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Interview

Nicola White p2

Historian, artist and mudlark Nicola White talks about the journeys of discovery that resulted from finding tiny objects on the banks of the Thames and other rivers…

READERSVOICE.COM: The Victorian Souls piece you made, with three shoe soles on driftwood seems to capture the mystery of the artefacts you find on places like the Medway and the Thames foreshores. The pipestems and bottles and buttons put pictures in your mind of the people who owned them but you usually can never know about them. Is there a particular object you’ve found that you’d love to know the story behind, or about the person who’d owned it, like a Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalos pipe, or even a stash of jewelry and watches you found in a sock?

NICOLA WHITE: I think it is true to say that each and every item I find has a story behind it, and I would love to know each one! I recently found a beautiful knife which I think belonged to a sailor, and it has a hand carved bone handle, with the intials “HT” engraved on it. Of course I wonder who is “HT” and what was his life like. Did he sail the world. What tales it could tell if it could speak!

RV: It’s great how some artefacts lead you on detective stories, like the luggage tag from Fred Jury, who you found had lived from 1873-1932, and who was a WW1 veteran who’d travelled to Sydney to enlist in WW1 before being injured by a grenade in France. And then you found the story of his marriage and tracked down his tiny overgrown grave (no longer forgotten). Were there some other particularly satisfying experiences you had investigating the provenance of an object?

NW: Yes, absolutely. I found a button from Millbank prison which was built in 1816 and closed in the 1880s. This led me on a fascinating journey of discovery about the gruesome prison conditions in Millbank – which was where convicts were kept until they were deported to Australia or elsewhere.
I also found a human jawbone which took me on a real journey in my imagination – wondering if he had once been a prisoner on a prison hulk ship moored in Woolwich. Recently I found a corroded tag from a dog’s collar in the mud. As I was researching it, I found out about the millions of pets who were euthanised during WW2. You just never know where a mudlarking find will take you and what you will learn.

RV: Things like the button from the Royal Orphanage of Wolverhampton, tip you off onto some interesting aspects of history. How it was founded in 1850 for children whose families had died in a cholera epidemic. Which has more thrill for you, the discovery of artefacts, or learning the history behind them?

NW: That is a good question. I love both parts. I love the finding, and I love the research. I think they both go together very well. It is thrilling to go to the foreshore, not knowing what you will find, and what you will be researching next. It is like a treasure hunt, and afterwards you are richer in knowledge that you were before!

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