Sunday, 28 June 2015

Thames Mudlarking — A Georgian Fob Story (Pt2)

There's times when a discovery is so unusual and interesting that it demands that you sit down straight down on the ground, and stop. I was arrested and taken into custody. It was such handsome thing to have found that I couldn't quite believe I had. It didn't seem possible that such a delicacy could have survived two centuries in a puddle of mud without breaking apart into hundreds of tiny pieces and utterly destroyed.

Holding it up to the light and turning it over in my hands was one of those rare transcendental moments that mudlarks and detectorists experience just a few times in long careers. You know what I mean, I'm sure, because you've had them too. When you flipped up your first Celtic stater, or that lovely gold posy ring that now sits gleaming at the summit of the mountain of junk you've amassed. That was one of them, wasn't it?

On the shingle I sat for what seemed an age in reverie before the rising tide forced a move. When I got up I climbed Trig Lane Stairs, walked through the winding streets of the city to Liverpool Street Station, and there caught the fast train back home to Romford. Hurtling through Ilford at 100mph I realised I should have stayed on a little longer and worked at finding its missing parts...

Hardly a thing in this square yard of the forshore is natural. It's 95% man-made

Returning next day I wasn't sure I'd find more of it but I trawled through the pocket of mud it had emerged from and scanned the rocks nearby. Sure enough I did find another length of chain, a single link and part of a sprung hook. But it was still incomplete. After an hour or two spent dissolving mud in the Thames, sifting through the sand and gravel that remained behind, but without success,  I finally resigned myself to the certainty that I never would find another fragment. What was missing was probably missing when it was thrown in the river two centuries before.

It was quite some time before I had any notion about what might have happened just before it was discarded and why such a pretty bauble would under certain imaginable circumstances be too hot to handle. 

It is a gentleman's watch chain. At the time of its disposal it would have had the appearance of being made of solid gold, but it isn't. Gilded with a very thin skin of 18-carat gold (the only quality sold at the time) it would have appeared to be, but beneath the surface the time has exposed a sham because it's actually made of the eponymous alloy, 'pinchbeck'. This is a copper zinc alloy invented in the early 18th Century by the Fleet Street watch and clock maker, Christopher Pinchbeck, and so so closely does it resembles 18-carat gold that when the gilding rubs away, as it had with this piece, you wouldn't be able to tell.

Pinchbeck didn't intend to deceive anyone, It was simply his solution to a problem. Gold is too expensive to make large objects from so when a client such Louis XIV requires a musical clock but only wants to pay £500 for it, then a clock in pinchbeck is what he got from Pinchbeck. Of course it wasn't long before the jewellery trade was making items from it, and crooks passing their wares off as solid gold.

The metal became very popular with the gentry who would wear items made from it whilst travelling the thief infested roads of England. If they were waylaid and their possessions were stolen then the miscreants got away with metals worth almost nothing as scrap. It must have been a comfort for the victims to know that when the gang flew the scene of the crime and arrived back at the rookery, they'd set to work on the haul and discover that apart from what coin of the realm they'd pilfered, the exercise had been a waste of their time in terms of jewellery.

Of course they could still sell the pinchbeck items to their fence who'd pay pinchbeck price. However, when an item is marked with a monogram as this is, then no thief or fence in his right mind would have it. 

Traceable directly back to the victim it would have been stripped of its anonymous and saleable pendants and disposed of hastily. Failure to do so promptly may have meant lodgings in Newgate followed by a short a trip up the road to Tyburn...

I think that a plausible explanation of how this watch chain came to be where it was found. Criminals have always used the Thames as a convenient dumping ground for incriminating evidence and that is as true today as it was in the past. Every year I imagine there's an arsenal of firearms ditched over the bridges of London that are never found because they fall in the central channel. In Georgian times, though, there was only the crowded bustle of one bridge but plenty of silent and secret access to the riverside where hot property could be safely disposed of. 

I wonder if it's just coincidence that it was found in a puddle of mud about as far from the present day embankment as I could possibly throw it? 

Well, perhaps it is. 

But there's more to examine before I admit a riotous and unruly imagination and pitch this pretty chain of evidence into the Thames... 

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