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Page last updated at 06:04 GMT, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 07:04 UK
Porcelain pornography to brass buttons

Brass Buttons in the Museum of London

If you go down to the banks of the River Thames today, you're almost sure of a big surprise.

Whether it be old coins, dress buttons or artefacts of a little more peculiar nature, according to mudlarker Tony Pilson "there's usually something to be found".

Mudlarking is the activity of searching and scavenging in the mud on riverbanks for things of value or of historical interest. And for Tony, there is no place better to mudlark than on the 95-mile foreshore of the Thames, considered by some the largest open-air archaeological site in London.

"It's the luck of the draw - the uncertainty - that's the appeal," he says. "You can either poke the surface or, if you have a digging licence, maybe dig a little deeper."

While a general permit to look for artefacts allows the aspiring treasure hunter to dig only 7.5cm into the ground, a special mudlark's licence allows the enthusiasts to venture much further underneath the surface.

"The best thing I've ever found," says Tony, "is a silver wine taster, dated 1634, that is now in the Museum of London's collection."

Button bonanza

Ed Stourton and Tony Pilson
I collected the things that no-one else seemed to be interested in
Tony Pilson

Mudlarks have a duty to declare all discoveries of historical interest to the Museum of London.

Here they are identified and recorded before being returned to the finder.

Over the last 30 years, Tony and his friends from The Society of Thames Mudlarks have amassed a collection of more than 2,500 buttons ranging in date from the late 14th to the late 19th Century. They are now being donated to the Museum of London and include examples of buttons made of silver, pewter and semi-precious stones.

"It really is a remarkable and hugely important find and acquisition for the museum," says senior curator of the post-Medieval collections Hazel Forsyth.

"We've started to record each piece and longer term, we hope to produce an online resource with a small exhibition. The button trade in London has received little academic attention and therefore, we will set up various research projects to gain insight into the social and cultural life of Londoners."

This sentiment is echoed by Tony. "I collected the things that no-one else seemed to be interested in," he remarks. "I couldn't find any books on the subject".

Old and new

View of the Tower of London from river bank
It was prevalent during the Industrial Revolution
Mudlarks were usually young children or widowed women
It was considered one of the worst 'jobs' in history

The new museum collection contains mostly buttons and cufflinks, but mudlarks have collected all sorts of things including boathooks, pewter, knives, forks and even pipes used for smoking.

Once, Tony even found some 19th Century pornography. French in origin, it depicted in porcelain a number of female characters. "It had obviously been smashed up by customs so it couldn't be re-sold," he says. "All the pieces are sitting, at this moment, in a bag in a museum."

In Tony's opinion, the river is the best place to find these artefacts as he says they survive well in the Thames. "If it's going to survive anywhere, it will be in a river."

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