Book review – Mudlarking: lost and found on the River Thames

I love London social history. Simply fascinated by it ever since, in my early teens, I read of the fate of the Jack the Ripper victims in the East End in 1888. So this book jumped out at me in the bookstore as something I might enjoy. But it wasn’t like all the thousands of other books on London history out there. This one looked so much more compelling.

Indeed, it didn’t disappoint. The book looks at the social history of the Thames and the people who’ve lived beside it for centuries. All from the perspective of the findings of a mudlark, a person who scavenges in the muddy riverbeds at low tide. 

Lara Maiklem, the author, discovers finds items discarded or lost in the river by Londoners over the centuries; items that give valuable insight into the social and urban history of London.

The author describes the items she has uncovered in chapters that focus on different locations along the river, taking readers on a journey through history to the Roman fortification of London. Her extensive knowledge of the geography of London over the centuries and the Thames tides, coupled with the compelling stories she tells about the item and the last human ever to touch it, makes this a compelling and highly fascinating read that never failed to hold my interest.

In the context of the life of a modern-day mudlark, Lara reveals a little of her own life, how she discovered her love of mudlarking and the thoughts and feelings she experiences with her finds, helping the reader to feel a connection to her. 

I’m usually a bit of a book tart; I flit from one book to another depending on my mood. But with this book I couldn’t put it down. I read it within a couple of days; then I searched Lara on Youtube to find out a bit more about her. Throughout my reading of the book, I was ready to don my wellies and head for the city at a moment’s notice were it not for the fact that, as the author explains, the foreshore of the Thames is at many times inaccessible. This is due to the changing tide (the Thames is a tidal river) and the fact that you need a licence to be a mudlark these days. 

There is something wonderfully comforting about this book. I think it’s the way that the author draws you into her little world of treasure hunting, reveals the effect this has upon her and shows that, even in a bustling metropolis like London, there are moments of calm to be had if you know where to look for them. Moments whereby, with the help of Lara’s wonderful imagination, and her enthusiasm for her subject matter, so many of the past occupants of this city come to life to tell a tiny bit of their tale. 

As I mentioned above, I love books about London social history, but I haven’t read one I’ve so enjoyed since reading Dr Matthew Greene’s book London, a travel guide through time. Another fascinating and compelling read about London’s history.