During the 1700 and 1800s, if a child or a street urchin was unskilled it didn’t mean begging was the only option they had to survive. Being a mudlark allowed children, similar to adults, to make a living. Mudlarks scrounged and scavenged the rivers, such as the Thames, at low tide and they were sometimes up to their waists in filth. Because their job was a filthy, dirty job, the term mudlark also became a slang expression in the 1700s for a pig and in the 1800s it sometimes referred to fighting.
Young mudlarks, also known as river finders, could be seen by anyone visiting the Thames River and it is likely that people such as the famous wax sculptor Madame Tussaud, Jane Austen’s outlandish cousin (Eliza de Feuillide), the wife of Horatio Nelson, the courtesan Laura Bell, or even the French socialite Madame Récamier were able to observe English mudlarks in action. Most mudlarks were generally boys between the ages of 6 and 15 years old. However, sometimes girls, women, and the decrepit also worked as mudlarks. Moreover, although many people think a mudlark applies strictly to a river scavenger, the term was also loosely applied in the Victorian Era to those who scavenged London’s sewers, more commonly known as sewer hunters.
Working as a mudlark was not a pleasant job. In fact, it was a horrid, filthy job. Mudlarks generally worked shoeless, searching for paltry treasures, and dripping of filthy slush as they waded through rivers trying to avoid broken glass, human excrement, and even animal and human corpses. On the Thames, they would scour either side of the river, often crawling between barges and cover an area that ranged from Vauxhall bridge to Woolwich. As they traversed the shore of the Thames, they searched for a variety of things including coal, paper, wood chips, copper nails, scrap iron, and the occasional hat, old boot, or silk handkerchief.
The St. James Gazette gave this unappealing description of the mudlark in 1884:
“The true mudlark is almost a distinct species, like the gipsy, and he has as little wish to evolve himself from the station in life in which it has pleased Providence to place him. … Small and stunted in growth and looking much younger, these urchins are yet most of them supposed to be over thirteen years of age, and so beyond the grip of the School Board. They seldom have any mother worth speaking of; for the real mother of the poorer classes has an instinctive dread of the water, which she endeavours to communicate to her children by thrashing them whenever they tumble in or are found hovering near the danger. Yet the true-bred mudlark is very apt to become the leader, or mis-leader … of a flock of followers, both male and female. These little amphibians are not shy, and may be easily studied by any one who chances to land in a small boat upon a ‘common ‘ard’ at Southampton or Portsmouth; when before the boat grounds, you have a flock of them … up to their middle in water, asking whether they shall ‘Mind your boat, sir?’ or ‘Keep ‘er hoff for you sir?'” … Beyond a chance of getting smothered in the ooze, they run little risk at low water. But when the tide is up, and they lie in rows with head and shoulders over the quay, fishing for crabs, one feels that they must really be some truth in that other old saying that ‘Providence takes care of children and drunken men.”
The editor of The Children’s Treasury noted how “one poor wee lad … had a companion, a much bigger boy, who watched over him very tenderly and gave him the biggest bites out of the rotten apple or cast-off fruit which he sometimes found floating down the stream.” Yet, mudlarks were not always so tender because mudlarks “sometimes … fought like terriers for money thrown to them by passengers over … bridges.” In the 1873, another author, Charles Camden in Mook the Mudlark described the scene more thoroughly:
“People used to pitch them coppers from the bridge, and the poor little wretches would thrust their arms up to the armpits into the sinking slush in search for the coin; something they would take headers into the blacking-like stuff and come up half choked and wholly masked with the filthy mire. The people who threw the pence and halfpence used to shake their sides with laughter, but I must confess that I could not see the point of the joke.”
There were plenty of other people who disliked the mudlarks. For instance, supposedly fisher boys who formed the crew of their father’s boats disliked them. “Such a boy looks down upon mudlarks very much, calling them nippers and other scornful names.” Mudlarks were also described as “stupid.” For instance, Henry Mayhew, an English social researcher, journalist, playwright and advocate of reform, wrote a groundbreaking book series in 1851 titled, London Labour and the London Poor and described them in the following terms:
“These poor creatures are certainly about the most deplorable in their appearance … They may be seen of all ages, from mere childhood to positive decrepitude, crawling among the barges at the various wharfs … with but few exceptions, these people are dull, and apparently stupid; this is observable particularly among the boys and girls, who, when engaged in searching the mud, hold but little converse one with another. … some of them go, in the evening, to a ragged school, in the neighbourhood of which they live; more, as they say, because other boys go there, than from any desire to learn.”
Other Londoners also did not think highly of the small fry paddling in the Thames. The Leamington Spa Courier described them this way:
“The mudlarks were one of the most curious sights I saw from the bridge; a swarm of dirty boys and girls, dressed in clothes that seemed to have been stolen from scarecrows, who used to sprawl about over the mud which low-tide left, just as you may have seen dark little crabs sprawling over the mud at low-tide if you have ever been to a sea side place that has a ‘backwater.'”
A journalistic venture by an Oxford undergraduate resulted in him publishing an article about mudlarks in 1872. In The Dark Blue he stated:
“The little sinners are rather spoiling the dairy of London, by walking about in embryonic cockney butter; but beyond that they may be forgiven for existing. Well, at all events, there are a number — so forgive.”
By the 1800s, there were efforts established to help orphans and abandoned children, such as mudlarks, attend school. It was not at easy task as many of them wanted nothing to do with school. One examples comes from 1870 when a teacher wrote about the difficulties he experienced after he captured three mudlarks and hoped to get them to attend his class:
“I took illegal possession of [them] as they were trotting past the school door one day … Two brothers and their little sister made up the number of my captives. They were all very ragged and dirty, they were all very lean … A queer little ‘Daughter of the Regiment’ she looked, trudging along with an old fig-drum slung from her shoulder to put her findings in. her elder brother had an old nosebag for his receptacle, the younger an old saucepan. … When I took hold of the little girl’s hand, she raised a piercing scream, and her brothers, who were a little way ahead, instantly dashed back to the rescue. Up to their breast went their little clenched right fists, backwards and forwards went their little clenched left fists; ‘Kick his shins, Sally.’ ‘Bite his thumb, Sally,’ they shouted. They danced around me with menacing gestures, and looks and words of contemptuous defiance, and then putting down their heads, rushed in, and assaulted me in the most vigorous manner: little Sally meanwhile kicking like a little donkey, and biting and scratching like a cat.”
Although the teacher eventually got them into class, it was not always easy for society to help such children partly because they often wanted no help. They could also earn good money, which was noted by one young mudlark who claimed he earned “1d., and some days 4d; … [but] never … 8d in one day, that would have been a ‘jolly lot of money.'” In addition, however meager their wages, mudlarks enjoyed their job because there were several advantages: They were free to come and go as they pleased and they worked at their own discretion. They also got to keep whatever they earned, which in comparison to other jobs during these times was advantageous.
As the Victorian era disappeared, mudlarks became fewer and then the occupation all but disappeared until a version of the mudlark from earlier times came to exist. Today’s mudlarks don’t earn livings, they earn praise and are known as the Society of Thames Mudlarks. They possess special licenses that allow them to search the Thames for historical artifacts and treasure. The society, which was founded in 1980, has collected and donated over 2,500 buttons dating from the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries.
-  “The Lesser Mudlark,” in St. James Gazette, 5 August 1884, p. 6.
-  Barnado, Thomas John, The Children’s Treasury, 1876, p. 273.
-  Hollingshead, John, Miscellanies: Stories and Essays, Volume 1, p. 104.
-  “The Magazines for September,” in Leamington Spa Courier, 13 September 1873, p. 3.
-  “The Lesser Mudlark,” in St. James Gazette, 5 August 1884, p. 6.
-  R. B. Knowles, The Illustrated London magazine, 1853, p. 137.
-  “The Magazines for September,” p. 3.
-  The Dark Blue, 1873, Volumes 4-5, p. 342.
-  “Mudlarks,” in Falkirk Herald, 2 June 1870, p. 2.
-  Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, Volume 2, 1865, p. 174.