Nicola and Thames plastic cormorant

What’s A Mudlark?

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Our co-founders, Tracey and Simon West, were recently interviewed by Nicola White, an artist and renowned mudlark. The interview is now live on her YouTube channel, Nicola White Mudlark – Tideline Art

Nicola is a licensed Thames Mudlark. Dive into her Youtube channel and you’ll discover the magic of mudlarking along the River Thames and you can watch her uncover the history behind many of the objects she finds.

Mudlarks were frequently seen along the Thames during the Victorian era. They ranged in ages from childhood upwards, they were often seen bent over in the mud at low tide, wading sometimes waist-high in wet mud, avidly seeking treasure. They earned a livelihood predominantly searching for iron, coal, old ropes and so on. They sold coal to impoverished locals and took iron, bones, rope and copper nails to rag shops. If they uncovered tools they usually took them to seamen along the river who exchanged them for ‘biscuit and meat’. They also sold fragments of pipes and other objects to collectors who frequently scoured the river bank looking for mudlarks with interesting finds. 

Nicola explains: “The River Thames is tidal and each time the tide goes out it leaves us historical objects to find and research and you never know quite what you will find.  John Burns, the 19th century MP described the River Thames as ‘Liquid History’.  I would go one step further and describe it as a giant liquid storybook full of fascinating stories from the past about people and places. Even finding a small button can take you on a wonderful journey of learning.  Mudlarking for me is almost like a form of meditation and I go down to the River as often as I can when the tide is low.” 

Tracey also shares Nicola’s passion for rubbish. Back in 2009 she wrote The Book of Rubbish Ideas which explored our rubbish history and mudlarking, amongst other things. She couldn’t resist asking Nicola a few questions about her passion. We thought you might like to wade into her answers.

What got you into mudlarking?

I grew up in Cornwall and spent a lot of time on the beaches, collecting shells, seaglass, driftwood etc on my walks. I loved creating artworks with these newfound objects. When I moved to London, I found myself down on the foreshore in Greenwich one day and was delighted to find that it was so very much like a beach! I missed the Cornish beaches and being on the Thames foreshore from time to time was a peaceful escape from busy London life. While I was walking along the foreshore, I started to notice pieces of pottery and seaglass worn by the tides. I gathered them up and then one day, I found an old coin. My imagination was inspired from that day onwards, the idea that I was holding a coin that someone had lost over 100 years ago was fascinating! I started to visit the river more often, then obtained my mudlarking permit from the Port of London Authority and it went on from there. 

Tell us about some of the most interesting things you’ve found

I have found so many different items that I love, it’s difficult to choose one that stands out from all the rest. My favourite finds are those with names on which I can research. Finds that can be linked to a person or a place are the best finds of all. A few years ago I found a brass luggage tag with the name of a soldier on it. I was able to find out so much about his life. He fought in WW1 and I eventually found where he was buried. This to me, is the essence of mudlarking. You find a small piece of metal with a name and the story of someone completely forgotten unravels in front of you. Another favourite find from this year was an old pewter tavern tankard belonging to the landlord of a pub, a man named James Burrows. He was landlord of the Rose and Crown in Lower Thames Street, London from 1830 to 1850. I managed to find some great stories mentioning James in the newspaper archives and I often wonder how on earth did that tankard end up in the water?

What happens to the items you find?

I register all of my Thames finds with the Museum of London. If the finds are returned to me I then display them. I also research them and share the information with my viewers on youtube.  I also find a lot of modern objects washed up on the foreshore, toys for example. Last year, I started an adoption scheme where viewers could adopt a Thames Orphan.  I sent off the found Thames Teds and dolls to their new family along with an adoption certificate.  Some of my finds I turn into artworks.

Tell us a bit more about the charities you support

It has been a pleasure to donate some of the funds raised from the sale of toys and Teddies through my Thames Orphan programme, to Save the Children. On a personal level, my favourite charities tend to be mental health related. I lost my brother to suicide many years ago so this is something I am passionate about – raising awareness of depression and anxiety etc and encouraging people to talk about their feelings.

Have you ever found bones… human or otherwise?

There are plenty of bones on the foreshore. Bones from slaughterhouses, kitchens, factories and butchers were tossed in the Thames for centuries. I have on occasions found human bones and these are reported to the police. The most unusual bone I found was the rib of a turtle. I fear the turtle probably ended up in a soup back in Georgian times.

What does environmentalism mean to you?

There is a huge plastic pollution problem in the Thames. This affects wildlife and biodiversity, as well as we humans.  When I mudlark, I pick up as much litter as I can and dispose of it. I sometimes make art with it beforehand, then photograph it and put it on social media. It raises awareness of the problem and gets people talking. 

How do you choose your subjects to interview?

When choosing people to interview for the series on climate change I’m creating, I look for people with a story to tell who I feel will be engaging for my viewers. It’s important that the subject of climate change and global warming is accessible to all, so people who are able to talk about it in simple terms without all the scientific jargon, are favourites of mine. 

Tell us about a couple of your favourite interviews

I particularly enjoyed talking to Adam Ratner at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito California.  Another favourite was Dr Ella Gilbert at the British Antarctic Survey.

If you’d like to support Nicola’s Youtube channel you can make a donation here.

Thanks Nicola for raising awareness of our mission to reforest Kenya and also for taking the time to answer our mudlarky questions too!

Tracey and the Team

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