19th century mudlark from Henry Mayhew’s book, London Labour & London Poor, 1861
Mudlarking as a profession started in the late 18th and then into the 19th century, and was the name given to people scavenging for things on the riverbank and selling them.
These original mudlarks were often children, mostly boys, who would earn a few pennies selling things like coal, nails, rope and bones that they found in the mud at low tide.
They are described as ‘pretty much the poorest level of society, scrabbling around on the foreshore trying desperately to make a living’ by Meriel Jeater, curator in the Department of Archaeological Collections and Archive at the Museum of London.
A mudlark’s income was very meagre, and they were renowned for their tattered clothes and terrible stench. A mudlark was a recognised occupation until the early 20th century.
Dr Michael Lewis, the Deputy Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum, says that mudlarks’ finds can ‘alter our picture of the past.
The mudlarks have found numerous toys (i.e. miniature plates and urns, knights on horseback and toy soldiers) that have actually changed the way historians view the Medieval period.
Over the last 30 years, the Museum of London has acquired over 90,000 objects recovered from the River Thames foreshore which is the longest archaeological site in Britain, but only a few of these artefacts are on display.
Although in 1904 a person could still claim ‘mudlark’ as his occupation, it seems to have been no longer viewed as an acceptable or lawful pursuit.
By 1936 the word is used merely to describe swimsuited London schoolchildren earning pocket money during the summer holidays by begging passers-by to throw coins into the Thames mud, which they then chased, to the amusement of the onlookers.
More recently, metal-detectorists and other individuals searching the foreshore for historic artefacts have described themselves as ‘mudlarks’.
In London, a license is required from the Port of London authority for this activity and it is illegal to search for or remove artefacts of any kind from the foreshore without one.