Simanaitis Says

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MUDLARKING—ITS PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE

A MUD LARK IS defined by Merriam-Webster as  “a person who grubs in mud (as in search of stray bits of coal, iron, rope). specifically: an urchin who grubs for a living along the tide flats of the English Thames.”

As exemplified in Tom Crewe’s “Short Cuts: Found Objects” London Review of Books, August 12, 2021, Brits prefer it as a single word, “mudlark,” and I’ll follow this in offering tidbits about mudlarking gleaned from this article, from Mayhew’s London, and from my usual Internet sleuthing. (No actual mudlarking on my part, I confess.)

Crewe’s review focuses on an appropriate source: Thames Mudlarking, by Jason Sandy and Nick Stevens. Jason Sandy is an American architect who moved to London in 2007 and discovered mudlarking in 2012. Nick Stevens is a London-based photographer and member of the Society of London Mudlarks. 

Mudlarking; Searching for London’s Lost Treasures, by Jason Sandy and Nick Stevens, Shire Library, 2021.

Crewe describes Thames Mudlarking as “a brisk and breezy, profusely illustrated book that glimpses at some of the thousands of objects that have been recovered from the foreshore of the Thames. The river’s water level ‘fluctuates by seven to ten metres with the incoming and outgoing tides, twice a day,’ with the result that ‘as the murky waters … slowly recede, the exposed riverbed in London becomes the longest archaeological site in Britain.”  

Mudlarking Tradition. In his 1851 classic Mayhew’s London, Henry Mayhew wrote, “The mud-larks collect whatever they happen to find, such as coals, bits of old iron, rope, bones, and copper nails that drop from ships while lying or repairing along shore. Copper nails are the most valuable of all the articles they find….”

Image from Mayhew’s London.

Yet, as Crewe describes, “Thick, anaerobic Thames mud is a perfect chrysalis for ‘lost objects,’ keeping them remarkably well-preserved….” Sandy and Stevens’s book “points out some of the spectacular discoveries of the 19th century—including the finely detailed bronze bust of Hadrian brought to the surface in 1853 by workmen constructing London Bridge, and the shield, beautifully worked in bronze sometime between 350 and 50 B.C., found by the builders of Battersea Bridge in 1857….”

The Mudlarks of London, Headington Magazine, 1871, from Wikipedia. 

Mudlarking Finds. Crewe notes, “It is chastening to think of what has been found on the foreshore while we have been walking or riding across the bridges, looking idly down at the river or over at the needily glinting skyscrapers. Megalodon teeth, woolly rhinoceros skulls, Mesolithic cutting tools, Anglo-Saxon fishing baskets, a Roman vessel still holding contents (wood, leather, worked bone), Medieval shoes (complete with the owner’s footprints), swords and spears, Tudor merchant rings and ornate dress hooks, memorabilia celebrating the marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza in 1662, a lead seal belonging to the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa (c. 1660-75).” 

The Perils of Vanity. Other curious mudlarking finds described by Crewe are “ ‘Frozen Charlotte’ dolls (‘little girls with arms pressed against their sides…. made from one piece of porcelain or bisque with no moveable limbs,’ inspired by a poem that describes Charlotte freezing to death on the way to a ball because she was vain of her dress and refused to dress warmly).”

Frozen Charlotte dolls. Image by Valeriana Solaris/CC from Atlas Obscura, which offers details on Frozen Charlotte.

Mudlarking Today. No longer the occupation of London’s desperately poor, “Today’s mudlarks,” Crewe observes, “have to apply for a permit from the Port of London, costing £40 [$55], and must report any items more than three hundred years old to the Museum of London.”

Mudlarking’s Future? What with rising sea levels because of climate change, the practice of mudlarking is likely to evolve as well. Rich layers of traditional findings are going to fall well beneath tidal variations. Low tides may reveal more recent treasures from hitherto coastal properties.

Won’t it be fun to mudlark Mar-a-Lago? ds 

© Dennis SimanaitisSays.com, 2021   

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