Contrary to the benign atmosphere of the old print, above - kids having fun on a day out - the occupation of mudlarking on the Thames in London during the 18th and 19th centuries was anything but fun - it was appalling. The river and its banks were stinking, fetid, and festering, awash with raw sewage, industrial waste and dead bodies, and the poor souls, as often as not children and old women, whose last resort was to scavenge the sand and mud at low tide, wading in between barges and under wharves, faced disease and death for a penny a day. In 1851, Henry Mahew wrote in his book on "London Labour and the London Poor":
THEY generally consist of boys and girls, varying in age from eight to fourteen or fifteen; with some persons of more advanced years. For the most part they are ragged, and in a very filthy state, and are a peculiar class, confined to the river. The parents of many of them are coalwhippers--Irish cockneys--employed getting coals out of the ships, and their mothers frequently sell fruit in the street. Their practice is to get between the barges, and one of them lifting the other up will knock lumps of coal into the mud, which they pick up afterwards; or if a barge is ladened with iron, one will get into it and throw iron out to the other, and watch an opportunity to carry away the plunder in bags to the nearest marine-storeshop.
1858 was the year of "the great stink" in London. It was a particularly hot summer, and, exacerbated by the increasing use of flush toilets, the river and its tributaries overflowed with waste; cholera was rife. Something plainly had to be done, and Joseph William Bazalgette was the man to do it. As the Chief Engineer for the city's Metropolitan Board of Works, he designed and oversaw the construction of a modern sewage system, the benefits of which we Londoners (and visitors) still enjoy today. And one of those benefits is that mudlarking now carries a much-reduced health risk (rat urine is cited as something to be cautious about, but exactly how that caution should be applied escapes me, and, having just watched Ratatouille, I just can't take it seriously). For yes, mudlarking is a thriving activity along the Thames of central London today, and, as locals, something that we periodically much enjoy - it's fun and it's free. However, we try to indulge in sandlarking, exploring the stretches of beach that appear in places at low tide. The tide is a critical factor - the Thames is a dramatically tidal river, and the battle between incoming waves rushing upstream and the natural flow of the river is a sight to see; the tidal range in central London is between 5 and 7 meters (16 to 23 feet), so timing is critical. As shown in the photos below, there's a patch of largely sandy (but also somewhat muddy) "beach" exposed at low tide just downstream from the Millennium Bridge (the one that used to be wobbly), below St. Paul's Cathedral, and it's easily accessible.
And here, from Stephen Croad's wonderful book, Liquid History: The Thames Through Time, is this stretch of the riverside in 1865.
Mudlarking today is open to everyone, although there is the Society of Thames Mudlarks, formed in 1980, that issues official permits, with wording such as "on behalf of the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty," and allowing the holder to "search the bed and shore as a recreational pursuit." Digging without a permit is illegal, and any items of value must be submitted to the Museum of London, but digging is not really necessary - the power of the tides and the river itself are more than sufficient to excavate and refresh the banks.
Walk over the sand banks of the Thames and you are walking through history. The banks of this part of the river have been a focus of life and commerce for millennia and the sediment bears witness to this. The surface (see photo above) is covered in natural and manmade detritus, stuff that fell into the river, was thrown into the river, was transported by the river. Oyster shells, roof tiles (some dating back hundreds of years), roof slates, bones, coal, foundry slag, pottery, glass bottles and shards (also a health risk), and thousands of pieces of clay pipes, smoked over a drink on the bank or on a boat and tossed into the river. I am no archaeologist, nor an expert on artifacts, pottery, or bones, but the spectrum of life laid out beneath a mudlark's feet is staggering - and fascinating. The top of a broken frosted glass bottle, a corroded cork still stuck firmly in the neck - who was it that last corked that bottle? The treasures from an hour or so's scavenging are shown below - nothing of any value in a monetary or historical sense, but resonating with value to the mudlarker. Past commerce has included cheap riverside pottery factories, churning out cheap imitations of Delft and Willow patterns - the fragments of designs are a delight. The Whitefriars Glass Works, started in the seventeenth century, and the manufacturer, in 1913, of the stained glass for the east window of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, stood close to our beach: are the iridescent pieces of slag from there?
And then there is the sand. I have samples of the glorious diversity of sands from around the world, but I realised that I had never collected any of the sand closest to home. Sand, like a cuisine, is a celebration of local ingredients, making use of whatever is available. And, not surprisingly, I found that the sand from the Thames beach is indeed a microcosm of the medley of materials one sees at the surface - plus more natural ingredients. The images below illustrate this. I am, ashamedly, no expert on local geology, but the sand must be a mixture of grains eroded from the upstream reaches of the River, the local geology, and, surely, given the power of the tides, components from downstream towards the estuary. Plus the witnesses of local history and commerce. The city is underlain by the London Clay, but there are many sand beds within that clay, and so perhaps some of the glittering quartz grains are derived from those, or other chapters of riverside geology. Or many of them could have simply fallen off the barges that have carried sand up and down the river for centuries. But the incredibly pure and transparent ones - could they be detritus from raw materials for the Whitefriars Glass Works? I discovered that the works used the world-famous high-purity glass sands from Fontainebleau in the forests outside Paris - could some of these be grains that succeeded where Napoleon failed? I picked out a few individual grains, shown on the right of the picture - clay fragments, bits of bone, bits of slag and coal, glass shards, slate - the microscopic record of the visible history.
The microscopic view of Thames sand grains illustrates, yet again, the beauty that lies behind the apparently mundane. And, in looking into bits and pieces of river history, I came across an artist who senses that too. Below is a work by Nicola Rae, titled Five Sands, Gravels, and Mud from the Thames; the sediment-filled cylinders are suspended side-by-side; she comments that
The beach sands and mud bordering the Thames between Deptford Creek and the Thames Barrier vary surprisingly. Different industries on the working wharves have affected the nature of the beach sands and mud.
And I'll finish with my own image of Thames beach sand and mud.
[for those interested in a mudlarking expedition, information about organised walks can be found at https://www.walks.com/Homepage/Beachcombing_Walks/default.aspx; Nicola Rae's website is at https://www.a2arts.co.uk/nrae/index.html; online resources on London history and the river in particular are extraordinary but I wouldn't know where to begin - the Museum of London is as good a starting point as any.]