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Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem, review: a history of London in odds and ends

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Canaletto's study of the Thames from Somerset House, c1751
Canaletto's study of the Thames from Somerset House, c1751 Credit: Hulton Fine Art Collection

According to the earliest definitions, a mudlark is a kind of thief. On the crime-ridden Thames of the late 1700s, these river hunters hovered on the mud at low tide looking for any goods dropped by more ambitious villains as they escaped with their loot. By the time Dickens chronicled them in 1865’s Our Mutual Friend, it had come to mean a kind of scavenger. The “unwieldy young dredgers and hulking mudlarks” of that time kept soul and body together by picking coals and driftwood from the river’s mud for sale.

Today, mudlarking has again changed beyond all recognition. Where desperate people once scoured the tideline for their own survival, amateur archaeologists now spend time by the river for fun. It’s even a hit on social media. On Instagram, #mudlarking brings up almost 40,000 pictures, and popular mudlarks can rack up big audiences for pictures of their treasures. One such, Lara Maiklem, has, according to her official bio, “a combined social media audience of over 83,000”, and she is now the author of a new book about her time on the Thames foreshore.

Maiklem has spent decades scouring the river’s mud. She started by chance, initially just looking for a quiet spot in bustling London. A farm girl by birth who couldn’t wait to escape the rural life, she soon found that the city didn’t suit her quite as well as she had expected. Like many before her, she turned to the Thames for solace.

Her solitary riverside walks quickly launched an obsession. She began to pore over tide tables and historic maps, deciphering the figures to find the hours when the foreshore would be exposed to her gaze, and deducing which stretches of the river were most likely to yield exciting finds. Her knowledge came together piecemeal, not unlike her prized collection of Thames ephemera, as she met other mudlarks and picked up hints from her research.

Her story is told in 13 chapters, each of which deals with a section of the river, beginning with the upriver tidal extent of the Thames at Teddington and moving east through London. At each place, Maiklem describes the objects she has found there, as well as relating some history of the spot and sharing her memories.

Lara Maiklem on the Thames foreshore, searching for artefacts

She jumps about between different eras, at one point early on focusing on the watery demise of Doves type – the creator of this storied font hurled the printing blocks off Hammersmith Bridge in the early 20th century after a protracted dispute with his business partner – and later delving into Elizabethan tobacco habits as she comes across a variety of clay pipes. Georgian pennies, Tudor buttons, medieval buckles, Roman pins, even Neolithic flints – they all surface along the way, jostling for attention.

Maiklem’s storytelling shines when it’s focused tightly on her finds. There are two kinds of modern mudlark, she says: the hunters and the gatherers. She is one of the latter, interested in picking up whatever objects the river chooses to show her. She collects everyday trifles like pins and bottle tops that might not fetch much at auction but offer a precious glimpse into how ordinary people once lived. Her imagined histories for her special finds read like waterborne fairy-stories, a hard kernel of truth clothed in mythical finery.

Interspersed with these are somewhat less captivating diversions about the river’s broader history – retellings of well-known events that have received more detailed exegesis in comprehensive volumes like Peter Ackroyd’s Thames: Sacred River. Indeed, part of Maiklem’s premise is that most Londoners know very little of their river, but I’m not sure how well that claim stacks up, especially given her own large social media following and the popularity of other works on this topic.

Less romantic finds: a scooter half-buried in the Thames foreshore

Maiklem has also fallen prey to modern publishing’s insistence on inserting memoir into all non-fiction, no matter how relevant it may or may not be to the subject at hand. As a narrator of her own expeditions, she is a pleasant companion to the reader, although the accounts of her trips to the foreshore shift into the present tense in a way that jars with the rest of her narrative. Alongside, we are treated to plenty of childhood reminiscences that don’t always do much to move the book forward.

By far the most arresting portions are those that deal with the practicalities of mudlarking. Reading it, I felt like I was down on the foreshore myself, sifting through the pages for titbits. I was engrossed by the description of the packable stepladder Maiklem carries to conquer her fear of rusting metal ladders; the admission that wearing kneepads and searching at a crawl yields far more than a cursory glance from full height; the vital importance of a pickle jar of WD40, an invaluable tool for cleaning ancient metal; and the revelation that there are “pinch points” on the foreshore past which it is dangerous to venture when the tide is rising.

Yet these morsels are tantalisingly brief. The book contains an undercurrent of secrecy and competitiveness that seems inherent to the mindset of a passionate mudlark. Maiklem often searches alone, obscuring the location of her favourite spot so that readers cannot join her there. On the other hand, some of her most joyful passages are about sharing her discoveries and describing the brilliant, esoteric collections of her fellow obsessives. There is a tension at the heart of this pastime, I think. The mudlark guards her secrets to the point of vagueness, and yet she is part of a close-knit community. Other mudlarks do make occasional appearances in the book, but are oddly two-dimensional. Little space is given to fleshing them out as characters beyond the details of their finds.

Although Maiklem is a licensed mudlark, she isn’t a member of the exclusive “Society of Mudlarks”, a group of around 50 people who hold an enhanced licence to dig and search the foreshore to a greater depth. They are mostly men – Maiklem suggests that men are more likely to be hunters and women gatherers, but doesn’t elaborate on this – and they hold regular private meetings to compare finds.

These hunters are more like the layperson’s idea of a treasure seeker, she suggests, using metal detectors and shovels to crack open the mud in pursuit of rare objects or precious metals. Maiklem stops short of condemning this outright – it is completely permissible, with the correct licence from the Port of London Authority – but she does point out how quickly the mud is disappearing, partly as a result of these human incursions.

This is the paradox, which Maiklem lays bare: the erosion of the Thames foreshore is an environmental concern and a sad loss, but as the mud breaks down, treasures from ages past come to light. The mudlarks are snatching London’s history back from the river, piece by piece, before it disappears.

Caroline Crampton is the author of The Way to the Sea (Granta). To order your copy of Mudlarking for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop