From medieval pewter to modern day tat: Thames mudlark exhibits 40 years of finds - Daily Mail
By Tom Kelly
It is the extraordinary treasure trove of the Thames.
A collection of over 2,500 buttons and cufflinks dating back to medieval times was unveiled yesterday after being unearthed by Tony Pilson, who spent three decades scouring the banks of the river with a metal detector.
His haul, which is believed to be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, includes incredibly detailed accessories made of silver and pewter which were prized possessions in an age of 'conspicuous consumption.'
Buried treasure: 'Mudlarker' Tony Pilson collected thousands of rare buttons dating back to medieval times from the banks of the Thames in London
They were mainly worn by men between the late 14th century and the eighteen hundreds as a way of advertising their wealth and social status.
Many paid up to £200 in modern money for a single button, which were often marked with the insignia of a fashionable club of the day, in the same way that special ties are worn now.
Mr Pilson, 76, began scouring the Thames in the mid 1970s after taking early retirement from his job as a shipping manager.
He is one of the last surviving 'mudlarkers' who were common in the nineteenth century as hundreds of mainly poor women and children eked out a living by hunting for hidden bounty dropped by richer travellers on the Thames.
Today it is done by a handful of amateurs using metal detectors who donate their discoveries to the Museum of London.
Unearthed: The 76-year-old's haul, believed to be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, includes incredibly detailed accessories made of silver and pewter
Over the years Mr Pilson's haul has also included knives, forks, smoking pipes and a silver wine taster from 1634.
He even discovered some 19th Century pornography, featuring women in erotic poses that had been smashed up and dumped in the river, apparently having been confiscated by customs from a ship arriving from France.
His latest collection includes a button with a scene from the Old Testament story of Joseph escaping from Potiphar's wife from the late 16th or 17th century.
Age of conspicuous consumption: The buttons were worn by men from the late 14th century to the eighteen hundreds as a way of demonstrating social status
Another has the depiction of the Mercer Maiden, the insignia of Mercers Livery Company, and is thought to have belonged to a liveryman from the 16th century.
Mr Pilson said he has never tired of digging in the Thames for hidden gems.
"It's the luck of the draw, the uncertainty of what you might find that makes it so appealing,' he said.
'It is an extraordinary feeling to know you have unearthed something from so long ago, just sitting there beneath the surface of the hustle and bustle of the city.
'I go down as often as I can when it is low tide and have a hunt about.'
Thrill of the hunt: One of the last surviving 'mudlarkers', Mr Pilson began scouring the Thames in the mid 1970s after retiring from his job as a shipping manager
Mr Pilson kept his collection of buttons in the bedroom of his house in Hampstead, North London, before handing it to the Museum of London.
Once they have all been catalogued and researched they are expected to be put on the display to the public.
Hazel Forsyth, a senior curator at the museum, said the collection gave a fascinating insight into the lifestyles of the people who wore them.
'It was an age of conspicuous consumption and showing off your buttons was a way of boasting about how far you had come in life. Many of the men were very vain.
'The Thames was the city's main highway. There were thousands of boatmen who would take people up and down the river in a taxi service it was the quickest way to get around.
Fascinating insight: Once the buttons have been catalogued and researched they are expected to be put on the display to the public at the Museum of London
'Inevitably many buttons got snared and slipped into the water as people got in an out of the boats.
'Rubbish also used to be dumped in the river, meaning that many curious items were left there.'
Most of Mr Pilson's discoveries were made on the short stretch of the north side of the Thames by the City of London, which he counts as the largest open-air archaeological sites in the country..
He said 'Of course, the more we find, the less and less there is left to discover. The days of mudlarking may slowly be coming to an end.
'But I think if things are going to survive anywhere, it will be in a river.'
MUDLARKING: THE FACTS
- Mudlarkers started during the industrial revolution and were mostly teenagers from poor families or widowed women who scoured the banks of the Thames at low tide looking for items that had been dropped or washed into the river.
- Coins and jewellery were the greatest prizes, but even old clothing or driftwood were worth collecting as they could be dried out and sold on.
- Mudlarkers would be lucky if they made a penny a day from what they found.
- Many mudlarkers were swept away by strong tides or were trapped in the soft mud and drowned at high tide.
- The job was unpleasant: untreated raw sewage washing up on the banks and human corpses, mostly of sailors, not an uncommon sight floating down the river.
- Mudlarking was illegal and those caught by police could be jailed for up to three years.
- Today mudlarkers are amateur treasure hunters who need a special licence to search more than two inches beneath the surface of the riverbank. All their discoveries are donated to the Museum of London.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1201447/From-medieval-pewter-modern-day-tat-Thames-mudlark-exhibits-40-years-finds.html#ixzz0gAbv4BRs
Day permits for mudlarking cost £7.50 and can be obtained by ringing the Port of London Authority (based in Gravesend) on 01474 562200. Another way to spend time on the foreshore is to volunteer for one of the clean-up programmes run by the environmental charity Thames 21 (www.thames21.org.uk).