Larks in the mud

24 October 2011

 Panorama of the Thames, 1730. Wellcome Images
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Panorama of the Thames, 1730. Wellcome Images

The Thames might be looking a bit icy and uninviting as autumn sets in, but earlier this summer, Suzi Wright was happily delving into the mud along its shore, looking for the fragments that generations of Londoners have chucked into the river.

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 for items of value that could be resold. Although not doing it for financial gain, 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. Much of the foreshore is freely accessible to the public but when the tide is out, the Thames is the longest open-air archaeological site in London. The aim of the Thames Discovery Programme, who were running the walk, is to communicate an understanding and enjoyment of the historic Thames to the widest possible audience.

Along with Visitor Services Duty Manager Richard Davies and Special Projects Programme Manager Amy Sanders we met our 41 visitors, some of them our WC regulars, in their wellingtons and hiking boots eager to start the search. We were also joined by two rather enthusiastic toddlers and our youngest participant, only about a year old, who was strapped safely to dad’s back enjoying the sun.

We met our guide, Mike Webber from the Thames Discovery Programme, 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. Any delays in moving and it could prove fatal for the group. Mike also issued the group a health and safety warning and I did feel a little anxious when Mike joked about the possibility of  getting stabbed by a piece of broken glass or worse, the possibility of getting Weil’s disease. Mike assured us that the only people he had known to catch Weil’s disease from the Thames were rowers but everyone was to avoid touching their face and mouths. 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?

One of our lucky visitors found a clay tobacco pipe, which was almost complete. Clay tobacco pipes were an important part of everyday London life from the end of the 16th century up until the 20th century and often clay pipes were marked with their owner’s initials. Most of our visitors found fragments of clay tobacco pipes on the walk. The pipes were disposable and were chucked into the Thames very much like cigarette ends are today, so the Thames is literally awash with them! Interestingly the size of the bowl indicates how old the pipe is – the smaller the bowl, the older it is. The bowls on the pipes we found were fairly small and Mike confirmed that they dated back to the 18th century.

The Great Fire of London in 1666 damaged a lot of central London, which at the time had only narrow streets that divided wooden buildings and therefore the fire took hold rapidly. Mike informed us that there are many charred remains of objects from the fire still to be found along the foreshore. I came across many tiles that were blackened and charred and there were also many Tudor tiles strewn along the foreshore – I was delighted to come across one 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. They are also known as bearded man jars due to the rather sinister image of a bearded man on the neck of the jars. These jars have also been used as witch bottles to protect against evil spirits and contained such lovely items as hair, fingernails, teeth, blood and often urine from the cursed individual.

At times Mike was bombarded by our visitors eager to hear the age and the value of 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 (fragments of an 18th-century clay pipe, a Roman tile, a Tudor tile and some Victorian pottery) 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.

Suzi Wright is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection. If you are planning to go metal detecting or digging on the Thames foreshore you must have a permit from the Port of London Authority. You can contact her at