Mudlark noun: someone who scavenges in river mud for items of value, a term used especially to describe those who scavenged this way in London during the late 18th and 19th centuries.
When most Londoners are tucked into bed waiting for the sun to rise, a select group is scouring the banks of the Thames on their hands and knees. They are digging up the past, searching for a glint of truth and the sheen of mystery that lays buried there.
The first guest on Your London Legacy has been living in London for ten years and is now a fully-fledged Brit. With a background in architecture and award-winning designs, Jason Sandy draws us into his menagerie of artifacts, discoveries, and historical wealth.
The Thames river is tidal in nature. As the water flows out, the mudlarkers crawl in. With the water rising and retreating twice a day, 7 meters, a large riverbed is constantly revealed and hidden again. The inter tidal space is only accessible a few hours per day, but the landscape is cavernous, flanked by high sea walls. You climb down a rusty ladder and set foot into an archaeological-rich world of glass, crustaceans, artifacts, and yes, sometimes bodies.
“So literally I just walk, I have gloves, I have kneepads, I crawl around on the foreshore…a lot of these things are so small and so delicate they would be missed unless they’re right in front of your nose.”[12:45]
Thinking about hopping onto the riverbed? The mudlarking hobby is regulated. There are daily permits available for purchase, as well as licenses that last for 3 years. Some areas allow for scanning with a metal detector, others are for your eyes only.[43:35]
Metal detectors can ping just about any metal now. You’d think that would make finding treasures quick work along the Thames, but you’d be wrong. People have treated the banks as rubbish heaps throughout history and many ship building and ship breaking companies operated along the river’s shore. This has left the mud littered with iron, and makes Jason mainly survey the banks by eye.
“Some of the most spectacular finds that have ever been retrieved from the Thames, which are now in the British Museum, were actually sacred, votive offerings that were offered to the river Thames by the Celtic tribes”[47:36]
Anything that is 300 years or older prompts Jason to take a trip to the Museum of London for recording. The museum has so much inventory to sift through and record that they have to limit what they take in. They limit what is recorded to five objects per session out of the hundred any mudlarker might find.
Listen in to be immersed in terracotta pottery; coins which traded through the hands of thousands of ancient merchants; the pewter toys of medieval children; and the knuckle dusters of long-dead knights ([32:54]). Jason Sandy shares his drive and passion for these objects and the history which gives them an ageless, and priceless value.