Mudlarking: Lost Jewelry from the 17th through 20th Centuries
By Jason Sandy
On a beautiful, summer evening in July 2018, I went mudlarking to take advantage of the super low, night tide. As it started to get dark, I switched on my trusty head lamp to illuminate the gravel river bed along the water line. Wearing knee pads and rubber gloves, I crawled along the foreshore, carefully examining the surface, searching for historic artifacts exposed by the receding tide. Suddenly, a large red gemstone appeared amongst the gravel, illuminated in the darkness by my head torch (flashlight)!
My heart was beating out of my chest as I carefully picked it up. It didn’t feel like plastic or glass, so I hoped it could possibly be a cut garnet or even a ruby! Days later, a gemologist at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London confirmed that it is a whopping 8.2 carat Hessonite garnet from Sri Lanka. One of my Instagram followers in Scotland saw my post and offered to set it for me as a present for my wife to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary. Professional jewelry designer, Ruth Patterson (@crazyforruthiejewellery), created a beautiful gold necklace with several uncut Thames garnets fixed to the chain and the Sri Lankan garnet suspended as a stunning pendant. The red garnet glows in the sunlight. Rescued from the depths of the river, the gemstone has been given new life and will be cherished as a family heirloom by generations to come.
In the May/June 2020 issue of Beachcombing Magazine, I wrote about extraordinary jewelry from the Iron Age to Tudor times. This article features some of the exquisite brooches and finger rings from the 17th through 20th centuries which have been found in the River Thames by mudlarks.
The 17th century was a tumultuous time in London. The city endured the English Civil War, overthrow of the British monarchy, the Great Plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666. During these horrific events, many people lost their lives. Relatives of the deceased grieved in different ways. Sometimes “memento mori” rings were produced and worn in memory of their loved ones. Mudlark Rae Love found one of these 17th-century rings while mudlarking along the River Thames. Engraved with a skull, this gold mourning ring is inscribed with the name of the deceased, Alex Cheeke, and the date of his death on February 15, 1668.
Another exquisite mourning ring was found by Nick Stevens. Inside the band of the gold ring, the words “TW obt (died) 31 O’cto’ 1701 aeta (aged) 80.” Although we don’t know what name “TW” stands for, we do know that the person died on October 31, 1701, and was 80 years old. That is a ripe old age for this time period. A highly detailed memento mori ring was also found by mudlark Malcolm Duff. It is decorated with a full skeleton around the circumference of the ring.
Although Londoners endured war, death, and destruction in the 17th century, there are stories of love which mudlarks have uncovered that still resonate today. Posy and fede rings were given as gifts and worn as a symbol of love for another person. A posy ring was engraved with a short, personalized poem around the inside of the band. Mudlark Mark Beverlo found an incredible gold fede ring (third image left). The circular band has a bezel formed in the shape of two clasped hands with a projecting heart between them. Dated to 1640–1680, the words “no heart more true than myne” are inscribed on the inside of the band. This gold ring could have been deliberately thrown into the river in despair after the relationship ended.
One of the most interesting 17th-century heart-shaped buckles found in the Thames is decorated with the portraits of King William and Queen Mary surmounted by a crown. Dating to 1689–1694, “the buckle was worn on the front of the shirt, where the neck cloth joined the opening in the front of their shirt,” according to the Museum of London.
In the 19th century, Victorian jewelry makers created wonderful brooches using colored glass to imitate precious gemstones. While mudlarking along the River Thames, Christine Fernbank found an extraordinary Victorian brooch. A beautiful, faux amethyst gemstone is set in the center of ornate, geometric patterns of decoration. It’s a spectacular work of art!
A few years ago, mudlark John Higginbotham discovered an incredible 19th century brooch. To imitate a blue sapphire, a cut glass gemstone was set in an ornate, baroque setting made of pewter.
Mudlark Graham DuHeaume also found a lovely Victorian brooch. Two flowers are formed with several pink glass stones surrounding white pearls. The flowers are fixed to a circular, silver frame with incised decoration, accompanied by natural leaf patterns.
Several heart-shaped lockets and pendants have been retrieved from the riverbed. Mudlark Simon Bourne found a lovely gold locket. The decoration on the surface of the locket has been hand engraved. The locket is complete, and Simon was able to open it, revealing a heart-shaped piece of glass and piece of fabric. Maybe a precious keepsake had been placed inside before the locket was lost?
A few years ago, I found a modern, heart-shaped locket made of red glass set in a brass surround. The back is unfortunately missing, but the locket could have contained the picture of a loved one. Shortly after Christmas in 2019, I discovered a heart-shaped pendant, carved from a sodalite stone, believed to have natural healing powers.
An ornate, heart-shaped pendant made of silver was found by John Higginbotham. The pendant is formed with an openwork pattern of interwoven circular and diamond shapes. Glistening like diamonds, cut glass stones are set within the complex, geometric pattern.
Sadly, many mudlarks have found engagement and wedding rings which were probably discarded in the River Thames in frustration after a failed relationship. I can’t imagine the heartache and disappointment a person felt as they threw the ring into the river, tears streaming down their face in anguish. Mudlark Florence Evans discovered an incredibly beautiful, gold engagement ring set with five large diamonds. It is very valuable, so it could have easily been sold rather than discarded in the river.
Several years ago, I found an engagement ring under a bridge along the River Thames. It has been set with a large, heart-shaped aquamarine gemstone, which was the favorite gemstone among sailors who believed that aquamarine possesses supernatural powers to ensure a safe journey across stormy seas. I wonder if this ring belonged to a sailor’s fiancée or wife?
In the 20th century, inexpensive jewelry was mass-produced, making it affordable to more people. Cut crystals and glass were used to imitate valuable gemstones, and metal alloys were developed to imitate gold, silver, and platinum. Costume jewelry became extremely popular and still is today. John Higginbotham has found an incredible array of beautiful, colorful rings in the River Thames (top of this page). I especially like the eye-catching ring with the iconic face of Alex, the main character in the film, A Clockwork Orange, by legendary film director, Stanley Kubrick.
While searching near a busy bridge in West London, mudlark Tobias Neto discovered some fantastic modern rings which probably fell or were dropped into the river as people crossed the bridge (facing page, top). The gem-encrusted lizard ring is a wonderful example of a jeweller’s creativity. One of the most interesting rings Tobias has found is a gold ring set with a red gemstone engraved with Islamic symbols (facing page, inset). People wear these so-called “Sharaf-e Shams” rings to banish sorrow, depression, bad luck, and negativity.
Pieces of jewelry are some of the most exciting finds from the River Thames. These beautiful works of art demonstrate the jewelry makers’ creativity and imagination. The combination of precious metals and valuable gemstones make a stunning combination, even though colorful, cut glass and inexpensive metals were often used as substitutes. They are personal items, which were once highly treasured by their owners. Some jewelry was accidentally lost, but many of the expensive engagement rings and wedding bands were purposely discarded in the Thames because of heartache or anger. Rescued from the turbulent currents of the River Thames, these lost personal items are now treasured once again by the lucky mudlarks who found them.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2020 issue.
Read more articles about Thames mudlarking by Jason Sandy.