The term “mudlark” might be familiar to you if you read Victorian history or books set in the Victorian period: it referred to people, often children, who would pick through the mud of the River Thames in order to find valuable things people dropped or which got lost from ships docking in London. Lara Maiklem is a modern mudlark, picking through the mud not as a means of making a livelihood, but for personal interest. She is, broadly speaking, a responsible one — documenting her finds correctly when they may count as historically significant or be classed as treasure trove, and avoiding mudlarking in areas where it’s forbidden. Or so she says, at least; it’s impossible to verify that, and occasionally her “of course I won’t tell you where” attitude to “her patch” raises an eyebrow.
She writes engagingly, though any single topic is quickly lost in the flow: there are so many different objects with stories and explanations, and each chapter covers at least a dozen, from old clay pipes to pieces of Roman hypocausts to bones to Codd bottles to pins… There’s no end to what can be found in the mud of the river after each tide, and she delights in all kinds of things that many would dismiss as trash, imbuing them with stories and researching who they may have belonged to whenever she can. Obviously this book is half a work of imagination, as she tries to picture the hands that handled and lost the objects she finds.
It’s just the sort of microhistory that interests me, magpie-minded in my own way, so that shouldn’t be taken as a criticism, necessarily — and she’s not presenting herself as a historian, so I don’t mind her flights of fancy so much. She does include a bibliography, if you want to go digging yourself, though it’d take a lot of digging to figure out where any particular factoid came from, and I suspect many of her sources from over the years aren’t listed.
It’s just worth knowing that this is a bit of a ramble, and a highly personal book, rather than a historical account of the River Thames or anything of that sort. There’s a lot of history in it, but piecemeal and cracked and strewn about the place, as befits a mudlark.