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A long read: See the lost treasures of the Thames in a book and possibly a museum

A beautifully illustrated book telling the captivating story of London and its inhabitants through the extraordinary assortment of artefacts discovered by mudlarks along the banks of the River Thames has recently been released ? but could it be a precursor to an actual museum?

The answer is yes. Plans for the Thames Museum are currently in the concept phase only as the mudlarks are without a site.

In recent years the trustees of the proposed museum have exhibited in the Oxo Tower and the Tate Modern ? and they are eager to find a home on the south bank of the River Thames.

Twice a day as the murky tidal waters of the river slowly recede, the exposed riverbed becomes the longest archaeological site in Britain.

This fact alone makes you wonder why a museum of this kind was not established years ago.

Unique, historically significant artefacts are continually being found in the river, and the Thames Museum will be a place for academics, visitors and school children to research and learn from these extraordinary finds. Currently they are being held in numerous places from the Museum of London to a single mudlark?s home or shed. And some of the most fascinating finds are rarely getting a showing.

?Hands-on history will be the most important aspect of the Thames Museum,? says Nick Stevens, who alongside fellow mudlark Steve Brooker, conceived of the idea.? ?So, the museum would be ideally located along the river with daily guided tours using the foreshore as a classroom and designed for people to get their hands dirty and discover archaeology for themselves.

?Therefore,? he added.? ?The Thames Museum?s collections will be forever changing. With new discoveries being made on a daily basis, each visit will be different from the last. Visitors who participate in the tours of the foreshore will be able to add to the museum?s collections themselves.?

Nick Stevens, who is also professional photographer and will be known to fans of the History Channel?s ?Mud Men? teamed up a with fellow member of the Society of Thames Mudlarks? Jason Sandy to release their book ?Thames Mudlarking: Searching for London?s Lost Treasures? last month.

This fascinating new book is packed with 160 incredible photographs of intriguing objects discovered by over 50 mudlarks. Each offers a clue to the past and gives us a glimpse at London from megalodon teeth to Roman coins, Georgian shoe buckles and shrapnel from the Blitz.

Yet it is only part of the multitude of finds that could be displayed if they had their very own museum. ?We have well over 100,000 artefacts but not all are ever on display at the same time and the wonderful thing about them is they are often in pristine condition,? Jason Sandy explained to the News. ?Over the past 2,000 years countless objects have been intentionally discarded or accidentally dropped into the Thames. These lost objects have been protected and preserved in the dense, anaerobic mud, which is oxygen-free, so when we find them they are in the same condition as they were when they were dropped in.?

And both Nick and Jason said they might not have moved from the very spot in which they were discarded. So, these objects; often mundane, give you a glimpse into the lives of Londoners from thousands of years ago to a jilted lover throwing an engagement ring into the water just ten years ago.

Some of the Southwark?s finds

12,000 – 5,500 BC Mesolithic ?Thames Pick? flint adze.
Owned by one of the first ever Londoners, this style of flint tool is native only to the Thames Valley.
It came from here and was made here by early settlers long before the Roman?s established a city on our banks. ?Adze? is a reference to the blade which runs across from left to right (similar to a pick axe) and would be used to chop wood and build houses.
(Finder: Alan Murphy, Photo: Nick Stevens)

A Roman intaglio carved from a semi-precious carnelian gemstone depicting a ship and rowers.
This decorative item could have been worn around the neck or in a ring. Intaglio refers to an impression being made in wax and became very popular? again over a thousand years later with the Georgians.? But this was definitely from a Roman man or woman, perhaps a merchant owner of a fleet of ships or even a ship builder, although whoever owned it had to be pretty wealthy.
(Finder: Alan Ross, Photo credit: Museum of London)

Georgian

 

Roman coin from Emperor Constantius Gallus dating to AD 351-354, minted in Constantinople (Istanbul).
This would have been dropped into the River Thames towards the end of the Roman occupation, as they were here from around AD 40 to 400.
(Finder: Jason Sandy, photo credit: Jason Sandy)
17th Century Traders Token. at ?The Dogg and Ducke in Southwarke 1651.
For twenty four years between 1648 until 1672 the Royal Mint was not producing enough cooper, so traders started produced their own coinage. They were short of change and this is from an inn, pub or Tavern in Southwark. Surprisingly it was recognised by the Royal Mint and this is a farthing. It was good for the traders as it could only really be exchanged at The Dogg and Ducke, or perhaps some of the neigbouring busineses. Others including half penny pieces have also benn found, but this is the only find from the Dogg and Ducke and we can tell from the initials that it was an establishment run by perhaps an Edward Smith and his wife Margaret.
(Finder: John Higginbotham, Photo: John Higginbotham)
17th Century Traders Token. ?John Davis Liveing in Southwarke 1664.
Another traders token, which does not say what type of business it is, it could be from a shoemaker to a piemaker or ropemaker. Although a common surname it is one for budding historians among us to research.
(Finder: Nick Stevens, Photo credit: Nick Stevens)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

17th century pewter button commemorating the marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza in 1662.
Popular throughout the ages with the King?s and Queen?s of England this button to commemorate the Royal wedding is similar to those people today with a Charles and Di mug. When these buttons are found there is usually a debate on whether they were buttons or used in cufflinks
(Finder: Jason Sandy, Photo credit: Jason Sandy)

London only became a city because of the river which took people and goods from its shores out to the sea and across the globe. When London was the largest port in the world, the congested river was filled with ships and boats of all sizes, from large ocean-going vessels to small rowboats with watermen transporting passengers from one side of the river to the other. For eleven continuous miles in London, both sides of the river were densely packed with docks, wharves, warehouses, shipbuilding yards, shipbreaking yards, fish markets, factories, breweries, slaughterhouses, taverns and public houses. The active and vibrant riverfront was home to countless watermen, lightermen, stevedores, dockworkers, sailors, merchants, fishermen, fishmongers, oyster wives, shipbuilders, shipbreakers and mudlarks themselves.

In fact the original mudlark would have come from the poorest of the poor in London?s 18th and 19th century, scavenging the foreshores for items to sell on. So, the south bank and perhaps the area around Shad Thames, Jacob?s Island so brilliantly portrayed as the home of the fictitious character of Fagin in Charles Dicken?s Oliver Twist, would more than likely have been home to early mudlarks.

With this in mind today?s mudlarks once hoped to get their hands on the former Design Museum after it left its home of 24 years. The museum had been converted from a banana-ripening warehouse at Shad Thames. It was bought by the late architect Zaha Hadid, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2016, but a prolonged legal battle that has only recently been resolved prevented it from being a serious contender.

?If we could find a home or even land we would open up tomorrow. The south bank of the river is ideal, not just because of its history, but because it has such good footfall, it?s already an area for visitors and the Thames foreshore is more accessible on the south side than the north,? Nick explained.

The Thames Museum is currently a registered charity and they have explored other ideas like a wooden platform in the river itself or a temporary space where they could construct sea containers. So far, no joy; but they hope that local authorities like Southwark and Lambeth might support their proposal if a site became available. ?To make a museum viable you need to attract at least 200 people a day. When we exhibited at the Oxo Tower we had 6,000 people come in just the five days it was open. It was the most popular exhibition they have had at the Barge House,? Nick told the News.

Certainly since the Society of Thames Mudlarks & Antiquarians was founded in 1980 those interested in mudlarking has grown year on year.

To go mudlarking in London, you need a mandatory Thames Foreshore Permit from the Port of London Authority.? All objects over 300 years old must be reported to the Museum of London. Mudlarks arrange regular appointments with the Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London who records the artefacts on the British Museum?s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

?I would encourage people to report their finds because they are adding to the collective knowledge with every find. No matter how mundane or fragmentary, it can be very important and could lead to new discoveries and an improved understanding of the past,? said Finds Liaison Officer Stuart Wyatt.

In 2018, over 69,600 artefacts found in Britain were recorded on the PAS online database (finds.org.uk), which contains records for over 1.5 million objects discovered by members of the public.

Before the lockdown the News ventured out with Bermondsey?s very own mudlark Alan Murphy, who displays some his finds at Sands Films in Rotherhithe. There our reporter was allowed to hold the tooth of a woolly mammoth that once roamed Rotherhithe and feel the sharp cutting edge of a Mesolithic flint axe.

Alan – Photo by Sami Dinel

Alan showed him the shipbuilders? tools, tea caddy locks, and described the mayhem that cannonballs created when they pierced the side of a ship. He spoke of Southwark?s primitive forefathers making the weapons to hunt and the tools to butcher animals by the old Chambers Wharf and showed off the groats and ships? nails and an array of plain and ornate clay pipes he had discovered on the foreshore of the Thames.

Each exhibition piece, preserved in time by Thames mud, had its own story to tell and you can see? Alan?s permanent exhibition in the Picture Library at Sands Films, 82 St Marychurch Street, SE16 4HZ.

Admission is free, so when the lockdown is over and they open it again, it is well worth a visit, even if only to a get a glimpse into the idea of what the Thames Museum could be like; and why it should become a reality.

More information about this exciting project can be found on the website:

www.thamesmuseum.org.

?Thames Mudlarking: Searching for London?s Lost Treasures? by Jason Sandy & Nick Stevens is priced at ?9.99 and is available online and in all good book shops.

Who were Mudlarks?

A close up of the archaeological remains of medieval leather boots (c) MOLA Headland Infrastructure

A medieval skeleton wearing a pair of thigh-high leather boots found during excavations for the new super sewer in Bermondsey over two years ago led to speculation he was an early mudlark.

The skeleton, discovered face down in mud at the Chambers Wharf was believed to have died during the late 15th Century while carrying out work near the river. The rare find by the Museum of London Archaeologists (MOLA) had one arm above his head and the other bent back on itself to the side. This led them to believe the man was not buried but quickly covered by mud after falling or drowning 500 years ago.

Beth Richardson, finds specialist at MOLA, said the boots indicated ?how he may have made his living in hazardous and difficult conditions?.

They would have been an expensive item normally passed on to others and, the fact they could extend to the thigh, meant they would have worked as waders, suggesting he could have been a fisherman, sailor or mudlark.

If true it would be extraordinary indeed, as what we do know is that Mudlarking as a profession started in the late 18th and then into the 19th century, and was the name given to people scavenging for things on the riverbank and selling them.? Often children, renowned for their tattered clothes and terrible stench, they were mostly boys, who would earn a few pennies selling things like coal, nails, rope and bones.

A mudlark is described as pretty much coming from the poorest level of society, but was a recognised occupation until the early 20th century.? Although in 1904 a person could still claim ?mudlark? as his occupation, it seems to have been no longer viewed as an acceptable or lawful pursuit. By 1936 the word is used merely to describe swim-suited schoolchildren earning pocket money during the summer holidays, by asking passers-by to throw coins into the Thames mud, which they then chased, much to the amusement of the onlookers.

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