Poor Victorian mudlarks braved dangerous conditions to find practical items like coal, iron, copper nails and ropes which they could sell in order to buy food and essentials for themselves and their families. If they found tools, they would sell them to seamen in exchange for biscuits and meat which were rare and special treats. Out of desperation, these young children went mud-larking to survive.
In the 19th century, author Henry Mayhew visited the Thames foreshore several times and interviewed some of the mudlarks. This extract from his book, London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851, describes a nine-year-old mudlark who was dressed in tattered clothes:
“His trousers were worn away up to his knees, he had no shirt, and his legs and feet (which were bare) were covered with chilblains. He had been three years mud-larking and supposed he should remain a mudlark all his life. What else could he be, for there was nothing else that he knew how to do?
He could neither read nor write and did not think he could learn if he tried ever so much. All the money he got he gave to his mother, and she bought bread with it. The boy had taken to mud-larking, he said, because his clothes were too bad for him to look for anything better. He worked every day, with 20 or 30 boys, who might all be seen at daybreak with their trousers tucked up, groping about and picking out the pieces of coal from the mud on the banks of the Thames. He went into the river up