Mudlarking: Musical Instruments and Noisemakers

By Jason Sandy

music festival on the thames in 1700s

For centuries, the River Thames has been a natural stage for music and entertainment. In 1662, King Charles II married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. To celebrate the arrival of the new queen in London, an extravagant procession called the Aqua Triumphalis took place, and it was described as “the most magnificent Triumph that certainly ever floted on the Thames.” Approximately 10,000 boats of all shapes and sizes accompanied the royal barge as it sailed down the Thames to Whitehall Palace in London. They arrived “to the sound of trumpets and other musick.” The river pageant was followed by feasting and fireworks.

handel and king george on barge in thames

Painting of George Frideric Handel (left) with King George I of Great Britain, traveling by barge on the Thames River while musicians play in the background. The painting is an artist’s rendering of the first performance of Handel’s Water Music in 1717. Painting by Edouard Jean Conrad Hamman (1819-1888). 

One balmy, summer evening in 1717, the Thames played host to the world premiere and debut of Handel’s Water Music, performed by a 50-piece orchestra on a barge sailing serenely up and down the river. On a boat behind the open barge sat music-loving George I, who was in the company of his opulent socialite friends while being serenaded. George enjoyed the music so much that he instructed the orchestra to play the entire piece three times as they sailed up and down the Thames.

Shortly before Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the British punk rock band Sex Pistols performed live on a boat trip down the Thames to herald the release of their famous song, “God Save the Queen.” In 1979, The Clash recorded their music video for the song “London Calling” on a boat floating on the River Thames in the pouring rain. In 1986, Pink Floyd guitarist, David Gilmour, purchased a boat called Astoria and converted it into a recording studio. Parts of the last three Pink Floyd albums were recorded in the floating studio on the River Thames, including The Division Bell.

In 2012, during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, almost 1,000 boats from around the British Commonwealth sailed down the Thames in a maritime parade 7.5 miles long to celebrate the Queen’s 60th anniversary on the throne. The boats were organized into groups, each led by a “Herald Music Barge” carrying ensembles playing different genres of music and new works by thirteen modern British composers. On the last barge in the parade, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir performed the James Bond theme song along with many other well-known songs associated with buildings and monuments along the river. I was one of the millions of people who crowded along the Thames to catch a glimpse of the Queen as she sailed past on her royal barge.

Liam Gallagher concert

Liam Gallagher performs for The Tonight Show on December 4, 2020, on the Thames,

Although most live performances and concerts were cancelled in 2020 because of the global pandemic, Liam Gallagher, from the band Oasis, performed live on a floating barge in the River Thames in December 2020.  The virtual event called “Down By The River Thames” was streamed globally, and Liam played classic Oasis songs such as “Morning Glory” and “Champagne Supernova.”

Medieval long horn trumpet

Medieval long horn trumpet, Museum of London

As you can imagine, with all of these performances on the River Thames, many musical instruments and noisemakers have been accidentally dropped in the water over the centuries. One of the most extraordinary instruments ever found in the river is a medieval long horn trumpet made of brass. According to Hazel Forsyth, senior curator at the Museum of London, this trumpet is “the oldest surviving example of a medieval musical instrument from Europe, and the only known example of a medieval European straight trumpet.” The long trumpet is comprised of four sections, and could be dismantled for carrying. A decorative flag or pennant may have been suspended from the hole in the rim of the bell. The trumpet was possibly used at sea for signaling from ship to ship, and it may have been dropped overboard while its ship docked in London in the late 1300s.

mini trumpet charm found in thames river

A few years ago, mudlark Nicola White found a cute little trumpet made of pewter. It has a suspension loop at the bottom of the trumpet, so it could have been attached to a charm bracelet or worn as a pendant from a necklace.

19th-century bugle badge from a light infantry soldier Medieval bone flute

19th-century bugle badge from a light infantry soldier, Nick Stevens. Medieval bone flute, Portable Antiquities Scheme.

During the filming of the TV show Mud Men on the History Channel, mudlark Steve Brooker found a stunning brass bugle in the dense, black mud. He took it to the National Army Museum in London where it was identified as a cap badge worn by a light infantry soldier in the 19th century. The light infantry was a select group of soldiers sent ahead of the army to disrupt the enemy by taking out officers and strategic targets. Bugle-horn-shaped badges were worn by light infantry soldiers from the late Napoleonic up to the early Victorian period. Long before light radios and walkie talkies were invented, trumpets and bugles were used to direct the soldiers and transfer commands around the battlefield with the use of sound.

One of the oldest musical instruments found in the Thames is a bone flute discovered by mudlark Alan Murphy dating back to the 11th–13th centuries. The flute is carved from the tibia bone of a sheep or goat. It is cylindrical, flaring at one end to a cork fipple forming the blow hole. Fipples are used to regulate the air passing through the instrument to achieve a double octave. On the shin side of the bone, a finger hole was created by a square perforation. Perhaps a sailor lost this pipe when he was in London.

19th-century piccolo oboe

19th-century piccolo oboe, Nicola White / Gardiner Houlgate

Three years ago, Nicola White found a mysterious musical instrument, which she was not able to identify. After she recently posted the instrument on Twitter, Christopher Laspa in Toronto identified it as an early 19th century piccolo oboe. It is made from a dense hardwood (boxwood or rosewood), and the keys are made of brass. The piccolo oboe is the smallest and highest pitched member of the oboe family. This woodwind instrument could have been played in a military band before it was dropped in the river.

Post-medieval Jaw harp,  Medieval pilgrim’s whistle

Post-medieval Jaw harp, Tony Thira. Medieval pilgrim’s whistle, Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Jaw harps (also called Jew’s harps) are the most common musical instrument found by mudlarks in the Thames. They are normally broken or encrusted in rust, but mudlark Tony Thira found a complete jaw harp from circa AD 1500–1800. The instrument consists of a circular head with two tapering arms and a flat iron tongue attached at the apex of the head. It is played by placing the frame between your teeth and plucking the metal tongue which vibrates and resonates. The constant pitch is modified by changing the shape of the mouth and position of the lips, tongue, and cheeks to create different tones and melodies.

For centuries, jaw harps were a popular instrument among sailors because they are small, compact, and lightweight. I can imagine sailors carried jaw harps in their pockets and played them to pass the endless hours sailing on open seas. They probably entertained the other crew members onboard the ship with their music. Jaw harps are still used by musicians even today. For instance, their distinctive sound is prominent in Johnny Cash’s recording of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” The Who’s song “Join Together,” and Red Hot Chili Pepper’s song “Give It Away.” 

Post-medieval whistle with floral decoration 18th-century hawking whistle

Post-medieval whistle with floral decoration, Tom Main. 18th-century hawking whistle, Florrie Evans.

Along the Thames foreshore, mudlarks have also found whistles dating from medieval to modern times. They were produced in various shapes and sizes with ornate decoration. One of the most interesting ones is a medieval pilgrim’s whistle from the 15th century. It has been hollow cast in the shape of a man’s head with a short tubular mouthpiece. With an integral loop at the top of the head, the whistle was suspended as a pendant from the pilgrim’s neck. Pilgrims believed that the sharp blast from a “holy” whistle would drive away evil.

A few years ago, mudlark Tom Main found an exquisitely decorated whistle dating to AD 1600–1800. The pewter whistle has a spherical sound box with a circular hole to release the air. It is connected to a perforated, hollow pipe used to blow air and create the sound. The whistle would have been worn as a pendant using the suspension loop projecting from the top. The outer surface of the whistle has an elaborate, floral decoration comprised of lines, pellets, and heart shapes.

On the Thames foreshore, mudlark Florrie Evans found a small 18th century pewter hawking whistle with the profile of a stylized horse at the top. Florrie says it has a “wonderfully piercing and high-pitched sound—perfect for calling a bird like a hawk or falcon! I love the fact that it is an oral connection with the past.” Since the 9th century, falconry has been popular among the wealthy upper classes in Britain. Falcons, hawks, and other birds of prey were used to hunt and catch food for the table. A falconer would use a high-pitched whistle to call the bird while in flight.

Medieval pilgrim’s bell Brass crotal bells from AD 1700–1850

Medieval pilgrim’s bell, Portable Antiquities Scheme. Brass crotal bells from AD 1700–1850, Nick Stevens.

In 2008, mudlarks Ian Smith and Tony Pilson discovered a medieval pilgrim’s bell from Canterbury dating to the late 14th–early 15th centuries. Around the perimeter, the bell is inscribed with the words, “CAMPAN THOMEA” (Thomas’ bell). It was designed to be suspended on a cord or chain from the pilgrim’s neck. When Thomas Becket was killed in AD 1170 by knights associated with King Henry II, it is believed that the bells of Canterbury cathedral rang without being touched. Pewter bells were sold as inexpensive souvenirs to medieval pilgrims visiting Canterbury because of their association with Becket’s death. As the pilgrims wore the bells around their necks and walked along the pilgrimage routes, they would ring out and serve as a reminder of the holy saint’s martyrdom.

Three complete crotal bells were found by mudlark Nick Stevens in the River Thames. Dating to AD 1700–1850, these brass bells would have been suspended from the neck of livestock. A shepherd or farmer would have been able to keep track of an animal’s location because of the audible sound emitted from the bell as the animal walked or moved its neck. The large crotal bell has been decorated with a sunburst or flower petal design and engraved with a maker’s mark (initials KW or WK). Nick’s crotal bells are still fit-for-purpose and ring when shaken.

19th-century badge in the shape of a miniature bell lyre

19th-century badge in the shape of a miniature bell lyre, Jason Sandy.

In 2020, I found a 19th-century cap or uniform badge in the shape of a miniature bell lyre. This portable musical instrument was often used in military or marching bands. A bell lyre is comprised of tuned bars mounted within a metal, lyre-shaped frame and carried on a pole supported by the belt worn by the player. The bars are struck with a mallet, and the instrument sounds like a xylophone.

The musical instruments, whistles, bells, and badges depicting instruments found in the Thames are wonderfully personal items. They were once proudly played or worn by their owners before they disappeared into the muddy waters of the river. I would love to have heard the music once played from these instruments. From Handel to Pink Floyd, composers and musicians have been inspired by and attracted to the Thames as a historic location to play their world renowned songs. Long may the Thames continue to be a stage for music and entertainment to be enjoyed by all!

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

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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 July/August 2021 issue.

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