Monday, 14 May 2012

Pins found Mudlarking on the Thames.

Mudlarking, for me, has essentially been beach combing, wandering along the banks of the Thames, looking at the ground for things that catch my eye. I’ve wondered for while, what I’d find if I just sat down and looked closely at one patch. Last Friday I did just that, as I waited for my sister to join me.  I chose a slightly more muddy section, where erosion was uncovering pottery fragments from their centuries old resting place.  

I’ve been rather amused that my mudlarking to date has been quite’ gendered’, no digging or getting dirty for me. Only finding and probably looking for pottery, quintessential domestic remains. The boys on the foreshore invariably have their detectors, I assume metal their primary interest, coins, tokens, buttons, keys, buckles, musket balls, canon balls and badges.

Scanning my selected patch  I found my first metal find – pins – a wry smile about their domestic origins. I’d seen the guys on Mudmen uncovering pins on the foreshore, so I was half looking for these and there they were, not exactly in their hundreds but quite numerous.

17th ? Century Pins found Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore
Amazingly old, web searches suggest pins found on the Thames foreshore are from the 14th – 17th centuries. Incredibly they were all handmade as pin machines weren’t in use until the early 19th century. The  main body, the ‘shank’, was usually  made of thin brass wire. The pins heads  made separately from a spiral of thinner brass gauge, affixed to the shank and then dipped into molten lead/tin  to solder. Longitudinal grooves in a pinner’s bone, held the shafts whilst they were being filed to a point.

16th Century Pinner's Bone  with grooves at top where pins were laid for sharpening, from Portable Antiquities Scheme
Pins were used to hold clothes in place and used extensively in ruffs, skirts, veils and partlets. They were  expensive. A 1563 warrant gives the prices ‘lviij m [58,000] small velvet and hed pynnes at xx d [20 pence] m [per 1,000]’.  The industry was deemed so important that in 1483 Parliament passed a law prohibiting imports. In the next century they were imported in large quantities from France until John Tilsby established his Gloucestershire business, employing over 1,500 people. London pin makers formed their own corporation in 1636.

Ordinary people would have a small number of pins, the wealthy thousands. Janet Arnold documents the pin purchases from Elizabetht I over 6 months
"Item to Roberts Careles our Pynner for xviij [18] thousand great verthingale Pynnes xx [20] thowsand great Velvet Pynnes and nyne thowsande smale hed Pynnes and xix [19] thowsand Small hed Pynnes all of our great warderobe"

Pins were carefully looked after and sharpened periodically. They were extracted after use so as not to tarnish the fabric and placed in a pincushion. The portrait of Countess of Southampton shows her pincushion on  the dressing table.

Countess of Southampton's Dressing Table with Pin Cushion 1590. From It's About Time


  1. Great pins! I've never found any, but I will try and look out for some now. Fascinating stuff!

  2. These are brilliant,speaking as someone who grubs up bits and bobs all over the place but not the Thames. I am actually interested if you want to do a swap for some flint tools some time because I am doing a project for the Pendle witch trial and need to see the sort of pin they were accused of stealing for real.Let me know if you want to trade up.

  3. I once found a gold pins with the sharp end spilt into two which may have been for keeping hair in place. Are there any experts out there who could enlighten me - I could send a photo? Thanks

    1. Sorry for taking time to reply, there is a good facebook page, London mudlark, where you can send photos of finds, she has a huge following who are very helpful in identifying finds. Good luck Julia