In 2008 I penned a story about Steve Brooker and mudlarking on the Thames foreshore. This was resurrected in a blog sometime in 2012, but was subsequently lost. Today I am pleased to say that I have recovered most of the material and am able to re-tell most of the original story. Just remember that things have changed in nine years; Steve, with co-presenter Johnny Vaughan, has gone on to bigger and better things. For example he is now looking forward to a 4th series of Mud Men, on the History Channel. Facebook page HERE.
Hidden in the thick, foul-smelling mud of the Thames is one of Britain’s most important archaeological resources, a wonderful storehouse of historically important artefacts that once belonging to the Ancients, sophisticated Romans, the ribald Anglo Saxons and many more. Although the river may be in the cleanest state it has been for centuries it is basically lifeless for most of its upper length, save for some hardy worms in the mud banks. An ecological disaster for sustaining life it may be, but the low oxygen levels mean that organic decay helps in the preservation of artefacts. Every cloud has a silver lining.
This article is inextricably linked to another detecting success story – the creation of a club called Thames and Field (T&F) the brainchild of an enthusiastic, energetic and engaging mudlark, Steve Brooker. I was fortunate to meet him at the recent Who Do You Think You Are? exhibition held at Olympia for those interested in family history. He was manning a stand with fellow mudlarks, the content of which was described by a delighted visitor as, “The most interesting exhibit I visited – it was like an explosion in a museum storeroom!”
The Society of Thames Mudlarks was founded in 1980 and the members are basically very publicity-shy so you don’t hear much about them. I was interested in the qualifications for becoming a member and asked Steve why the society was somewhat secretive and difficult to join. He explained that he had started T&F about 16 months ago because he thought it beneficial to have a site that could (perhaps) act as a kind of ‘nursery’ for potential mudlarks. New people were always needed and in this way they could be vetted. Were they respectable and responsible? Did they fill holes in properly and did they record? It was a way of getting to know them and it was very important to find the right people. “We need new blood to replace the old farts who can’t dig anymore,” he said with a chuckle in his voice, inferring that he was using the word purely as a term of endearment.
Under the licensing agreement allowing mudlarks to go detecting and dig holes along the Thames foreshore, the society is obliged to follow certain rules. Reporting all historical finds to the Museum of London was a fact emphasised again and again; selling a find on eBay was a no-no. So, if you joined T&F and wanted to become a mudlark, then that was always a possibility, although you would have to prove yourself first! Steve laughed when I said it might be easier to join the Freemasons, but quickly put me straight on why the procedure was necessary.
The Thames is a very dangerous environment. You need to know the tides and understand the river. “We are the only club who can teach you how to do that,” said Steve. “It can be a very strange place down there on the foreshore. One day it can be all rock, the next day mostly sand, then thick mud or all bone.”
What first alerted me to the T&F club was the . . . err . . . rather different and unusual web site created by the Chairman, Steve. I had heard that ‘somebody who was high up in the archaeological field’ had said that when he was feeling rather down he logged on to the site because it was: ‘Bloody hilarious and I learn a lot.’ Well, I can’t dispute that! The site is fun, fat, irreverent, often crude, but irresistible nevertheless and you are drawn to it like a moth to a light.
“We’re all familiar with the club site that shows its coins and artefacts displayed neatly and regimented mahogany cases,” reckoned Steve, and went on to say that he wanted to create something more visually exciting. On T&F the neat displays usually associated with other web sites and museums are absent. What you do get is a feast for the eyes with buttons, gold coins, bits of scrap, pilgrims’ badges, musket balls, clay pipes and all sorts of wonderful and interesting finds extracted from the Thames and exhibited in no apparent order, a style echoed in the Olympia display where visitors were encouraged to handle the finds, and where I caught up with him. Steve firmly believes that detecting is also about teaching and explaining to people what the hobby is all about, that we are not all ‘anoraks.’ “I want children especially to be enthused and excited by what they see,” said Steve, “and they won’t get that from a few shiny coins in a case. This is the first dirty web site from which they can learn!” Short pause, followed by a loud guffaw of laughter . . .
There are over 6000 photographs on the website. “Once you’ve seen a picture of a guy digging in a field then you’ve seen them all.” Explained Steve, “but the view from the Thames is different. It looks good and you are often covered in mud. The artefacts coming out are virtually the same as when they were dropped – jetons are recovered looking like gold.” I asked Steve to describe his website and he told me that it was comical, often very crude, but carried an important message. “It shows what we do and I have tried to make it more interesting and acceptable to everybody. People seem to love the style although it is sometimes irreverent and the finds are great. Once you have seen one Victorian coin, then you’ve seen them all and you may as well add a speech bubble to it. T&F isn’t expertly laid out like some clubs who may have a competent web designer. Our site hopefully shows the passion that the rest of the crew and myself give to the hobby. In other words, I’m naff on the computer . . .”
I’m not sure about the accuracy of that last statement.
Unusually for a metal detectorist, Steve’s special collection is of shoes and he has examples ranging from Roman to Medieval. I asked what sort of metal detector he used to find those and quick as a flash, I got the answer “Clark’s Minelab,” accompanied by another peal of laughter. This was the opportunity for him to remind me that you didn’t really need a detector to search the foreshore and it certainly wasn’t a requirement when joining T&F.
Steve happened to stumble across a forum on the net where somebody was asking the question: “Has anybody been detecting on the Thames?” One of the replies indicated that it was ‘terrible’ and the questioner shouldn’t bother buying a licence because it was ‘rubbish.’ The wrong advice, of course! It was likely, mused Steve, that the guy had gone equipped with his favourite detector and standard coil. The machine had ‘gone mad,’ because the contamination is massive. And I was reminded of another thing that T&F does. Foreshore searching is very different to field detecting and you have to re-learn how to use your detector. For example, I learnt that there are places with perhaps as many as 2000 nails per square foot, a blanket of irritability! Learn to use the detector under such conditions, have it tweaked, fit a 4” coil. Be prepared to listen and learn from the experts. It’s a completely new discipline!
I asked my ebullient host about his plans for the future and was told that we all need to promote detecting, recording of finds and ‘even’ working with archaeologists. Steve has already done some television work promoting the hobby and there are exciting projects planned for the future. Filming on the Thames foreshore has a bit more excitement to it. There are great and famous backgrounds like the Globe Theatre, locations are bang in the middle of town, but it can be extremely dangerous. Steve hopes to show in these programmes what a detectorist does.
Items pulled from the Thames invariably look good on camera. Compare this with the encrusted Georgian coin taken from a field. On the foreshore, there is a ‘window’ of opportunity in which you have to work and, in one episode, Steve will be shown down a hole fighting against the tide. Gripping Flash Gordon, knuckle-whitening stuff, done for a specific reason and all for promotion of safe and responsible metal detecting!
Steve was the Thames adviser for a recent film about two mudlarks who spy on each other from either side of the river. Eventually they meet on Tower Bridge and fall in love. This reminds me . . . Steve is looking for females to join T&F and would like to see more women taking up the hobby!
Steve Brooker (46) has been detecting since he was 15. It all started when he and his mate were sent out clutching a tenner each, with specific instructions to buy a pair of trousers. On the way they espied a second-hand detector in a shop window. The price was £20! You can guess what comes next – they pooled the money, bought the detector and were rewarded with a good wallop when they arrived home. Steve hasn’t looked back since – I wish him well – a great guy and a grand ambassador for the hobby.
If you wish to find out more about Thames and Field and the current situation, log on the website at: thamesandfield.com
Click on the image for details of Thames foreshore access including metal detecting, searching and digging – January 2017