21 October 2019

Review: Mudlarking - Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem

Mudlarking - Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem book cover
* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Circus *

Mudlarking is the act of searching or scavenging in the river mud at low tide seeking items of value. Modern mudlarks forage in the mud in search of items from history - regardless of value - and it's amazing what they find. I saw the River Thames in person for the first time in 2012 but it's always been fascinating to me as a repository of history.

Author Lara Maiklem is a proud London mudlark and shares her finds in Mudlarking - Lost and Found on the River Thames. First, some interesting facts about the Thames from the book.


"...the height between low and high water at London Bridge varies from fifteen to twenty-two feet [and] it takes six hours for the water to come upriver and six and a half for it to flow back out to sea." Page 3
"The tides today are higher than they have been at any time in history." Page 13
"... in 1957, the Natural History Museum declared the Thames 'biologically dead' ... A campaign to clean up the Thames began in the 1960s and by the end of the 1970s the river was considered to be 'rehabilitated'. It is now cleaner than it has been in living memory and supports over 125 species of fish." Page 259


In Mudlarking, Lara Maiklem takes us down the river from Teddington to the Estuary and the open sea in a combination of memoir, archaeology, science and history in a narrative non-fiction style of writing. She tells us her preferred method of searching the river bed and banks is to kneel with her 'nose barely inches from the foreshore' where she completely immerses herself in the task.

One of my favourite finds from the book was the legend of the Doves Type. A bookbinder by the name of Cobden-Sanderson tipped 500,000 pieces of lead type into the river at Hammersmith. Following a dispute about the ownership of the type with Emery Walker, he bequeathed the type to the River Thames between 1913 - 1916 and mudlarks have been searching for them ever since. Such a fascinating story.

In January 2018 I thoroughly enjoyed How To Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman and the tidbit that pins from this era are still being found in the Thames today. Maiklem expands on the humble pin on page 86 and I was transfixed by her words. She tells us pins accumulate and wash together in tangled metallic nests and that pins are one of her favourite treasures to find because they're so ordinary.


I also enjoyed the London Bridge chapter, particularly the information about old London bridge.
"The old bridge was built with nineteen arches of varying widths and wide piers... which created a virtual barrier across the river, impeding its flow and trapping the tide." Page 145
I had no idea the construction of the old bridge slowed the water to such an extent the river froze over in harsh winters. I knew about the festivities that took place when the Thames froze over in the 1600s but wasn't aware that it doesn't do so now because these obstructions were removed when the old bridge was demolished.

Turning to more recent history and how did I not know about London's Riveria known as Tower Beach?
"The half-moon of soft yellow sand that forms a gentle hill in front of the river wall and peters out to shingle towards the river, is all that remains of 'London's Riviera', 1,500 barge-loads of Essex sand that was spread over the foreshore to create a public beach in 1934." Page 165
Apparently Tower Beach was a great success and in 1935 approximately 100,000 people came to 'holiday' beside the Thames. What a sight this must have been.


From the very beginning, Maiklem tells the reader just what mudlarking means to her:
"I have carefully arranged meetings and appointments according to the tides, and conspired to meet friends near the river so that I can steal down to the foreshore before the water comes in and after it's flowed out. I've kept people waiting, bringing a trail of mud and apologies in my wake; missed the start of many films and even left early to catch the last few inches of foreshore. I have lied, cajoled and manipulated to get time by the river. It comes knocking at all hours and I obey..." Page 3
Armed with this information on just how much this obsession controls the author's life, I formed the opinion she'd make an unreliable friend and frustrating partner but is no doubt a highly experienced mudlarker.

However she makes mention several times throughout the book that she won't share specific locations. By omitting them the reader can join the dots on their own (or not), but openly stating she won't share the locations made her seem arrogant in my view.

Here's an example:
"I have two American plantation tokens, both of which I found within a few feet of each other (I'm not saying where), and several years apart." Page 203
What's the point? Trust me, her finds are fascinating enough (buckles, coins, leather shoes, buttons, clay pipes, beads, ink pots and more) and I don't think anyone would expect her to disclose her secret locations.

Another thing that irked me was her belief that a portion of the shore had been taken away from her. When telling the reader about nets of stones placed against the river wall in Greenwich in an attempt to prevent erosion, she says:
"My special patch has been covered up, ... and half an hour on every tide has been taken away from me." Page 248
I'd like to tell the author 'your special patch isn't yours and so it can't be taken away from you'. Losing access may be a sore point, but have gratitude for the access you do have and what you managed to find there in the past. While Maiklem acknowledges the perils of erosion, she notes that it also washes out treasures for mudlarks to find.


On a lighter note, Maiklem has a marvellous ability to bring history to life. She uses her imagination to breathe life into the objects she unearths and I enjoyed this immensely.

However, I wish there had been photographs to accompany the text. So much of what the author shares with us has a visual component and I felt this was missing in Mudlarking. The only saving grace is that Maiklem has an awesome Instagram account and I was able to go there to see photographs of some of her finds.

In summary, I adored learning more about the history of the River Thames, I was gripped by every item the author discovered and researched but I could happily have done without the memoir aspect with no sense of loss at all.

Recommended reading for amateur and professional historians and genealogists; archaeologists; aquaphiles; environmentalists; museum lovers and the curious.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:
★ ★

Would you like to comment?

  1. Sounds interesting Tracey, thanks for sharing your thoughts

    1. You're welcome Shelleyrae, glad you enjoyed it. I know the review was a bit long but I wanted to include those quotes and try to communicate why it was a 3 star read for me.


Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!