A Very English Mystery

It is a little known fact that mudlarks must be licensed.

It is a little known fact, because very few know what the thoroughly modern mudlark is.

According to the Port of London Authority, a mudlark permit is awarded to any metal detector who wishes to dig in the mud on the foreshore of the River Thames for treasure- to a depth of up to 1.2 metres.

But not just anyone gets a mudlark permit.

You have to have had a standard permit – one which allows digging to 7.5cm – for two years, and to have had a proven record of reporting your finds to the Museum of London, before the PLA will even think about issuing one.

The river police are quite hot on this, it seems. They can arrest anyone digging enthusiastically without a license because the Museum of London guards the finds on the Thames, between Westminster to Wapping, zealously.

Take a look at the strange but wonderful website of the Thames and Field Metal Detecting SocietyΒ and you will see immediately why.

Sword hilts, cannon balls, belt buckles and buttons, dandy clay wig curlers, bells, keys, knives and forks: the list is apparently endless, stretching from Roman times until the present day, a record of the social history of an ancient metropolis.

Mudlarks have been trawling the Thames mud forever, though it is a dangerous business, dicing with the tides and the quagmire. A mudlark could scavenge things to sell in the 18th and 19th centuries, making a spare living. The mudlarks were usually children or OAPs, mostly boys but a few girls.

The outspoken but highly engaging TFMDS site came to mind yesterday as we walked on the beach close to our holiday cottage in Folkestone.

We love to trawl for bits of old pottery and glass. Dover and Folkestone are ancient, if bawdy, settlements with histories stretching back past the Roman Portus Dubris to the Bronze Age. Ever since then,social artefacts have washed into the sea, and drifted aimlessly in the English Channel.

We sat waiting for my mother to finish talking to another dogwalker, in the baking sun, on a utilitarian concrete slipway, and my husband drifted off to comb the beach.

Five minutes later, he was back with a find.

It is a very thin spoon head, with the most delicate neck. Its bowl is an engaging ellipse bent by the tide.

Though Roman spoons have been found in the area, the join between the stem and bowl is fan-shaped, and we can find no other examples of this in Roman spoons.

If it hasn’t rusted we hazarded that Β it might be pewter, a common alloy between the 16th-18th centuries. Phil thinks it’s 1820s: we have found similar examples in our trawl of the internet.

But it’s so thin: so delicate, as you hold it in your hand, a puzzle from another time. There’s something about it that just feels earlier.

The children immediately disappeared, off down the beach, intense concentration on their foreheads. They were off to make their own finds.

I paused to wonder: should sandlarks be licensed?

Better not dig any deep holes.


52 thoughts on “A Very English Mystery

  1. Maybe it was a little Roman child who forgot his bucket and spade. Had to make do with the trifle spoon instead. Bet he cried when he lost it.
    (A couple of links on my blog today that you might find interesting. Hope you don’t mind the advert)

    1. Maybe it was, Myfanwy: it would more likely be some uncouth Folkestone sailor, on his way to smuggle something or threaten someone. And the infuriating thing is, we will only ever be able to tell stories. We will never know for sure.

      1. Ah! But what stories you can create. I think a series is in order – once a week, The Travels of a Spoon! (How about in the classroom too πŸ˜‰ )

    1. Indeed, Lou. You can walk the Thames shore and pick things up once the tide has receded, I believe: but you have to be careful. The river is capricious.I think we’ll leave that one to the seasoned mudlarks…

  2. Is this true? I’d be so busted.

    I live for quirky little finds such as your spoon and beaches offer up the best-est.

  3. Mudlarks?! How very, very interesting, Kate and what an intriguing find for Phil. Here I roam, just looking for feathers, and there you are, on holiday, sifting sand and finding artifacts while your mum chats with a dog walker. I am in awe of how much you and your family squeeze into a day and of your amazing way of telling a story.

    1. This time of year is a precious one: the school hols are a perfect time for exploring, and we choose our holiday destination so that we are in the thick of the history, Penny. If you are ever over here you simply must come for a tour of this area. It’s compelling!

  4. Are you allowed to keep your find though? Sounds like the museum can decide to keep it? then again, you guys are perched on stacks of spoils – you’re so lucky!

    1. Yes, the museum can decide to keep it but minor finds are two-a-penny. A major find is heritage, really: everyone deserves to know about it, and occasionally it will be declared treasure trove by the local coroner. The British Museum has plenty of exhibits which began their modern lives like that…

      1. So I take that real treasure troves, like ancient, decaying bags full of Viking treasure, for instance, gets taken away? Guess that makes sense – some idiots would probably try to melt it down and sell it when it’s in fact, priceless. Sorry, I’m rambling.

  5. I know what mudlarks are only because I read a lot of historical mysteries set in London, and they’re always talking about the mudlarks along the Thames. Nice find, Kate! I’d be sorely tempted to dig up that entire beach to see what else I could find. And thanks for the link to the Thames and Field Metal Deteecting Society—I’m going to have fun looking through that.

    1. It is a scream, Weebles. Outspoken (to put it mildly) and grammar has no place there. But the things they have found and their dedication to what they are doing- historically- is incredible.
      Mudlarks: there’s a book called London Labour and the London Poor, by a man called Henry Mayhew who took it upon himself to record the social details of the VIctorian poor in London. It’s great to dip into, a wealth of information. You can find his interview with a mudlark here

  6. Just look at that! How exciting. Mudlarks was a whole new thing to me, so thank you! I can only imagine how much fun it would be even have a reason to explore and wonder about such discoveries. I hope your two sandlarks have their own “shallow” excavation with results. D

  7. How very cool. What a great discovery πŸ™‚ A lifestyley bod would have that artistically arranged with some shells and stones before you could say ‘vignette’

    1. I’m torn between nodding mournfully in agreement and spluttering uncontrollably at the muppet-style talking spoon enactment which is now playing in my unfortunate head, Lameadventures…an over active imagination is a curse.

  8. Dear Kate, I know about skylarks from reading Shelley’s poem in high school. (Am I remembering correctly?) But I’ve never heard of mudlarks or sandlarks. Do you have time to explain why the word “lark” is used in these two terms? That interests me. I’m wondering if I’m a booklark. Peace.

    1. ‘Lark’ is an old word for playing. We’d have ‘larks’ if we were having fun, and there’s an antiquated saying, probably from Enid Blyton or somewhere: “What larks!” Some etymologists have speculated whether ‘mudlark’ is a wry inversion of the word ‘skylark’ , or one who plays in the sky. But its a sketchy and tenuous connection.

  9. I know! I know! It must be the original spoon the dish ran away with! Did you see any signs of felines or violins?
    I seems like a delicate an interesting piece, indeed.
    So interesting to be able to picture the area where you are – after all the intimate familiarity of a week’s stay! We were in that whopping great hotel, though.

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