A mudlark is someone who scavenges in river mud for items of value, a term used especially to describe those who scavenged this way in London during the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Mudlarks would search the muddy shores of the River Thames at low tide for anything that could be sold; and sometimes, when occasion arose, pilfering from river traffic. By at least the late 18th century people dwelling near the river could scrape a subsistence living this way.

Mudlarks were usually either youngsters aged between eight and fifteen, or the robust elderly; and though most mudlarks were male, girls and women were also scavengers. Becoming a mudlark was usually a choice dictated by poverty and lack of skills. Work conditions were filthy and uncomfortable, as excrement and waste would wash onto the shores from the raw sewage and sometimes also the corpses of humans, cats and dogs. Mudlarks would often get cuts from broken glass left on the shore. The income generated was seldom more than meager; but mudlarks had a degree of independence, since (subject to tides) the hours they worked were entirely at their own discretion and they also kept everything they made as a result of their own labor.

Although in 1904 a person could still claim ‘mudlark’ as his occupation, it seems to have been no longer viewed as an acceptable or lawful pursuit. By 1936 the word is used merely to describe swimsuited London schoolchildren earning pocket money during the summer holidays by begging passers-by to throw coins into the Thames mud, which they then chased, to the amusement of the onlookers.

More recently, metal-detectorists and other individuals searching the foreshore for historic artifacts have described themselves as ‘mudlarks.’ In London, a license is required from the Port of London Authority for this activity and it is illegal to search for or remove artifacts of any kind from the foreshore without one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.