Mudlarking

This past semester I was enrolled in a fourth year English course titled London: Monster City. Within the course I was asked to read and analyze a variety of texts composed by or about early London, England, and the course content was absolutely fascinating. For one of the final assignments I had to analyze several different pieces of artwork with ties to the early history of London, and I chose to focus on a painting by Henry Mayhew from his 1861 volume “London Labour & London Poor”:

mudlark

This painting depicts the image of a young male Mudlark, a Mudlark being a term I had never heard of prior to taking this course. Wikipedia defines a Mudlark as: “… someone who scavenges in river mud for items of value, a term used especially to describe those who scavenged this way in London during the late 18th and 19th centuries” (Wikipedia 2017). It explains how Mudlarks scrounged the muddy banks of the River Thames when the tide was low in hopes of discovering anything of value to sell, and how for those plagued by poverty, being a Mudlark was a means to get by financially. Something I found to be quite unsettling about this occupation was that Mudlarks were typically children between the ages of eight and fifteen or, in contrast, the elderly, both men and women. An additional disturbing detail about those who were Mudlarks is that they often discovered the corpses of animals and humans along the banks of the Thames and furthermore excrement from a nearby sewer. The article concludes by stating that Mudlarking is still in existence today in London, though a Mudlark requires a license from the Port of London Authority. The Gentle Author explains that the Thames no longer contains sewage and makes specific reference to Steve Brooker, an individual who chose to become involved with Mudlarking because of his love for history. His choosing to become a Mudlark has exposed him to tremendous opportunities, one such opportunity being his signing of a contract with the History Channel to engage in a series titled “Mudmen”, and the article explains that Mudlarking in London today is vastly different from Mudlarking in London in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Reading about Mudlarks in early London prompted me to consider how a contemporary interpretation of Mudlarks could be bargain hunters or even pawn store operators – these individuals seek rare and valuable items in hopes of selling them to buyers and earning profit in doing so. Granted, the conditions experienced by a Mudlark were vastly different that the conditions experienced by bargain hunters/pawn store owners and operators, but the goal these people hope to achieve within their work is comparable. Perhaps this comparison serves as an example of how occupations should not divide persons because of their relation to status or social hierarchy.

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