The original mudlarks had a very different motivation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, desperately poor Londoners would eke a living from selling scraps salvaged from the foreshore. Henry Mayhew, the social commentator, describes the mudlarks in the mid-19th century as ‘compelled from utter destitution to seek for the means of appeasing their hunger in the mud of the river’.
They ranged from the very young to the elderly. They were looking for lumps of coal, rope, bones, iron or copper – anything that could be sold. The mudlarks were facing utter poverty and had no other means of earning a living. The river at this time was a horribly polluted, disease-carrying watercourse infamous for ‘The Great Stink’.
Mudlarking as an activity is utterly transformed into today’s hobby of searching the foreshore. Modern mudlarks find the historic survivals which giveus clues about how Londoners have used the river throughout time: as a transport artery, a connection with the gods, a source of sustenance and as a rubbish bin.
Anyone searching for artefacts on the foreshore needs a permit from the Port of London Authority. All discoveries of potential archaeological interest must be reported to the Museum of London. The tireless work of enthusiastic mudlarks has immeasurably enriched our understanding of London's history.