Precarious ladders, precious finds, and Edwardian women parachutists. We don our wellies and adventure behind the scenes of ‘Mudlark’d’ to discover what wig curlers, cufflinks and coins can reveal about centuries of everyday Londoners.
Twice a day, when the tide is low, the River Thames reveals a treasure trove of history – a ‘mud archive’ of the capital’s past, containing clay pipes, ancient pottery, Roman relics and more. The contemporary treasure hunters who search the Thames foreshore for these history-rich objects are called mudlarkers, and their finds are celebrated in Malcolm Russell’s brand new book Mudlark’d.
We spoke to Malcolm and to Associate Editor Phoebe Lindsley to learn what it took to assemble this remarkable book, and what extraordinary fragments of history wash up on the foreshore every day.
Phoebe Lindsley: I have followed Malcolm Russell’s fascinating Instagram account (@mudhistorian) for years and have always been gripped by the way he weaves his mudlarked finds into a unique historical narrative. When I dropped into his DMs asking whether he had ever considered making a book I was delighted when he said he had been thinking about it for a while. Mudlark’d takes the form of a series of histories of forgotten and often overlooked Londoners, which all begin with a find unearthed from the banks of the river Thames.
Malcolm Russell: The Thames has played many different roles for Londoners throughout history: it’s been a rubbish dump, the country’s busiest port, a source of water, a place to wash clothes, a crossing point, and more. For this reason, it’s a really amazing kind of archive of bits of flotsam and jetsam from ordinary people’s lives. It’s also a very different type of archive from one like the Victoria and Albert Museum, for example, which holds a lot of objects that were used by elites, or that have been deemed of artistic merit or high value. The stuff we find in the Thames is the opposite of that. Mudlarking is brilliant starting point to understanding the forgotten lives of everyday Londoners.
MR: The chapters in the book were partly the product of chance – the finds that start each one being governed by whatever the Thames has gifted myself and my fellow mudlarks. They also reflect my longstanding interests in the histories of immigration, colonialism, consumption, sexuality and belief – and the often forgotten and marginalized people within these histories. Some of these topics have received renewed attention over the past few years, but most remain not widely understood despite being the backstories of the diverse London of today. Also, books about them still don’t often draw on objects for insight. Found objects can disrupt hierarchies of information and bring a visceral reality to the past.
For instance, in the ‘Queer Folk’ chapter, a Roman coin featuring the emperor Caracalla helps reveals Roman attitudes to sexuality, while wig curlers and cufflinks help reveal the queer associations of Georgian macaroni fashion. In ‘Entertainers’ a clay tobacco pipe reveals the phenomenon of Edwardian women parachutists who were among the most popular entertainment spectacles of their day. In ‘Enslaved People and Immigrants’ a bead reveals the workings of the transatlantic slave trade and how this led to a growing Black presence in London in the 18th century.
MR: The book features finds made by twenty-two mudlarks, from relative newcomers to the foreshore to old hands. Bringing these finds together while working within changing COVID-19 regulations was challenging. I also felt a weight of responsibility being in possession of so many objects that I knew meant so much to their finders.
Very few of the items have monetary value, but when someone has devoted thousands of hours over decades just to find that one Georgian button or Roman hair pin, it means a lot emotionally as they’re completely irreplaceable objects, and I was very thankful people trusted me with their most precious finds.
PL: Thames and & Hudson’s Creative Director, Tristan de Lancey, had the idea to shoot all the mudlarked objects where they were found on the Thames foreshore. This is something that has never been done before, and it is how we found ourselves at 8 A.M. on a sunny Monday in lockdown hopping a fence in Pimlico to descend to the foreshore for a week-long photoshoot.
Through rain and shine, photographer Matthew Williams-Ellis knelt in mud, sand and shingle to capture the 30 plus main finds on the foreshore. The objects, half submerged in water, cradled in a dropped oyster shell, or nestled amongst some green lichen, look as if they have just been found. The results are the striking foreshore images which form the main part of Mudlark’d.
PL: Whilst out on the foreshore we ourselves uncovered numerous broken pipes, 500-year-old pottery, roman roof tiles and countless oyster shells – the original fast food of the working classes. Malcolm could deftly identify and date each object, and swiftly let us know whether they were a ‘good find’ and worth saving. Of course, as we are not card-carrying larkers, we left all our finds on the foreshore for the professionals to discover.
MR: The supporting finds for each story were shot in Matthew’s studio in West London. The day before the first studio shoot we decided to use surfaces recovered from the Thames to place the finds on. This saw me down on the foreshore in the dark on a cold, rainy February evening sawing up old shipping planks into manageable chunks to take home and foraging among Blitz rubble for rusted metal. As I was doing this a voice drifted down from a passer-by on the embankment above asking if I was OK – perplexed that anyone might be sawing wood at that time in the mud.
MR: Mudlark’d is not just the product of my efforts, it’s the product of London’s mudlarking community, both in terms of the knowledge that I gained from them to create this book in the first place, and the expertise they shared with me when they contributing their finds. Although this book has my name on the cover, it’s been a community effort.
This is fitting, because I see mudlarking as a sort of people’s archeology, a democratic way of accessing the past. Anyone can do it – you don’t need any qualifications and you don’t need to be a pro. It’s there for everybody to get hands-on with history.