Author Kate Wiseman finds all sorts of scope for the imagination in objects she finds mudlarking on the Thames. Here she shares her approach for inspiring high school students to infuse their fiction writing with curiosity and historical-based speculation.
The first thing to say is that I am a mudlark, licensed by the Port of London Authority to comb the foreshores of the Thames at low tide, searching for trash and treasure. Very often my finds fall into both of these camps: broken clay pipes and pot shards are as exciting to me as medieval spurs (I haven’t actually found one of these yet and it’s second from top on my wish list) and Roman rings (I have found one of these. Well, the top of one.) Mudlarking is about history and the challenge of uncovering what the mud and water have been camouflaging for hundreds of years, not about money. Having said that, some mudlarks do make spectacular finds, of course: Roman statues, bishops’ rings, amethyst seals, intact Bellarmine jugs and even a complete ball and chain are just a small sample of the treasures pulled from the mud in recent years. There is an awful lot to find.
Think about it: for millennia, people have been discarding their belongings into the waters of the Thames, sometimes wittingly, sometimes not. Amphorae have been lost from Roman ships; medieval sinners seeking atonement have lost their pilgrim badges in its concealing waters; seventeenth century Dutch and German sailors have flung empty wine jars bedecked with images of bearded men from the decks of their ships; Victorian revellers have knocked back their pints and smoked their complementary clay pipeful of tobacco and then simply lobbed the pipe into the river—the equivalent of a modern-day dog end. And every day, the obliging tide reveals objects hidden for hundreds of years and clears others away. Quite literally, you never know what you will find. The next thing is that I am also a writer of children’s books. My Gangster School series is published in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany and is currently being translated into Turkish for a 2020 release.
I’m also working on a new series based around the adventures of a pair of Victorian orphans who try to support themselves by mudlarking. I’m really enjoying writing these and consider myself very fortunate to be able to combine my two passions of writing and mudlarking. Like most children’s authors, I love to visit schools, and while I find that my Gangster School series lends itself well to creative workshops with younger children (design a villain; use creative language to describe her/ him; write a report for a new student after his first year at Gangster School; what lesson would you introduce to a school for evil geniuses?) I wanted to be able to offer stimulating and creative workshops to older learners, too. This is where my strange array of mudlarking finds, regarded with confusion at best and with scorn at worst by friends who fail to see their magic, come into play. This is how the workshops operate.
Step One: Establish conditions for the poor in Victorian London
Step Two: What the river has given to me
Step Three: How my finds have inspired me and others
Step Four: Planning a story
Step Five: Starting to write
But I’m not a mudlark!
Student Story... Mudlarks by Emma Rowling - Pershore High School
The waves gently washed ashore and laid a small, brownish, worn-out looking lump on the dark silt before retreating back again into their icy barracks. Looking closer, one might be able to discern the features of a gallant soldier atop his trusty steed; albeit, the rider was headless and the stallion legless. If a head were upon those shoulders, it would’ve worn a sad, tired expression with a long story to tell. After being made, their world was darkness. Then suddenly the darkness tore open for them to be plunged into a world of light, noise, grabbing hands and a child’s delighted laughter. ‘I love it! I love it! I promise I’ll treasure it forever!’ Many happy hours followed of daring fights, thrilling chases and exhilarating escapades. Gradually, though, these became less frequent. One day they were being held very tightly and large hot globules ran down over them. Outside the child’s room two angry voices yelled:
- ‘No! No! There must be a mistake – let me see!’
- ‘There is no possibility of a mistake I assure you! Please calm down.’
- ‘You’re absolutely sure it’s fatal? Please tell me this is some sick joke.’
- ‘There is nothing we can do for your son if you refuse to go to hospital.’
The small figure and his horse could do little but watch and listen wide-eyed, the young child clutched them to his chest as they were enveloped in a sea of salty tears. Some days or so later, the little horse and soldier were plucked hurriedly, and rather disjointedly, from their spot amid cries of refusal. Flying in a steel grip down a blur of stairs and out into a bitter, snowy street the little rider and his horse were pulled. Ominously gloomy skies loomed above as a carriage was hailed. ‘Please! My son needs to get to hospital!’ The child and his toy were flung in an urgent manner into a dark carriage box, the door was slammed shut and there was a jolt of movement as the horses sprang to life. The figure could feel the hands of the boy were as cold as the ice on the street, and shivering violently. “What’s going to happen?” He whispered, and though reassuring words came from the father silhouetted against the light the soldier was once again showered in tears.
After that, the two tiny figures were brought into a strange, new place and raced through seemingly endless corridors; all the while seeing through two pale fingers. Eventually, the soldier could hear many voices as the child was placed into and unfamiliar bed while coughing and shaking. It seemed like forever with people going back and forth while the figure was clutched in a shaky grip. He could hear harsh, rasping breaths, over time they became slower and slower as the voices just got louder. Then the shaking stopped and the noise ceased, save for muffled crying. After a time, the once-loved toy was extracted from the cold, still hand. In a sudden fit of rage the lead figure was hurled roughly to the ground – shattering legs of the poor horse. The soldier and wounded steed – still connected – simply lay there, unmoving until they were picked up again.
Back through the corridors, back onto the street where the snow piled high and a chill wind blew, wailing as if it were grieving too. The toy was thrust into a pocket with only a sliver of harsh light in their view. After an age they were brought back out into a desolate looking place, a fast running river with an abandoned factory and dilapidated houses across its banks. The soldier and horse were held high up and, with an air of finality, thrown forward. They tumbled through the air before hitting the freezing waters and being swept away. Days, months, years, decades and more passed by and the child’s toy saw many places and travelled many miles.
Finally, after so long in the eroding waters the soldier and stallion were relinquished reluctantly by the river. At last it was laid on the dark silt, waiting to be found again.
For more information on mud larking and the Port of London Authority, and lots of photos of interesting finds, check out these links:
Port of London Authority Mudlarking Permits: https://www.pla.co.uk/Environment/ Thames-foreshore-access-including-metal-detecting-searching-and-digging
Thames and Field:
http://www.thamesandfield.com Lara Meiklem, London Mudlark @LondonMudlark on Twitter and Facebook The Mystery Object is an eighteenth-century clay wig curler. They were heated in ovens before being inserted into the wigs that most monied gentlemen wore. ‘WB’ was the most prolific maker of these objects. This one is broken at one end, presumably why the disgruntled hairdresser dropped it into the Thames.
Kate Wiseman is the author of the Gangster School book series and she runs creative writing workshops in schools. More information can be found at https://katewiseman.uk
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