London's mudlarks retrieve history from the Thames

Wed Mar 2, 2011 6:52am EST
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By Stefano Ambrogi

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - It's seven in the morning and we kneel in black mud on the freezing banks of London's River Thames in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral, where a church has dominated the ancient city since the 7th century.

As the tide ebbs exposing the shore, Steve Brooker casually tosses a 17th century trader's token he has found in the dirt into his bucket.

"Remember it's all about getting your eye in," says Brooker, who, armed with little more than a trowel, gloves, obligatory boots and an infectious enthusiasm has been combing the foreshore for antiquities for the past 20 years.

Traders' tokens were issued by local merchants during and after the English Civil War (1642-1651) as a form of small change at a time when lower denominations of the realm were out of circulation. Preserved by the oxygen-free mud, the tiny copper-alloy farthing bears the name Thomas Lowe of Three Nuns Alley.

The other side of the coin is stamped with the figures of three nuns and is later traced to a merchant's house in a long-lost narrow lane that now lies buried deep somewhere beneath Threadneedle Street, home to the Bank of England.

"You can smell the history down here -- it's everywhere," he says as we disappear from view for a guided tour under the cavernous quay supports of Old Billingsgate Fish Market, an ancient place associated with the trade of all manner of goods, including seafood, since medieval times.

Brooker, 49, a larger than life character -- he is 6 feet 6 inches tall -- is no ordinary beachcomber however.

He is one of only 45 members of the Society of Thames Mudlarks who are licensed by the Port of London Authority to search the northern shore between Westminster, the seat of government, in the west of the old city and the Tower of London in the east.   Continued...

<p>An undated photot od a skeleton of a child who died in the 18th century found on the Thames foreshore. REUTERS/Nick Stevens</p>