Caroline Nunneley is one of them. The Brighton-based mudlark travels to the city whenever work allows, spending the hours during which the Thames foreshore is exposed on the northern bank of the river.
A short walk from the northern exit of Blackfriars Station, in an area immediately south of St. Paul’s Cathedral, is Trig Lane. The development of this walkway in the late 1970s was preceded by a two-year period that revealed archaeological finds that included the foundations of buildings destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, as well as artefacts predating the Roman era. Despite the significance of these finds, the site was levelled in preparation for its redevelopment; a process of building that continues to this day. Little evidence of the history exposed now exists, but twice daily, as the Thames rises and recedes, the Trig Lane Steps are exposed.
The gradual reveal of this ladder affords Caroline access to the foreshore. As documented by the excavation, the river upon which the city sits has, over time, absorbed items that exhibit the different ways people have lived and consumed. The Thames is awash with hidden treasures and the foreshore in different areas reveals different artefacts, providing a fertile landscape for the amateur excavator. Their practice is a form of scavenging; the mudlark searches the muddy riverbanks with the hope of discovering items of historical value. It is most commonly associated with London, where people can often be seen slowly meandering the uneven surface of the exposed river bank.
Caroline has a deeply considered gaze. Her eyes fixed on the boats that disturb and agitate the Thames. Her pause is followed by purposeful movement. Waves lap against the protruding foundations of a historic dock and the deformed frame of a Santander hire bicycle, over which Caroline steps. Her practice is now swift. She glides above the rocky and rutted foreshore to patches of ground of renewed interest. As she begins to crawl, her eyes do not blink. They are fixated on the ground immediately below her. She is undisturbed by all that changes around her; even when a wave threatens to soak her boots, she is unwavering, as though consumed by the spirit of the mudlarks who came before.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, mudlarks were often young people, predominantly male, who were able to make a living by selling the wares they found on the Thames foreshore. Dictated by poverty and a lack of formal education, mudlarks descended upon the riverbanks out of necessity. They faced the indignity of loitering in a river brimming with raw sewage. Their meagre income improved only by the flexibility of self-employment.
"These poor creatures are certainly about the most deplorable in their appearance of any I have met with in the course of my inquiries".Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor, 1851.
In contrast to the mudlarks of today who are often clad in waterproof clothing and sturdy leather footwear, fitting of a traipse along the uneven riverbank, the hunched-over figures of 19th century London wore ‘ragged clothes’, upon which ‘foul-smelling mud’ and other detritus would cling. The Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew, whose series of books ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ included interviews and statistics with London’s working classes, provided the most illustrative accounts of London in the mid-1800s. Within his chronicles of the Victorian underclass, Mayhew speaks directly with the young mudlarks. He speculates that some of their number were confined to the river because their hardened fathers spent all their time and money in the public houses of Millwall, resigning the children to destitution. Others, as per the accounts of the unnamed mudlark whose interview was included in the 1861 edition of Mayhew’s anthology, were orphans with no home. The mudlark, found by Mayhew close to the Limehouse Basin at the eastern end of the infamous Ratcliffe Highway, highlights the precariousness of their existence by saying that “In the summertime, they often sleep in the barges or in sheds or stables or cow-houses, with their clothes on. Some of them have not a shirt, others have a tattered shirt which is never washed, as they have no father nor mother, nor friend to care for them”.
Regardless of the difficulties they faced, as well as their industrious character, mudlarks were labelled as thieves within the consciousness of Victorian society. A once thriving shipping lane; an artery connecting London to the world; boat traffic clogged the Thames. Upon the river, boats would moor to deposit and collect wares within ‘the Pool of London’. Items dropped from the barges here, and the yards they were docked to, included wood, iron and copper nails. From Vauxhall Bridge, extending along to Blackwall and Woolwich, mudlarks sought these materials as they were easily saleable. The legality of their foraging was at times deemed questionable, with the mudlark ‘sweeping empty coal barges’, selling coal to the local poor. When caught by bargemen the children would be thrown into the filthy water, to be captured by a police galley who would seize their finds. The unnamed mudlark in Mayhew’s account admitted to, on occasion, committing acts of theft, whilst also highlighting his innocence when stating that his parents were unaware of his activities.
By the beginning of the 20th century, mudlarking remained a profession of questionable legality. Reported in an edition of The Times in March 1904, a man by the name of Robert Harold, proclaiming to be a mudlark, was convicted to one month of imprisonment for the ‘unlawful possession of a length of chain he had dug out from the Thames foreshore, despite the police being unable to cite any owner for the chain’. In the preceding decades, mudlarking as a profession had almost entirely ceased to exist.
Once an occupation of dangerous necessity, mudlarking today is a pursuit of invigorating curiosity. The Victorian working class have made way for the modern middle class; easily distinguishable from the image of the mudlarks depicted within ‘London Labour and the London Poor’, the practitioners are now artists, craftspeople and historians, all intent on finding and documenting the most elusive relics. The voluntary position of the digital archivist, with Caroline having a social media following in the thousands, has contributed to the growth in popularity of the practice. In turn, this has encouraged many to visit the foreshore without the necessary accreditation and expertise. Their notable finds likely go unreported similarly to the child ‘thieves’ of the past, exploiting the riverbed for personal gain.
Though accessibility to the foreshore is possible, regulation has significantly changed regarding the practice of mudlarking. A common theme within the discourse of land and water ownership, the Crown Estate and Port of London Authority (PLA) dictate who may mudlark and what can be removed and claimed. Their ownership of the banks and the artefacts preserved within them is absolute, but those who wish to mudlark can do so with the permission of a licence.
A licence grants the mudlark rights to search for treasures of the Thames; digging is granted only to members of the Society of Mudlarks. Occasionally, aided by the capabilities of modern metal detectors, items of significant archaeological value are recovered. As part of the Mudlarks licence, amateur archaeologists must report treasures for analysis and review according to the Treasure Act of 1996. All reported finds are recorded via the Portable Antiquities Scheme, established by the British Museum. Responsible for liaising with mudlarks, a dedicated team assesses whether finds are of sufficient value to be acquired for the museum’s collection. It’s not about the size of finds, but rather the quality and quantity, that make artefacts worthy of acquisition. The anaerobic property of the Thames mud means that finds such as Caroline’s can be preserved as if dropped yesterday, and these finds are of greatest value and interest to the museum.
The river is an open museum that must be managed strictly. “The idea that you couldn’t mudlark the Thames is a horrifying idea", says Caroline. The PLA made the decision to close applications for new licenses towards the end of 2022. Their decision was made in response to a vast increase in practising mudlarks, along with a limited ability to sufficiently police their searching. “A delicate historical site that has come under increasing pressure from visitors”, says Historic England, the foreshore would fail to cope with any greater interest. Mudlarks have a responsibility to understand the historic topography of central London, but the enthusiasm of some is what endangers their future.
Close to where Caroline sometimes searches is the Queenhithe Dock, an ancient monument that is prohibited from excavation. As she is joined by more mudlarks, with the tide now at its lowest, her eye is drawn to a couple who start to handle rocks within the forbidden zone. Now standing, she wears a weary smile as she approaches them, before explaining the risks of their wrongdoing. Their welcoming smiles now tinged with embarrassment. The couple move on having gained a greater understanding of the historically significant landscape upon which they tread. This innocent ignorance is common among those exploring the foreshore without a licence; the rules and regulations enacted by the PLA, are a means of preserving both the landscape and practice of mudlarking. Caroline is one of many mudlarks who exhibit a profound respect of the regulations under which they operate, such is their concern at being unable to search for unrevealed treasures.
The existence of the mudlark has always been rife with occupational hazards. Within Henry Mayhew’s accounts, mudlarks were often exposed to bouts of ill health. The broken glass and rusted metals hidden within the muddy stench and shallow water posed a significant risk of infectious disease; wounds that would fester when inevitably left untreated, at best forcing the mudlark from work for many months. Not limited to searching the open banks of the Thames, some would scratch amongst the unearthed network of sewer pipes, where, trapped by shifting tides, young mudlarks would have to spend hours amongst the filth and vermin, hidden from the relative cleanliness of the city above.
Similarities exist between then and now, for this remains a heavily polluted river. Raw sewage has been replaced by plastic waste. Buried alongside the coins, pipes and pottery of the past are shopping bags, takeaway packaging and plastic bottles, emphasising the changing patterns of consumption that have taken place over the course of 2000 years. Consumed by the dark mud that solidifies quickly on the soles of shoes. The mudlarks blue latex gloves protect against once-deadly bacteria. As those who crawled before her once did, Caroline must contend with the smells of the Thames. “When you go home on the train, you’ll find people moving away from you”. The hobby of today favours those who learn to appreciate the stench of history. “I don’t blame them. I quite like the smell, but normal people don’t”, says Caroline.