Treasure Hunter Nicola White

In the June 27th, 2020 issue of the BRTV Guide we had the honor to feature Nicola White. An artist, historian, YouTube host and mudlarker. Mudlarker? What is that? Not too long ago anyone outside of London would have asked the same question, but because of the popularity of Nicola White and her work producing videos and educating the general public, many are becoming familiar with what mudlarking is.

What is Mudlarking?

The best way to find out what mudlarking is and what it’s about is to ask Nicola herself.

Well the term mudlarking dates back to pre-Victorian times when young children, and sometimes old men and women, used to go down to the Thames at low tide and scavenge in the mud for anything they could sell to make a few pennies. This could be rope, metal, coins, things people had inadvertently lost – or coal that dropped off the barges. These mudlarks were the poorest of the poor in society and were desperate to make a few pennies.

It was not unheard of for richer people to throw coins from bridges and then watch and laugh whilst the mudlarks scrabbled around in the mud fighting over the coins. So that is the mudlark of yesteryear. The modern day mudlark goes down to the Thames foreshore at low tide to search for history and for objects that were lost or thrown in the River Thames over the years. As the Thames flows right through the centre of London and it has always been used as a rubbish receptacle, we find so many different objects and artefacts in it dating right back through the centuries.

Tide Line

The Thames river is also one of the world’s largest outdoor archaeological sites when the tide is out. As it is a tidal river we are very fortunate – and each time the tide goes out – it leaves pieces of history to find. This can be coins, medals, wartime artefacts, pottery, tokens, bagseals, pins, beads, hairpins – the list goes on and on – and of course, we find clay pipes – which I have to admit are some of my favourite finds!

It does seem like an intriguing activity. Walking along, every so often picking up a priceless object and toss it in your rucksack. Although, I have a feeling it doesn’t quite work out that way. I’m sure there must be more to it than I think.

How Long Have You Been At It?

Nicola White

I have been mudlarking in London for about 15 – 20 years, since I moved to London from Cornwall. I always used to love beachcombing in Cornwall and when I moved to London in 1998 I found myself down on the Thames foreshore – which was a little like a replacement beach. It wasn’t long before I realised I could find pieces of glass and pottery scattered amongst the rocks and mud – and then one day I found my first coin and a clay pipe – and it went on from there. I applied for my mudlarking permit from the Port of London Authority and there was no going back from then on.

Its Not Junk, So I’m Told

Living by a large body of water myself, I think about walks along the beach, smoking a pipe of course. Which by the way is referred to as Lunting, but that’s another article. Searching the beach to see what washes up is what we call beachcombing. In decades of doing that, I can say that never have I ever found anything like Nicola finds. Broken glass, tires and all sorts of other junk.

When you consider the history of London which has been developed for so long compared to here in the United States, it’s no wonder that things which are so old turn up. They were stopping off for a pint after work and tossing their clay pipes into the Thames when there was nothing around here except for Native Americans and some Colonists planting their corn.

But it’s more than that. The waves and the rocky shore doesn’t lend well to preservation. The erosion is just not conducive to preservation. On the other hand, the shores of the Thames are much different.

How is it that delicate things that end up in the river Thames can survive for so long? Nicola took the time to explain the phenomena.

Over the Centuries

 Well I think people might be surprised at how some of the objects last in the Thames mud over the centuries and come out in such good condition. The mud in the Thames is anaerobic (it has no oxygen in it) and so what is lost or thrown in often comes out looking very much like it did when it went in, sometimes hundreds of years ago. People are often amazed at how the clay pipes can survive intact for over 300 years in some cases. This is because the mud provides a perfect protective cushion. It’s only when they erode out that they are at risk of breaking. You do need to have a permit from the Port of London Authority to mudlark on the Thames.

That seems to surprise some people but it’s a way to protect the artefacts that are found. Part of the conditions of the permit are that you need to register your finds with the Portable Antiquities Scheme database – which in our case is with the Museum of London. This is important as it helps to build up a picture of what was found where and what was going on in various parts of London. Apart from that – the mud can be deep – the currents are strong and the tides creep up on you so you have to be very careful and aware of your surroundings.

Nicola In Action

To get a good idea of what Nicola does and what the river means to her you need not look further than a segment of a documentary which she was featured. Film maker Paul Wyatt produced a movie called “My River Thames”. This is an excerpt of that movie in which Nicola give you a tiny glimpse of herself along the shore and the things she finds.

What About All These Tiny Treasures

I had asked her about the objects and bits she has discovered, mentioning the fact that my experience has always been to uncover junk. She had quite a different take on the subject.

The objects I find I enjoy researching. I don’t look on any of it as junk. Each object I find – even a tiny button can have a great story behind it. This brings the object alive and we can get a real glimpse into the lives of people who used to own them years ago.

It really is like history that you can touch. I display the objects in cases and on shelves and often take them to places to give talks. Although the items have in many cases been discarded years ago – some have names on or identifying marks and it’s special to be able to link them to people and places. Even broken clay pipe stems can have the name of the maker and where they were made on them and so this can take you on a journey of discovery – to find out more about the clay pipe maker and their family.

She shared with us a photo of some of the clay pipes she has found over the years. I suspect she knows the kind of things we like.

Clay Pipes from the White Collection

The Pipe

How I had originally found Nicola White was her sharing photos of the pipes she finds on Twitter and making videos plucking these delicate pipes out of the mud. At first I thought it was amazing that she had come across a good bit of luck to find a pipe like that, but after several such videos it occurred to me it had to be much more than luck. More than just a good eye to spot the end of the stem poking out between the rocks. There must be pipes all over the place. I’m sure it’s one of the most asked questions when the subject of pipes comes up. Why so many?

Pipes & tobacco with too much drying time

Since tobacco was first introduced to England in the late 16th century, smoking has been very popular. Men, women and children used to smoke. The clay pipes which they used were not meant to be for long term use. They were smoked just once or twice before being discarded. It’s hard to believe that people used to discard these clay pipes especially as some of them are so special and so intricately designed – but they did! Sometimes they were given away free with a pint in in the tavern – and often they were sold prepacked with tobacco. The remnants of clay pipes we are finding now are really like old fashioned cigarette ends!

Oh my!

Cigarette butts! Good thing I love pipes so much or that bit of information might change my opinion slightly. So there must have been people cranking out these clay pipes at an amazing rate. Not like today where they are somewhat of an oddity, back then it was the norm. Also consider the fact that briar wasn’t used to make pipes until the middle of the 1800s and meerschaum, which was used before, was much harder to obtain and quite costly compared to using clay.

Clay on the other hand, goes back a long way and it’s easy to produce a pipe. Here is a graphic that Nicola uses to give her a general idea when dating clay pipes.

Fairy Pipes and Whimsical Designs

More about the pipes Nicola has found over the years.

I find pipes that date back to around 1580 and up until early 20th century. My earliest pipe dates back to 1580 and has a tiny bowl. Sometimes these are referred to as fairy pipes. You can often tell the age of the pipe by the shape and style of the bowl. Early pipes have very small bowls as the tobacco was scarcer and more expensive. Bowls became larger as tobacco became more widely available.

Then from the early 1800s, bowls became more decorated. The Victorians in particular loved their fancy pipe bowls. My favourite pipes are those that date to the Victorian era. They were in most cases disposable though after one or two smokes. There is a French pipe maker in the early 19th century called Louis Fiolet and he was renowned for his eccentric and exquisite designs. His clay pipes would not have been as disposable as most of the others. They would have a very short stem into which a replaceable stem was inserted. The replaceable stem would be discarded but the bowl was kept. I have found 2 pipe bowls made by him and they are both favourites of mine.

A Very Unique Pipe

Alt. meaning for pipe bowl

One is a pipe bowl which is of a woman sitting on a commode with her skirts hitched up. The other is the head of soldier wearing a cap with a cap badge. Fiolet sometimes used coloured paint on his pipes. This was not usually the case in most pipes. I have some pipes with an animal theme. Several feature horses and I love these. Pipe bowls can be like little artworks and I admire the creativity of the clay pipe makers. One which I love is a lady whose billowing skirt is used as the bowl. She is lying down hitching up her skirts. Definitely some kind of saucy design! Also, I find quite a lot of masonic clay pipes with the masonic symbols on them. For every occasion, there seems to be a clay pipe that would suit the occasion very well.

Fancy Clay Pipe

The pipe with the woman on the commode, mentioned above, seems to be one of Nicola’s favorite, even with so many unique designs in her collection.

Probably the one which fascinates me most is the lady on the commode made by Louis Fiolet. Another one I found is a clay pipe bowl which is a dog’s head and I love that. I have a collection of over 200 clay pipes now and I never tire of looking at them. I have about 8 turks head pipes, which are Victorian and the bowls are designed to look like little faces.

The Question Everyone Asks

Are these worth anything?

The pipes have little monetary value but they are some of my favourite Thames mudlarking finds. The thought that the last person who touched them before I pick them up from the mud is the person who smoked them sometimes over 300 years ago is quite mind blowing – and it’s such a personal piece of history. They were once between someones lips!

I forgot to say that often I find the remnants of 250 year old tobacco in the bottom of the bowl. Now that is just special! It has been perfectly preserved by the mud in the river Thames. My favourite way to display my clay pipes in glass cases and I often research the ones that I can with a makers mark. I found one which is slightly unusual as it was made by a woman, a Catherine Shipwell. I was able to find out a lot about her life and she was one of very few women making pipes in the mid 1700s.

Some of the pipes saved from obscurity

You Mean There Are Other Things Besides Pipes?

We could talk about pipes all day but in reality that is only a fraction of what Nicola finds on her mudlarks. In fact the kinds of things she finds might cause you to start researching things yourself.

I have found so many wonderful artifacts. It’s hard to pinpoint my exact favourite. It changes all the time. One of my favourite finds is a brass luggage tag engraved with the name of a World War One Soldier. I was able to find out about his life, where he fought and then went on to find his grave. This was special as this small piece of metal opened up a whole story – and he had no children and so no one to tell his story.

I found a beautiful silver Elizabeth I half crown which is very special. It was minted in 1601 and it was just there in between my boots one evening when I looked down as I was getting ready to head home after an evening’s mudlarking. I always felt that was a find that was just meant to be!

The Onion Bottle

Another favourite is a 17th century small glass bottle that would have been used for brandy or wine. It’s called an onion bottle and is exactly the shape of a small onion. It was broken when I found it but I stuck it together. Apart from that – I’ve found some beautiful jewellery including a sapphire and gold ring, 2 human jawbones, an unexploded handgrenade from WW2 and some wonderful Roman pottery including an entire Roman mortarium (used in a Roman kitchen almost 1700 years ago to blend up food like a pestle and mortar). I found a beautiful heart pendant dating back to Georgian times which I now wear around my neck.

Each tide there is something new to discover and learn about.

Nicola White

Messages In Bottles

So many special objects. You just don’t know what you are going to find each time you go to the River. That is what keeps me going back! Oh and it’s not just old artifacts that you can find. I have found over 130 messages in bottles in the River Thames over the years! Mostly they are relatively modern, but they still all have a story to tell! I always say that the Thames is like a giant liquid story book.

Not As Easy As It Looks

After hearing from Nicola and watching a couple of her videos you may think it might be an easy task to meander around finding all sorts of things. But as a long time viewer of her videos I know it’s not quite as easy as it looks.

One of Nicola’s favorite things to do is not tell you what she has found, but posts a photo instead, giving you the chance to see if you can spot what she has. Not as easy as it looks, I can tell you that. I usually always guess pipe which is more hopeful thinking on my part rather than an assessment of my poor eyesight.

Here is a little test, let’s see how well you can do. No scrolling down and cheating.

What can you spot in this photo?

Did you see the little clay pipe in the bottom left side? I did. Very proud of myself actually. Normally I have a hard time, but this one caught my eye.

What about the other objects? The monkey toy, the shard of pottery and that other thing. What is that thing? Looks like some kind of soccer hooligan.

Grade yourselves

Here is a close up view of the objects.

Objet d’art

There must be some objective after spending countless hours searching, walking through the mud, hunched over and getting rained on. There is indeed. Not only can you learn about the past but many of these objects have a new future of their own. What started out as a broken bottle, now may find itself in a piece of artwork Nicola creates.

What might have been lost to time not only gets to have a second chance, but possibly in a more appreciated role. Nicola runs the business Tide Line Art. There she sells all kinds of creations that have been made from the medium of found objects. The glass fish seem to be a favorite and I’m a personal fan of the whimsical birds made from drift wood. It is more in line with something I could do myself if I had any sort of talent.

Wooden billed Curlew with chick

Thamesis vitreous

The Magnum Opus

Spending time on her website you are guaranteed to find something interesting. Starting with these works of art, but leading to the popular Message In A Bottle section. It seems people love to write down their thoughts, put it in a bottle and toss it in the river. Guess who finds those bottles? There is a part of the website dedicated to just that. Plus so many other interesting things.

Asked to describe herself Nicola said “I am self-taught artist and a River Thames Mudlark. My work is inspired by found objects old and new (glass, metal, wood, pottery and plastic) which I pick up whilst mudlarking along the Thames foreshore. At low tide many fragments of history are revealed along the banks of the river. Some of these pieces are hundreds of years old, and each has their own secret story. It’s the mystery behind these found objects that inspires me. I love to put forgotten, once loved or discarded items back together and give them a new purpose in a piece of art.

Following Nicola White

One of the best ways to find out more and stay up to date on what’s going on with Tide Line Art is to subscribe to Nicola’s YouTube Channel, nicola white mudlark – Tideline Art. Twitter is also a good place to follow her. Twitter @TideLineArt.

We are so appreciative that she took the time to explain what she does and share her treasures, especially the clay pipes. They each do have their own unique history. Just like her.