By Jason Sandy
Historic photograph of London during the Blitz, New York Times Paris Bureau Collection.
For millennia, battles have been fought along the River Thames. At low tide on the exposed riverbed, mudlarks have discovered evidence of warfare. These weapons recovered from the river reveal the stories of these battles throughout the ages and the plight of Londoners who lived through these turbulent times.
In 54 BC, Julius Caesar invaded Britain, and his army attacked the Celtic tribes living in the Thames Valley. Celtic Queen Boudica raided the early Roman settlement of Londinium in AD 61 and burned it to the ground. In the 9th century, Vikings sailed up the Thames several times and plundered the Anglo-Saxon settlement in London. During the English Civil War in the 17th century, the Parliamentarians fought against the Royalists along the river for control of London. In World War II, the Docklands were the strategic target of Nazi bombers which inflicted extensive death and destruction along the river during the London Blitz. More recently, the bridges across the Thames have suffered several terrorist attacks. Between 1939 and 2000, the IRA (Irish Republican Army) tried unsuccessfully to blow up Hammersmith Bridge three times. In 2017, Westminster Bridge and London Bridge were the scenes of grotesque acts of terrorism when innocent pedestrians were brutally attacked and killed.
Above left: Paleolithic flint axehead, David Hodgson. Above right: Prehistoric alderwood club, Museum of London.
Long before the Romans established a settlement along the River Thames in 43 AD, transient hunters and gatherers were attracted to the Thames valley because of its rich resources and wildlife which, grazed in the grassy floodplain along the river that was teeming with fish and bird life. The early inhabitants of the Thames valley made weapons out of flint stone to hunt and protect themselves against attackers. Several years ago, mudlark David Hodgson discovered one of the earliest Stone Age axeheads (above) in the River Thames. Dating to the Paleolithic Age, the axehead is circa 3.3 million years old.
Along the river in Chelsea, a club made of alder wood (below) was recovered in several pieces. It was possibly used as a war club or flax beater. Radiocarbon dated to 3530–3340 BC, the pieces were carefully reassembled. Miraculously, the anaerobic (no oxygen) mud of the Thames preserved this wooden club for thousands of years. The artifact conjures up images of a stereotypical cave man carrying around a big wooden club.
Above left: Bronze Age axeheads, Museum of London. Above right: Bronze Age dagger, Museum of London.
In West London, many spectacular Bronze Age and Iron Age weapons including swords, rapiers, palstaves, spearheads, and axeheads were recovered from the river. They were passionately collected by Thomas Layton, a 19th-century businessman and antiquarian. In the “London before London” gallery in the Museum of London, there is a large “River Wall” which showcases many of these prehistoric weapons discovered in the Thames.
One of the most interesting artifacts in Layton’s collection is a Bronze Age dagger and sheath, which was found in the river in West London. The iron dagger has a broad blade bound with bronze strips and was probably imported from southern Germany or Austria around the 6th century BC.
Bronze Age spearhead, Lukasz Orlinski.
In February 2021, mudlark Lukasz Orlinski discovered a complete Bronze Age spearhead on the Thames foreshore. Dated to 1200–1050 BC, the blade is triangular with a pair of small loops at the junction between the lower blade edge and the socket. A wooden shaft would have been fixed into the socket to create the spear. During the Bronze Age, tribes of people living along the river would have used these types of spears in battle or for hunting purposes.
Bronze Age sword, Portable Antiquities Scheme.
A Bronze Age sword was also found by a mudlark in the River Thames and dates from 1140–1020 BC. The beveled blade of this Wilburton type flange-hilted sword is leaf-shaped. There are visible nicks along the blade edge which could indicate that the sword was used in battle.
Sword from the Roman legionary, British Museum.
In West London, a Roman iron sword and ornately decorated bronze sheath were discovered on the foreshore in Fulham. Dating from the 1st century AD, it is the characteristic sword of the Roman legionary from this period. This sword was found in its exquisite scabbard composed of bronze plates which are decorated in highly ornate repoussé metalwork. On the upper plate, two hounds are shown attacking a stag above the symbol of Rome, a she-wolf suckling the twins, Romulus and Remus.
Viking axeheads, Jason Sandy.
In the 9th century, the Anglo-Saxon settlement in London endured a series of vicious and brutal attacks from Vikings who sailed up the Thames from the North Sea. Some historians believe that London Bridge was destroyed in AD 1014 during a ferocious Viking attack led by Olaf Haraldsson, King of Norway. Many Viking axes, spear heads, and swords were found during renovations to London Bridge in the 1920s. These weapons are evidence of the bloody battles fought between the Saxons and Vikings.
Medieval London was a fortified city, completely enclosed by a thick, continuous stone wall punctuated by large, imposing gates that provide secure access in and out of the walled city. The defensive walls were originally built by the Romans in the 3rd century AD and they were strengthened and increased in height in the Middle Ages. To protect the city from foreign invaders who might sail up the Thames, the mighty and magnificent Tower of London was constructed in the 1070s by the Normans at the eastern end of the fortified city.
Swords and daggers on display in the Tower of London, Jason Sandy.
Although mudlarking on the foreshore in front of the Tower of London is now prohibited, veteran mudlarks discovered some extraordinary artifacts outside the castle river wall several years ago. Medieval swords, daggers, arrowheads, a halberd spearhead, and a shield boss were recovered from the riverbed at low tide. Some of these mudlarking finds are now on permanent display in the Tower of London. Medieval swords and daggers were both practical fighting weapons and status symbols. The exquisite decoration on them reflects the wealth and status of their owner.
15th-century hand cannon, Jason Sandy.
One of the most unusual artifacts discovered by mudlark Tony Pilson is a 15th century wrought-iron hand cannon. It is the smallest of only three early guns of this type found in England. The barrel was made by forming a central tube of iron straps held together by bands and hoops, which were heated and then cooled to fit tightly around the barrel.
In the Middle Ages, London was home to many knights. The Knights Templar established a base in London along the River Thames around AD 1148. This order of crusading monks protected Christian pilgrims on their journey to the Holy Land, and they became some of the wealthiest and most powerful knights in Christendom. Within the Temple Church in Central London, stone effigies of the most famous Templar knights line the floor. They are dressed for battle, wearing chainmail armor, helmets, and clutching their shields and swords which pierce the heads of snarling beasts below the knights’ feet.
Above left: Medieval knight’s knuckle guard, Jason Sandy. Above center: Medieval chainmail, Mark Vasco Iglesias. Above right: Medieval arrowhead, Monika Buttling-Smith.
While mudlarking early one morning, I spotted something extraordinary at low tide—a brass knuckle guard from a medieval knight’s gauntlet from AD 1350–1400. In Canterbury Cathedral, the bronze effigy of the Black Prince has similar knuckle guards which have a large, central spike. It is an incredible feeling to hold this rare and unique artifact, knowing that the last person to wear this knuckle guard was a wealthy 14th-century knight!
In 2020, mudlark Mark Vasco Iglesias discovered a piece of iron chainmail from a medieval knight. It was worn as protective armor during battle. Chainmail is comprised of small, interlocking rings which are riveted together by hand in a pattern to create a strong mesh. It was a tedious and painstaking job to make chainmail. Mark estimates that 60 to 70 individual rings are contained in the piece of chainmail he found. The tiny rivets are still visible on the rings.
In January 2021, Monika Buttling-Smith found a beautiful medieval arrowhead from AD 1200–1300. It would have been attached to the tip of a wooden shaft and shot from a longbow. The tip of this iron arrowhead is missing, which could indicate that the arrow was fired and hit a target. Will Sherman, an arrowsmith and fletcher, kindly made a replica of this medieval arrowhead for Monika. The dangerously sharp arrowhead has been beautifully crafted.
17th century Walloon sword, Graham duHeaume.
In the 1970s, mudlark Brian Pitkin discovered a 17th-century Walloon sword on the Thames foreshore. This type of sword had a wide, double-edged blade which was used in battle for piercing and slashing the enemy. The soldier’s hand was protected by the ornate, S-shaped guard and a unique thumb ring. Walloon swords were used by the military and civilian gentry.
18th-century flintlock pistol.
Several years ago, a mudlark recovered a complete 18th-century flintlock pistol from the riverbed. The waterlogged conditions and anaerobic mud perfectly protected the timber and metal from corrosion. The name of the pistol is derived from the flint stone which is tightly held by the cock (hammer) of the pistol. When the trigger is pulled, the flint strikes the frizzen, which produces sparks that ignite the gunpowder and fires the lead shot from the gun. Flintlock pistols were made in a variety of sizes and were used in warfare and for self-defense.
Iron cannonballs and grapeshot, Nick Stevens.
Cannonballs, grapeshot, and musket balls are a relatively common find on the Thames foreshore. Many of them were manufactured along the river in the Tower of London and Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. Mudlark Nick Stevens has found many cannonballs in different locations.
18th-century bayonet, Monika Buttling-Smith.
A few years ago, Monika discovered a heavily encrusted 18th century bayonet on the foreshore. After carefully restoring the artifact with the help of Graham duHeaume, she was able to identify it as a 1770 Heavy Dragoon carbine bayonet. Monika explains that it was “designed for mounted dragoons to carry at speed into battle, then dismount and fight. When the action got too close, they could stab the enemy with the bayonet. It is a cruel weapon, and holding it, you can almost smell the gun-smoke, mud, and blood of battle.”
Webley British Bulldog revolver, Graham duHeaume.
Under a bridge in West London, Graham’s son discovered a .442 caliber Webley British Bulldog revolver. In Victorian times, these pistols were popular because they were lightweight, portable, and could be easily concealed. Since the gun was found under a bridge, it is highly likely that this pistol was purposely discarded in the river, possibly after a crime or murder.
During the London Blitz, the Nazi Luftwaffe dropped more than 12,000 metric tons of bombs on London and killed nearly 30,000 Londoners in World War II. Unfortunately, several of these bombs fell into the river and did not explode. A few mudlarks have stumbled upon unexploded ordnances (UXOs) as they were beachcombing along the exposed riverbed at low tide.
Above left: World War II bomb, Tobias Neto. Above right: World War II bomb, Mike Walker.
While mudlarking in West London, Tobias Neto spotted what he thought was “a large bottle covered in mud” on the foreshore. When Tobias picked it up, he noticed some German writing on the heavy, encrusted object. He suddenly realized it was a German bomb from World War II and called the police. “By the time the bomb squad arrived, I had moved the object and placed it securely behind a ladder fixed to the wall as tide was coming in quite fast,” explains Tobias. “It was a risk I took, but it had to be done. The water had submerged the area, and the police rescheduled it for the next low tide on the following day. I returned to the spot the next day and waited for the police. The bomb was still there, exactly how I had placed it. The whole Putney Bridge area was sealed off again by the police. The bomb squad arrived, disarmed the bomb, and took it away.”
In June 2017, Oli Muranyi-Clark found a rusty bomb on the foreshore in front of the London Eye, a world-famous tourist attraction in Central London. After his friend, Mike Walker, took some photos of the bomb, “we decided it probably was what we thought it might be and so best to get out of the vicinity and phone the police bomb squad,” explains Oli. “The whole London Eye and surrounding area had to be evacuated and cordoned off, it was quite an experience. Mike and I were—of course—loving the excitement being in the middle of everything! Fortunately, nobody got injured so that was very lucky really as it could have turned out differently for sure.” With a police helicopter circling overhead, the bomb from World War II was safely removed by the bomb squad.
Above left: Hand grenade, Nicola White. Above center: SS Richard Montgomery in the Thames Estuary, Clem Rutter. Above right: World War II Zuckerman helmet, Jason Sandy.
When mudlarking in Greenwich in 2015, mudlark Nicola White spotted an unexploded grenade lying on the foreshore. When Scotland Yard’s ordnance experts arrived, they decided it was not safe to remove the 70-year-old grenade, so it was detonated on the foreshore around 9:30 pm. The controlled explosion could be heard three miles away, and nearby residents complained about being woken up by a loud detonation.
One of the largest and most explosive “artifacts” in the River Thames is an American ship called the SS Richard Montgomery, which was built during World War II. After the ship was loaded with over 6,000 tons of munitions, she sailed from Philadelphia to the Thames Estuary where she anchored en route to France to deliver the supplies to the Allied troops. On August 20, 1944, the SS Richard Montgomery ran aground on a sandbank. According to a survey conducted in 2004, the bombs are so severely deteriorated that they could explode spontaneously at any time. If a single bomb exploded causing a chain reaction, it could blast water and debris nearly 10,000 feet into the air and create a 16-foot-high wave, according to a BBC News report in 1970. The deadly cargo has not yet been removed because of the high risk and expensive cost. Even at high tide, her three masts are still visible above the water line. It’s a ticking time bomb sitting on the bottom of the Thames!
Shortly before Remembrance Day (UK) in November 2020, I discovered a complete World War II helmet called a “Home Front Zuckerman” helmet in the river. It could have been worn by members of the Fire Guard who played an important role in extinguishing fires and saving many homes and buildings in London. The helmet is a poignant reminder of the heroism and sacrifice of the troops and civilians who served their country during World War II.
Unfortunately, murder weapons such as guns and knives are still disposed of in the Thames. A few years ago, I arrived at Blackfriars Bridge in Central London to go mudlarking, and there was a large team of police officers on the foreshore. They were equipped with metal detectors and were searching for a murder weapon that had been thrown in the river by the suspect. Throughout history, the Thames has been the scene of many crimes and battles. I wonder how many more weapons lie concealed in the mud, waiting to be discovered so they can tell their interesting stories.
Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›
Join Jason for a half-hour video beachcombing trip to some of his favorite spots on the River Thames, where he finds treasures buried for centuries in the London mud. He also shares some of his favorite pieces in his extensive collection of finds from prehistory through modern times.
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 Magazine March/April 2022 issue.