Roman intaglios discovered in drains at the site of an ancient Roman bath in England. For illustration purposes.

I am slowly but surely working on my latest bit of JAFF. Due to my health, this is the first time I have used what is referred to as “pantsing,” or “writing by the seat of your pants” as opposed to having a clear-cut and detailed outline. There are all sorts of reasons for this, none of which need exploring at this juncture, as Constable Benton Fraser would say.

In the story, the very young Fitzwilliam Darcy is abducted and becomes what was known then as a “mudlark.” There ain’t no such bird. Mudlarks are all too human. The mudlarks of his time were generally desperately poor and earned their livings foraging and scrounging along the banks of the Thames in central London for whatever they could find to sell. Lurid Victorian novels and paintings abound, and there is every reason to believe that many children participated in these activities. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to imagine bands of youngsters under the control of Fagin-type villains who took advantage of them. 

The Thames has seen heavily commercial traffic since the days of the Roman Empire. Well before that, it has known human habitation for at least 4,000 years. And before that, it served as a habitat for countless plants and animals, now vanished from the scene, who have left their literal imprint behind as fossils. It has been a locus for trading, for the import and export of countless manufactured goods and raw materials, as a base of operations and support for the British Navy, and as an all-purpose trash and garbage dump. It has been enjoying an amazing cleanup and renaissance in recent years which has certainly made it a much better neighbor as far as rivers go. 

The items which may be gleaned from its shorelines are a constant source of amazement to most, of education and understanding of the past for many, and as a profitable vocation for a few.  The mudlarks still exist. Desperate poverty has been replaced by curiosity and a thirst for knowledge, accompanied for many by an interesting profit motive. In this day and age, one must be licensed by the government and have a permit. There are historical resource officers available, and significant findings are reported to them. You cannot simply wander down to the beach and pick stuff up. 

As part of my research for “The Mudlarks,” I began following two separate entities on Facebook. One is a page, “Tideline Art” run by an amazing woman named Nicola White. The other is a group, “The River Thames Mudlarking Finds,” which actually has over 120,000 members. In Tideline Art, Ms. White posts almost daily videos of her activities along the Thames foreshore as well as in other places she visits. She has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the river’s history and archeology and offers a running commentary of the objects she discovers. 

“The River Thames Mudlarking Finds” consists of members, some of whom are mudlarks and some of whom aren’t. As a whole, they are extremely protective of the content of the group. For example, a clay pipe unearthed in Tidewater Virginia will meet with disapproval if posted even though the pipe was undoubtedly manufactured right there in London on the shores of the Thames. For that reason it seems inhospitable. I seem to have gained a place as a contributor because I have the ability to identify glass, bone, and other types of beads—a skill entirely unrelated to mudlarking or to Jane Austen fiction. 

Here is a little list of finds in Old Father Thames which have knocked me out of my seat over the past few months. One of them actually came from Bath rather than London—different waterway, same fascinating results:

  • Jewelry: Much of it is costume, some of pure, solid gold. It dates from the present time all the way back to the rule of the Romans. Recently a cleaning expedition into the old Roman baths near Hadrian’s Wall unearthed several dozen cameos or intaglio stones made from semi-precious gems which were inset into Roman signet rings. The stones were lost during visits to the baths and were swept down into the drains. An amazing display. I have seen Rolex watches, both real and fake, and a prodigious amount of insignia and badges from the military, especially the Navy. Military personnel were also issued watches, and these are also to be found. 
  • Fossils: My favorite fossil finds of all are the fossils of ammonites, a type of shelled sea creature that built out its shell home in expanding chambers. They reigned supreme in these waters as much as 450 million years ago, and their fossils are breathtaking. 
  • Flints and flint implements: Our most ancient ancestors lived along the Thames, and their tools, implements, and even work areas are sometimes discovered. 
  • Crockery and earthenware: Dating to all periods. Recent finds I admired were bits of broken plate from the various naval mess halls in some areas, each one a bit different. The most breathtaking finds I have seen have been intact Roman vessels, amphorae, which are among the oldest to be found and which always evoke a sensation. These most valuable finds are given to the government for analysis and later display.
  • Coins: From Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, coins of the realm are accidentally lost in the water. There are also trade tokens and seals which look like coins, and a great many buttons. I saw a remarkable coin that originated in the United States, having been minted in the late 1790’s when the Republic was very young. It is a beautiful piece with the most graceful figure of Liberty I have ever seen.
  • Clay pipes: One can’t leave the subject of mudlarking without mentioning the literally millions of clay pipes, some in fragments, some perfectly intact, that find their ways into these waters. They were manufactured nearby and mostly sold at inns and taverns. They were pre-filled with tobacco and were mostly discarded when the tobacco was gone. 

My list of amazing finds could go on for page after page. I hope I have given you some flavor of the world I have chosen for the young Fitzwilliam Darcy on his great adventure. 

I have been a little vague on some issues because I don’t want to spoil my book. But I’ll be happy to answer questions. 

Informal References

Pages and groups:

Nicola White Tideline Art:

Archaeology Magazine: “Roman Intaglios Discovered in Bath Drains in England”

River Thames Mudlarking Finds:

7 responses to “Modern Mudlarks”

  1. Glynis Avatar

    I do hope poor Darcy wasn’t abused by his kidnappers? Also that he’s somehow rescued (maybe by Mr Bennet?) I do love watching programs about archeological finds, although I doubt I’d have the patience or the ability to unearth and recognise some of the things they find! I’m definitely looking forward to more of this and hope your health improves.

    1. Anne Madison Avatar

      As an American, I have to stop and remind myself of the fact that Europeans didn’t get here until the late 1500’s/early 1600’s and that the Indigenous peoples who were here first had a lifestyle that was far less invasive of the land and its resources. This leaves far fewer relics of far fewer societies to be found here, There are hints and indications of great cities and bustling trade from Canada down into South America, and we have a lot more of our own continent’s story to unearth.

      Darcy lives a hard life away from his family for a few years, but there is eventually an HEA–so a rescue will take place. If you aren’t following the story, stop by AHA and take a look at the first few chapters. I’m just getting started.

      Thanks for your comment!!

  2. Riana Everly Avatar

    I first heard about modern mudlarking a couple of years ago, in a talk through Sisters in Crime. I didn’t know its origins. Those poor kids… I hope young Darcy found some kind people to help him along.

    1. Anne Madison Avatar

      I guess I’m strictly entering the realm of my own imagination with some bits of the story. Certainly London was a world center of commerce and industry, trade, military and political power; I think that is without question. It is also true that many of the inhabitants were desperately poor, and where there is poverty, children always seem to suffer the most. The church and the government made efforts to deal with some of this distress, but all the orphanages and workhouses must have been like a drop in the ocean.

      I also freely admit that I’ve read too much Charles Dickens and too many Victorian novels, and I have gleaned from them some of the countless ways children might be exploited. I thought of the gangs of chimney sweeps, infant pickpockets, and burglars working under the power of adults who exploited them cruelly, and it wasn’t such a long leap to have our young Darcy fall into that kind of lifestyle when he was abandoned by his uncle. The idea would have been to search for articles of value, and they were there to be found.

      Don’t worry about him too much. He has a self-appointed guardian and protector who found him shortly after he was abandoned and stays with him throughout the entire story. He will do well. And we also need to remember something that has occurred to very few people: Mr. Gardiner, Elizabeth’s uncle, is a wealthy merchant, and you don’t get to be a wealthy merchant without hanging around your warehouses at the docks.

  3. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    I never heard of mudlarking but it sounds awful! I too hope young Darcy has a guardian angel!

    1. Anne Madison Avatar

      I guess there are a couple of ways of looking at it. Those whose life’s work is with discovering the history of our planet and of humanity–archeologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, geologists, and so many other disciplines–are more often to be found in muck, mire, dust, and plain old dirt. That’s where the past lies in wait for us to find. Since the mudlarks of the Thames now cooperate with the government, they are finding and identifying objects that would otherwise be lost to history and that gives us a glimpse of our relatives and ancestors from the most ancient times through the most recent. I guess I view it is assembling pictures of what life was like for our human family, and as well of how the earth itself took its modern form.

  4. Linny B Avatar
    Linny B

    Wishing you well and dropping a line to say that I love your story a with little Fitzwilliam.

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