Part 2 of Anne Marie's interview with Anna Borzello about her years foraging along the foreshore for remnants of the lives of everyday people, breadcrumbs that lead to snapshots of the past, bringing into sharper focus the commonplace, for the times, routines of ordinary people. Anna is a crafty historian, able to spin an engaging narrative around each artifact she finds.
In this episode, Anne Marie talks to Anna Borzello. Previously, she worked as the BBC correspondent for Focus in Africa in Uganda from 1995 to 2001. These days you can find Anna on the River Thames foreshore foraging for historical artifacts which tell the story of London’s expansive history.
Anna admittedly plans her life around the river’s tides. Before she commits to doctor’s appointments, lunch dates, fill in the blank, she first consults the tide charts. Low tide wins out every time. It was such a pleasure to talk to Anna about her experiences as a mudlark along the Thames foreshore, and I think you will see why, not only is she well-versed on London’s history, she is absolutely delightful!
Anna Borzello on reporting for Focus: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p08njxld
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Port of London Authority, Foreshore Permit: http://www.pla.co.uk/Environment/Thames-foreshore-permits
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Hello fellow armchair historians, Anne Marie here. Today you get to hear part two of my interview with mudlark Ana Barcelo about her years foraging along the foreshore for remnants of the lives of everyday people, breadcrumbs that lead to snapshots of the past, bringing into sharper focus, the common place for the times routines of ordinary people, Ana is a crafty historian able to spin an engaging narrative around each artifact she finds, you know, one of the things you've talked about, which I think is the thing, it's that tangibility of touching the past, and who was the last person that held that item in their hand, and it fell away from them. And this is the first time it's like, it's almost like being in a time machine, right like that, to be able to touch that history and imagine it, and you have a very good imagination, the way that you've drawn out some of, you know, the ideas about the pins, for example, that was amazing. You know, it just it does seem like it takes a special, not a special but a certain kind of person to appreciate that. So like, I have this great nephew, Finley, who is nine years old, and he loves the old things. And I'm like, Thank you, God, for one child out of all of the, you know, great nieces and nephews that I have that he is obsessed, and my daughter, her eyes glaze over when I start talking about this stuff. So I'm getting to something I'm not sure what it is. But Are any of your kids interested in this?Anna Borzello:
So my children, when I started my blog, we were really young. And so at the beginning, I could brag I had because I'm a single parent, I couldn't leave them at home, I had to bring them with me. So I bribed them, then they do it for a doughnut when they were like eight, you know, that was really easy, I could get away with a lot, then it went up to sort of pizzas, then Lego box sets, they actually had to cash pay them to come with me. And now we're at this time where they can actually stay at home. And also they have friends and their friends come round. And if they a lot of their friends love my malarkey objects and want to know more about them, and offer I can entice my children to come out with me if their friends come along, too. But I think there's there are different ways to appreciate my blocking objects. You know, I appreciate the way they make me connect with the past. I know that other people who appreciate them because of the way they look or how they're made, you know, who appreciate the the methods of production of pottery over time, for example. So there are different ways of connecting with these objects that you find mud locking. There's another way that I connect, which which I always find peculiar, but it really brings things alive for me, which is whenever I pick up smashed pottery, I imagine I imagine someone's throwing it against a wall in a shouting match. And for some reason, it makes me think about anger people in the past having emotions, or you find rings, for example, that have been lost or cufflinks. cufflinks are always falling out of gentleman sleeves in the 18th century. And every time I find a cufflink, I hear them swearing when they get home. Again, and I don't know why but there's something about those petty everyday emotions much more than the sort of grand emotions of battle that really make me connect. And that is something that mud locking has brought for me i you actually hear the Irit feel the irritation in my own body. And also, I think it's interesting to think about the traces that we're leaving behind, and what the modern day rubbish says about us, you know, how will other people read us and read our history. So for example, on the foreshore, there's a lot of plastic, you know, and I often think there's a lot of Tampax applicators, you know, tampon applicators, which are obviously really unpleasant. But at the same time, I'm really aware that if I found one of those in 200 years time, I think it was the most fascinating Oh, my Goodness me. This is what they did in the 21st century. I can't believe it. So I find that I try to I'm trying to approach the world in that way to make the rubbish seamless, disgusting. And I always pick up children's plastic toys as well. There's a particular spot where they always wash up. And there's something about those toys and how they connect with the little toys that I found from the past and little tiny children's plate made out of pewter, for example, these little toys that make you realize that there were children who were loved by their mothers who were given little to toys to play with. And they were there in the past. And they're there now that we have, where we have, we have there's a continuity of feeling and emotion between us all.Anne Marie Cannon:
Yeah. That's amazing.Anna Borzello:
So I know that you're very interested in me finding objects that will tell a particular story and connect to particular people. Now, a lot of the objects I find, are older. So if you get to Victorian times, they're more likely to be inscribed with someone's name, or in the 20th, early 20th century, like a dog tag, for example, much easier to trace. A lot of these older objects are harder to connect to individuals, except for the traders tokens I've mentioned before, which will give the name of a shop and a shopkeeper. And through that you can often investigate their whole life. And when I've tried to investigate really modern objects and got nowhere I found this elite watch recently that had only been lost about six years ago and tried to what I wanted to find out why it was in the tabs. You know, it was a story of how it ended up there. You know, how did things end up in the water, I imagined it was something nefarious, I got nowhere at all, despite ringing absolutely everybody and writing to the watch manufacturer, because it was a limited, a limited edition watch. But I can understand the image, there is something you know, really exciting about being able to attach an object to a person, and to follow it on its journey. But when they're just anonymous objects, they still have this life of their own, as I've described.Anne Marie Cannon:
So I've also seen you in videos where you go to bottle dumps. So you don't just you don't just mudlarkAnna Borzello:
bottle digging is really well bottled it is quite interesting. Just because the whole notion of there being this massive population explosion and disposable goods in the 19th century, and people having to decide, you know, how do we get rid of all this waste, and particularly in London with all these people, you know, having to ship the waste elsewhere. And often the waste went to a brick makers because most of it was made up of ash. And so the brick makers and took on the job of getting rid of the rubbish so that they could use the ash to make the bricks and you'll often find old kind of bottle dumps near old brick works. So there is something exciting about finding some of these bottles. And there is something always exciting about unearthing treasure. For me personally, I love being near water. And there's something about the jumbled up pneus of the Thames, where Roman artifacts can exist next to artifacts that were lost 1500 years later, that I find really exciting in a way that the dump doesn't quite move me. I mean, it's lovely to be out with friends looking for these objects, but the Earth doesn't excite me as much as the water. However, I do like looking for sea glass. Because I mean, this seems to be such a niche interest, once you get the cigar. So you know the cigars has come from a nearby bottle making factory that was up in the late Victorian times, you can then spend quite some time trying to connect the little tiny bits of colored glass to a particular type of bottle. Yes, this was a poisoned bottle. I mean, sometimes I think I can't believe I'm doing this. But there's a certain pleasure to be had in that just that matching of this little object to these bottles. But yes, I find the notion of all this excess trash generated by all these Londoners at this time of industrial expansion quite interesting.Anne Marie Cannon:
I gather up things wherever I go, like I'm apparently a natural mud Lurker because I'm always looking in the dirt and finding things. I live in a National Historic Landmark District in Colorado. And I mean, our history here goes back to you know, the 1850s and so I'm always picking up like broken bits of glass and pottery, and I've always admired like when I watched Nicola White's YouTube videos, how she has all her things around her. And what you just showed me like I'm obsessed with your shelf that you were showing me so this past Christmas, my boyfriend and I we have this old family curio cabinet and we moved it upstairs and I finally have my shelf that I have all those little things that I find in it. And it just it's a weird thing. It makes me feel complete. When people come into my house, they look at it. And I've always said about my podcast is sad. You know, I do believe that history is the touchstone to meaning a meaningful conversation. And that's why like my blogs, I love talking to my blogs. because you intuitively get that. And there's so much to learn and to talk about it is a rabbit hole of history that, like you said, you bring something home and it's, there's this item and you learn about it. And then you end up learning about a bunch of other things that might not have to do with that item. You know, like false teeth from 200 years ago, I get why you do what you do. And I love it. And I love that you are so willing to share it with my audience. Thank you. Is there any questions that I didn't ask you that you want to talk aboutAnna Borzello:
that other categories of objects that I just find fascinating because of what they've told me about the past, for example, and I'm showing you here on my on my screen, actually, but unfortunately, listeners, you can't see it. It's a little tiny, tin glaze pot from the 17th century, very small, and I found it on a very low tide. And what it is, is an apothecary pot. So it's a little jar that was used by basically chemists in the late 17th century to give treatments to people of the middling class. So if you were poor, you couldn't afford this sort of treatment, you went to something called a cunning man or woman, as essentially a traditional healer or witch doctor, you go for a spell. So a real treatment from an apothecary would have been put in this pot. And I was really fascinated, I thought, oh, look and find out what apothecaries did. And I was very, in particular, interested by their ingredients. And what I discovered was they had these most marvelous ingredients. They had things like sparrows, brain, and lion fat. And then there was a whole craze for a very long time for something called Mamiya. Which is actually desiccated mummy, as in Egyptian mummy. And they apparently had all these incredible properties. It could cure tuberculosis, everybody wanted it. And I find that really interesting because it made me realize that people in that era were quite cosmopolitan, you know, you think of people in the past are sort of huddling around not having a notion of the outside world. But actually, they knew about Egyptian mummies. They knew that they existed, they knew that they had these magical powers that could transform your health. And at about the time that this pot was made, which is, as I said, late 1600s, that apparently, Mumia had fallen into disrepute, because some people were actually a desiccating, body, other sorts of bodies, and passing it off as Egyptian mummies. And so in the end, people thought the meal, you know, because it was too risky to take because it wasn't a real object. Eventually, pharmacists, apothecary stopped using it. But I just felt that was just extraordinary that from that little object, you got a view of the kind of objects that were coming into people's lives in this sort of extraordinary cosmopolitan worldview that they might have had.Anne Marie Cannon:
That is amazing. That's a lovely little pot toAnna Borzello:
taste a lovely little pot to I mean, there's lots all the objects are like that they all spark these sort of extraordinary stories, even something very humble like this, this little green tops, it looks a little kind of green bit of pottery would fit on the end of my thumb, it's got like a little nipple on top. What's that you think when you find it for the first time, what it actually is, is a top of a Tudor money box. And they were used in the theatres on the south bank of the river, at the end of the 1500s, the beginning of the 1600s to collect money for all those shows, like Shakespeare's Globe, you know, it could have been a pot from a Shakespeare play, and people will go in and they put their penny into the slot of this box. At the end of the day, the pot was smashed. And then the money was pocketed by the by the box office. And I think that's, that's why there's so many of them on the foreshore. But you think my goodness me, and then through that, you realize that actually, for a long time, all the sinful occupations were on the south bank of the river, people had to cross the river to get that, you know, sin was in a specially confined area. And I found that quite interesting because when I used to live in Nigeria, I remember going to the north once and there was a sort of sinful Christian area actually. And that was also cordoned off from the rest of the Surya run part of the city. So I find it just amazing sort of parallel to think that there was this cordoned off world 400 years ago in London.Anne Marie Cannon:
I love where you you bring the conversation and I love your enthusiasm, and I'm hearing it in sound bites, so I'm really excited about that. I don't know I'm jealous because you get to live that life. Like if I had a life to live, it would be being obsessed with the tide and going to the foreshore. I'm coming in May. So I'm coming in May at the end of May the beginning of June. and I don't get to really think about, well, when's the best time of year to come? When's the tide going to be this or that or the other? And I imagine over time, you just intuitively get a sense of when the best times to go, are there different places to go, that you feel are better at certain times to find things, or how do you decide where you're gonna go on the foreshore?Anna Borzello:
Well, now, a lot of it has to do with because there's more people going on the foreshore and I prefer it when there's less people, I tend, where I go, often is often directed by how poppin I think a particular site might be at that time of day, that determines where I go. And then there spots I think, a good to look at when the tide is very low. Because I think there might be areas in the exposed mud with the rarely exposed mud. And there are other areas when I know that you might find stuff sort of up the back wall, you know, thrown up amongst a shingle. So that sort of that sort of other considerations that I make when I decide where to go. And also sometimes it's just random, you think, maybe I'll go to IKEA and stop off on the foreshore on the way, it's on the way. It's all that route.Anne Marie Cannon:
So you asked me what do I do for a living? Obviously, my blogging is your hobby or passion? Do you have a vocation that you do aside from my blogging? And how do you fit all that together?Anna Borzello:
No, I did for a very long time. So I was a journalist for a long time. I was a, as I mentioned, as a foreign correspondent in Africa for a very long time, which was a really wonderful job. But for most of the time, when I'm not mad larking, I am a full time parent. At the moment. Hopefully, I'll go back to journalism one day, because I very much love it.Anne Marie Cannon:
Interests interesting. What do you do with your objects when you bring them home?Anna Borzello:
I clean them, which is a really tedious and filthy process, it really annoys the children. They say please don't do it in the kitchen sink, please don't do it in the kitchen, they begged me repeatedly, it's really hard not to do it in the kitchen. Because it's so convenient. I dump stuff in the garden and eventually get around to cleaning it. And then I thought it and the things that I decided to keep and not returned to the foreshore. When I renovated my kitchen, I actually renovated the whole kitchen around shells, which I had specially built, just so I could display my fines. And so I sought those objects onto those shelves. And I know that other mud locks have other ways of of displaying their objects at home. The pullout drawers from the old Victorian cabinets are very popular. Some people unfortunately, unfortunately for them, they come to my house and they're terribly jealous, I've got my finds out because their partners won't allow them to have their objects on display. Because I think they just think this is honestly why would I want a load of bottles from a rubbish tub in my kitchen is what I think they feel. And when they come to my house, I've seen a couple of people who look kind of so woeful, and then look at my shelves, if only I could have my stuff out. But they're not allowed to you by their partner. So I think all of us have different ways of sorting and keeping our fines and some people are very, very selective. They like to keep it terribly small. And you'd like they'd like to keep only the most perfect things. And other people like to have this sort of expensive collection that they feel better reflects the foreshore. So I think I'm somewhere in the middle. Okay,Anne Marie Cannon:
I was gonna ask you. So do you have displays throughout your house or just in your kitchen?Anna Borzello:
I only have that display. I'm trying to be somewhat selective. I have find scattered around the house. But my my main display is in my kitchen and I do judge people when they come in. If someone comes in and they don't notice my display, I think why did you display? I used to be exactly the same. I used to feel that way about books. If people came into my house. Well, I used to have many more books than I do now. And they didn't look at my books. I think well, why don't you look at your books. Why don't you want to know what I've got to read? And so yeah, I can be a little bit judgmental like that. So I get thrilled when the children bring their friends around. And the friends that gravitate towards my towards my finds always get extra points thereAnne Marie Cannon:
keepers for friends that I love that. Well that's like my nephew Finley who, like I said, He's nine years old, and he is obsessed by his collections of coins and, you know, toys that he's found metal detecting. And just, he's exactly how you described yourself. That's exactly what he does. He he collects them and then he organizes them. And then he pulls them out and when people come to visit and he likes to talk about his things and kindred spirits, I totally get it. So over the years you've amassed this collection, and not only that you've amassed this knowledge of these items in the He's histories. And then with your imagination, you've taken it to another place, which I really connect with. So what do you do? Aside from collecting? How do you share this knowledge in this history with other people.Anna Borzello:
So, there's a really big community of mud locks on Instagram. And it's a really big and very supportive community. So people tend to post and then add to each other's knowledge and share. And that's been really interesting also on Twitter and Facebook, but Instagram has been the been the main focus. So that that's one one way that I share what I find, but also in the last three years have been these wonderful exhibitions by mudlark in central London during the Thames festival. So the first one was in 2019. And then there was another one it skipped a year because of locked down, there was one in 2021 and 2022. And the last one was brilliant. We had an exhibition of our finds in the Guild Hall in London, St. Paul's Cathedral, the National Maritime Museum. And it's organized by Jason Sandy, the last one who you had on your podcast. So I've exhibited all of those. And my friend who is a lecturer in computational arts design with this rather magical machine, it's called a magical McLaughlan machine, where you can virtually mudlark, you put your hand inside, and it appears as if you're holding this object in your hand. And it's a way of people to connect with the object. And after they put their hand in, they often want to know more about it. And then that's a way of entering into my display. And I've particularly I've noticed that children love it. Interestingly, neurodivergent children really, really love it. And actually, a teacher from a specialist school for autistic children asked me and my friend to take our magical McLaughlin machine along to his school and try it out on the kids there. And they were really, really keen. It was fascinating. And I said to the kids afterwards, how did you find that and they sort of, I can't speak for the neurotypical people. But for us, it was absolutely wonderful, which I thought was brilliant. And I think there's something about the immediacy of this, of these objects, and also handling the objects because you pass around amongst the students. And it's been a way for them to connect with history and a really manageable portion. It's not abstract. It's not like history was when I was at school, and it was just this remote thing. It's something that comes up very close. And I've been to a few schools now. And it's always been extremely well received. And I hope to do more of it. Because there's something so exciting about children's faces when they get interested, and they want to know more, and they find the stories entertaining. And if you throw in a bit of poo, which is quite easy when you're talking about the terms, you always get them engaged. So I was showing a little bit of poo story. And the thing with a little bit something disgusting, something a little bit gruesome, something, you know, something that makes so go, Oh, that's so revolting, you know, lice or poo or something yucky?Anne Marie Cannon:
Is there a place we can go and look at your, like a video of your mudlark machine?Anna Borzello:
Oh, I think that it probably if you scroll back to Instagram, there is one I think it would have been last year sometime in 2021. I think there's a video on there. Okay, maybe I'll try and redo another one at some point.Anne Marie Cannon:
All right, I'm writing this down, because I link out Why do you think that so many people have become interested in mud larking?Anna Borzello:
I think one really boring reason is that it was has been presented as an opportunity in the past few years. So I think there's a whole generation of people who stumbled upon my blocking themselves. And then from about 2018, there had been a couple of books produced. And that generated quite a lot of publicity, and news articles and TV programs. So I think then people realized that it was something that you could do, and that gave permission to do it as well. And that's encouraged very many more people to go down to the foreshore. It seems hard to imagine. But actually, previously, even when I started my blocking, people didn't really realize you could go down to the foreshore if you went to the South Bank, there will be nobody down on the river at all. It was completely empty. And I remember at the beginning, when I opened the gate, Creek open and I'd walk down the steps, people would stop and stare, and they'd shout, what are you doing down there? What are you doing? And now it's become so popular that they're shouting, what have you found because everybody knows about mud locking? I mean, literally when I started, nobody knew and that's not very long ago. So I think that's the kind of boring reason why it's become popular. But the reason why it sees people's imagination is because It's a magical thing. We're in the middle of a huge international city. And yet right in the heart of that city, scattered on the ground, are all these incredible relics from the past, to tell you stories about the past, and which anybody can access, it's like crazy. It's like a museum has exploded in the middle of London. And someone said, You go low down and sort of loot it. I mean, I don't loot is probably the wrong word. Because of course, you're recording all your fines, and you're not stealing it, you're not profiting from it. But it is that kind of heady feeling. I can't believe this stuff's here. And I can pick it up. And I think that's why but also, the actual act of mud locking, is quite meditative. I mean, that's why I really loved it at the beginning, you're down there by yourself, by the water, there's the sound of the water in the middle of the city there the sound of gold, I'm really have a little bit of a thing about seagulls, I really loved them, I spent a lot of time taking photographs of them. And you're down there in this magical quiet space, just searching. And you never know what the lucky dip of the foreshore is going to throw up. So there's this wonderful sort of random quality, you'll never know what you get. And then as more people have joined, there's been more of a community evolving. And actually, people come from all sorts of different walks of life. And yet we have a common interest. And I have even someone as antisocial as myself, has made many friends. I'm surprised how many friends I've made, whose company I enjoy. We just went to a mother walking social pub meet recently and all sat together and chatted about our shared interests. It's a really brilliant pastime based on this magical premise that treasure lies for all of the city.Anne Marie Cannon:
It's interesting, because there's people that I know from the UK that I've said, My barking and they don't know what it is, or even from London. And then I get to tell them, which I always appreciate that launch into telling what my knowledge is about, you know, the Thames and the tidal River and all those things. And the thing I really like about how it appears anyways, is that that community, there isn't a sense of competition. There's just a sense of passion, a mutual passion, and desire to learn more through other people's experiences. And obviously, it's an opportunity to talk about what, what we've learned, right? And it just, I love that energy. And I think that's part of the dynamic that makes it so compelling. When I go to YouTube or Instagram and participate in the groups, it's that sense of that shared interest in connecting to the past and I love that I just, it's basic, I love it. And I love that you are so passionate like I said already in the the way you've shared your knowledge and your experiences. I really appreciate that.Anna Borzello:
Well thank you. It's been very enjoyable talking to you,Anne Marie Cannon:
Anna Brazil. Oh, thank you so much for being here. I have really enjoyed talking to you and seeing your collections.Anna Borzello:
Thank you so much. Thank you for coming. Thank you for appreciating my collection that's very important. was lovely to talk to you and to meet you.Anne Marie Cannon:
There you have it on up or Zelo mudlark and crafty historian. To find out more about mud larking and Ana, be sure to check out our episode notes. Thanks for joining us have a great week. armchair historians is produced by Belgian rabbit productions hosted by Anne Marie cannon music this week is strings by gold Tiger sound editing and designed by Anne Marie cannon