April 2, 2018
It can happen to anybody; you’re walking along and notice a quarter on the ground, and when you pick it up you realize it’s historic, from the 195os or even earlier! It can make you wonder what history lies just beneath the surface. Well today’s guest, Lara Maiklem, does more than just wonder. Lara, also known as The London Mudlark, spends her time scouring the muddy banks of the foreshore of the River Thames in England, constantly uncovering everyday discarded items that wash up from the river. That is when she’s not busy moderating the largest online mudlarking community, and writing about the pieces she’s found. Join as Nick and Lara discuss the history of mudlarking, what it takes to try it out yourself, and more on this week’s PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] It can happen to anybody. You’re walking along and notice a quarter on the ground, and when you pick it up you realize it’s historic, from the 1950s or even earlier! It can make you wonder what history lies just beneath the surface. Well, today’s guest, Lara Maiklem, does more than just wonder. Lara, also known as The London Mudlark, spends her time scouring the muddy banks of the foreshore of the River Thames in England, constantly uncovering everyday discarded items that wash up from the river. That is when she’s not busy moderating the largest online mudlarking community and writing about the pieces she’s found. Join us as we discuss the history of mudlarking, what it takes to try it out yourself, and more on this week’s PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland’s Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast!
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding, and you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we’re joined by Lara Maiklem. And Lara is the founder of the London Mudlark. The Mudlark was born amongst the filth and chaos of Victorian London. These poor, degraded creatures were scavengers wading through the foul-smelling mud to collect anything they could sell such as rags, coal, and rope. Most mudlarks of that era were children and old people, society’s most vulnerable. However these days, mudlarking is a term used by a band of amateur archaeologists that scour the foreshore of the River Thames for signs of history. All of her finds are made by eye only and without disturbing the foreshore in any way. She believes there’s no need to dig or use a metal detector. A keen eye and some patience will usually throw up some pretty fascinating finds. The London Mudlark is the largest and friendliest of online communities of people who enjoy spending their time in the mud by the river or are just interested in what’s being found. Lara regularly posts her finds, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And we’re so pleased to have Lara, the London Mudlark, with us today from across the pond all the way from United Kingdom. It’s wonderful to have you here today.
[Lara Maiklem] Hello, Nick. Hi, thank you very much.
[NR] So this is super exciting. I’ve been following you for several years now, and I’m really excited to have the opportunity to talk with you. Where does your interest in history come from? Is it this idea of the Victorian mudlark? How did you get involved in all this?
[LM] I think I’ve been interested in history all my life. I was lucky enough to grow up in a fifteenth century farmhouse. I grew up surrounded by history. I was never interested in it at school. To me, it was just battles, kings, dates, boring. Didn’t interest me in the least. What I was interested in was hands-on history, actually the stuff that you can actually touch. I mean, we’re surrounded by it here. We’re so lucky. And so my passion really grew from a very young age. And obviously, then moving to London, I was presented with the Thames.
[NR] And do you work professionally in history or…? The mudlarking is not a day job, I guess.
[LM] Well, funnily enough, it’s sort of become a day job –
[NR] Nice [laughter].
[LM] – which I’m very lucky to be able to do. No, I work in publishing. So I work in reference publishing. So I’m a bit of a fact guru. I do like my facts. I suppose it ties in quite well, because I do a lot of research around the things that I find. I do a lot of research for work, and I do a lot of research on the things I find on the foreshore as well.
[NR] So we got a little bit of an intro there at the beginning. I read how you describe mudlarking, which is pretty cool and is pretty evocative. But maybe tell us a little bit more about the original mudlarks and then how you got started doing it yourself.
[LM] Well, I suppose the best-known mudlarks were the Victorian mudlarks that you just described. But the very first mention of mudlarks was back in the late 1700s by a man called Patrick Calhoun and he was the man who established the Thames River Police at the end of the eighteenth century. And he established the river police really to combat the amount of theft and the gangs that were working on the ships that were moored waiting to unload their cargoes at the docks. And so the police force was established to protect the docks as well as the ships. And one of the gangs that preyed on the ships was the mudlarks. And they were the people who scribbled about in the mud ’round all the ships, picking up what they could. But they’d also pick up all the stolen goods that were thrown off the ships by the people who’d broken into them, and then they’d take them to their taverns onshore and sell them. By Victorian times, they’d become this band of pathetic creatures, really the lowest of the low. The lowest scavengers of all the scavengers that lived in Victorian London, and there were a lot of them.
[NR] Yeah, that’s kind of saying something, I guess.
[LM] Yes, yes. They really were. There were the young children and old people and people who couldn’t really do anything else, and they’d pick up anything they could sell. Bones they’d sell to the glue factory, bits of rope, any tools that people had dropped. And those are the Mudlarks that people really associate with the phrase mudlarking. And it’s a term that people have coined these days. People like me who now go down onto the foreshore at low tide and search for bits of history, really.
[NR] So how long have you been doing this? And how long have people been doing it sort of recreationally? When did that all start?
[LM] I think people have always been going down there, to be honest, on-and-off. Certainly during the ’60s people were well aware. There was a man called Ivor Noël Hume who moved to America actually and worked at Jamestown, I think. He wrote quite a well-known book [Treasure in the Thames] – it’s out of print now – all about his experience of mudlarking and that was in the ’60s. And obviously, since metal detectors have got better, people have been going down there with metal detectors, and that’s become more popular. I don’t think it’s ever been as popular really as it is now. I moved to London about twenty-five years ago and I was fascinated by the river from the moment I moved there. Really, it was my quiet place to go and gradually I eventually ended up going down onto the foreshore and the first thing I found was a clay pipe stem, which I recognized, and that’s what really got me into mudlarking. I suppose I’ve been doing it seriously for about thirteen years now.
[NR] So why don’t you take us through the steps of mudlarking? How do you get down there? What’s access like? And then you mentioned metal detecting but it sounds like you do it all by eye. Talk us through the process of how it works, how long you spend there, how much you’re finding. That kind of thing.
[LM] Well, let’s begin with everyone. Anyone who goes down onto the foreshore now with the intention of searching it needs a permit. And the permit comes from the Port of London Authority, which is the landowner. Once you’ve got your permit you check the tides because, of course, the Thames is a tidal river. It goes in and out twice a day and the tides vary in time. You have around two to three hours either side of low tide, which you can get down onto the foreshore. There are river stairs, which are the ancient access routes to the river. They’ve been around for centuries and centuries. And there are also a number of ladders for the braver people amongst us. Depending on where you are there are also slipways and other ways down onto the river. So I usually spend around five hours down there, most of it on my hands and knees. Just searching the mud. I don’t use a metal detector. There’s an awful lot of metal in the mud, anyway. I don’t know how to use a metal detector and I don’t have one. But there is a lot of metal in the mud so it does make using a metal detector quite difficult. And there’s no reason to use a metal detector. You can pick up what’s lying on the surface. And if you do that, you’re not disturbing the foreshore in any way.
[NR] And how much would you find in a… Did you go out today, for example?
[LM] I haven’t been out today. I was out the end of last week and I found quite a lot of good stuff actually. It varies. Some days, I can come back with absolutely nothing.
[LM] Some days, I’ll come back with a lot of stuff. I tend to bring a fair amount back and then take quite a bit of it back to the foreshore once I photographed it. I don’t keep everything.
[NR] Oh, okay. So I was going to say… So you don’t keep everything, although I must imagine that you have quite the collection.
[LM] I’ve got a good collection. I give a lot of it away. I give it to schools. I give it to reenactors and people who are interested. Never ever sell anything. I don’t believe in selling history. I think that just creates a wrong demand and attracts the wrong sort of people for the wrong reasons. What I don’t give away and what I don’t decide to keep myself I take back for other people to find.
[NR] And why don’t you tell us about – what if you find something really fantastic or something amazing? Is there a process? Do you have to offer it to the museums there? How does that work?
[LM] There is a process. Under the rules of the permit, anything you find that’s over 300 years old and of historic significance, you’re duty-bound to report to the Museum of London or a finance liaison officer. The fines liaison officers, they work for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is an incredible project whereby they’re recording small finds that are found by detectorists, people just walking in fields, people who walk down on the foreshore, people digging their gardens. And it’s keeping track of what’s being found because so much is found all the time. Then it’s photographed, and it’s recorded, and then it’s given back to you. If the Museum of London wants anything, they’ll ask. Sometimes, they buy it. I usually donate my things if they want it. If you find anything that’s made of gold or silver, it’s over 300 years old, and not a single coin, it comes under Treasure Trove, and then you have a legal responsibility to report it.
[NR] Really? Now, have you ever had things donated to the Museum of London?
[LM] I have. Yes. Yup. I had a gold Tudor lace end, a decorated lace end, that I’ve donated and I’ve had other things that have had to be reported as treasure that have been offered to various museums and they decided they didn’t want them. And so I got them back, which was great [laughter].
[NR] Speaking of things that you found, what’s the oldest piece? I mean, it’s funny you say you grew up in a fifteenth-century farmhouse, which of course would be the oldest standing structure in the United States if that were the case here. And I think a lot of our listeners are in the United States, although we do have listeners overseas. But I think people would probably be impressed to hear the age of some of the things that you found. Because if we pick up something here from the 1600s, we think we’ve hit pay dirt. But you’re finding things a lot older than that. Do you know what’s the oldest thing you’ve actually picked up?
[LM] Well, I mean, the very oldest things obviously are fossils. If you think about things that have been handled by a human being, the oldest things are prehistoric flints and work tools, so I’ve got a few of those. Those are probably the oldest things. I’ve got quite a lot of Roman stuff. I’ve got Saxon things. I’ve got lots of medieval Tudor. Then you go through – the oldest stuff, as I say, is the worked flints. London’s only really been there as a city for around 2,000 years since the Romans first established it. So probably the oldest London things that I’ve found that were dropped or thrown away by another human being are the Roman things.
[NR] Yeah. Only 2,000 years. I like how you drop that. Just 2,000, you know Do you find Roman things often or is that sort of an unusual find?
[LM] There’s one particular place that I know of where I can go and I can pretty much find something Roman every time I go there.
[LM] Piece of pottery or a piece of Roman roof tile so I found a big piece of flooring with the little tessera, the little tiles in it. So I’ve got quite a lot of nice Roman stuff.
[NR] This is really great. Well, why don’t we take a quick break? And then when we come back, we’ll talk a little bit about the Facebook group, the growth of the community, and where you’re headed with this, and the exciting book that you’re working on that’s going to be coming out next year. And we’ll do that right here on PreserveCast.
And now it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] Jokes, jakes, and all kinds of trickery. That’s what people have come to expect from April Fool’s Day all across Europe, North America, and even places beyond. And while I’m as game for having the wool pulled over my eyes as the next podcaster, sometimes the wool can be a little rough, and I’m afraid to scratch my cornea. And so at the risk of my own pride, and with some help from the Museum of Hoaxes, I decided to do a little research into the history of this international day of pranking. And you know what I found? Nobody really knows what’s going on with April Fools.
Some think it may have started in the time of Geoffrey Chaucer because of a line referring to the 32nd of March in The Canterbury Tales. But there have been a few translations of Chaucer’s work since the fourteenth century, and it’s just as possible he was referring to the day 32 days after the end of March, May 2nd, which was the anniversary of King Richard II of England’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia, a topical piece of material for the witty Chaucer. Other possible origins include the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in France and other European countries during the sixteenth century. The Julian Calendar used to mark the new year on March 24th, with many areas holding a week-long celebration ending on April 1st. Around this time, a French poet [named] Eloy d’Amerval, referred to the “fish of April” in one of his works lending credence to some historians’ idea that April Fools arose as a way to mock people who were slow to adopt the Gregorian calendar.
Further explanations include a general irreverence with the new season of Spring, and even biblical roots for the informal holiday. One London newspaper in the eighteenth century claimed people sent their friends on joke errands on April 1st to remember the dove that Noah let fly at the search for land from the ark. But these days, we actually know that the tradition began when Kugel, a court jester in fourth century Constantinople was appointed ruler for the day by Emperor Constantine; and he decreed that absurdity would be the law of the land.
Psyche! April Fools!
That story is, in fact, itself an April fool played pretty convincingly by Joseph Boskin, a Boston University history professor on the Associated Press in 1983. Anyway, that’s enough goofing around for me. You’ve got to get back to PreserveCast with celebrity guest host, Ken Burns.
PreserveCast isn’t just for Mondays anymore. Find all of our episodes at PreserveCast.org anytime. And we’re on social media to continue the conversation @PreserveCast. If you have a question or want to suggest a topic, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[NR] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Lara Maiklam who is the London Mudlark. And she has been working for years to find really fascinating things in the foreshore of the River Thames. And before we took our break, we were hearing about some of the oldest items she found dating back from the Roman era and even before. So, Lara, you have been doing this for a long time. When did you start the Facebook group? And that’s actually how I found you. How did that all come about and has the community grown as a result of that?
[LM] I began the Facebook page in 2012. I was on maternity leave – I’ve got twins – and I was going slowly insane at home on my own.
[NR] I can imagine [laughter].
[LM] My one respite was my one day a week I got out on the river, which was fantastic. But I had all these things that I couldn’t share with anyone because I couldn’t get away from the house during the week and I didn’t have time to join a group or a club or anything like that. So I thought to myself that I would start a Facebook page and just put my finds up and see if anyone else was interested, and it’s just snowballed really from there. I never thought that there’d be that many people interested in it, and I think I’m up to nearly 33,000 followers now from all over the world. And the best thing is that people are contributing now with the things that they’re finding.
[NR] Yeah. Now, mudlarking, obviously, there’s a long tradition, and, as you were explaining before, in London. I presume there’s mudlarking all across the world. Are there any other hotspots that you’re aware of?
[LM] There are a few other rivers here in the UK. I mean the best spots really are tidal and they need to have had a city, really a city, or some sort of population along it for it to be worth mudlarking. So there’s a few rivers here. I think there’s a man from Ohio who he posts his finds from the Ohio River. There’s a man in Alaska. He finds things on a gravel bar up in Alaska. And there are people in Australia. There’s somebody in the Bahamas that posts their pottery finds that they find on the beach. So there are people posting beach finds as well, sea glass, all sorts of things.
[NR] What is it about this? I mean, obviously, you’ve grown quite the following. What do you think it is about this that people are so fascinated by? I mean you’re picking stuff out of the mud and there’s really cool things, but I mean you have developed quite the following and there’s really this profound interest in this. What is it about this stuff that you think is so compelling?
[LM] I think it’s the fact that you never know what you’re going to find next, every day reveals something completely different. It’s the fact that anyone can go down there and on any day anyone can find anything. You don’t need a metal detector. And it’s not treasure, it’s not worth anything, but it’s just so interesting because it’s the ordinary things. It’s the things you don’t see in museums that ordinary people handled. And bending down and picking up a piece of medieval pottery, you’re the first person in , 700 years to pick that up since the last person dropped it, and it’s that real hands-on history feeling, and it’s just like a giant tactile history book.
[NR] Yeah. And obviously, you get pretty excited. Do you feel excited every time you go down there?
[LM] I do, yes. I can’t wait to get down there because, like I say, every day is different. Every tide turns another page of the history book, and you just don’t know what you’re going to find.
[NR] Now, it’s interesting. You mentioned before about how you don’t think history should be sold and you don’t use metal detectors and you also explained to us that there’s I should say much greater legal framework for this where you’re working in London than we would have here. I mean we have some laws associated with archaeology, but nothing to the level that you’re describing. I’m a little envious, honestly. But what are the ethics associated with this? I think some people like purists, archaeologists listening to this might think, “Oh my gosh. Here’s this person going out there and just grabbing things out and destroying the archaeological record,” and that kind of thing. What do you say to that? Is there ethics associated with it? How does that all play out?
[LM] It’s very political place, the foreshore. There are people on every side of the fence. Yes, there are people who don’t think people should be going down there and picking things up. I would say I go down there, I pick things up off the surface. If I didn’t go down and pick that thing up off the surface, it would be gone on the next tide or it would just erode away to nothing. And in that way, no one would ever get to see it and it would just be lost. There are people who go down there and dig bloody great holes, and take what they can, and they have eBay accounts. There are people who go there and dig holes where they shouldn’t dig holes.
[NR] And is the hole digging allowed? Is that legal?
[LM] It’s complicated. There are two different types of permit. There’s the standard permit, which allows you to metal detect and to scrape down I think it’s 7.5 centimeters. Then there’s a full permit that’s only available to a limited number of people and they can dig down up to five foot in certain places.
[LM] Which I don’t agree with and I’m quite vocal about that. I don’t think it’s necessary to dig that deep. I think once you dig into the foreshore, you destabilize it and you can see what happens. You can see where it erodes a lot more quickly where the mud’s been disturbed. And I think it’s outdated and I think it’s time that it stopped. But that’s up to the landowner. That’s my opinion on it.
[NR] Well, let me ask you this, is there a preservation group? PreserveCast, this podcast is powered by Preservation Maryland, which is the state-wide preservation group here for the State of Maryland. Is there a preservation group that’s focused just on the foreshore or does it not really have an advocacy group associated with it?
[LM] There isn’t. There are a number of groups. English Heritage have scheduled parts of the foreshore. So there are areas as protected as Stonehenge. You can’t go in there, you can’t take anything away. That doesn’t stop some people, but it’s very, very long. It’s very difficult to police. There aren’t enough people to police it. There’s the Thames Discovery Programme. They’re busy trying to record as much as the larger pieces of archaeology that there are before they wash away. We have a big problem with erosion, which is a double-edged sword. It’s great for me because it means I’m finding a lot of stuff, but it’s also eroding away a lot of the larger pieces of archaeology. And so the Thames Discover Program are busy trying to record as much as they can. They’re a non-profit organization. There really isn’t a huge amount going on down there. I’m sure if you had it in America, you’d be throwing a bit more money at it.
[NR] I don’t know. That’s interesting. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side of the pond. And just out of curiosity, I’ve always answered this – maybe it’s a weird question – but are there any health concerns associated with poking around down there. I always wonder. Here, sometimes there’s sewage outflows in the City of Baltimore and people are like, “Don’t really poke around in that water.” That kind of thing. Do you ever get worried about that? Are there places you should steer clear of?
[LM] I mean, yes, there are. Raw sewage still flows into the Thames. If we have a lot of rain,
[LM] – there’s the sewage outflow pipes and it does flow into the river and you can see the results of that sometimes on the foreshore. I always wear gloves, keep up to date with the tetanus. Don’t eat anything when you’re down there. Don’t put your hands near your mouth until you’ve washed them well and, of course, there’s Weil’s disease. There’s a lot of bones down there, very old bones, mostly animal bones that are from domestic waste. Probably not a good idea to play around with those too much. I wouldn’t encourage young children to go down there, although it’s a great place for older children to learn about history.
[NR] Have you taken the twins?
[LM] They’re too small. No. I really don’t want them going [laughter].
[NR] Not yet, huh? But do they know what mom does? Are they interested in it?
[LM] Oh, they love it. Yes, yes. No. I take them out to the beach. We go beachcombing, so it’s a bit safer out there.
[NR] Yeah. Less raw sewage. That’s probably a good thing.
[LM] Yeah [laughter].
[NR] So this has been really fascinating. I feel like we could do another thirty minutes with you, but what’s coming up in the future? What should people be aware of? I mean, I sort of teased the fact that there’s a book coming and that’s pretty exciting. I can’t wait to get my hands on that. But tell us what the future of the London Mudlark is?
[LM] Do you know what? I don’t really know. I never really planned for it to become so big, so I’m just taking it as it comes, really. I am writing a book, which is going to be published in America. My publisher’s W. W. Norton. It should be out early next year, and it’s the story of the river, really, told through the things that I’ve found.
[NR] Right. And are you going to focus it on a certain number of items? Is it the story of the River Thames through a hundred things that Lara has found or is it–? Are you just going to go… Is there going to be hundreds of things? I mean, it must be hard to kind of decide what you use, right?
[LM] It is hard. I’m going to keep a little bit of a lid on it because it’s all a little bit confidential at the moment.
[LM] But, yeah. I mention lots of different things and I weave a lot of stories in and out of it. So I’m on my first edits at the moment, and it’s coming along quite well.
[NR] Well, this is exciting. Well, maybe we can have you back when that’s out, and we can really promote the book and let people know all about it, and we’d love to do that. And if you ever make it over here, we would love to have you in, and we can poke around Baltimore and see if we can find something here with you. And if we ever make it over there, we’d love to come down and take a look with you. That sounds like a lot of fun.
[LM] Okay. Great. Okay.
[NR] Lara, if people wanted to find out more information about the Mudlark or they want to find you on Facebook, where can they do that?
[NR] So Google “London Mudlark” and they’re going to find you.
[LM] You’ll find me, yes.
[NR] And thank you so much for spending time with us and for sharing all of your finds. Look forward to seeing you there. Before we take our leave, the one thing we do ask of everyone who comes on this program is their favorite historic building or place. And I could see how this could go in one direction here, but I’ll leave it up to you. It normally is the most difficult question for people we ask because they love history and it’s hard to parse out a favorite, but do you have a favorite?
[LM] It’s really hard. It’s really, really hard to pick one place. But I’m going to pick somewhere that’s down on the foreshore that not many people get to and it is the entrance to Traitor’s Gate on Tower Foreshore, just in front of the Tower of London. It’s bricked up now. It was once the water gate to the entrance to the Tower, and when you stand in front of it you do get that slightly eerie feeling that the people who went there – most people who went there never came back out again. They would have been brought along the Thames under Old London Bridge, where the heads of traitors were displayed on pikes. And if you think about the people who went through there, there was Thomas Moore, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard. Even Elizabeth I was arrested and taken through there and became one of the very few people who came back out again. So standing in front of Traitor’s Gate on the foreshore I think is probably my most evocative historic place.
[NR] I like it, and I think it’s the only time we’ve ever had anyone talk about their favorite historic place with heads on pikes [laughter]. So I think that that works for us. Well, it’s been a pleasure to have you here. Thank you for all the good work that you’re doing and thanks for joining us today on PreserveCast.
[LM] Thank you very much.
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Our website is made possible by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. This week’s episode was produced and engineered by me, Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band, Pretty Gritty. And most importantly, thank you for listening and preserving!