AFTER TELLING Matt Brown of the Londonist that I wanted to interview people who scavenged on the Thames foreshore, he introduced me to Jane Parker at a London Historians pub session. Jane kindly agreed to let me interview her at one of her favoured scavenging spots in Wapping. One of her enthusiasms is for collecting bits of old clay pipes which she then makes into jewellery and sells. She's been doing this for years.
Clay pipe stems can be found in abundance along the Thames foreshore and they're sometimes dug up in gardens and allotments too. This isn't surprising given the popularity of tobacco in London since the late sixteenth century, when clay pipes were first used. Walter Raleigh helped popularise pipe smoking and, in 1598, the German lawyer Paul Hentzen noted:
At these spectacles, and every where else, the English are constantly smoaking Tobacco, and in this manner; they have pipes on purpose made of clay, into the farther end of which they put the herb, so dry that it may be rubbed into powder, and putting fire to it, they draw the smoak into their mouths, which they puff out again, through their nostrils, like funnels, along with it plenty of phlegm and defluxion from the head.
Some pipes were imported from Holland or bought from other production centres in Bristol and Shropshire, but many were made locally. They underwent frequent small changes in design which today help archaeologists to date sites. The Museum of London identifies 33 different common designs, each typically spanning a 30-year generational period from 1580 all the way to 1910.
After a few minutes of scanning the foreshore's debris, Jane put together this array of pipe stems and other found objects (note the fragment from a jar of Dundee marmalade):
Wapping was proving to be a productive hunting ground thanks to its long occupation and the presence of riverside taverns. At the beginning of the 17th century it consisted of little more than a single street with alleyways running off it. John Stow's A Survey of London, published in 1603, names the area as 'Wapping in the Woze', woze being a word related to ooze and meaning a marshy place. He described it as:
The usuall place of execution for hanging of Pirats & sea Rovers, at the low water marke there to remaine, till three tides had overflowed them, was never a house standing within these 40 yeares: but since the gallowes being after remooved farther off, a continuall streete, or filthy straight passage, with Alleyes of small tenements or cottages builded, inhabited by saylors victualers, along by the river of Thames, almost to Radcliff, a good mile from the Tower.
Something of that basic street plan can still be seen in John Roque's map of 1746:
A brisk wind was blowing along the river that afternoon so the interview was carried out in a tiny, sunless bay to shield the mic better. It was chilly and the river curved away eastwards: an empty, cyclopean avenue. Jane had spotted a fragment of glazed earthenware which she identified as Tudor. For a moment the weight of the city's grandeur and long history seemed to press down on me.
Since the interview, Jane's asked me to emphasise some of the dos and don'ts of scavenging on the Thames foreshore. First, anyone can go on the foreshore but take care and keep a close eye on the tides. Don't wander far from steps or stairs. Wear sturdy shoes or boots because sharp objects like broken glass and even hypodermic needles may be encountered. It is okay to collect things from the surface of the foreshore, but you need a permit if you're going to scrape away at the foreshore's surface with any kind of implement. If you find anything that could be of archaeological interest then you must report it to the Museum of London.
More information about accessing the Thames foreshore can be found here on the Port of London Authority's website. Jane's website displays and sells all kinds of jewellery and accessories made from foreshore finds.