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Steve Brooker, Mudlark

September 28, 2010
by the gentle author

In London, the Thames has always been the natural receptacle for concealing and disposing things, creating a miry hoard of secrets, all just waiting for Steve Brooker, the mudlark, to come along and snaffle them up. Over the last seventeen years while he has been searching, the mud has been eroded by wash from the Thames Clippers, exposing an unprecedented level of finds that compel Steve to come mudlarking several times each week at low tide and be the first to see what has been newly revealed.

Steve is widely known as the Mud God – which seemed a little far fetched to me – until I saw him striding towards me eagerly in his chest-high bespattered waders, clutching his yellow plastic bucket and trowel. Over six feet tall with a grizzled beard and intense, glittering eyes, he was as excited to get down onto the beach as a child on the first day of the Summer holiday. Only someone with Steve’s natural authority can carry off such unmediated enthusiasm naturally. He is a man who is confident of his place in the world, and that place is the foreshore of the Thames.

We came down the slipway as the tide fell towards its lowest ebb. The day was mild yet occluded, and my heart lifted as I was released from city streets into a vast open space, the domain of water and sky. The territory of the Mud God. He understands the idiosyncrasies of the tide, and the nuances of the mud banks and the river bed. As well as coins and buttons, he finds Roman shoes, Medieval pins, eighteenth century witches’ bottles, nineteenth century lovers’ tokens, twentieth century voodoo dolls, live bombs and new guns – and sometimes he find human bodies too. He knows where to look and he does not need a metal detector because he has sharp eyes.

When Helen Mirren lost her ring throwing her grass clippings over the river wall from her Wapping garden, it was Steve who found it for her in the river. When villains throw handguns and sawn-off shot guns into the river at Woolwich to lose them forever, it is Steve who collects them and hands them to the police – he found fifteen recently.

Mudlarks tend to work in pairs for safety’s sake on this hazardous river and I had the privilege to be Steve’s partner in slime for a day. And I was happy to be in his company because Steve is a member of the Society of Thames Mudlarks, has a licence from the Port of London Authority and has the necessary experience to judge the treacherous movement of the tide against the access points to the shore.

On the beach, Steve used his trowel to indicate where the mud had been washed away revealing a fresh bed of stones beneath, suggesting the type of location worthy of searching. Scraping away the top layer, he scanned for objects and passed me a Medieval pin – a sign that other personal or domestic artifacts might be present. Thus the pattern was established of walking, scanning and pausing to scrape at promising sites. We continued until Silvertown where thousands of bullets mysteriously litter the foreshore, an unexplained military dump from World War II. All around the Isle of Dogs, we walked upon a shore littered with the metalwork of the ship building industry that was once here. Lying redundant, we saw eighteenth century iron splitters used for breaking up tree trunks into planks, to build ships sunk long ago.

At low tide, we reached Mast Point where Steve finds whole clay pipes. Pipes that once fell from a stevedore’s hand and sunk into the mud without breaking. Here I saw impacted layers of eighteenth and nineteenth century river bed, now exposed by erosion, with tantalising fragments of white pipe protruding. We squatted down to peer at the tiny bowl of a pipe, washed from the mud by the waves that very day and exposed from the mud for the first time. In the shape of a lady with a wide skirt that formed the bowl of the pipe, it was a tiny sculpture with a presence all its own, and we were the first to touch it since whoever dropped it two hundred years ago. Steve’s eyes popped because he never saw one like it before. Moments like this are what keep bringing Steve back, because he knows will always find something, yet he never knows what it will be.

We walked miles along the water’s edge in the centre of London and the only others we met were two friends of Steve’s, also searching the shore. I forgot entirely about the city on the river bank above us, because I was down in the river bed in the land of the mudlarks. All of the history of London was present with us, you just had to look, and it was a magical place to be.

Take a look at www.thamesandfield.com where you can see more than thirteen thousand pictures of Steve Brooker’s incredible finds that have earned him his reputation as the Mud God.

The detritus of the former shipyards lines the shore.

Thousands of bullets lie in the mud at Silvertown.

The lady as we found her face down in the Thames mud.

The lady recovered after two hundred years.

Our haul, a tudor brick, decimal coins, bullets, marbles, a spur, an eighteenth century fork, a cabinet handle, clay pipes, a shell dated 1942, a fragment of a Bellemine jug, a broken seventeenth century buckle and a horse’s tooth.

Steve Brooker, the Mud God.

Mudlarking on the Thames, with remnant of a mesolithic forest in the foreground.

39 Responses leave one →
  1. September 28, 2010

    WOW! This is amazing, thanks for bringing this guy to my attention – I am excited to look at his full collection of finds. One question though … how did he know the ring he found belonged to Helen Mirren?

  2. c goodson permalink
    September 28, 2010

    Interesting… but I wonder why he’s not working with the Thames Discovery Programme, which aims to record these kinds of objects and sites for their archaeological value, not just remove them and destroy the site ! http://www.thamesdiscovery.org/about/

  3. the gentle author permalink
    September 28, 2010

    Dame Helen asked Steve personally to find it for her.

  4. September 28, 2010

    ive just seen Mr goodson’s comment…………..i do work with the thames discovery project and the person we met on the day was nat who runs the T.D.P…………who was recording a fish trap that “myself and my friend” had found earlier in the week…………….and the items i find are “NOT” what the T.D.P record………………give this great group a ring to find out what i really do my good man.

    Its always great to see a comment thats totally wrong from start to finish…………..but hey, mr goodsons not to know is he…………bless him !!!

    A really nice piece about what i do…………and mega great company on the day too from the spitalfields life gentle author…………you’ve got the eye to be a great mudlark…………thanks steve

  5. September 29, 2010

    I love, love, LOVE mudlarking! You were indeed fortunate to have such a wonderful guide along the river. When I was in London a few years ago, I was happy to gather simple pottery shards. Nothing showy, just fragments of everyday life at kitchen tables from medieval to Tudor to Victorian times. I even wrote an article about it last year: http://articles.sfgate.com/2009-12-27/travel/17461177_1_low-tide-london-river-thames

    One day if I get to London again, I hope the Mud God will let me tag along.

  6. jeannette permalink
    September 30, 2010

    just reading the beginning of Our Mutual Friend, a rather grislier mudlarking expedition, but the idea that the thames knows everything, has everything, is everything — and other mysterious riverine matters dickens and you both touch upon — wow. wow. thanks.

  7. October 3, 2010

    Wonderful photographs, particularly the objects in the mud.

  8. October 3, 2010

    Fascinating. Love it! I grew up out in the middle of nowhere and finding bits of before out in the sand is great fun.

  9. October 5, 2010

    I too find this fascinating. I have been transcribing the journals of my great-grandfather (1831 – 1915) who in the 1850s worked for the East and West India Docks Company. Even then as a young man he was something of an expert in identifying Roman coins and such, brought to him by the Docks dredgermen. Later in his life he was a renowned antiquarian. He writes of a particularly low tide in which something rarely seen emerged: parts of the ships which had been sunk downriver of the Docks in 1588, to prevent the vessels of the Spanish Armada from coming up the Thames.
    With my great-grandfather’s journals I time-travel first to the century and a half past of his lifetime, and then, back a further 265 years, to the time of Good Queen Bess…
    Thank you for this further glimpse into his life and times.

  10. scott ball permalink
    November 1, 2010

    How do you become one of the mudlarks,as i hear it is a very limited society,and is there room for more mudlarks.

  11. debra williams permalink
    January 19, 2011

    dear Mud God
    please tell us where we can go without a permit or indeed how to get a permit . my friend and i live in east london and woulde love to rummage through the mud. we are in our 50s so have plenty of time. we found some clay pipe bits today by the prospect of whitby and are gagging to get going now

  12. the gentle author permalink*
    January 19, 2011

    Dear Debra, The South bank of the Thames is permit free, anyone can go mud-larking there. Permits are required for the North bank from Westminster to Wapping, available on application to the Port of London Authority.

  13. February 20, 2011

    Hi Steve, great to see you’re doing well. Any chance you can give a plug for the Rotherhithe Heritage Museum – artefacts from the foreshore collected by Ron Goode local mudlark in the 80′s, housed in the Pumphouse. In these days of cuts to our funding we could do with the recognition. your collection looks stunning – well done!
    We are having a blue plaque for our services to children – perhaps you may like to join us?

  14. Wanderer permalink
    March 13, 2011

    the south bank is not permit free, you cannot dig or scrape without a licence, please check with the PLA

  15. sharon permalink
    March 15, 2011

    hi, i have been metal detecting for a little while now but find myself getting more and more interested in mudlarking. Is there anyone that runs organised trips for newcomers including day liscence etc. I have emailed Mr mud god for info but as yet he has given me no reply.I would like to know how much it would cost for an introduction to mudlarking…. thanks in anticipation..

  16. Wanderer permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Sharon, Steve may take some time to get back to you, you can always join his club Thames and Field Metal detecting Society and I am sure someone there will take you out,or join a metal detecting website such as http://www.detectorist.co.uk there is a river detecting section on it and many mudlarks use the forum

  17. Keith Truman permalink
    May 9, 2011

    Hi Steve
    I want to book a trip Mudlarking on the Thames for my wife as a birthday present. Any ideas how I would go about that?
    Keith

  18. May 14, 2011

    @ Keith. Buy your wife and yourself some wellies, a bucket and spade and check for low tide times.
    I found areas by The City pretty good for old clay pipes – between Southwark and London bridges if i remember rightly.

  19. fosters permalink
    May 14, 2011

    14th May 2011 – Our first day ‘mudlarking’ it was magical :D Brilliant sunshine, spent across the river looking at St. Paul’s. What treasure did we find? An old sole, an hold heel, buckles, broken pipes, loads of nails and bones!!! And a two pence coin! We picked up loads of broken bottles (glass and clay) sadly the tide changed and we had to depart far too soon. Hooked line and sinker……. we’ll be back :D

  20. Phil Curwood permalink
    July 14, 2011

    Just wondered if Steve (Mud God) Brooker has ever found what are called Pattens on the Thames shore? I,ve been doing some historical dredging myself, but not through Thames gravel, but books. I carried out some historical detective work some time back on a family that used to live on College Hill in London during the 17th Century and discovered athat a Peter Vandeput (merchant) sold Pattens?
    Pattens are what you put on the bottom sole of your shoes, an iron ring caliper which raised you off the muddy 17th Century pavement thus protecting your shoes from undesirable effluent etc.
    I assume Peter Vandeput was a Huegeonot and like most is buried at a St Margaret Pattens church in London.
    If Mr Brooker or anyone else provide any extra info I would be absolutely delighted.

    P.S Love Mud Men…Making anymore?

  21. Wanderer permalink
    August 6, 2011

    Phil, Pattens are sometimes found on the river, but as they rust they are very prone to corrosion, i have found 2 to date,and only 1 complete and that is in a very fragile condition,i have read that they were still being used in some rural areas even in the 20th century

  22. karl permalink
    October 16, 2011

    Hi Steve
    Love the show can you tell me were you got the spanner bangle from please?

  23. Paul hannon permalink
    January 23, 2012

    Can anyone go mud larking? Do you need a licence? If so is there any organised excursions that you could pay to go mud larking?
    I’ve tried to find something on the web, but came up with nothing. Could you please give me some info, me and my daughters would love to have a go.
    Thanks Paul.

  24. keith hollinshead permalink
    March 2, 2012

    great pics especially the ones of the clay pipes.
    i would love to find a clay pipe but there dose not to be many found up in the northeast.
    however if someone would like to donate one i would be most grateful.

  25. Ruth permalink
    May 24, 2012

    Dear Steve,

    I love watching Mud Men for all the great objects and history but mostly it’s because Mr. Brooker is super hot & sexy.

  26. Karon Williams permalink
    July 23, 2012

    Just like to know if it would be possible for me to bring a small group (4 of us in total) to come along and meet you and see how you ‘mudlark’ – We are a unique History group the only one of it’s kind in the country based in Havering, for more information about our work please e-mail me

    Thank’s for your time

  27. December 13, 2012

    are most major rivers in the midlands likely to have simular history?
    thanks
    devin

  28. Annemarie Leather permalink
    January 5, 2013

    Dear Gentle Author,
    I have been an avid reader of your daily newsletter for quite a while now and am the proud owner of your book. You have enabled me to introduce my classes of English conversation students of all ages here in the very north of Germany to London life past & prsent. Thank you!
    Every year I am asked by the local twinning association, who have Kidderminster as their partner, to hold an illustrated lecture on an English theme during the early part of the year. This year I am working on People & Places and would like to use some of your ‘Human Life’ stories (as above) to give adifferent aspect of London from the superficial one generally known. As it is an illustrated lecture I would also very much like to use some of the photographs for my Powerpoint presentation.
    I would be most grateful for your comments and permission to do so.
    Kind regards
    Annemarie Leather

  29. January 20, 2013

    I am an American who had the wonderful fortune to live in London for 3 years in the mid 2000′s, on Tallis street just a block off the Thames. Towards the end of my stay I learned about mudlarking and as someone who loves history was drawn toward it immediately. On my lonely weekends far from family and home, I would go to the river whenever tides allowed. Although they are common, I was drawn to the clay pipes and collected many fine samples during my stay. During my first skeptical jaunt, I found two gifts: 1)a fine example of a 17th century pipe with a 6 inch stem attached lying perched across 2 large stones below Blackfriar’s bridge, like a gift from the river to me and 2) a small bowl with a garland of ivy cast in the bowl. On many subsequent trips I found bowls of all shapes of sizes and I learned a spot that at an especially low tide near the Globe would yield the very tiny bowls typical of the days before American tobacco, when tobacco was precious.

    It never snowed while I was in London. Today, I was back on a business trip and it snowed gently all day. I had to re-visit all the places I knew with a glittering layer of snow. Low and behold, it was low tide and I had to go back down to the river, although the snow on the steps gave me pause. I haunted my old grounds and found little of interest. Just as the tide turned and I decided to give up, I found a full bowled pipe with 6″ of stem still attached, just at the water’s edge where the waves were lapping. The river seemed to be thanking me as a friend returning…

  30. Waylon Shaw permalink
    April 13, 2013

    My wife and I love your shows with Johnny. Mudlarking, general larking about, and the history, make them great entertainment. I am a Londoner and although I dont live there anymore I still love the Thames. For many years I fished the tidal Thames and I have had many great days out around the Tower of London, Tower Bridge etc. The Thames to me is Londons star of the show.

  31. flynn permalink
    May 9, 2013

    I’m new to this.but find it all very interesting as I have a thirst for history especially roman and romano britain.have many coins from that period been found there.?

  32. flynn permalink
    May 12, 2013

    If I don’t get a reply soon I will go down there and put a hole in Steve’s waders.

  33. Jules Evans permalink
    May 19, 2013

    A super pastime and at last something that gets my boys off the x box, hurrah, just been down from yorkshire and will return with the boys who are very excited about it, went to the mudlarking pub and had some super ale called lime house cut, wow. Steve your a lucky man.c u soon

  34. Ross permalink
    February 8, 2015

    Just love the mudlarking stuff. Found bellarmine frags, old pipes etc. emailed mugod but too important to reply! My dream is to get mudkaking license an scrape for an hour or so to find pins. lace ends etc. Easily pleased history geek

  35. Pam permalink
    March 7, 2015

    Wonderful. So many things he finds makes my eyes pop. Thank you!

  36. Jim Landers permalink
    May 2, 2015

    Seeing this brings back happy memories when as a teacher at a local school in the 1980′s , St Joseph’s Gomm Road, I used to bring the children down to the foreshore to mudlark. We met Ron Goode there and built up a great relationship with him. He would often meet our groups at the river and act as a guide. We found many memorable things , even a human jawbone from Roman times when there was evidence of burials in that place. Ron took us to his flat which was a treasure trove of things he had found on the foreshore – (now house in the museum I’m sure.
    During the 1980′s there was much talk and planning of a museum in Rotherhithe to mark the importance of the history of the area. Ron was instrumental in helping to set up the museum. Sadly he is no longer with us but his legacy lives on.

  37. Bea permalink
    July 4, 2015

    I’m sure Dame Helen and many others whose properties are adjacent to rivers don’t realise that technically, under UK environmental law, throwing one’s garden waste such as grass clippings into any river is classed as illegal flytipping and therefore potentially subject to a maximum £50,000 fine or 5 year jail term. There are regular Council green waste collections that will turn your garden clippings into compost for re-use in gardens. Please don’t just chuck stugff in rivers – you could be spreading seeds of invasive non-native species or plant diseases as well as blocking watercourses and taking oxygens out of the water as the plant matter decomposes

  38. Nick Watkins permalink
    January 16, 2016

    Hi-just met Mr. Mud dog on the beach with my pooch Steve and was chatting away about the finds in his bucket. I had no idea who I was chatting to but wow how interesting it all was. I’ve lived down here in deptford for a while and strolled across many a foreshore in my wellies, now I want to excavate. Anyone interested, has anyone been to belvedere to the parlour? Nick. Watkins87@hotmail.com

  39. Terence Longmoor permalink
    October 31, 2016

    The thing that I love about Mudmen is the genuine and infectious interest and enthusiasm that comes across from both presenters. So many history programmes these days are hosted stuffy old sods whose airs and graces somewhat over shadow the subject matter itself. Vaughany and Mud God are so easy to watch and listen to. Were they friends before the show? The chemistry between the two seems so real. Keep it up boys and long live Mudmen!

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