Mudlarking: Back in Time

By Jason Sandy

big ben

Big Ben clock tower along River Thames, Jiong Sheng

Time is money. Time waits for no man. Time is on my side. Save time. Keep time. Time after time. Time flies. Turn back time. Wasting time. Killing time. On time. Do time. Against the clock. Beat the clock. The clock is ticking. These idioms and well-known phrases in the English language stress the importance and value of time in our culture.

Throughout history, mankind has kept track of time—from observing sun and star positions in ancient times to checking the digital clock on a smartphone today. For centuries, London has been associated with time. Located along the River Thames, Greenwich has a special location in time and space. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is the local clock time in this Royal Borough of London.

In 1767, astronomer Nevil Maskelyne published a Nautical Almanac, which contained tables of lunar distances based on astronomical data collected at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and using GMT as the standard time. By utilizing these tables, British mariners were able to pinpoint their positions at sea by calculating their longitude from the Greenwich meridian (0° longitude). In 1880, Greenwich Mean Time was officially recognized as Britain’s legal standard time. Installed in 1852, the Shepherd Gate Clock (right) is the first clock to display GMT time to the public, and it is still ticking today in the outer wall of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

During the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., in 1884, “Greenwich was selected as the Prime Meridian of the world because of the observatory’s long-standing reputation for producing good-quality data for navigation,” explained Emily Akkermans, Curator of Time at Royal Museums Greenwich. “Seventy percent of the world’s shipping companies were already using charts and data tables based on the Greenwich meridian.” Therefore, the Prime Meridian (0° longitude) in Greenwich became the center of world time and the basis for the global system of time zones.

Keeping track of time in London has always been important. One of the most famous clocks along the River Thames is located at the top of “Big Ben,” the neo-Gothic clocktower at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster (facing page). Standing at 96 meters (316 feet) tall and completed in 1859, the four-faced clock in Big Ben was once the largest and most accurate clock in the world. With dials measuring 6.9 meters (22.5 feet) in diameter, the clock tower is one of the most iconic and prominent British symbols renowned throughout the world. When the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, it is televised throughout Britain and signals the beginning of the New Year, followed by a breath-taking fireworks display along the River Thames. 

antique clocks london england

Above left: Shepherd Gate Clock in Greenwich, Alvesgaspar. Above right: Post-medieval ivory pocket sundial, Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

Centuries before public clocks were readily available throughout London, people kept track of time by using portable devices. In Tudor and Stuart times, small sundials which could fit in your pocket became a popular way of keeping time when you were out and about.

Several years ago, mudlark Peter Olivant discovered a portable, diptych sundial (below right) dating to 1580–1620. It is carved from ivory and was possibly produced in Nuremberg, Germany. Radiating lines and Arabic numbers 4–12 and 1–8 are inscribed on the surface to mark the hours of daylight. Measuring 32.1mm (1.26 inches) in length, the sundial is calibrated for use in the Northern Hemisphere. In the center, the circular recess would have been fitted with a brass ring and sheet of glass which are now missing. To cast a shadow and indicate the time, a gnomon was fixed in the small hole at the junction of the radiating lines. Providing an ingenious way to tell time anywhere, the small sundial fit comfortably in the palm of your hand.

16th–17th-century brass pocket sundial, PAS.

16th–17th-century brass pocket sundial, PAS.

On a different day, Peter also found a brass sundial (above) from 1580–1620. Inside the tiny, circular frame, which is 15.9mm (0.63 inches) in diameter, there are two projecting tags with lugs to secure a triangular fin which functioned as the gnomon. To fit in one’s pocket, the fin could be folded over and laid flat on the face of the sundial. Engraved around the perimeter of the sundial are the numbers 5–12 and 1–7 which represent the hours of the day.

Collapsible, brass pocket sundial, PAS.

Collapsible, brass pocket sundial, PAS.

A similar pocket sundial (above) was found by another mudlark. Dating to 1570–1650, the brass sundial also has a circular frame with an ornate, scrolled bar in the center. Used to cast a shadow and tell time, the gnomon is formed by a triangular fin with a decorative, fimbriated profile along one edge. It is fixed with lugs to the central bar and outer circle. Measuring 25.3mm (1 inch) in diameter, the sundial is collapsible so it could lay flat and compact. Around the edge of the circular frame, the Roman numerals 4–12 and 1–8 are engraved. The adjacent, calibrated ring is scored with simple lines which represent the quarter hours. Inscribed at the top of the sundial, the maker’s initials “I S” are visible.

17th-century brass ring sundial, Ian Smith.17th-century brass ring sundial, Ian Smith.

Several years ago, Ian Smith unearthed an unusual, ring-shaped pocket sundial (above) from the 17th century. Considered a luxury item, this sundial was imported from Nuremberg and would have been a cherished possession and well maintained. Therefore, it is very unusual to find one of these types of sundials in the Thames.

Consisting of two brass rings with a 38.8mm (1.5 inches) diameter, a sliding ring made of sheet metal fits into a central groove between the upper and lower rings. A square clasp is pierced with a pinhole and acts as a handle to rotate the sliding ring. The inner surface of the ring functions as the clock face and is subdivided into three rows, one for each season: S (summer), H (harvest), and W (winter). Slanted to the sun angles entering the dial, the hours are marked with incised lines. Punched dots denote the half hours.

On the outer surface, the initials (I F M A M I) of the months from January to June are indicated on the upper half of the sundial. Upside down on the lower half, the months July through December (I A S O N D) appear. When turned over, you can tell the time during these months. After 400 years at the bottom of the river, the individual parts of the sundial are still movable and fully functional. By rotating the pinhole of the sliding ring to the correct day of the year, the time can be told from the sunlight shining through the pinhole onto the markings of the inner clockface.

All of these compact, portable sundials demonstrate the ingenuity and creativity of the craftsmen in the 16th and 17th centuries. But, there’s only one problem. In London, it’s often cloudy and overcast, so a sundial is of little use without direct sunlight to cast a shadow. 

At the beginning of the 16th century, the famous German watchmaker, Peter Henlein, developed a timepiece that wasn’t dependent on the sun. Produced using recent advancements in mainsprings, Peter created a portable watch, which was worn as a pendant around the neck. In the 17th century, the design was further refined, and King Charles II made watches fashionable by wearing a waistcoat and placing the watch inside of a pocket. The popularity of pocket watches skyrocketed, and every esteemed gentleman wore a pocket watch as a status symbol to display their wealth. This luxury item was embellished with ornate designs and sometimes encrusted with diamonds and other jewels.

17th-century pocket watch depicting Cupid, British Museum

17th-century pocket watch depicting Cupid, British Museum.

In 1993, one of the most extraordinary pocket watches (above) was unearthed from the Thames foreshore by Tony Pilson with its cover, chain, and winder. Miraculously, it is completely intact except for the glass dome which has disintegrated over time.

Produced by John Cooke in London between 1670–1675, it is a pre-balance spring verge watch within a silver case. The dial of the pocket watch consists of an outer ring engraved with the numbers 1–31 for the days of the month, and the exact day is indicated by a steel pointer attached to a revolving, gilt-brass ring. Infilled with black wax, the Roman numerals I–XII are engraved on the circular, silver chapter ring. Small, red fleur-de-lis between the numerals mark the half hours. In the center of the pocket watch, Cupid is beautifully engraved on a revolving gilt-brass disc with an openwork, foliate decoration. Ingeniously, Cupid’s arrow indicates the time. This exquisite pocket watch is now in the permanent collection of the British Museum.

18th–19th-century watch winders collage, Jason Sandy

18th–19th-century watch winders collage, Jason Sandy.

Before batteries were invented, watches had to be wound on a regular basis to ensure they kept time accurately. The hollow, tubular end of a watch winder was inserted into the pocket watch or clock, and the head was rotated 360 degrees around a central pivot point to wind the watch. The winders had a loop or hole at the top to suspend it from the pocket watch chain.

Watch winders were not only a practical tool, but they were also worn as a fashion accessory. Because they were suspended from the watch chain, they were very visible, unlike the watch, which was concealed in a pocket. Therefore, watch winders were highly decorated to attract attention and indicate the high value of the hidden pocket watch.

The heads and shanks of the 18th– and 19th-century watch winders were cast in brass with a wide variety of creative and imaginative designs. Foliate and floral patterns, flowerpots, roses, thistles, vines with leaves, furls, crowns, chubby cherubs, banners, scrolls, shells, cartouches, and inscriptions appear on the different watch winders. They are little works of art and were made in all shapes and sizes.

As watch winders are relatively small, they easily slipped out of people’s hands and fell into the Thames. Kevin James Dyer, Nick Stevens, Mike Walker, Florrie Evans, and other mudlarks have found a wonderful array of watch winders (facing page) from the 18th and 19th centuries.

18th-century watch winder with galleon ship, Jason Sandy

18th-century watch winder with galleon ship, Jason Sandy.

One of the nicest watch winders I found in the river (above) is highly decorated with a lovely maritime theme. One side depicts a galleon ship in full sail, equipped with four cannons. On the other side, a helmeted knight’s head is surrounded by cannons, spears, poles with flags, and a trumpet at the top. I can imagine a highly respected admiral or naval commander used this watch winder before arriving in London and accidentally dropping it in the river.

As pocket watches became popular among adults in the 17th and 18th centuries, children were fascinated by the portable time pieces owned by their parents. As gifts, parents would buy miniature watches made of inexpensive pewter for their children to play with. Kids would proudly wear them and pretend they were real pocket watches.

Post-medieval toy pocket watch, PAS

Post-medieval toy pocket watch, PAS.

Over the years, I have found two toy pocket watches from the 17th and 18th centuries. Other mudlarks have also found some exquisite examples. For instance, Matthew Goode found a stunning, complete toy watch (above) with an openwork pattern. It was cast in pewter in a single mold between 1625–1800.

At the top of the clock face, there is a loop where it would have been suspended similarly to an adult pocket watch. In the center, the hours on the chapter ring are depicted with Roman numerals from I–XII. The hour and minute hands are subtly suggested by a central cross and three pellets surrounded by openwork scrolls in each quadrant. Around the perimeter, the clock is decorated with a beaded border and openwork pattern of repetitive scrolls, circles, and lozenges.

18th-century Hux pocket watch, Ian Smith

18th-century Hux pocket watch, Ian Smith.

Several years ago, Ian Smith discovered a complete Hux toy pocket watch (above) from the 18th century. It was carefully restored by Iain McIntyre at the British Museum. Ian stated emphatically that, “it now clicks, and the hand turns!” For a toy, the pocket watch is very sophisticated comprised of several movable components made of pewter. The hours are indicated by the Roman numerals I–XII, and the hand is attached to a central rod so it can be rotated from the back of the watch via a winder hole, creating a ticking noise.

In the book, Toys, Trifles & Trinkets, author Hazel Forsyth explained that, “these circular watches are the only known type with moving parts and a simple mechanism. They are a very good imitation of English or French pair-case watches dating from about 1700 to the mid-18th century.”

Sharks are incredibly rare in the River Thames, but a surprised fisherman caught one in Poplar (East London) in 1787. When he dissected the shark measuring 2.8 meters (9 feet 3 inches), the fisherman made a startling discovery—a silver pocket watch was found in the shark’s belly. It was inscribed with the words: Henry Warson, London. Once the bizarre story hit the London newspapers, Henry came forward and said he had sold the watch to Ephraim Thompson of Whitechapel who gave the watch to his son as a present before his first voyage on a merchant ship. During a violent storm off the coast of Falmouth, Ephraim’s son fell overboard and was never seen again. Since the watch was found in the shark’s belly, it was assumed the son was eaten. To provide closure and symbolically lay his son to rest, Ephraim bought the dead shark from the fisherman to preserve it as a memorial to his son. Although the details of this story are disputed, it has to be one of the more bizarre stories from the Thames if it is true.

Mariners’ Time Ball at Flamsteed House, Greenwich, originalpickaxe

Mariners’ Time Ball at Flamsteed House, Greenwich, originalpickaxe.

On a hill overlooking the river, a bright red “time ball” is mounted on a post on top of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (above). Since 1833, it has been used as a time-signaling device, and the ball drops at exactly 1pm every day. Once the largest port in the world, it was essential that seagoing ships docked in London knew the time. Clearly visible from the ships on the river, captains could set their marine chronometers to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) indicated by the time ball. Accurate timekeeping was essential to navigate and establish a ship’s longitude on the open sea. Still to this day, the red ball drops at 1pm above the River Thames, keeping London “on time.”

Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›

Read more articles and watch videos about Thames mudlarking by Jason Sandy.

Join Jason for a half-hour video beachcombing trip to some of his favorite spots on the River Thames, where he finds treasures buried for centuries in the London mud. He also shares some of his favorite pieces in his extensive collection of finds from prehistory through modern times.

Learn more about mudlarking


Learn more about the experiences of mudlarks, who search the shores of rivers, bays, and seas for historical finds and other objectsArticles ›

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2022 issue.

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