By Jason Sandy
Victorian toy horse with red and green enamel, Jason Sandy.
It was very dark as I was mudlarking late at night along the River Thames in London in October 2018. After hours of searching with little success, I spotted something unusual in the pool of light formed by my head lamp on the dark riverbank. It was a folded piece of pewter which seemed to have some decoration.
I couldn’t see much in the dark, so I waited until I got home to inspect it closer. To my surprise, the decoration was formed by numbers along the curved rim of the mystery object. I spent hours carefully unfolding and straightening the soft pewter disc in order to see the full image. My patient work paid off as an 18th century toy pocket watch appeared (below left). I’m sure the kid who lost this extraordinary toy was devastated! Produced between 1700 and 1750, this toy pocket watch is a close imitation of a real pocket watch of that time period. It’s one of my favorite finds in my collection!
Above left: 18th-century toy pocket watch, Jason Sandy. Above right: Children playing on Tower Beach, Henry Grant, Museum of London.
More medieval and post-medieval toys have been discovered in London than any other place in the British Isles. This is primarily due to the anaerobic (no oxygen) mud of the Thames foreshore which has perfectly preserved the toys. For centuries, children have played along the banks of the Thames in their quest for adventure. The busy river environment, ships of all shapes and sizes, and the exposed riverbed must have had a magnetic appeal for children. While playing along the riverbanks, children have inevitably lost some of their precious toys which quickly disappeared into the murky waters.
Over the years, mudlarks have found a wide variety of toys including miniature figurines, guns, cannons, watches, animals, soldiers, domestic utensils, and dolls. Before I wrote this article, I was given a private tour of the Museum of London’s archive, and senior curator Hazel Forsyth showed me cabinets filled with hundreds of pewter toys acquired from Thames mudlarks over the last four decades. The Museum of London’s collection of early base-metal toys is one of the largest and most important of its kind in the world.
The incredible variety and quantity of pewter toys discovered in the Thames have actually changed the way historians view the medieval period. Hazel Forsyth, co-author of the book, Toys, Trifles & Trinkets, stated that, “these medieval toys are exceptionally rare and have helped transform perceptions of childhood during the Middle Ages.” In light of the new archaeological evidence, Forsyth states that we now know that, “some parents [in the Middle Ages] were very devoted to their children and gave them every luxury and pleasure they could afford.”
Above left: Medieval toy knight, Museum of London. Above center: Medieval toy stick puppet, Museum of London. Above right: Tudor toy female figurine, Museum of London.
Several years ago, a mudlark found an incredible medieval toy knight (above left), perfectly preserved by the soft mud of the River Thames. Wearing a coat of chain mail and carrying a sword in his right hand, the knight is riding a horse. “This knight on horseback is the earliest hollow-cast pewter figure known in England, and it is one of the earliest examples of a mass-produced medieval metal toy,” according to the Museum of London. Based on the stylistic features of the toy knight, the museum has dated it to the early 14th century.
A rare medieval puppet was also discovered by a mudlark on the Thames foreshore (above center). Dating to the 14th to 15th centuries, the hollow head of the pewter puppet has almond-shaped eyes, a long straight nose, chin-length wavy hair in the back, and a square-shaped fringe in the front. A finger or stick would have been placed in the hollow neck of the toy and used as a puppet. The top of the head is missing where a hat could have been attached.
In the 16th century, small figurines wearing traditional Tudor dress were produced as children’s toys. One of the most delicate and extraordinary toys found by a Thames mudlark is a pewter, hollow-cast, full-length female figure (above right). Her hair is covered by a heart-shaped French hood decorated with lines and dots which could depict jewels. She wears a buttoned partlet with a standing collar and large, slashed puffs on both shoulders. Her bell-shaped, heavily pleated skirt opens at the front to reveal an ornately patterned kirtle decorated with embroidered panels. The exquisite details of the dress reveal the popular fashions of that time period.
Above left: 17th century toy dripping pan, Jason Sandy. Above center: 17th-century toy platter, Alan Murphy. Above right: Toy cannon, John Higgenbotham.
In the 17th century, the toy industry in London was very productive and manufactured a wide variety of toys made of pewter. The toys were often miniature versions of everyday household items such as dishes, plates, saucers, bowls, spoons, pitchers, clocks, etc. A few years ago, I found a toy “dripping pan” decorated with a sexfoil rose within a pelleted, concentric circle (above left). With this toy, children would pretend to cook and imitate their parents who would place a rectangular pan across the hearth to collect the hot juices dripping from a roast on a spit. Mudlark Alan Murphy found an elaborately decorated, oval-shaped toy dish with a vine and floral motif around the edge including the maker’s initials, AF (above center). Sometimes fish, suckling pigs, or other animals would be depicted in the center of the dish or frying pan.
Miniature weapons like toy guns and cannons were also produced that could actually fire (above right). Some of the 17th-century toy cannons found on the foreshore are damaged after exploding during use. Children probably had access to gun powder from their father’s musket. Some toy cannons were as powerful as adult pocket pistols, and a misfiring or explosion could have resulted in serious or even fatal injury.
Along the River Thames in West London where I live, I have found many Victorian toys. Because of the solidity and durability of the lead toys, they often survive intact in the harsh Thames environment. The wide variety of toys provides an insight into children’s playtime activities and toy production in Victorian times. Lead was used to make the toys as it was a cheap and widely available metal.
Above left: Victorian toy figurine, Jason Sandy. Above center: British “redcoat” toy soldier, Jason Sandy. Above right: 19th-century toy cavalrymen, Jason Sandy.
Victorian children loved playing with a variety of figurines. The style of clothes depicted on the toy figures demonstrate the fashions of the working classes in the 19th century. Toy soldiers, painted red to imitate the “redcoat” uniforms of British soldiers, were used by children to recreate epic battles which they had heard about at school or from their relatives. Military figures of all types have been found in the River Thames, such as cavalrymen riding on horses.
Above far left: Victorian toy duck, Jason Sandy. Above center left: Porcelain figurine of Santa Claus, Nick Stevens. Above center right: Porcelain snow baby, Sarah Newton. Above far right: Frozen Charlotte doll, David Hodgson.
Toy animals made of lead were also popular in Victorian times (above far left). Numerous toy horses and cockerels have been found on the Thames foreshore which seems to indicate that they were some of the most popular animals that Victorian children enjoyed playing with.
Many fragments and some complete Victorian porcelain dolls have been discovered on the Thames foreshore. Mudlark David Hodgson has found several “Frozen Charlotte” dolls representing little girls with arms pressed against their sides and colored cheeks, lips, eyes, and hair (above far right). Dating to the 19th century, the dolls were made from one piece of porcelain or bisque with no moveable limbs. The name “Frozen Charlotte” comes from a popular poem called Fair Charlotte written by humorist Seba Smith in 1840. The poem is about a young girl named Charlotte who refused to dress warmly during a sleigh ride to a New Year’s ball because she wanted everyone to see her pretty dress. According to the story, she froze to death during the journey. Frozen Charlotte dolls became extremely popular in Britain in the 19th century. Miniature versions of the dolls were often baked into an English “pudding” or cake as a fun surprise for children to discover at Christmastime. On the Thames foreshore, mudlark Nick Stevens stumbled upon a small porcelain figurine of Santa Claus, which a lucky child probably found in their Christmas pudding (above center left). A few years ago, Sarah Newton discovered a cute little “snow baby” while mudlarking. The porcelain snow baby is dressed in a snow suit that is covered in small pieces of crushed bisque which appear like fallen snowflakes (above center right).
Today, modern plastic toys are unfortunately a common sight in the River Thames. Over the years, Mudlark Nicola White has collected hundreds of plastic toys which have washed up on the Thames foreshore. With dramatic lighting, professional photographer Hannah Smiles created a huge, glowing sphere of Nicola’s colorful toys, which mysteriously floats in the air like a plastic planet (below).
By researching the toys found on the exposed riverbed of the Thames, we gain a rare insight into childhood playtime activities throughout the ages. The various types of toys help us understand what fascinated children and captured their imagination centuries ago. The abundant number of toys found in the Thames proves that children have lived and played along the river for millennia. Even today, the intertidal zone still has a magnetic appeal which attracts children to this magical place when the tide recedes.
Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2019 issue.
Read more articles about Thames mudlarking by Jason Sandy.