Metal-detectorists and others who search river foreshores for historic artefacts often describe themselves as “mudlarks”. The word has a playful and cheery ring to it; what could be more fun than larking around in the mud? It is even the name of the children’s gallery in the Museum of London Docklands.
Its origins, however, are grimmer. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was the name given to those, many of whom were children, who scraped a living scavenging on river foreshores looking for items of value that could be sold.
In Victorian East London, it was an unhealthy and dangerous job carried out by the poorest in an area already renowned for its poverty. This was a time when raw sewage was emptied into the Thames, and it was common for waste (including sometimes the corpses of cats and dogs, and even of humans) to be dumped in the river. In addition to the filth, risk of injury was provided by broken glass, metal shards and other sharp objects – not to mention the chance of drowning (many mudlarks were not averse to climbing onto barges and other boats to see what might be found there – anybody brought up on the Isle of Dogs will know how dangerous that is, and many will have been told by their parents to stay off them).
Henry Mayhew (1812–1887) was among a number of journalists and social reformers who were active in Britain around this time. He wrote many articles about the lot of the poor in Southeast and East London for the newspaper, Morning Chronicle, which were later compiled into the 1851 book series London Labour and the London Poor. In a later version of one book, in the section titled “Felonies on the River Thames”, in which he describes mudlarks, Mayhew includes the “Narrative of a Mudlark”, an interview with a thirteen-year-old boy working the foreshore off Millwall.
Without making any judgments about the boy, just presenting facts, Mayhew (for the words are surely his interpretation of the boy’s narrative – they can hardly be the words of a poor, barely-schooled and young boy in Victorian times) describes a hard life, just about surviving, yet at the same time the boy demonstrates some pride and self-assuredness.
Mayhew’s introduction and the narrative are reproduced in full here. It’s hard to imagine that children once had to live like this in Britain (and even harder to imagine that in some parts of the world this is still the case, more than 150 years later). The boy’s story is very close to home, though, as he talks of working off Millwall – on the foreshore under a section of the Island that is now occupied by Sir John McDougall’s Gardens.
London Labour and the London Poor, extra volume
Mayhew, Henry, 1851
Felonies on the River Thames
There are a great number of robberies of various descriptions committed on the Thames by different parties. These depredations differ in value, from the little ragged mudlark stealing a piece of rope or a few handfuls of coals from a barge, to the lighterman carrying off bales of silk several hundred pounds in value. When we look to the long lines of shipping along each side of the river, and the crowds of barges and steamers that daily ply along its bosom, and the dense shipping in its docks, laden with untold wealth, we are surprised at the comparatively small aggregate amount of these felonies.
They generally consist of boys and girls, varying in age from eight to fourteen or fifteen; with some persons of more advanced years. For the most part they are ragged, and in a very filthy state, and are a peculiar class, confined to the river. The parents of many of them are coalwhippers—Irish cockneys—employed getting coals out of the ships, and their mothers frequently sell fruit in the street.
Their practice is to get between the barges, and one of them lifting the other up will knock lumps of coal into the mud, which they pick up afterwards; or if a barge is ladened with iron, one will get into it and throw iron out to the other, and watch an opportunity to carry away the plunder in bags to the nearest marine-storeshop.
They sell the coals among the lowest class of people for a few halfpence. The police make numerous detections of these offences. Some of the mudlarks receive a short term of imprisonment, from three weeks to a month, and others two months with three years in a reformatory. Some of them are old women of the lowest grade, from fifty to sixty, who occasionally wade in the mud up to the knees.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Wapping Wharf (Thames Police), 1859
One of them may be seen beside the Thames Police office, Wapping, picking up coals in the bed of the river, who appears to be about sixty five years of age. She is a robust woman, dressed in an old cotton gown, with an old straw bonnet tied round with a handkerchief, and wanders about without shoes and stockings. This person has never been in custody. She may often be seen walking through the streets in the neighbourhood with a bag of coals on her head.
In the neighbourhood of Blackfriars Bridge clusters of mudlarks of various ages may be seen from ten to fifty years, young girls and old women, as well as boys. They are mostly at work along the coal wharves where the barges are lying aground, such as at Shadwell and Wapping, along Bankside, Borough; above Waterloo Bridge, and from the Temple down to St. Paul’s Wharf. Some of them pay visits to the City Gasworks, and steal coke and coal from their barges, where the police have made many detections.
East London Mudlarks
As soon as the tide is out they make their appearance, and remain till it comes in. Many of them commence their career with stealing rope or coals from the barges, then proceed to take copper from the vessels, and afterwards go down into the cabins and commit piracy. These mudlarks are generally strong and healthy, though their clothes are in rags. Their fathers are robust men. By going too often to the public-house they keep their families in destitution, and the mothers of the poor children are glad to get a few pence in whatever way they can.
Narrative of a Mudlark
THE following narrative was given us by a mudlark we found on a float on the river Thames at Millwall, to the eastward of Ratcliffe Highway. He was then engaged, while the tide was in, gathering chips of wood in an old basket. We went to the river side along with his younger brother, a boy of about eleven years of age, we saw loitering in the vicinity.
On our calling to him, he got the use of a boat lying near, and came toward us with alacrity. He was an Irish lad of about thirteen years of age, strong and healthy in appearance, with Irish features and accent. He was dressed in a brown fustian coat and vest, dirty greasy canvas trousers roughly-patched, striped shirt with the collar folded down, and a cap with a peak.
I was born in the county of Kerry in Ireland in the year 1847, and am now about thirteen years of age. My father was a ploughman, and then lived on a farm in the service of a farmer, but now works at loading ships in the London docks. I have three brothers and one sister. Two of my brothers are older than I. One of them is about sixteen, and the other about eighteen years of age. My eldest brother is a seaman on board a screwship, now on a voyage to Hamburg; and the other is a seaman now on his way to Naples. My youngest brother you saw beside me at the river side. My sister is only five years of age, and was born in London. The rest of the family were all born in Ireland.
Our family came to London about seven years ago, since which time my father has worked at the London Docks. He is a strong-bodied man of about thirty-four years of age. I was sent to school along with my elder brothers for about three years, and learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. I was able to read tolerably well, but was not so proficient in writing and arithmetic. One of my brothers has been about three years, and the other about five years at sea.
About two years ago I left school, and commenced to work as a mudlark on the river, in the neighbourhood of Millwall, picking up pieces of coal and iron, and copper, and bits of canvas on the bed of the river, or of wood floating on the surface. I commenced this work with a little boy of the name of Fitzgerald.
When the bargemen heave coals to be carried from their barge to the shore, pieces drop into the water among the mud, which we afterwards pick up. Sometimes we wade in the mud to the ancle, at other times to the knee. Sometimes pieces of coal do not sink, but remain on the surface of the mud; at other times we seek for them with our hands and feet.
Sometimes we get as many coals about one barge as sell for 6d. On other occasions we work for days, and only get perhaps as much as sells for 6d. The most I ever gathered in one day, or saw any of my companions gather, was about a shilling’s worth. We generally have a bag or a basket to put the articles we gather into. I have sometimes got so much at one time, that it filled my basket twice—before the tide went back.
I sell the coals to the poor people in the neighbourhood, such as in Mary Street and Charles Street, and return again and fill my bag or basket and take them home or sell them to the neighbours. I generally manage to get as many a day as sell for 8d.
At the time of publication of Mayhew’s book, housing development in Millwall consisted of not much more than West Ferry Road and a few, short sides streets. Charles Street would later be renamed Malabar Street. Mary Street was an early, alternative spelling of Maria Street – a street that disappeared on the construction of the Barkantine Estate.
In addition to this, I often gather a basket of wood on the banks of the river, consisting of small pieces chipped off planks to build the ships or barges, which are carried down with the current and driven ashore. Sometimes I gather four or five baskets of these in a day. When I get a small quantity they are always taken home to my mother. When successful in finding several basketfuls, I generally sell part of them and take the rest home. These chips or stray pieces of wood are often lying on the shore or among the mud, or about the floating logs; and at other times I seize pieces of wood floating down the river a small distance off; I take a boat lying near and row out to the spot and pick them up. In this way I sometimes get pretty large beams of timber.
On an average I get 4d. or 6d. a-day by finding and selling pieces of wood; some days only making 2d., and at other times 3d. We sell the wood to the same persons who buy the coals. We often find among the mud, in the bed of the river, pieces of iron; such as rivets out of ships, and what is termed washers and other articles cast away or dropped in the iron-yards in building ships and barges. We get these in the neighbourhood of Limehouse, where they build boats and vessels. I generally get some pieces of iron every day, which sells at 1/4d. a pound, and often make 1d. or 2d. a-day, sometimes 3d., at other times only a farthing. We sell these to the different marine store dealers in the locality.
We occasionally get copper outside Young’s dock. Sometimes it is new and at other times it is old. It is cut from the side of the ship when it is being repaired, and falls down into the mud. When the pieces are large they are generally picked up by the workmen; when small they do not put themselves to the trouble of picking them up. The mudlarks wade into the bed of the river and gather up these and sell them to the marine store dealer. The old copper sells at 1 1/2d. a pound, the new copper at a higher price. I only get copper occasionally, though I go every day to seek for it.
Pieces of rope are occasionally dropped or thrown overboard from the ships or barges and are found embedded in the mud We do not find much of this, but sometimes get small pieces. Rope is sold to the marine store dealers at 1/2d. a pound. We also get pieces of canvas, which sells at 1/2d. a pound. I have on some occasions got as much as three pounds.
Old Bailey proceedings of a trial in September 1824. The punishment for stealing anything could be severe. ‘Our’ mudlark sold rope at a halfpenny a pound, so 22 lbs of rope would have earned 11 pennies, not even a shilling – but enough to be transported to Australia for seven years. (A shilling in 1850 had approximately the purchasing power of a fiver in today’s money.)
We also pick up pieces of fat along the river-side. Sometimes we get four or five pounds and sell it at 3/4d. a pound at the marine stores; these are thrown overboard by the cooks in the ships, and after floating on the river are driven on shore.
I generally rise in the morning at six o’clock, and go down to the river-side with my youngest brother you saw beside me at the barges. When the tide is out we pick up pieces of coal, iron, copper, rope and canvas. When the tide is in we pick up chips of wood. We go upon logs, such as those you saw me upon with my basket, and gather them there.
In the winter time we do not work so many hours as in the summer; yet in winter we generally are more successful than in the long days of summer. A good number of boys wade in summer who do not come in winter on account of the cold. There are generally thirteen or fourteen mudlarks about Limehouse in the summer, and about six boys steadily there in the winter, who are strong and hardy, and well able to endure the cold. The old men do not make so much as the boys because they are not so active; they often do not make more than 6d. a day while we make 1s. or 1s. 6d.
Some of the mudlarks are orphan boys and have no home. In the summer time they often sleep in the barges or in sheds or stables or cow-houses, with their clothes on. Some of them have not a shirt, others have a tattered shirt which is never washed, as they have no father nor mother, nor friend to care for them. Some of these orphan lads have good warm clothing; others are ragged and dirty, and covered with vermin.
The mudlarks generally have a pound of bread to breakfast, and a pint of beer when they can afford it. They do not go to coffee-shops, not being allowed to go in, as they are apt to steal the men’s ‘grub.’ They often have no dinner, but when they are able they have a pound of bread and 1d. worth of cheese. I never saw any of them take supper. The boys who are out all night lie down to sleep when it is dark, and rise as early as daylight.
Sometimes they buy an article of dress, a jacket, cap, or pair of trousers from a dolly or rag-shop. They get a pair of trousers for 3d. or 4d., an old jacket for 2d, and an old cap for 1/2d or 1d. When they have money they take a bed in a low lodging-house for 2d. or 3d. a night.
We are often chased by the Thames’ police and the watermen, as the mudlarks are generally known to be thieves. I take what I can get as well as the rest when I get an opportunity. We often go on board of coal barges and knock or throw pieces of coal over into the mud, and afterwards come and take them away. We also carry off pieces of rope, or iron, or anything we can lay our hands on and easily carry off. We often take a boat and row on board of empty barges and steal small articles, such as pieces of canvas or iron, and go down into the cabins of the barges for this purpose, and are frequently driven off by the police and bargemen. The Thames’ police often come upon us and carry off our bags and baskets with the contents.
The mudlarks are generally good swimmers. When a bargeman gets hold of them in his barge on the river, he often throws them into the river, when they swim ashore and then take off their wet clothes and dry them. They are often seized by the police in boats, in the middle of the river, and thrown overboard, when they swim to the shore.
Police boat in 1880, off Wapping.
I have been chased twice by a police galley. On one occasion I was swimming a considerable way out in the river when I saw two or three barges near me, and no one in them. I leaped on board of one and went down into the cabin, when some of the Thames’ police in a galley rowed up to me. I ran down naked beneath the deck of the barge and closed the hatches, and fastened the staple with a piece of iron lying near, so that they could not get in to take me. They tried to open the hatch, but could not do it. After remaining for half-an-hour I heard the boat move off. On leaving the barge they rowed ashore to get my clothes, but a person on the shore took them away, so that they could not find them. After I saw them proceed a considerable distance up the river I swam ashore and got my clothes again.
One day, about three o’clock in the afternoon, as I was at Young’s Dock, I saw a large piece of copper drop down the side of a vessel which was being repaired. On the same evening, as a ship was coming out of the docks, I stripped off my clothes and dived down several feet, seized the sheet of copper and carried it away, swimming by the side of the vessel. As it was dark, I was not observed by the crew nor by any of the men who opened the gates of the dock. I fetched it to the shore, and sold it that night to a marine store dealer.
I have been in the habit of stealing pieces of rope, lumps of coal, and other articles for the last two years; but my parents do not know of this. I have never been tried before the police court for any felony. It is my intention to go to sea, as my brothers have done, so soon as I can find a captain to take me on board his ship. I would like this much better than to be a coal-heaver on the river.
I hope he got to go to sea. I cannot imagine it was a much easier life, working on a ship, but who knows, he may have ended up a far-off place with more opportunities for a better future?