Treasures of the Thames

An interview with historian Malcolm Russell, who dredges up a secret history in a beautiful new book

Historian Malcolm Russell began exploring the trash as a teenager, looking for remnants of the past. Today he explores the banks of the Thames, the mighty river used for thousands of years as a source of water, industry, and place to hide secrets. His magnificent Instagram feed is a treasure trove of the near and distant past, from Roman hairpins to hundreds of coins, real and forged, to a 17th century key found where the Mayflower launched. Russell painstakingly researches each fragment, so a simple bead becomes a clue to the trans-Atlantic trade between the Hudson Bay Company with indigenous people in North America. His beautiful new book, Mudlark’d: Hidden Histories from the River Thames will be published this week in America.

What is your background? When did you first begin to explore the Thames?

As a teenager, I loved to excavate Victorian rubbish tips in the Midlands region of the UK, looking for old bottles. I later studied history and some archaeology at university. After living in New York for a decade, I returned to London in 2015 and was looking for a way of reconnecting with the city while indulging my passion for the past. I remembered seeing people searching and digging for artifacts on the River Thames foreshore–the part of the riverbed exposed at low tide. I ventured down there, and on my first trip found a remnant of a 17th century clay tobacco pipe poking out of the shingle.

Over the next few weeks, I found more humble little scraps of forgotten lives: a medieval cooking pot handle, a small fragment of a two-thousand-year-old Roman drinking beaker, and a sixteenth century pin – immediately making me wonder about the last hands to hold them. From then on, I was hooked on what’s called “mudlarking.” I see myself as an amateur archaeologist looking for the stuff of ordinary people, rather than a treasure hunter. Most of what I find on the Thames is worth nothing monetarily, but it is an incredibly rich starting point for exploring the past, as my book Mudlark’d hopefully illustrates. 

Describe some of the most surprising or unexpected finds featured in the book.

This find is a medieval pilgrim’s ampulla dating to 1220-1420. It was used to carry away a small quantity of holy water from the shrine of murdered priest Thomas Becket at Canterbury. This water, containing a trace of Becket’s blood, was believed to have healing qualities. (Found by Lukasz Orlinski).

This figurine made of pipeclay is of Venus, Roman goddess of beauty, sex and love. Dating to AD 100-250, it would have been used in the day-to-day religious lives of Roman Londoners. (Found by Ed Bucknall).

This Victorian-Edwardian clay tobacco pipe (c. 1890-1910) was made to capitalize on the popularity of stunt parachutists: young women who dropped from hot air balloons at fairs and carnivals. Before plucking it from the mud I had no idea this phenomenon existed at the turn of the century. (Found by Malcolm Russell)

The low oxygen conditions of the Thames mud help preserve materials such as leather that would degrade elsewhere. This shoe sole is a remarkable survivor. Dating to around 1500-1550, it would have been part of a fashionable style of shoe known as a “cowmouth.” What looks like an indentation from the ball of the wearer’s foot can be seen.

This brass signet ring would have been worn by a merchant around 1450-1550. Featuring the initials ‘RD’, it would have been pressed into hot wax seals attached to correspondence or contracts in order to personalize them. Amazingly, it simply washed up at my feet one May morning.

Where could the average, everyday curiosity seeker go to hunt for objects along the Thames? (you do not have to give away your spot!)

The first thing anyone wishing to search the Thames foreshore must do is acquire a permit from the Port of London (P.L.A.) authority. All searching without one is forbidden. The P.L.A. provides maps showing which stretches of foreshore can be searched and which are out of bounds for archaeological or security reasons. With millennia of human activity along the tidal Thames – from pre-history to Roman times to today, there are remnants of the past to be found everywhere. Finding them can take some months of practice, however – known as “getting your eye in.” Wherever you go, it’s important to know when the tide turns and where your nearest exit is to avoid having to be rescued – or worse.

Is there a best time of the day/best time of the year to mudlark?

You can only mudlark on the Thames during low tide. This happens twice per day, giving you 3-4 hours to search depending on the location. The time of low tides change each day. Sometimes the best time might be at night in which case I use a headlight to illuminate the foreshore as I search, sometimes attracting some strange looks from onlookers. There are also periods of the year where tides are particularly low – but that also means more competition for finds from other mudlarks.

Have you ever found anything that needed to be reported under the Treasure Act?

Not so far, although there are items of treasure featured in the book that have been found by others–including a rare 17th century gold ring with a line of verse to a loved one inscribed inside. I have however, had many finds recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme. This scheme is run by the British Museum to record objects of archaeological interest found by members of the public. It’s the largest of its kind in the world and currently there are over 1.5 million objects on its database.

Have you explored other sites or rivers? Have you explored any sites in other countries?

I do almost all my mudlarking on the Thames. So many objects have been discarded, lost or concealed in its waters over the centuries that there’s always something new to find. That said, there are more and more people across the world –including in North America–searching rivers, creeks and beaches and identifying as mudlarks. It would be great to explore some of these sites too.

 Have you read The Quincunx? Were there really people who trawled the sewers seeking coins during the 1800s?

I haven’t, although I will now. One classic source detailing Victorian London’s scavengers is journalist Henry Mayhew’s ‘London Labour and the London Poor’, published in 1851. In it, Mayhew profiles the original mudlarks–impoverished folk who scoured the Thames foreshore for anything they could sell for a few pennies to survive. He also discusses ‘sewer hunters’ or ‘toshers’ who searched sewers, often at night, for coins and other objects of value.

Does the Thames smell at times?

August 1858 saw the legendary ‘Great Stink’ in central London, whereby hot weather exacerbated the smell of human and industrial waste on the banks of the River Thames. Various diseases were attributed to the “miasma” that supposedly issued forth from the waste. Fortunately, today the Thames is far cleaner, and aquatic life has returned to its waters. That said, raw sewage is still occasionally discharged into it and my clothing can hold a salty smell after mudlarking.

What do you do with your finds?

They are on display at home. I’ll be exhibiting some of them to accompany a series of talks I’m doing about my book.

Describe what happens next when you make a find. Recently you found a pottery shard, for example. What did you do next to identify your find?

Many finds present a little mystery to be solved. To solve these, I’ve discovered there’s an expert for almost every kind of object, from Tudor buckles to aiglets (the small piece of metal attached to the end of a lace) to Georgian shoe soles. Identifying a find is only the beginning of the journey, however. For me, every object is a little portal into the lives of forgotten people, giving me a starting point for researching the lives it touched and what the artifact meant to them. This was the idea behind the book.

What do you plan next?

I’m working hard on promoting the book in the UK and North America–in-between going mudlarking, of course.

All photos courtesy of Malcolm Russell. 

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Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

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