Book of the week: London in Fragments

The River Thames throws up treasure and trinkets with delightful regularity, each telling a little bit more about the history of London.

London in Fragments by Ted Sandling
(Frances Lincoln, £16.99)

I found a distinct frisson running through me as I read this book. Its subject is mudlarking by the Thames. A mudlark is someone who searches the shores of the river for the unconsidered trifles that wash up there, edges worn smooth by the washing of many tides; every day yields a different haul, as the treasures displayed to view at one low water are snatched away, ret- urned to the ooze and replaced by another sample.

The activity is free to anyone, although many readers, I suspect, will be happy that Ted Sandling has done it for them, recording the finds made since he began 10 years ago—calling cards left in the 21st century by the long dead.

These aren’t precious items, but that’s the point. Often broken, they belonged to ordinary Londoners and were simply part of their everyday lives. But what an insight into the variousness of those lives they provide.

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Some items—a scrap of 16th- century Italian maiolica, the top of a broken Tudor money box (Tudor money boxes were meant to be broken, when they’d served their need)—are quite old. Others are of more recent date, but peculiar to the uninformed eye— the ‘saggars’ that potters used to support the pieces in the kiln, for example, or the eerie, unjointed bisque doll known as a Frozen Charlotte (fun for a little girl to play with, possibly, but looking, now, more like a votive figure).

The majority, perhaps, may be obvious enough, but how evocative they are: clay pipes, buttons, perfume-bottle stoppers and pickle jars that got lost or discarded over time, their owners never expecting them to be found again or to have a new life in print.

Each has been indefatigably researched, to reveal, for instance, that a piece of NYK Line tableware (made in Burslem, Staffordshire, in about 1900) belonged to the first Asian company to ship from London to the East; both Mitsubishi and Tata & Sons—still familiar names —were involved.

The surviving words on a tiny, 19th-century type block found at Vauxhall read like poetry: ‘GOLD Handsome… graved, and… Pearls and fine… lustrous Gems.’ They could stand as a motto to the book. To the mudlark, every Waldorf Hotel teacup or lead-glazed pipkin handle is a jewel.