The dread of the Thames Police, 1841

Will Inspector Grimstone follow his unfortunate constable into the mud? And can you help solve a modern mystery from the ooze?

She is the dread of the Thames-police, and has often set them at defiance. On many occasions, after wading through the mud-bank, she has embraced the officers like a bear, and, after half smothering them, has left them as muddy as herself.

For the November issue of Discover Your Ancestors, the magazine I edit, Caroline Roope wrote an interesting article about the history of mudlarks – associated mostly with the Thames in Victorian times (but the Mudlarks memorial in Portsmouth attests to their presence elsewhere), combing the tidal beaches for lost objects to eke a living from. As it happens I was given a copy of Lara Maiklem’s marvellous book Mudlarking, which I’m now reading, so mud is on my mind. This has inspired some digging of my own, into the first-hand sources for these people’s lives. It turns out the term wasn’t used in this way until about 1796 – the first known reference is a pejorative one (‘These auxiliaries in this species of pillage were considered as the lowest cast of thieves’) from Patrick Colquhoun, founder of the Thames River Police – but then there are many reports, interviews and accounts of them in 19th century books, reports and newspaper articles. (If you want to read more of them, I have compiled a short anthology available in paperback and as an ebook.)

(I promise this newsletter isn’t going to be about 19th century London every week – next week I’m going back in time for Christmas, and after that I’m hoping to visit 1700s New York!)

One of my favourites is this report from the Thames Police in The Era newspaper of 11 July 1841 – although, of course, entertaining as it is in the tussle with the police, these tales always speak of poverty:

Katharine Macarthy, a very aged Irish woman, who was one mass of mud and filth, was brought before Mr. Broderip, on Tuesday, charged with stealing coals from the craft on the river. The wretched creature, who made her appearance for about the fiftieth time at this court, has been known to the river police as a “mud lark” for the last thirty years, and she has been repeatedly fined and imprisoned for plundering the coal-barges, but she no sooner leaves prison, than she is to be seen wading through the mud amongst the coal-barges, picking up stray lumps of coal, and forcing large pieces overboard, which she ‘paints’ in a peculiar manner, by first washing the dust on with water, and afterwards rubbing the mud over them, to give them an appearance of having fallen over by accident.

It is this unlawful trade which has so often got Kate Macarthy into trouble. Last winter, during the severe frost, and while the river was covered with ice, and the coal barges were locked in opposite the wharfs by masses of ice, was the old woman pursuing her business, alternately wading up to her arm-pits in the mud, and then walking into the river to wash herself, the ice and the coldness of the water seeming to make no impression upon her.

She is the dread of the Thames-police, and has often set them at defiance. On many occasions, after wading through the mud-bank, she has embraced the officers like a bear, and, after half smothering them, has left them as muddy as herself. On Monday the prisoner was detected among the coal barges at the Salisbury-wharf, belonging to Messrs. Pugh and Judkins, in the Strand, and Grimstone, a Thames police inspector, observed her take some large pieces of coal off the barges, throw them into the mud, and paint them all over, and then deposit them in a bag lying open the hard.

She was about to leave the place laden with as many painted coals as her strength would sustain, when Grimstone stopped her, and said she must come along with him. She immediately threw down her bag of coals, and ran back into the mud. A river constable made an attempt to stop her, and she hugged him closely, and dragged him into a mud bank. They rolled over each other, and the old woman appeared to consider it as glorious fun; but it was nearly death to the man, who came out of the mud quite exhausted, and in the most pitiable condition that can well be imagined; Kate Macarthy buried herself in the mud up to her chin, and Grimstone and two other officers, fearing that they should meet the same fate as their companion, whose clothes were completely spoiled, left her there until the tide rising, compelled her to come ashore.

She then surrendered to the police, and asked them what they thought of a mud-lark. Grimstone said that the depredations of the old woman were very serious to the coal-merchants, and that she made four or five trips per day and carried off as much as 1 cwt. of coals each time. The prisoner, on being called upon for her defence, said she found all the “coals” in the mud, except one lamp, which a coal-porter whipped out of his sack, and that she was an honest mud-lark. Mr. Broderip sentenced the prisoner to six weeks’ imprisonment and hard labour.

I was also interested in looking for the words of these people themselves. Thanks to the tireless work of Henry Mayhew and his researches across London for his London Labour and the London Poor, and here, excerpted from a later supplement, we have a first-person account of the mudlarking life, apparently recorded by Mayhew’s colleague John Binny (we must assume some interpretation on his part, I suspect, although the boy in question does say he had attended school for three years). “He was dressed,” we are told, “in a brown fustian coat and vest, dirty greasy canvas trousers roughly-patched, striped short with the collar folder down, and a cap with a peak.

I was born in the county of Kerry in Ireland in the year 1847, and am now about thirteen years of age. My father was a ploughman, and then lived on a farm in the service of a farmer, but now works at loading ships in the London docks…

About two years ago I left school, and commenced to work as a mudlark on the river, in the neighbourhood of Millwall, picking up pieces of coal and iron, and copper, and bits of canvas on the bed of the river, or of wood floating on the surface. I commenced this work with a little boy of the name of Fitzgerald.

When the bargemen heave coals to be carried from their barge to the shore, pieces drop into the water among the mud, which we afterwards pick up. Sometimes we wade in the mud to the ancle, at other times to the knee. Sometimes pieces of coal do not sink, but remain on the surface of the mud; at other times we seek for them with our hands and feet.

Sometimes we get as many coals about one barge as sell for 6d. On other occasions we work for days, and only get perhaps as much as sells for 6d. The most I ever gathered in one day, or saw any of my companions gather, was about a shilling’s worth. We generally have a bag or a basket to put the articles we gather into. I have sometimes got so much at one time, that it filled my basket twice—before the tide went back.

I sell the coals to the poor people in the neighbourhood, such as in Mary Street and Charles Street, and return again and fill my bag or basket and take them home or sell them to the neighbours. I generally manage to get as many a day as sell for 8d.

[Binny writes.] Some of the mudlarks are orphan boys and have no home. In the summer time they often sleep in the barges or in sheds or stables or cow-houses, with their clothes on. Some of them have not a shirt, others have a tattered shirt which is never washed, as they have no father nor mother, nor friend to care for them. Some of these orphan lads have good warm clothing; others are ragged and dirty, and covered with vermin.

The mudlarks generally have a pound of bread to breakfast, and a pint of beer when they can afford it. They do not go to coffee-shops, not being allowed to go in, as they are apt to steal the men’s ‘grub.’ They often have no dinner, but when they are able they have a pound of bread and 1d. worth of cheese. I never saw any of them take supper. The boys who are out all night lie down to sleep when it is dark, and rise as early as daylight.

We are often chased by the Thames’ police and the watermen, as the mudlarks are generally known to be thieves. I take what I can get as well as the rest when I get an opportunity. We often go on board of coal barges and knock or throw pieces of coal over into the mud, and afterwards come and take them away. We also carry off pieces of rope, or iron, or anything we can lay our hands on and easily carry off. We often take a boat and row on board of empty barges and steal small articles, such as pieces of canvas or iron, and go down into the cabins of the barges for this purpose, and are frequently driven off by the police and bargemen. The Thames’ police often come upon us and carry off our bags and baskets with the contents.

I have been in the habit of stealing pieces of rope, lumps of coal, and other articles for the last two years; but my parents do not know of this. I have never been tried before the police court for any felony. It is my intention to go to sea, as my brothers have done, so soon as I can find a captain to take me on board his ship. I would like this much better than to be a coal-heaver on the river.

(The full account is in my Mudlarking: A Historical Sourcebook.)

Before I sign off this week, how about an appropriate mud-borne mystery? A friend sent these pictures recently, of a mystery object found in the mud at the side of a stream in Dorset. Does anyone have any ideas what it might be from? You can reply to this email or comment via the little speech bubble symbol at the top of this newsletter.

Next week… a historic Christmas, of course!