By Jason Sandy
As Steve Brooker, aka “Mud God,” was mudlarking along the river wall in East London, he heard a faint female voice calling him from above. As he looked up, Steve was surprised to see the face of Hollywood actress Helen Mirren staring down at him from her garden along the top of the river wall. Moments earlier, her daughter was throwing some freshly cut grass clippings into the River Thames and her expensive gold ring slipped off her finger and flew into the river. Helen called down to Steve to ask if he could look for the lost ring. With decades of experience, Steve was able to spot the gold ring lying amongst the grass clippings on the exposed riverbed at low tide. He kindly returned the cherished ring to Helen, had a friendly chat, and continued mudlarking. She and her daughter were very grateful that the lost ring was returned so quickly.
There are many heart-warming stories about objects dropped in the Thames that have been discovered by mudlarks and returned to their original owners or living descendants. One of my favorite stories is about an unusual French coin, which mudlark Simon Bourne found in the Thames.
When Simon initially spotted a coin while mudlarking, he thought it was a common 10-pence piece. To Simon’s surprise, it was a French coin that had been converted into a dog tag for a soldier during World War I. It was worn smooth on one side and engraved with a winged emblem and inscription “RFC - N. Posener - 19385 - Jew.”
RFC stands for the Royal Flying Corps which was the predecessor to the RAF (Royal Air Force) established at the outbreak of WW1. To find out about Posener’s life in the military, Simon searched the online database of the National Archives, which confirmed the name matched his ID number. According to the archives, Posener served at the end of World War I and several years after the war (1918–1928).
By searching on the website www.ancestry.co.uk, Simon was able to find more information including the full name, Nathan Posener, and previous address on Commercial Road in East London, which is only a short distance from where Simon found Nathan’s dog tag on the foreshore. Simon was determined to track down Posener’s descendants and return the dog tag to the family.
He contacted the local newspaper hoping that they could help him locate friends or family members who might still be living in the area. Once Simon submitted the story, it was printed and also published online, and he didn’t have to wait very long for a response. Two weeks later, the reporter who ran the story contacted Simon and said that a reader had recognized the surname Posener and contacted his friend, John Silverman, who is the grandson of Nathan Posener. John’s mother (Nathan’s daughter) was still alive and had recently turned 90 years old. Simon spoke to John on the phone, and he was delighted to hear the story about the discovery of the lost dog tag, because his family knew nothing about it. After John told his mother that her father’s dog tag had been found in the Thames, she said it “made her year.”
Soon afterwards, Simon met John in person and returned the dog tag to him. John explained that Nathan wasn’t actually a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. In the First World War, the lightweight wings and tail of the fighter planes were constructed of a wooden framework, which was covered in cloth, stretched tight, and painted to stiffen the cloth. Nathan was a master tailor who served in the RFC by sewing the cloth onto the wings of the airplanes. He was stationed in France, which explains why he used a French franc to make himself a dog tag. Nathan probably engraved it himself as he was a skilled tailor with access to the right equipment.
Nathan survived the war and went on to live a long life. In March 1987, he died aged 94 in Hampstead, London where his daughter now lives. After returning the medal to Nathan’s descendants, Simon was thrilled and stated that “returning long-lost items to their rightful home is a positive thing that few of us ‘treasure hunters’ ever get the chance to do.”
While mudlarking along the River Medway which is a tributary of the Thames, Nicola White discovered a large brass plaque on the exposed riverbed. After gently cleaning the plaque, she could read the engraved writing with a soldier’s name, service number, and date he joined the military. It says, “R.M.L.I., C. 13524. A. WILKES., 2.9.12.” R.M.L.I. stands for “Royal Marines Light Infantry. Originally, it would have been fixed to the bottom of his military kit bag, which was made of fabric. After over 100 years in the river, the fabric has disintegrated, leaving only the brass plate. Born in 1884 in Westminster (London), Alfred joined the Royal Marines in 1912 and served in World War I. Nicola did a lot of research and was able to track down the descendants of Alfred who now live in Canada, and she kindly returned the kit bag bottom to them.
In 2015, a London bus driver discovered a soldier’s medal from World War I while mudlarking along the Thames. On a windy and rainy day, Matthew Virgo spotted what he thought was a large coin on the surface of the foreshore. After cleaning the coin at home, he realized it was a medal engraved with the soldier’s name and number: F A French, 19028. Matthew posted a photo of the medal on a Facebook forum, and members of the group were able to research and find out that Francis Arthur French was born in Harpenden, England, in 1899. He fought in both the First and Second World Wars before dying in 1958.
Made of copper and lacquered in bronze, the medal has a winged figure of Victory depicted with her left arm extended and holding a palm branch in her right hand. Surrounded by a laurel wreath, the words, “THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILISATION, 1914-1919” appear on the back of the medal.
Matthew contacted Francis Arthur French’s relatives and offered to return the medal. He explained: “It’s just really exciting, it’s one of those things you don’t expect to happen and when you do, you can’t describe it. It was just such a brilliant feeling finding this part of history. It’s amazing to find the relatives.”
As Britain commemorated the centennial of the First World War in 2014, the discovery of this Victory Medal on the Thames foreshore in 2015 was a significant find and poignant reminder of the courage and bravery displayed by the British troops in the Great War. Between 1914–1918, approximately 8.7 million soldiers served in the British Army, and almost 890,000 soldiers died in the conflict.
A few years ago, mudlark Jason Davey unearthed a military dog tag from the mud of the Thames riverbed. The tag belonged to Casper James LaMotta, an American soldier who served overseas in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Although the dog tag was rusted, a name and address for his next of kin was still clearly visible: “FRANK LAMOTTA, 57 HOUSTON ST, NEWARK, NJ.” According to his certification of enlisted service, Casper James LaMotta was a corporal in the 823rd Air Engineering Squadron of the Army Air Corps, and he died in 1980.
Jason was determined to track down the descendants of Casper, so he posted a photo of the dog tag on Facebook. Joseph Bilby, assistant curator of the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey in Sea Girt, reposted the picture on the museum’s Facebook page, and the grandson of LaMotta’s relatives saw the post. Bilby said, “It’s an example of how social media can work in a positive way and help people out and bring people together.” Within 12 hours, the dog tag found in London was connected with family members in America. Jason generously returned the lost dog tag to the descendants of LaMotta. At some time in the future, the family hopes to host Jason at their family-owned Krug’s Tavern in New Jersey to share a burger and a beer in honor of Casper LaMotta.
A mudlark stumbled across the scene of a crime a few years ago. A thief had dumped a hoard of stolen medals into the Thames hoping to get rid of the incriminating evidence. The five medals had been awarded to American tennis player, Peter Fleming, for his performance in the Wimbledon Tennis Championships.
Awarded to Peter in 1978, 1982, 1985, 1986, and 2002, the four runners-up medals are made of sterling silver, and the semi-finalist medal is made of bronze. On the front of all of the medals, a classical female figure is depicted in front of a tennis net holding a trophy depicting Victory in her left hand and supporting a globe with a laureate band between her right hand and right knee.
On the back of one of the medals, it is inscribed with the text: THE LAWN TENNIS CHAMPIONSHIPS, MEN’S DOUBLES, RUNNERS-UP, P. FLEMING, J. P. McENROE, 1978. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Peter Fleming teamed up with fellow American John McEnroe and dominated the men’s doubles game winning 50 doubles titles, including four at Wimbledon in 1979, 1981, 1983 and 1984. After the stolen Wimbledon medals were recorded on the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, they were returned to Peter Fleming in the U.S.
On a warm, summer day in August 2020, I was mudlarking along the Thames in West London. On the south side of the river, there is a towpath through a dense forest with a beautiful, scenic trail along the river, which is a popular location for dog walking, jogging, and cycling. As I was searching the exposed riverbed at low tide, I found what I thought was just another Victorian coin—a common find in this area.
Upon closer examination, I discovered that the unusual 19th century halfpenny was worn smooth and engraved by hand with some letters. Surprisingly, the coin was inscribed with a name and address: S. SMITH, 13 DELORME ST, FULHAM PALACE RD. I quickly searched online to see if this address still exists. Sure enough, there is a Victorian house still located at this address.
After I posted the photos on a Facebook forum, Karis Lacy kindly offered to research Samuel’s history. On the website of the National Archives, Karis found Samuel Smith was listed in the Census of England and Wales, 1911. According to the census, Samuel’s daughter was listed as Norah Smith born in 1903. On the website findmypast.co.uk, Karis discovered that Norah had married Stanley Shayers in 1928, and they had a son named Peter Shayers. The website listed Peter’s postal address based on the Electoral rolls up to 2014. In September 2020, I wrote Peter a letter and offered to return the dog tag. I wasn’t sure if he still lived at this address, so I wasn’t sure if I would ever get a response.
A month later, a handwritten letter arrived in the mail. I had goosebumps, and my hands were shaking with excitement as I carefully opened the letter. Unfortunately, Peter (aged 89) passed away in May 2019, but his widow (Joan Shayers) kindly responded to my letter. Although Samuel served in the military during the First World War, the pendant I found was not his service “dog tag.” It is literally his dog’s tag which his favorite dog had lost, possibly while on a walk along the riverside.
Along with the letter, Joan included old photos of Samuel Smith who was born in 1867. The dog appears in a photo with Samuel and his grandson, Peter, whom I sent my letter. I really enjoyed seeing photos of Samuel and his dog who lost its collar tag over 100 years ago. Joan and I have become friends and have regular contact via phone and letters.
In the River Thames, Nicola White has discovered over one hundred bottles containing messages inside. A few years ago, Nicola found a bottle containing a message from a young boy which said: “I wish I could be a dino thunder power ranger the red ranger, from Jack Hodges.” (Figure 16) Nicola was so touched by the boy’s wish, she was determined to find him although there were no contact details left in the bottle. She posted a photo of the boy’s note on Twitter, and within three hours, her Twitter followers had located the boy.
Nicola purchased a red Power Ranger outfit and sent it to Jack. He was absolutely thrilled that his wish had come true and sent Nicola a heartfelt thank you letter with photos of himself wearing the outfit. (Figure 18) In 2020, I posted this heart-warming story on my Instagram account, and the Hollywood actor, Jason Faunt, who plays the red Power Ranger saw my post. He commented: “Amazing message. I know a couple of red rangers happy to make an introduction!” Jason offered to speak directly to Jack. I was excited that this Hollywood celebrity was willing to contact the young boy who had thrown the message in a bottle in the Thames. Dreams do come true!
The absolute thrill of mudlarking is finding a long-lost artifact and returning it to the owner or their descendants. I especially enjoy when the descendants have old photographs of the person who lost the artifact. Seeing the person brings the history to life and makes the experience so personal. To know that you are the first person to touch this object since it was dropped by the person in the photograph is a wonderful feeling. It’s a tangible connection to them as if you were reaching back through time, personally meeting them and shaking their hand. You wonder what they were thinking when they accidentally lost or purposely discarded the artifact. As Simon explained, the ultimate experience is to meet the descendants in person and return the long-lost personal item. It brings the extraordinary story to a beautiful conclusion.
Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›
View some of Jason’s favorite Thames River mudlarking finds
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2022 issue.