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Looking for lost stories on the banks of the River Thames

Author Lara Maiklem finds inspiration in the discarded objects she finds in the mud at low tide. She talks to Trina Garnett about the joys of mudlarking...

I hadn't heard of the term "mudlarking" until I stumbled across this Instagram post by the London Mudlark. The photo shows a small, green, glass bottle with a name embossed on the side: Sinclair & Son London.

My reaction to the photo must have been similar to Lara's when she found it on the foreshore of the River Thames. It piqued my curiosity and made me pause and think, "Oh, what's that?" In Lara's case she picked up the bottle, took it home and began researching. In my case I stopped scrolling and clicked on the photo. From Lara's research I learned the bottle came from a late Victorian chemist in Southwark by the name of James Sinclair & Son and that they sold Annatto and Rennet as well as medicines. Annatto was a yellow food colouring, made from the seeds of the achiote tree, used to dye cheap butter made from sour cream to make it look more appealing.

The post sent me down the fascinating rabbit hole of adulterated Victorian food where I learned how appalling Victorian food quality standards really were - and how poisonous.

The bottle is just one of hundreds of objects Lara has found on the foreshore of the River Thames. The river is tidal and mudlarks have foraged in the mud at low tide for generations, looking for objects washed up by the lapping water. Some are looking for valuable treasure but others, like Lara, are just as interested in the process of researching the background to the objects as in searching for the objects themselves.

Lara began her mudlarking journey 20 years ago when she went looking for a "bit of peace and quiet" on a lunch break at her publishing job in the centre of London. She followed a narrow set of steps down to the River Thames and discovered a world away from the bustle of city life. What she found among the debris on the foreshore was a treasure trove of London's history: everyday objects discarded over hundreds of years that tell the stories of ordinary people who lived, worked and travelled in the City.

Lara believes there's a story behind every object – and has collected some of the stories she’s found in her book Mudlarking, which is this year's Non-Fiction winner in the Indie Book Awards 2020.

Over the years the things she chooses to pick up and research have changed...

"When you first start mudlarking you tend to pick up everything," said Lara. "I'm looking for things that look unusual, that I haven't seen before; things that look out of place. I've stopped picking up pottery unless it's got a pattern on because there's just so much; what I look for has evolved with my journey.

"Most of the stuff I find is small. I don't bring any big stuff home because I don't want to have to store it. I've got a Printer's Chest with 18 drawers – most of it fits in there and then I keep a record of it in my head and in a kind of code no one else understands. Now I've got my Instagram page all my research is on there. It's all shared with everyone else and if I need anything I just scroll down my Instagram page."

Lara explains her research process...

"In terms of identifying objects you can tell if something's been touched by the hand of man or woman, you get a feeling for it. It's something you get with time, like someone who spends a long time handling antiques. You can feel if there's something right or wrong about an object.

"Once you've got the object it's a process of researching using different alleyways. I've built up a network of experts to email and I spend a lot of time wandering around museums and looking at weird and wonderful books. I know a lot of collectors who devote their lives to collecting specific things. Then there's the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database, part of the British Museum, which is free to use. They've got records of over one million objects so if you have an inkling of a time period for example you can look it up. You can often find something on there that's at least similar so you can start there. If I draw a complete blank I can go and see my Finds Liaison Officer and of course I record the things I find. They have access to all the museums and specialists in museums. I've got the Facebook page and Instagram and Twitter and if I put things up there are people all over the world that follow me that are specialists in all sorts of areas.

"I've just found a piece of Roman kiln that I've never seen before. I spoke to a friend of mine who's a foreshore archaeologist and he suggested contacting the Highgate Roman Kiln group – there's actually a group devoted to Roman kilns in Highgate! I do an awful lot of talking to people who have specialist knowledge."

Not all the objects Lara finds are ancient, and not all are lost: some have been deliberately thrown into the river to be forgotten. Lara has found wedding rings and love tokens that have not lasted the test of time. This silver 16th century posey ring is inscribed with the words "I LIVE IN HOPE".

"The river is full of lost stories. People throw their stories into the river to lose them. A lot of the things that have gone in the river have been thrown in because people don't want them any more. Maybe they hold painful memories and the river's a good way to get rid of them; people still throw their wedding rings in and their engagement rings. There's lots of those. And you find all sorts of love tokens, modern ones as well as ancient ones. So people have been doing this for centuries. Something about the water is it moves, it's taking things away, taking away your problems – maybe it's that."

As a long-time editor of illustrated books Lara is used to finding the story in a picture and telling it succinctly, much like an Instagram post.

"I'm interested in everything, but it's about picking out the stories that have a broader, wider appeal. When I find something, I condense it down to the interesting stuff and put it on Instagram. I love weird facts and have a brain stuffed full of useless information, but it's become fairly useful now I do this."

One of her favourite finds is a child's Tudor shoe "because it's so personal." The clay of the river is anaerobic and so objects are naturally preserved in the mud but as soon as they're exposed to air they start to deteriorate. It is rare to find a whole shoe from Tudor times and so Lara wrapped it in a plastic bag and stored it under the stairs until she could find a specialist to help her preserve it properly – a process which took two years.

When Lara first started posting her finds on social media it wasn't popular with everyone.

"I was the first mudlark to start posting about it on social media in 2012 and there were some people that really didn't like that. Some mudlarks wanted to keep an air of mystery around the hobby, but it's a shared history and I think you have to accept that people have enquiring minds. Bankside is now a busy tourist destination so obviously more and more people are going find their way down onto the foreshore, the cat is out of the bag so let's accept that and educate people to mudlark responsibly and safely."

Lara also started sharing her finds as a way of keeping contact with the outside world when she was at home after the birth of her twins.

"I was doing all this research and not sharing it with anyone and I wanted to talk to other people who were interested in all the weird stuff I was interested in. Until 2016 I did it completely anonymously, I was just "The London Mudlark", and then I was contacted by an agent about writing a book so that forced me out of anonymity. Then there came a point where people started leaving Facebook and going on to Instagram so I thought I'd start on there too. Lots of other mudlarks post on social media now and I feel quite honoured to have been the trailblazer.  I think people should be sharing, it's good to share, but Instagram has also brought a sense of competition with it that didn't used to be there and that's not what it's about for me."

There are so many potential stories out there Lara agrees it can be difficult to know when to stop researching.

"When you're researching something you can go off on tangents forever. Say you find a gun flint. You can talk about the gun, you can talk about the war it might have fought in, the actual moment it created the spark that pushed the bullet out that hit someone and what happened to that person, how they were hit, what it felt like to have a musket ball tear through you. Or you can talk about the people who made the gun flints in Brandon, Suffolk, where most of the gun flints came from and they had the most dreadful lives. They produced thousands of gun flints a day and they died very early because all the chips and the dust got into their lungs. And how the mines in Brandon produced all the gun flints that we used during the Napoleonic wars. You can go off down any rabbit hole you want and you have to in the end just stop because a new object will come along.

"It's like the piece of Uranium glass I found. In itself it's fascinating but that led me off to learn about the Radium girls and the women who painted the dials on the clocks who were told to lick the point of the paintbrush they were using, dip it in the radium and then they got these dreadful cancers but companies were denying it. I put up that post and a doctor from St Thomas's got in touch with me and said "Bring your piece of Uranium in to us and I'll run a Geiger tester over it to see how radioactive it really is." - So there's another story. These stories are never-ending!"

To find out more follow Lara on Instagram or check out her book Mudlarking and its companion Instagram page.

Lara Maiklem is the author of Mudlarking, published by Bloomsbury Publishing and out now in paperback.

See more about mudlarking on Shooglebox

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