Skip to main content Skip to footer

Foreshore finds: treasures from the Thames

The River Thames flowed through London before the city was even built, and its waters have swallowed up centuries’ worth of trash and treasure. The river is no longer the centre of London's trade and transportation, but the objects excavated from the Thames foreshore provide a fascinating glimpse of the city’s past. Claire Madge talks about some of the relics rescued from the Thames, and her work to bring them to light while volunteering at the Museum of London Docklands.

Claire Madge

Volunteer, Museum ofLondon Docklands

3 January 2017

Bird's eye view of Howland Great Dock, Deptford, Rotherhithe, Bermondsey, c.1717. Surrounding the dock are fields with cattle grazing and horse-drawn carriages passing by on the roads. The Dock was opened in 1700 as a facility for merchant ships. It was renamed 'Greenland Dock' when it was sold in 1763 to the South Sea Company for lease to whaling ships until 1809.

Howland Great Dock near Deptford, c.1717

The Dock was opened in 1700 as a facility for merchant ships. ID no. 58.22/6

What you see when you visit the Museum of London is only a tiny portion of the history that the museum holds. The museum’s collections include over seven million objects, with just 1% currently visible in the galleries due to the restrictions of space. During my time as a volunteer I have been working on a project to bring stored objects into the light, via digitization so that they can be viewed online.

Vyki Sparkes, Curator of Social and Working History, has been guiding me through 8 boxes of objects excavated from the Thames foreshore in the 1980s. Most of these objects were discovered by mudlarks, who hunt along the banks of the Thames for the treasures revealed at low tide. The material dates mostly from the 18th century and helps us to understand the days when London was a busy working port.

Selection of objects excavated from the Thames foreshore.

Selection of objects excavated from the Thames foreshore

Laid out for photography at the Museum of London Docklands

Patten with wooden sole, two black leather straps and curved metal ring base.

Shoe patten with wooden sole

1710-20; ID no. A3635

It has been a magical mystery tour opening each box and coming face to face with relics of the city’s past - woodworking tools, boat nails, iron barge padlocks and even shoe pattens. These were protective over-shoes, with thick wood or metal soles, worn outdoors to protect shoes from the filth and mud of London’s streets. These pattens led me on a journey around London to Rood Lane, the centre of the patten trade in the 18th century. On the corner of Eastcheap and Rood Lane you can find St Margaret Pattens Church, where you can discover more about the history of the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers and still see their crest in the stained glass windows.

Thames foreshore photographed in 2016.

Thames foreshore near Rotherhithe

Getting to grips with the objects has been just the initial step in the project. I have worked with the museum photographers to capture images of all the objects, including close up pictures of their owner’s or maker’s marks – vital for identifying where and when they were used. These pictures will be accessible via Collections Online, on the museum’s website.

As the weeks progressed on this project I became more and more interested in foreshore archaeology and the licensed 'mudlarks' who scan the banks of the River Thames for clues to London's past. I took the opportunity to go on a guided foreshore walk with the Thames Discovery team and even managed to find my own boat nail whilst walking along the river on a beautiful sunny day.

Iron barge padlock with brass pins. Impressed in the front of the lock is ' JOHN WAL' and underneath '909'. The front also has two trademarks impressed, one either side of the keyhole. On the back is impressed 'G. CARR 108 & 110 Rotherhithe Street'. Recovered from the Thames foreshore. George Carr was a barge builder and engineer who had premises on Rotherhithe Street.

Iron barge padlock, 1820-85

Recovered from the Thames foreshore. ID no. DK87.72/3

Whilst measuring and photographing the objects, I became intrigued by a padlock belonging to G. Carr 108 & 110 Rotherhithe Street. I decided to investigate further and took a walk down Rotherhithe Street to get the sense of an area of London that was once full of boat builders and dockers. I couldn't track down the exact location of G. Carr's premises as the original building had been replaced with flats, but you still got a sense what this part of the docks would have been like.

I also stumbled across the Rotherhithe picture library, free to visit, where you can dig and delve into some fantastic pictures of old London. I lost a good hour or so pouring over pictures of the London port workers, using and handling the very tools that got lost in the river, ending up in the Museum of London collections.

Rotherhithe. Etching and dry point. Balcony of the Angel Inn, Cherry Gardens in Rotherhithe, with Wapping seen across the river. Photograph of Rotherhithe in 2016.

Views of Rotherhithe in 1860 & 2016

Etching of Cherry Gardens, Rotherhithe by James Abbott McNeill Whistler; photograph by Claire Madge

Volunteering at the Museum is always interesting and I love being a part of the team but this project in particular has allowed me to follow my nose across London, from Rood Lane to Rotherhithe Street.

Whilst the Museum of London can't get everything out of their museum stores and put it on display, they can provide digital photos for curious visitors and knowledgeable researchers alike to widen our understanding of London, archaeology and objects lost and recovered on the Thames. In the process museum volunteers get to learn more about London and ultimately have the unforgettable chance to get our hands on some history.

Approximately 140 objects recovered from the Thames foreshore can now be studied online via Collections Online. As with all the Museum of London's stored collections, researchers can request access to study the foreshore finds.

Volunteers are vital to the work we do at the Museum of London. Learn more about how you can help, and gain valuable skills and experience, by volunteering.

Love Roman Londinium? Want to get updates about the city's buried past straight to your inbox? Sign up for our free Archaeology newsletter for upcoming exhibitions, events and articles.