The original mudlarks were children who scoured the Thames slime for coal, copper or other items that had fallen from commercial ships: a symbol of inequality in 19th Century London. Poverty remains in the capital, of course – often in sight of the luxury developments that now line the river – but the working docks and their ecosystem are gone. Today’s mudlarks are hobbyists, artists or historians, recalling a piece of London’s long story with every upturned Roman coin or wartime bullet casing.
Of the various associations that exist to promote and regulate this endeavour, PoL is – inevitably – drawn to one of the more esoteric.
The Redriff Society prefer to be known as ‘sifters’. To walk the Thames shoreline, they say, is to beat the bounds of London’s parallel, interspatial parishes.
Maeve Atkins is their bookkeeper and defacto leader. We find her on a wintery Sunday in December, holed up in her tiny studio in the rafters of the old granary at Rotherhithe. Steam from a kettle curls around shelves of Thames finds and stacks of Maeve’s whirling river-world paintings. On the small table between us is a photograph. It shows the same small table, in the same studio, one year ago.
On the table in the photo is a Bellarmine jug.
These stoneware vessels, named for the bearded cardinal Robert Bellarmine, were also known as Bartmann jugs. German manufacturers produced them in their thousands between the 16th and 18th centuries. Beloved of sailors, they travelled the world as vessels for drink or other small items. Fragments turn up in the mud frequently, but the tidal river is a far from gentle guardian: intact specimens are rare.
But not unheard of, if the photo is anything to go by. This one is caked in river mud, but the greyish-brown glaze, cartouche on a round body, and scratched bearded face on its neck are all there. A typical Bellarmine jug.
That it was unbroken was unusual. But from the moment she saw it, Maeve knew that this specimen held deeper secrets. It was found last December by David Thorpe, a Redriff Society member. The night before he brought it to her studio, the Society had their Christmas party. She had seen him arrive at the pub’s upstairs rooms, looking “very out of sorts”, and leaving shortly after.
David had always been an uncomfortable fit in the Society. “Some of us see the foreshore as more than a threshold between water and land”, says Maeve. “David wasn’t exactly singing from that hymn sheet, shall we say”. She sometimes thought the only reason he didn’t join a more “conventional” mudlarking group was that their monthly meet-up was just down the alley from his flat. That and they laid on free food.
“Some of the City professionals who live round here, they stay in their little boxes. They shop elsewhere, pretend the council estates aren’t here and wherever it is they socialise is always a cab ride away. But not David. I could tell he was looking to be part of something”.
Sat amongst the clutter that afternoon a year ago, speaking as if recounting a dream, he told Maeve exactly what he’d found.
The Bellarmine Jug
Alone on the foreshore, dusk descending fast, David had decided to call it a day when he spotted it – a bearded face in the mud, grimacing through the half-light. He had found fragments before; a deep thrill grew as he scraped away the sand and mud to reveal the bottle.
He felt its pigs-bladder shape in his hands, and took some rags from his bag to wrap it. As he did so he noticed something else. The bottle was sealed. He knew he should wait to get it inside, in the light, but curiosity got the better of him. With his penknife he scraped a waxy substance from the neck of the bottle. A dusty knot of something, held together by string or hair, rolled out on to his hand. Recoiling from the feel of it, he dropped it to the darkening shore.
As he crouched, searching for the object with the cold LED of his torch, he sensed a movement over his shoulder. Thinking someone was approaching, he turned to look, only to find he was still alone.
The tide was coming in fast. Soon it would cut off his route to the steps. He gave up on the lost item, cursing his hastiness, and trudged back upstream, the Bellarmine safely wrapped in his bag.
At the top of the steps, closing the gate, he glanced back along the beach, and froze. The foreshore had been empty moments before. Now, about 25 yards downstream, close to where he had found the jug, someone stood at the water’s edge.
A man, tall, stocky, silhouetted against the river’s dancing, reflected lights. His body was turned towards David, the face in shadow – except for something metallic, catching the light where the mouth would be, like a knife clenched between teeth.
In the stranger’s hand, hanging at his side, was a spade. If it hadn’t been for this, David might have left the man to it. But Society membership comes with responsibilities. It had taken him six months just to get his trowel license. He called out, but the man didn’t move.
A boat passed, its wake breaking loudly against a nearby section of river wall. David sighed. He was in little mood for a confrontation. Watching his feet on the black, slimy steps, he descended to the narrowing beach. He looked again along the river’s edge. Where the man had stood there was only the dark, indeterminable shore.
An unpleasant feeling took hold of him. He was certain the stranger was still there, choosing to remain hidden – in the shadows under the utility company’s jetty, or close to the wall behind the house boat. Enough. He turned, climbed the steps and crossed the river path.
From then, the night came in a daze of increasing darkness. Footsteps echoing off river-fronting warehouses; the friendly white walls of the pub; tinsel draped on maritime oil paintings; 2000 Miles; lost in oak-lined corridors; the sound of the river booming against the pub’s outer walls; a mirror in the little room reserved for Society podcasts; a shadow, just behind his reflection, that moves a split-second after he does;
he can no longer sort dreams from waking;
feet running, slipping on cobbles; the whispering of uprooted gravestones in the churchyard of St Mary’s; a shadow crosses a patch of light in the Rotherhithe alley; fists hammer against gated entrances; his solid front door; the sheets tight around his ankles, a weight there; silt, mud, marshy waters; roots furl around his limbs; in the grey depths cormorants streak past like eels; he wants to shout but his mouth is clamped shut, blood at the back of his throat; a train in a tunnel under the river, water rising up the windows.
Finally, thankfully, a morning sky through open curtains. Then, exhausted, he slept.
And now, here he was.
Maeve had soothed her guest with practicalities. A find such as this would have to go to the Museum. She would happily pass it on for him, take it off his hands. At this, he visibly brightened.
The afternoon had turned to evening, so Maeve turned another lamp on.
David’s eyes lighted on one of her shelves, and he got up to take a closer look. Amongst a collection of clay pipes and river-glass was an old docker’s hook. A tool for hoisting cargo. It was a plain hook – a short wooden handle attached to a long, question mark of steel, the rusted point still sharp. While David turned it slowly in his hands, Maeve retrieved a book she thought might be relevant from the small room at the back of her studio. When she returned, David was gone. So were the Bellarmine jug and the docker’s hook.
It was the last time Maeve saw him.
The studio, and our tea, is getting cold. Through a tiny window, a twilight sky is visible. Maeve suggests a walk.
As we follow the Thames Path downstream, its alleys and switchbacks pulling us between the restless, lapping river and the still, oddly quiet roads and bridges, Maeve recalls the book she had been intending to show to David. It concerned the use of Bellarmine jugs as ‘witch bottles’, a practice that continued well into the 19th Century. Personal items such as hair would be sealed within and the bottle buried in a significant place – to bind agreements, or direct curses, or otherwise exert power over friend or foe.
At the old tidal gauge, we turn to head back on the inland path. Passing quays of posh yachts, ad hoc nature reserves and the long walkways of canal-shaped housing estates, you feel the docks are still here, close to the surface, being felt by this peninsula-like community.
The people of the docks worked hard, Maeve tells me. She speaks of backs broken, ships built and launched, sailors who travelled the world and returned. Strong bonds, obscure customs. Fiercely guarded secrets and promises that must be fulfilled. And later, lifted from the mud close to where the remnants of an ancient forest are suspended in the clay, a skull with a docker’s hook lodged through its jaw.
Maeve had gone looking for David that evening. Along the wall, down on the foreshore. But the foreshore is long. He had never mentioned where exactly he found the witch bottle.
We are back on the cobbled street outside Maeve’s studio. As we part, she fixes me with a look – of sadness? Resignation?
“You never know what the river will bring on the next tide” she says. “Nor do you know what secrets it holds, never to be revealed again.”
- Candidate: The Bellarmine Jug, Rotherhithe
- Type: Unclassified [Object of Interest]
- Status: Unknown