London’s History, Washed Up on the Shores of the Thames

Anyone who’s ever done a bit of beachcombing knows the thrill of finding something hidden in the sand. But for mudlarks — a term that refers to people who hunt for rare objects along the shores of the River Thames — discoveries can quite literally be a piece of London history. From Mesolithic microliths to medieval pilgrims’ relics, to 20th-century Fascist paraphernalia, the river holds an untold number of strange and surprising secrets. As the trade unionist and Liberal MP John Burns said in 1929, “The Thames is liquid history.”

A highly original and compelling new book, Mudlark’d: Hidden Histories from the River Thames (Princeton University Press), by the historian, writer, and lifelong mudlark Malcolm Russell unlocks essential but often overlooked episodes from London’s long history via 27 of the author’s mudlarked finds, as well as nearly 200 other historical objects discovered along the city’s main waterway. With its lush, full-color illustrations and lively, engaging texts, the book reveals centuries of life in London through a fresh and utterly fascinating lens.

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The Thames foreshore exposed at low tide. Bankside, Southwark, once famed for its theaters, brothels, and bear-baiting pit

For Russell, objects from the river’s banks offer serendipitous excuses to reexamine history. In one chapter, a blackened human molar launches an account of 18th- and 19th-century itinerant tooth-drawers, who performed their harrowing, rudimentary procedures before enthusiastic crowds and even paired their dental extractions with juggling, clowning, and other entertainments. Elsewhere in the book, lead tokens used in “Molly houses” — underground alehouses where men sought sex with other men — inspire a discussion of queerness in Georgian London. 

Russell has to look carefully to find his mudlarked treasures, and he uses that same thorough eye in his writing. His concise, lively texts deftly weave together local and global events, informing readers about centuries of English race relations, politics, war, and trade, as well as everyday topics like entertainment, sex, and medicine. His captivating narratives contain colorful characters and unexpected events, and each chapter feels like it could be the subject of its own separate book. His novel approach to history — finding it as it washes up on the riverbanks — makes the past seem very much alive.

Clay tobacco pipe featuring a descending parachutist, c. 1890-1910, found at Lambeth by Malcolm Russell
Signet ring, c. 1450-1550, found at Southwark by Malcolm Russell
Wapping, Tower Hamlets, once inhabited by sailors, mast makers, shipbuilders, and victuallers
Sun Fire Office firefighter’s uniform button, c. 1800, found at City of London by Malcolm Russell

Mudlark’d: Hidden Histories from the River Thames by Malcolm Russell (2022) is published by Princeton University Press and is available online and in bookstores.


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