Mudlarking, or the scavenging and studying of historical objects that have been dredged up on riversides, is an ancient activity that’s gaining a whole new following on TikTok and Instagram. An expert explains how to get into it.
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Have you ever walked along the River Thames and seen gaggles of people striding along the muddy foreshore, eyes fixed on the sand and silt deep in concentration? These could well have been mudlarks – riverside beachcombers who scan the sandy banks looking for rare and historic objects washed up by the tides.
Mudlarking dates back to the 18th century when poor women and young children would go down to the Thames at low tide to search for old coins and metal that had fallen off ships – anything they could find to sell. Over the decades, mudlarks have continued to pepper the banks of the river, but for modern-day scavengers, the joy of the hobby lies in reconnecting with the city’s past.
The Thames is particularly suited to mudlarking because it’s a tidal river. This means that twice a day the water falls back to reveal the muddy stretches of the foreshore packed with dredged up objects, which have been lost or dumped in the river for thousands of years.
“So many different civilisations have lived along the banks of Thames, so you can find things people have lost and thrown away dating right back to Roman times and before,” says Nicola White, a mudlark who runs YouTube channel Tideline Art and uses her finds to create art from discarded objects.
This ancient activity has developed a very current following with mudlarks gaining huge followings on social media thanks to their hypnotic videos showing them pulling unusual objects out of the mud – nearly 37 million people have watched mudlark videos on TikTok.
Nicola began mudlarking after discovering a George V coin on the foreshore near her home in Greenwich and now goes out scavenging every week. She’s even been known to go out at midnight with a headtorch when the tide has been at its lowest. “It’s become an obsession,” she says. “It gets people’s imagination going. Being able to walk along the foreshore and possibly hold something in your hand that somebody dropped a few hundred years ago awakens a certain kind of magic.”
Finding the objects is only a small part of the hobby. “I love trying to solve the mystery of an object,” says Nicola. “My most fascinating finds are those I can link to a person or place from the past. I found a small 17th century trader’s token from Pudding Lane belonging to a man called Brian Appleby who owned a spirit merchant not very far from Farriner’s bakery where the Great Fire of London started. It’s quite amazing holding something in your hand that’s got such a link to London’s past.”
If you’re eager to find some unique history, Nicola has given her advice on how to start mudlarking, including what to prepare before you head out to the foreshore and how to research your finds.
What to prepare before starting to mudlark
Get a licence
Every mudlark needs a permit to be able to scavenge along a river foreshore. For the Thames, this is because it’s owned by the Port of London Authority and the Crown.
Permits are available to buy online and cost £90 for three years. You’ll also receive maps with your permit telling you where you can and can’t mudlark. In London, for example, there are certain areas on the north bank of the river around St Pauls where you can’t scrape the surface of the foreshore to collect objects.
“Before you commit to buying a permit, it might be useful to join a guided foreshore walk to see if you enjoy it,” says Nicola. “Organisations like Thames Discovery and the Thames Explorer Trust lead walks for beginners.”
Check the tides
To be safe, it’s extremely important to be aware of the tides and know exactly how to exit the foreshore if the tide starts to come in. “You don’t want to go down on the foreshore not knowing where your exit points are and get cut off by the tide,” says Nicola.
Get the right equipment
It’s worth investing in a good pair of wellington boots, gloves and knee pads so you’re as comfortable as possible on the muddy, stony ground.
If you want to scrape down into the mud for finds (there are limits on how far you are allowed to scrape under the permit) it’s also worth investing in a trowel.
As well as being mindful of the tides, there are other safety concerns from old ordnance or artillery that can get washed up on the shore. “I found an unexploded hand grenade a few years ago,” says Nicola. “I called the police and it had to be detonated on the pier. It’s worth being careful and calling the authorities straight away if you do find anything that looks dangerous.”
How to start mudlarking
In certain places, it’s best to get down on your knees to get close to the mud. “You’d be surprised how much your eyes become accustomed to it and you may well find something right there in front of you – in mudlarking we call it ‘getting your eye in’.”
In some areas, you can scrape the mud up to look underneath it. Permits usually allow you to scrape down 7.5cm. However, “most finds are waiting on the surface and you don’t need to disturb the foreshore to find some fantastic bits of history,” says Nicola. “It’s just a case of being patient and persistent.”
How to identify and research your mudlarking finds
Join an online group
One of the easiest ways to identify mudlarking objects is to post a picture of them on one of the many online mudlark groups on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: The River Thames Mudlarking Finds and Thames Foreshore Finds are popular ones.
“If you find something and you have no idea what it is, online groups are a huge pool of knowledge and very friendly and supportive,” says Nicola.
Looking for distinctive marks
Looking for names, addresses and dates can help you identify objects and research them. Old pottery, for example, might have a distinctive pattern or design.
“It’s a case of gradually learning,” says Nicola. “When I first went mudlarking I didn’t know what a lot of the objects were, but now I can date buckles by their shape or guess that a bit of whiteness is a clay pipe.”
Nicola also recommends books such as Nick Stevens and Jason Sandy’s Thames Mudlarking: Searching For London’s Lost Treasures and Ted Sandling’s A Mudlark’s Treasures: London in Fragments.
If you find something that’s over 300 years old or you think it might be of significant historical importance, then it should be taken to the Museum of London in case it needs to be recorded. If it’s of interest, it will be recorded on their Portable Antiquities Scheme.
“It means the museum can get a good picture of what’s been found in particular places,” says Nicola. “It’s a really important part of being a modern-day mudlark and really exciting.”
“I’ve had a few roman pots recorded,” says Nicola. “I also found a really unique button from a prison guard uniform from Millbank Prison, which was a notorious prison in the 19th century. That was really exciting, you feel proud when you get something special recorded.”
Nicola will be hosting an immersive talk, A Mudlark’s Feast, as part of Totally Thames Festival on September 19. Find more expert-led guides and tutorials on The Curiosity Academy Instagram page (@TheCuriosityAcademy).
Images: Simon Bourne and courtesy of Nicola White