Mudlark, mudlark, glorious mudlark!

Mudlark was a term used to describe an urchin who scavenged the River Thames in London during the late 18th and 19th centuries. A film of that name starring Irene Dunne and Alec Guinness depicts a half-starved and homeless boy who finds a locket containing the likeness of Queen Victoria. Not recognizing her, he is told that she is the “mother of all England”, so he sets off to Windsor Castle to see her.

MudlarkMudlarks scoured the highly insalubrious shores of the River Thames during low tide, looking for anything that could be sold. It was possible for people to scrape a living, despite the poor working conditions and risk to health. The Victorian journalist and social investigator Henry Mayhew describes mudlarks in his book, London Labour and the London Poor (Volume Four, 1851):

“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 afterward.”

Poor Jack (1842) is a novel by Frederick Marryat, an English Royal Navy officer, writer and contemporary and acquaintance of Charles Dickens. It describes the unlikely rise of a fictional mudlark, Thomas Saunders, to the position of river pilot. The book contains many scenes typical of the mudlark’s life and even suggests that they were involved in fencing items of cargo passed to them by ship’s crews. Marryat is better known for his later novel The Children of the New Forest (1847).

ButtonsThe Society of Thames Mudlarks is an organization founded in 1980. It has a special permit issued by the Port of London Authority for its members to search the Thames mud for historical artifacts and treasure provided they report their finds to the Museum of London. In 2009 one of its founder members donated a collection of over 2,500 buttons and cuff-links dating from the 14th to the late 19th century, which he had found along the Thames foreshore.

Clearly, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann got it right all those years ago:

“Mud, mud, glorious mud
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood
So follow me follow, down to the hollow
And there let me wallow in glorious mud.”

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