Museum of Obsolete Professions: Mud Lark

Or a very tough way to earn a pittance

In London, England, mud larks were the poor desperate enough to scrape a living scavenging off the mud of the Thames for anything of value.  Low tide exposed banks studded with whatever the day’s water had carried in or the dense river traffic had dropped.  By the 18th and 19th centuries, an existence could be scratched from collecting bits of coal to be sold to the neighbours, rag and bone for the rag and bone shop or bits of rope to sold wet or dry.  A great find would be a hammer or a saw or some copper nails from the boats that lay in the mud.

London Mud Lark

Kids between 8 and 15 were most frequent, mostly male, but some females took to it, as well as some driven to it in their old age.  Henry Mayhew, that chronicler of London’s, poor says many old women could be seen among them, bent nearly double with age and infirmity, especially pitiable in the winter, scouring the mud for some means to keep themselves alive.  When they had managed to fill an old basket or kettle with refuse from the tide, it was all they could do to carry it home.

Conditions were filthy.  Raw sewage washed through as well as corpses of dead animals and, all too frequently, those of human victims of suicide, crime, or misadventure.  The Thames was also a ready receptacle for unwanted babies.  Mud larks cut their feet on broken glass, nails and other refuse, suffering the resulting infection and disease.  They wore unspeakable rags that only half covered them.  Those that got themselves arrested, discovered that prison, with food and something to wear, was a surprisingly comfortable holiday.

By the end of the 19th century, mud larking was no longer acceptable.  No one regretted the disappearance of the occupation.

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