastic to have access to that.
Collectors Weekly: What are the oldest, most valuable, and oddest objects you’ve found?
Maiklem: Well, the oldest objects are obviously fossils. Because the river runs over a chalk flint bed, you find fossilized sea urchins and things like that. The oldest man-made objects I’ve found are Mesolithic worked flints, and it was quite incredible being the first person to pick those up. I’m getting much better at spotting them. They are quite hard to see because there’s so much flint on the foreshore, but you’re looking for the ones that have been worked by hand.
The oddest is probably the glass eye, which scared the crap out of me. It’s like it was looking back at me. That and the—God, I’ve found so many weird things—that and the human ashes. Somebody had thrown a box of human ashes into the river rather than scattering them. They threw the whole box in without opening it. You do find some odd things, like the pewter syringe that I didn’t pick up but wish I had. It was a urethral syringe for treating Syphilis, probably dating from around the 18th century.
The most valuable find is a really difficult question because do you mean most valuable in terms of money or historical? I can honestly say I don’t know how much any of my objects are worth. I never get them valued because I think it turns the hobby into something completely different. I’m not a treasure hunter, and I don’t do it for financial gain, and don’t believe people should. In fact, it’s worth saying that you’re not allowed to sell anything that you find from the Thames foreshore because it doesn’t belong to you. It all belongs to the Port of London Authority.
In terms of history, the objects I’ve found that are one-offs are the most historically important. I think, weirdly, one of the most historically important objects is a little pressed horn or bone counter from one of the 18th-century pleasure gardens at Vauxhall called Lambeth Wells. Nobody’s found anything like that before; it’s completely unique.
These pleasure gardens were situated just outside the city, and people went to promenade around and get away from the stench of the city to where there were trees and open space. They had fireworks shows, music, dancing, and you could get a drink. But when the sun went down, the pleasure gardens became a place of dreadful iniquity where people would go to get very drunk and meet ladies of the night and not leave until the early hours of morning. As the 18th century went on, they became more and more notorious places.
Vauxhall Gardens is probably the best known one. It was right on the river, and there was a small one behind it called Lambeth Wells, which grew up around a spring in the 17th century. People would go there to take the waters—it was a healthy place—and they’d exercise in the fields and play games. At various points in its history, it became well known for its prostitutes and lost its liquor license. The bone counter I found could’ve been a token for someone to leave their coat or an entrance token. Nobody knows because no one’s found anything like it. But I love that. I love its connection to that time in history.
I’ve also found gold, which a lot of people would associate with value. I found part of a tiny hoard, a beautiful gold lace aglet that’s with the museum at the moment. The tiny, little pieces of 16th-century gold that make up this hoard are all broken or crushed in some way. They think it was a bag of scrap gold that had been dropped.
Collectors Weekly: Tell me about some of your improvised conservation techniques.
Maiklem: Well, I can, but I think what I do will have proper people wincing! The problem we have here is there’s so much old stuff. If you pull a leather shoe out of the river, even if it’s 500 years old, there won’t be a museum that can afford to conserve it because they have too much already and don’t have the budget. You’re left alone with a lot of this stuff. Obviously, I give the museum anything they want—they’ve got a leather hat of mine at the moment—but anything they don’t take and professionally conserve, I have a go at myself. So some of my rather dubious methods are as follows.
With leather, you mustn’t let it dry out. If it dries out, it shrinks and twists and warps, and it’s fairly useless. So you have to keep it damp and cool and dark until you’re ready to work on it. Leather’s very difficult. With the only bit of leather I’ve successfully managed to preserve, I used the same stuff I use on my leather sofa, and rubbed it in. I’m going to try using some dubbin wax as an experiment, see if that works, and I’m also going to try some neatsfoot oil. I’ve got a friend who has successfully managed to preserve shoes by gradually drying them out and stitching them back together again.
For wood, I’ve put it in my freezer. I wrap it very tightly in Saran wrap, put it in my freezer, and I leave it there literally for years. It starts to freeze-dry, a bit like if you’ve got an old chicken in the bottom of the freezer, you know how it goes all dry. Once it’s started out to dry out a bit, then you can take it out very gradually using a bag with little holes in to stop it from splitting and warping. That seems to be quite successful.
Old glass tends to fracture. Roman glass is great; it’s really high quality and doesn’t fracture, but 17th- or 18th-century glass tends to crack. The best thing I’ve found to do with it is to spray it with clear lacquer, and that seems to stop it. I’ve done that with an old glass ironing weight, and it seems to have stopped it from breaking up.
And then I use electrolysis, which is a dreadful thing to do. But if you’ve got something metal that is so encrusted—the river creates a kind of concrete around things sometimes, coins especially—that you can’t see what’s under it, it’s worth giving it a go. You can often tell from the shade of it that it’s going to be a ha’penny or something like that. I’ve got an old mobile phone charger, and I’ve taken the end of it, split the wires and attached crocodile clips. Then, you attach one end to a spoon and put it in a warm solution of bicarbonate of soda and water, and attach the other end to your object. It creates a current, and it’ll get rid of all the crud quite effectively. But obviously, you have to be very careful.
Collectors Weekly: What found objects do you tend to return to the river?
Maiklem: I take back a lot of pottery and pipes, mainly. I take lead away because it’s not good for the environment, and I recycle that. Once I’ve photographed it, any pottery I don’t want or don’t know anyone who wants, I take that back. Same with the clay pipes and pipe stems.
I curate my collection very carefully because I don’t have room for everything, and I don’t want to be greedy either, to be honest. You don’t need more than a few clay pipes. So unless it’s better than the one I’ve got, it tends to go back or I give it away. Often, I take a picture of them in situ and leave them there.
Collectors Weekly: What’s important to know when you’re planning an expedition to the foreshore?
Maiklem: Well, there are safety precautions. You need to check your tide tables. You have about two to three hours either side of low tide. You can get cut off, because there are pinch points, so you have to keep an eye on your exit. If you’re concentrating hard, you can turn around and find that the tide is coming in quicker than you realized. Tell people where you’re going or ideally go with someone else if you’re not used to it. And be careful of deep mud; wear sensible shoes. I advise wearing rubber gloves or latex gloves because raw sewage still flows into the Thames. Always wash your hands before you eat something.
There are other obvious precautions to take if you’re going to give it a go: There are restrictions on where you can access the foreshore, and you have to have a license from the Port of London Authority, which you can find out more about at their website. Also, if you’re coming from another country, you have to apply for an export license to take things home as well, and that’s all on the website.
There are some places that are protected—they’re scheduled monuments, so they’re as protected as Stonehenge. You can’t go into them or take anything away. On north shore in central London, you’re not allowed to disturb as much as a pebble. You can only pick things up that are on the surface.
Also, if you find anything of historic importance over 300 years old, you have to report it to a Finds Liaison Officer. If it is over 300 years old and made of a certain percentage of gold or silver, then it qualifies as “treasure” and you legally have to report that and it will be taken away from you while it’s being assessed. I think it’s really important to record what’s coming off the foreshore. It’s our history; it needs to be recorded. It shouldn’t end up in a dusty old drawer and forgotten, because as soon as it’s taken away, its provenance is gone.
Collectors Weekly: How do you display your collection?
Maiklem: I curate fairly carefully, and I’ve got a beautiful printer’s chest with 18 thin drawers. Since most of the stuff I find is quite small, most everything I’ve got fits in there. The biggest thing I’ve got is a piece of whalebone with a hole drilled in it. It’s as big as my thigh. Then I’ve got a few old 18th-century bottles I can’t resist keeping, and some larger bits of pottery or things like that. But most of what I got fit in these printer’s drawers and a few small display cases as well. It’s all in my spare room—it doesn’t spread around the house because I’ve got 7-year-old twins, so it would be too worrying for me having it anywhere but in here.
Exhibition-wise, if we’re allowed out, I’ve got an exhibition planned for September, along with some other mudlarks. It’s going to be quite an interesting exhibition.
Collectors Weekly: Pre-pandemic, did you feel that mudlarking was having a moment?
Maiklem: Yes, I think more people are getting interested in mudlarking, which is great! We’ve had to stay away from the foreshore for a while, because of the pandemic, but the Port of London Authority has just given us the green light to go back to the foreshore. I went down to the river for the first time since March last week and it was great to be back.
I think at the moment, people are also turning to their gardens. They’re doing a lot of garden-larking and field-larking and beach-larking. And they are digging up all sorts of things in their garden. That’s what seems to be being posted at the moment on my Facebook page, which is great. We’re so lucky here—we’re literally walking on history all the time. You can find the most incredible things.
(For more fascinating tales of the Thames, check out Maiklem’s book Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames or follow her on Instagram @london.mudlark and Facebook. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)