Larks in the Mud

On a sunny Saturday morning, I set off in my wellies (which were still caked in mud from last year’s Bestival) and some old but comfy clothes for a close encounter with the Thames. I was assisting with a Foreshore walk as part of Wellcome Collection’s Dirty Old Town, a day of events aimed around the archaeological rubbish that is still to be found in London. London has long had a history of being a notoriously filthy city and by the 19th century, the Thames was practically an open sewer before the introduction of Bazalgette’s sewer system. During the 18th and 19th century, mudlarks would scavenge in the muddy shores of the Thames during low tide and I felt a bit like a modern day mudlark as I set out to meet the group.

Being a big history geek and long having been fascinated by London’s murky past, I was delighted to have the opportunity to search for archaeological finds along the Thames. Along with Visitor Services Duty Manager Richard Davies and Special Projects Programme Manager Amy Sanders we met our 41 visitors in their wellingtons and hiking boots eager to start the search.

We met our guide, Mike Webber, who is a very knowledgeable archaeologist by trade. We had strict instructions that the tide can be unpredictable and that we only had a limited time on each bit of the foreshore before the tide would come in. Mike also issued the group a health and safety warning. As our visitors descended a steep set of stairs down to the foreshore, there were a few hesitant faces but as the group spread out along the muddy foreshore, their anxiety disappeared.

As we handed out plastic gloves, our visitors began eagerly searching the shore and filling up their bags. I was surprised by the amount of objects sticking out of the mud and was struck by the amount of animal bones. I overheard one concerned little boy asking his mother ‘Is this bone human?’ before chucking the bone in horror back in to the mud. The group assembled around Mike for the verdict on their finds. Was it Roman? Georgian? Or even Victorian?


Animal bones from the foreshore, picture by Maisy Swift

One of our lucky visitors found a clay tobacco pipe, which was almost complete. These were an important part of everyday London life from the end of the 16th century up until the 20th century and most of our visitors found pipe fragments on the walk. The pipes were disposable and were chucked into the river very much like cigarette ends are today, so the Thames is literally awash with them! Mike also informed us that there are many charred remains of objects from the “Great Fire of London” still to be found along the foreshore. I was delighted to come across many tiles that were blackened and charred strewn along the foreshore – one of which I popped in to my ‘finds’ bag. One or two of our visitors also came across fragments of Bellarmine jars which were used to hold wine or beer.

At times Mike was bombarded by our visitors eager to hear about the objects they had found. One little girl proudly displayed her bag of finds to me and when I asked her where she would keep her wonderful collection of objects, she assured me that they would have pride of place in her garden. Of course, no British summer is complete without rain, and as the wind and rain picked up, it felt like a natural place to end our exploration of the Thames foreshore. As we waved goodbye to our visitors, there were happy faces all around as they sauntered off with their carrier bags full to the brim, to warm up and examine their treasures. Despite the rain, we all had a fantastic time and I would thoroughly recommend taking a tour along the Thames foreshore to discover more of London’s history.

Having the opportunity to closely explore the Thames foreshore has enabled me to get closer to London’s dirt across the centuries. As I examined our visitors’ objects, I sensed that each piece had a hidden story behind it. Walking back to the tube in my muddy wellies did raise a few eyebrows but armed with my Tesco bag of treasures I felt very satisfied. I made my way back to Wellcome Collection, with my own little pieces of London’s filthy history to show off to the rest of the Visitor Services team.

A longer version of this article by Suzi Wright (Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection: a free visitor destination for the incurably curious) is available on their website. TDP would like to thank Wellcome Collection for permission to reproduce the blog here.