By Jason Sandy
Skull on Deadman’s Island (Simon Bourne).
Early humans were first attracted to the Thames Valley because of its life-giving waters. The river was a natural resource which provided fresh water and an abundant supply of food. London grew up along the river and thrived because of the Thames.
Conversely, the river has the power to kill. In January 1928, fourteen people died when the Thames burst its banks and flooded Central London with the highest water levels ever recorded. One of the worst Thames disasters took place on September 3, 1878, when the paddle steamer Princess Alice collided with the steam-collier Bywell Castle. Approximately 700 people died when the paddle steamer sank within four minutes of the collision near Thamesmead. It is still the largest peacetime disaster on the river. In 1989, the pleasure boat Marchioness sank between Southwark Bridge and Cannon Street Bridge in Central London. Fifty-one people drowned after the pleasure boat hit a 1,457-ton dredger.
For millennia, people have been attracted to the Thames by its dark, sinister powers. The Thames is a river of lost souls. It calls out to those who wish for death—the forlorn, the neglected, and those who are suffering. It is a gateway for them to reach their final destination. Flowing directly into the sea, the river provides a macabre way of disappearing without a trace. The deep, enigmatic waters provide an eternal escape from tortured minds and evils of the city. After Waterloo Bridge was opened in 1817, it became known as “Lover’s Leap”, “Arch of Suicide,” “Bridge of Sighs,” and the “Bridge of Sorrow” because of the tragic number of jumpers from the bridge.
Suicide victims do not normally wish to be seen or to be found. They remain anonymous and unlamented as their lifeless bodies float calmly to the sea and disappear forever, swallowed up by the flood of human tears. The Thames is a river of the dead, a harbor of lost souls. The mother of a suicide victim in 2004 claimed that “The river is haunted—it draws people in.” Like the ferryman Charon who transports the souls of the newly dead across the river Styx to Hades in Greek mythology, the dark waters of the Thames also carry the dead to the Underworld.
Not all suicide victims are washed out to sea. Disturbingly, I have seen three dead bodies—in different locations along the river—that washed up on the shore. Alan Murphy was also traumatized by a gruesome discovery. “In 1987, I was under a pier, and I felt something touch the back of my neck. When I looked up, there was a dead body on top of a beam where a guy had come in the night before. As the water went out, he’d got stuck. I never went back to that location again, not at that time of the morning anyway. That was a bit of a wake-up call,” explains Alan. Sadly, on average about 50 people die each year in the River Thames. Most of them are suicide victims.
The Silent Highwayman on the Thames (Punch Magazine, Volume 35 Page 137; 10 July 1858).
For centuries, the Thames has been littered with refuse and corpses. An illustration (above) called “The Silent Highwayman” by John Tenniel depicts the appalling state of the Thames in 1858. In Charles Dicken’s book, Our Mutual Friend (1865), the thriving trade of retrieving human corpses from the Thames is described. Gaffer Hexam goes out at night in his small boat to find the floating bodies and steal any valuables he could find on them.
Shakespeare’s Ophelia floating peacefully on the river (Tableau by Julia Fullerton-Batten).
There is a morbid fascination with water and death in our culture. In a twisted way, death is sometimes portrayed as poetic and tranquil. One of the most iconic paintings depicting death was produced by John Everett Millais in 1852 along the Hogsmill River, which is a tributary of the River Thames. Ophelia, from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, is floating peacefully on the surface of the water. She was a noble woman who was madly in love with Hamlet. After Hamlet kills her father, Ophelia falls into a stream from a willow tree. Air trapped in her flowing dress keeps her temporarily afloat until it is saturated, and she slowly disappears under the water. More than 150 years later, professional photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten returned to the exact same spot along the river where Millais produced his famous painting. With her production crew, Julia re-created this scene (above) of Ophelia floating in the river.
Bones on the foreshore in Greenwich (Jason Sandy).
When you step onto the Thames foreshore, one of the first things you will notice is the amount of bones lying around. In some areas of the foreshore, the riverbed looks like a graveyard (above) and is literally covered several inches deep in bones. From the slaughterhouses, butchers, skinners, tanneries, pubs, and inns located along the river, the bones of the processed animals were simply discarded in the river. Because they do not biodegrade over time, they have accumulated on the riverbed. Bones from horses, cows, sheep, goats, foxes, dogs, and many other animals have been retrieved from the riverbed. Steve Brooker even found a monkey skull. The largest skeleton ever discovered in the River Thames is from a North Atlantic right whale that had been killed in the 18th century and towed back to London to be processed.
Nearly 300 human skulls have been recovered in the river, dating back to the Neolithic and Iron Age. A number of Roman and early British skulls have been dredged from the riverbed near Chelsea Bridge. The stretch of river near Battersea Bridge was once known as a “Celtic Golgotha,” a place of skulls.
At Strand-on-the-Green in West London, over 100 human skulls were discovered in the late 1920s. There have been similar finds in Kew and in Hammersmith. No one knows whether these skulls were ritualistically placed into the river or if they are evidence of ancient battles on the river. Oddly, the skeletons have not been found—only the skulls.
Left: Neolithic skull fragment (Martin Bushell). Right: Neolithic mandible with teeth (Chelsea McKibbin).
Some of the oldest human remains found by mudlarks in the Thames date back to the Neolithic period. While searching the exposed riverbed at low tide in 2018, Martin Bushell discovered part of the oldest human skull (above left) ever found in the Thames. Radiocarbon-dated to 3,600 BC, the 5,000-year-old skull is from a young adult who was possibly a farmer in the local area. The skull fragment is now on permanent display in the Museum of London.
As Simon Hunt went rowing on the Thames one morning in 2021, he discovered a 5,000-year-old femur bone lying among the pebbles on the exposed riverbed. He picked it up, placed it in his boat, and continued rowing up and down the river. Simon took the bone home in a plastic bag and called the police. After tests were carried out in police labs, experts confirmed that the leg bone belonged to a person who lived between 3,516–3,365 BC.
In 2018, Chelsea McKibbin spotted a human mandible (above right) as the tide was coming in. She took it to a local police station, and the bone was radiocarbon dated to 740–685 BC. “Never have I felt more of a humbler connection to past humans. I’m sad to think of the possible circumstances surrounding how this young individual came to rest in the Thames,” explains Chelsea.
Left: Bones lying on Deadman’s Island (Simon Bourne). Right: Jawbone with teeth and barnacles (Simon Bourne).
Located at the mouth of the River Medway, which flows into the Thames Estuary, there is an uninhabited island that is called Deadman’s Island. On the desolate, windswept island, the corpses of convicts were buried who died on board prison ships called “hulks,” which were moored near the island in the 18th century. During a survey in 2016, the remains of more than 200 humans were found on the deserted island. With tidal ebb and flow over the past two centuries, the wooden coffins have eroded out of the mud, and the bodies are slowly being swallowed up by the sea. The foreshore around the island is littered with human remains (above left), and it is one of the most haunting and eerie islands of the world.
Before access was prohibited, mudlarks Simon Bourne, Stephen Johnson, and Steve Trim visited the island and documented what they saw. They found arms, legs, ribs, vertebrae, jaw bones with teeth, and other human bones covered in barnacles (above right). Near the island, they also spotted a human skull (page 32) lying on the surface of the mud. “The skull was obviously several hundred years old and looked like it had been in the water for many years. Looking into the empty eye sockets felt like a direct link to the past—it was probably from one of the prisoners or cholera victims. We left it where it was found, reported it to the police to investigate, and returned to shore in a somber mood,” explains Steve. Describing his experience, Simon said: “I came away thinking about the suffering these people endured before they died. The unfortunate ones were subjected to appalling conditions on board the prison hulks. When a disease struck, it would wipe out large numbers of prisoners.” It is now forbidden to set foot on the island.
Gold memento mori ring inscribed with the words “Remember to dye” (PAS).
Over the years, mudlarks have also discovered several artifacts that are associated with death and mortality. Memento mori rings engraved with skulls (above) have been found. The inner band of this ring is inscribed with the haunting words, “Remember to dye.” In Latin, memento mori means “remember thy death” or “remember that you have to die.”
Memento mori bead depicting a woman and skull (PAS).
Skull bead rosaries and necklaces were worn as a reminder of one’s mortality and the temporary, transient nature of life on earth. One of the most interesting memento mori artifacts was found by Caroline Nunneley (above). Hand-carved from animal bone, the delicate face of a woman (possibly Virgin Mary) is depicted on one side. She is wearing a wimple or cloth headdress, which was fashionable in the late medieval period. On the other side, the sinister face of a skull has been carved. Dating to AD 1450–1550, this artifact could have been used as a bead on a rosary as a reminder about human mortality or to encourage the wearer to enjoy life.
Fortunately, there are heartwarming stories which give us hope in humanity. From a young age, Londoner Jonny Benjamin struggled with mental health problems. In his early 20s, he was diagnosed with a schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and a bipolar disorder. Jonny was hospitalized in January 2008, but he escaped and went to Waterloo Bridge in Central London to commit suicide by jumping into the river. A compassionate stranger spotted Jonny on the bridge and gently talked him down before he could leap to his death. He said, “It will get better, mate. You will get better.” They continued talking for 25 minutes, which was long enough for the emergency services to arrive and take Jonny back to safety in the hospital. After reaching a healthier state of mind, Jonny launched a social media campaign called “#FindMike” that went viral in January 2014. He didn’t know the name of the Good Samaritan who saved him, so he nicknamed him “Mike.” Two weeks later, Jonny was reunited with Neil Laybourn, who came forward after his girlfriend saw the campaign on Facebook.
In 2016, Jonny started an initiative called “ThinkWell” to establish mental health education in schools and break down the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide. “I wanted to let people know that it’s OK to have suicidal thoughts and feelings. I also hoped to show people that through talking about it, and by having someone else listen, it is possible to overcome the darkness that overwhelms a person when they feel helpless. This is something that I learned from my exchange with Neil on the bridge, and a message that I’ve been trying to pass on to others,” explains Jonny. Since 2017, Neil has worked full-time for Jonny’s mental health campaigns, and they ran the London Marathon together that year. In May 2018, Jonny was awarded an MBE (a highly coveted “Member of the British Empire” award) and published a book about his experiences called The Stranger on the Bridge.
Although the River Thames has claimed many lives over the centuries, Jonny’s story gives us hope that this darkness can be overcome through the kindness of others and talking openly about mental health issues.
Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›
See some of Jason Sandy’s favorite finds
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 objects. Articles ›
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Volume 38 September/October 2023.