Pins and Things; Mudlarking for Treasures in the Thames

30 April 2023, by Liz Anderson

In this week's blog, historian and licensed mudlark Liz Anderson shares some of her finds from her searches around the Thames; specifically, pins. Liz walks us through the variety of types of pins that are found in the shores of the river, along with the in-depth histories of these tiny artefacts.

I’m a historian and licensed Thames mudlark (NB a permit from the Port of London Authority is required for anyone searching the foreshore for artefacts) and have been mudlarking for the last eight years. It’s my passion and joy.

One of the most common mudlarking finds are handmade pins. They can be difficult to spot initially, buried in Thames mud, eroding out at each low tide. A trip to the river is never complete without a handful of these historical beauties coming home with me to add to my collection. Fat pins, thin ones, hefty shawl pins – the more the merrier. I’m drawn to their ordinariness, functionality, longevity and the fact that for centuries Londoners were literally pinned into their clothing, whether you were high status or poor. The phrase ‘pin money’ is thought to have originated during the 14th to 17th centuries when men gave money to the women in their households to buy pins. These were sold in bunches held together with pin ties.

Thames dress pins continue to have their uses even now. After cleaning mine up I’ve used them to pin up curtains and loose hems.

Most pins seen poking out of Thames mud are 14th to 18th century, made from copper alloy, found in their hundreds of thousands, washed into the river from drains or dropped from the clothing of those working on the Thames.

The abundance of pins found on the river isn’t surprising. Historical documents show details from the trousseau of Princess Joan, daughter of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, who was contracted when still a child to be married to Pedro of Castile. Her wedding trousseau included ‘12,000 pins for her delicate veils alone, while the cargoes of two Venetian galleys calling at Southampton in April 1440 on their way back from Flanders included 83,000 pins, which was the merchandise of seven merchants.’ Sadly, Joan never made it to the marriage ceremony as she died, en route, of the Black Death in Bordeaux.

It would routinely take well over two hours every day to pin Queen Elizabeth I into her clothing. Several maids were necessary in order to assist with the process of dressing the Royal Personage, pinning the Queen into her kirtle (garment worn over a chemise and under a formal outer garment,) farthingale, petticoats, overgown, stomacher and detachable sleeves. It would take almost as long to unpin the Queen at the end of the day, the women undressing her needing to take great care not to actually touch the Royal body as they did so.

The Queen’s pin maker was called Robert Careles. In 1565, a Royal Inventory of 29th October showed he supplied the Queen with the following, an order delivered to the Royal Household every six months:

‘xviii thousande Great verthyngale Pynnes; xx thousande Myddle verthyngale Pynnes; xxv thousande Small velvet Pynnes; xxx and nine thousande Small velvet Pynnes; ix thousande Small helde pynnes’

When not in use, the pins were stored carefully on pin cushions. They were never left in clothing so as not to rip the precious fabric or stain it through oxidisation. As well as pinning clothing and keeping it in place, pins were used to fasten ruffs, cuffs, veils and jewels. They would be straightened if they got bent and were periodically sharpened. Pin cushions were often given as gifts and carried on the person in order to carry out emergency repairs.

A few weeks ago, I made a pin-related bucket list find while mudlarking. Poking out of the muddy gloop was one third of what appeared to an interesting piece of worked bone. I pulled it out carefully and realised it was a beautiful example of a 15th to 16th century Pinner’s Bone, the first time this tool had seen the light of day for over 500 years.

Pinners’ Bones or Pinholders were usually made from the lower leg of a cow or horse, ie the metapodia or cannon bone. They were sawn in half with grooves where the pin wire was placed ready for filing.

London Archaeological excavations have found many Pinners’ Bones at the site of religious orders, suggesting this was a popular way for an order to generate additional income.

Pinners’ tools, such as my recent Thames find, were used by the maker to help sharpen the pin, beginning as drawn wire. This was placed in the grooves at the end of the bone, at an angle, and rotated to fashion a pinpoint. The coiled or solid pin head was soldered on after.

The 14th to 15th centuries saw a huge expansion in the Pinners’ craft, the pin-making process becoming more refined and elegant, a reflection of the more delicate fabrics being worn; silks, velvet, linens, as opposed to thicker wool. Fine pins were used to pin veils.

The British Library has The Pinners’ Book with their accounts from 1462-1464. This shows the Pinners organising themselves into a professional craft. It’s difficult to track pin making on the south side (Southwark/Bankside) of the Thames as this was a messy, stinking, unregulated area. However, on the north side of the river in the City of London, things were different. The control of the Guilds meant that for the first time we have the names of those involved in this industry.

I was particularly pleased to see the names of specific women involved in the Pinning trade as women’s names are often completely absent from medieval records (unless they paid poll tax or committed crimes.) Women begin to be named from the early 14th century onwards as members of the Pinners’ Craft but only if they were the wives or daughter of a deceased pin maker. It is through these records that I’ve recently found the names of Margaret Hall, Margaret Exnyng, Margaret Golde, Margaret Crawford and Katherine Smyth who were all admitted into the Pinners’ fraternity in 1498, though accused of being ‘forins’, ie trained outside the City of London.

To read more about Liz's finds while mudlarking, stay up to date with her blog

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