Crossing the Thames in Central London, you might notice silhouettes on the foreshore at low tide intently staring at the mud or pebbles and wonder what they are up to.
Mudlarkers, or ‘mudlarks’, as they are known, are ordinary people looking for tiny fragments of London’s past on one of the UK’s longest archaeological sites. The Thames is a tidal river up to Teddington Lock and the foreshore that’s uncovered twice a day is largely gravel and pebbles. This makes it safer to walk on than other tidal rivers like the Severn with its deep, treacherous mud. The Thames is so attractive to lovers of history because, as it flows through a long-settled capital city it has become a repository for lost or discarded items, ranging from Iron Age flints and Roman coins to Victorian clay pipes and ceramics (and, sadly, also modern plastic).
Mudlarking began as a niche hobby in the 1970s, borrowing its name from the 18th and 19th century scavengers, often children, who would pick up anything they could sell from the riverbank. It has since grown considerably in popularity and, for many who practise it, the attraction borders on an obsession. It might be cold, raining or even dark (‘nightlarking’), but if the tide is out, the aficionados will be down by the river.
Rolling back the centuries
So, who are these people? They come from all walks of life. Caroline Nunneley lives and works in Brighton but she comes to London whenever she can. Her interest was aroused whilst recovering from surgery, when she was given Ted Sandling’s book London in Fragments. She decided to try mudlarking for herself and it quickly became her fix. She describes the experience of connecting to the past as mesmerising, a mind-blowing privilege:
“Standing by the river on a misty day, feeling cut off from the city and finding a Tudor coin is like rolling back the centuries.”
Kasia Green, a Polish-born Londoner and photographer, describes herself as “a citizen of the world”. In 2020, she was going through personal difficulties, and came across mudlarking while browsing the internet during a lockdown:
“Mudlarking became my way of meditating, and it helped me deal with my depression. It was a great healer.”
Piotr Serwinski is also of Polish origin. He’s another ‘citizen of the world’ like so many Londoners and started mudlarking in 2015. He admits he is quite obsessed with it, absorbed by the tiniest details of what he finds and going to the river as often as his day job as a lift engineer will allow him. He also sees his pastime as relaxation:
“Others listen to music on their headphones, I go mudlarking.”
He is particularly proud of having managed to get his 11-year-old daughter Hanna hooked as well and being able to share the experience with her.
Rules, risks and rewards
Mudlarks have to get the practicalities right. The Thames is a fast-flowing river, tides come in fast, so tide times have to be noted and escape routes carefully planned. Kasia compares it to a game:
“There are rules, maps, risks, time limits and eventually, if you are lucky, rewards.”
The constraints are not just practical – mudlarking has become increasingly regulated. Whilst anyone can walk down the steps leading to the river, the foreshore isn’t actually public land but belongs to the Port of London Authority (PLA) and the Crown Estate. Once down by the water, anybody can look providing they cause minimal disruption. Digging, scraping, even moving stones or pebbles, are not permitted. Additionally, mudlarks can only pick up and take away finds if they hold a PLA-issued permit. This costs £96 for three years (though one can buy a day pass).
Occasional mudlarks are often not aware that some parts of the foreshore are out of bounds, either for security reasons (for example in front of the Houses of Parliament) or because they are Scheduled Ancient Monuments or even World Heritage Sites. This can cause annoyance among regular mudlarks who have learned to navigate these sometimes arcane rules. As Caroline notes:
“Mudlarking is not a right, it’s a privilege and more education is needed”.
Some of the most successful practitioners pride themselves on searching ‘with their eyes only’, eschewing any tools and instead simply using their powers of observation and their experience of the most productive parts of the foreshore. This could be based, for example, on studying historical maps and deducing where Roman pottery or naval heritage artefacts are most likely to be found.
There’s also an exclusive ‘Society of Thames Mudlarks and Antiquarians’ whose members hold a special permit allowing them to ‘dig deeper’, using hand tools. Membership is limited to those who have a proven track record of recording finds of archaeological interest. In any case, under the Portable Antiquities Scheme it is the legal responsibility of every mudlark to take any find over 300 years of age to be checked and recorded by the Museum of London Finds Liaison Officer (FLO). The ultimate accolade is for a find to be retained by the museum and publicly displayed.
“Don’t hoard, share”
Sadly, not everyone abides by the rules, and it isn’t unusual to find items collected by the river for sale online. Selling is explicitly forbidden by PLA rules but it also runs contrary to the values of the mudlarking community who get their inspiration from making sense of the small scraps of history they find and spreading their knowledge on social media.
“Don’t hoard your finds, share them with others”,
exhorts Lara Maiklem, one of the best-respected mudlarks and author of many books such as Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames. Another mudlark who has generously shared his findings is Richard Hemery who wrote Sherd – Identifying Britain’s pottery, one piece at a time. See also Richard Hemery@thames_pottery on Instagram.
Popularity has its downsides and can lead to overcrowding. Lara Maiklem has warned that “the river’s trove is finite” and that it makes no sense to hoover up bagfuls of similar items, when it would be more responsible to pick just a few samples. In addition, the foreshore has fragile ecology and archaeology (for example, its old timber revetments) and repeated trampling and digging by enthusiastic but uninformed visitors can only damage them.
Between 2019 and the present, mudlarking permits have grown from about 200 to 5,000 (men and women in equal numbers). So serious is the problem with increased footfall that the PLA has temporarily suspended the provision of mudlarking licences while they monitor the situation. In September 2023, a panel discussion at the Museum of London, also raised the question of the pollution and plastic that increasingly wash up on the shore.
People are the best find
All the mudlarks I have met speak eloquently about their passion, albeit from different perspectives.
“On the foreshore, you meet people from every country”, says Piotr. “They might be curious and ask you questions but they’re always polite.”
Kasia says that she prizes the anonymity in a place where she can leave the rest of her life behind and just get on with mudlarking. At the same time, she enjoys the natural connection that develops with shared interests:
“Sometimes the best finds are the people that you meet.”
Caroline too says she loves the sense of community, both by the river and on social media. I asked her what are her best material finds. A difficult choice as there are many contenders, but she chooses her ‘memento mori’, a two-faced bead from a pre-Reformation rosary showing a woman’s features on one side and a skull on the other. This and her pilgrims’ badges are all witnesses to religious faith in the Middle Ages. She loves her traders’ tokens:
“Tiny copper time capsules of information, often giving us names, dates, addresses and professions, and enabling us to find out even more information about these individuals”.
Kasia’s best finds are a medieval money box, thrown away 600 years ago after being broken open, and a Roman bone hairpin.
For Piotr, it is a Roman coin, from the reign of Constans Augustus in the 4th century AD.
Not all finds come as clearly labelled as coins or traders’ tokens, of course, and this is where the help of the mudlarking community is invaluable, pooling information to identify seemingly un-prepossessing objects. The mudlarks mentioned here welcome visitors to their social media accounts, @carolinenunneleymudlark, @kasiamudlark on Instagram, and Piotr Serwinski is on Facebook under The River Thames Mudlarking Finds.
Myself I have been mudlarking for a couple of years, and what do I have to show for it? So far, nothing worthy of reporting to the FLO. But I have found remarkable insights into the history of Londoners, sometimes peace of mind and some fascinating people.