Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Mud-larks of London: Dirty Endeavours on the Banks of the Thames

What is a mud-lark?
After 24 hours of constant rain the ground has turned to slush, which seems as good an excuse as any to post about mud-larks.
The Mud lark -
Illustration from Mayhew's
London Labour and the London Poor
In Victorian times necessity was the mother of invention and many poor people were driven to extraordinary lengths to make a living. A mud-lark is one such example, where people survived by scavenging through the mud left by the receding water of tidal rivers. The Thames is a capitol example as it was a water-way busy with all types of shipping where there was the potential for crew or passengers to drop things overboard.
Mud larks circa 1871
Mundane Treasure
In London, the mud-larks worked both banks of the Thames, covering a large area between Vauxhall Bridge and Woolwich. They weren't expecting to find gold, silver, or precious stones, - their treasure was of an altogether more mundane sort such as coal, rope, old-iron, copper nails, or even bones. Anything that might have come detached from a ship, or fallen overboard during repairs, had value to the mud-lark.

Boldness Rewarded
Sometimes the mud-lark become over bold, such as one boy (as described by Henry Mayhew, the chronicler of Victorian life) who got fed up picking up coal from the shoreline and climbed on board a empty coal barge, where he swept up the leavings. His endeavor earned him 7 days imprisonment in a House of Correction. Not that he seemed to mind too much as he remarked that he preferred incarceration to being a mud-lark, as at least had a meal every night.

Caps for Baskets
Indeed, the mud-larks arouse Mr. Mayhew's pity as he remarks that at one set of stairs (down to the fore-shore) he counted a dozen children wading through the mud, aged between 6 and 12 years old. Muddy slush dripped from their clothes and they left a puddle where they stood. When their basket was full, they'd remove their cap and fill it – adding to the general impression of filth and dirt. Spending all their time in mud, it wasn't worth wearing shoes (not that they could afford them), but these children felt the cold just like any other.
"It is very cold in winter, to stand in the mud without shoes."
A mud-lark
The tidal shore of the Thames, as seen from the Millenium Bridge
Note the Shard in the background.
The only positive in the dismal picture, it that mud-larking was an early form of recycling.  The mud-lark sell scavenged coal to the poor. Whilst the iron, bones, and rope they sold to rag shops. Any tools, such as hammers or saws, they exchanged with seamen for biscuits and meat.

A Twist  in the Tale
Henry Mayhew wrote in 1951, and by 1904 although a person could claim "mud lark" as his occupation, public sensibility decreed it an unacceptable pursuit. The word however, re-emerged around 1936 when schoolchildren re-invented mud-larking but with a twist. This time they challenged passers-by to throw coins into the mud, and then entertained the onlookers by running to fetch (and pocket) it.
The shore of the Thames
A recent twist is that metal-detectorists who ply the banks of the Thames looking for historical artefacts, also call themselves mud-larks. Indeed, there is a London Mud-lark FB page, where examples of recent finds are shared. 

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