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Mudlarking: Digging Up Clues Into The Military's Past

Over 15 years Nicola White has found live bullets, grenades, military buttons, pocket watches and Royal Navy crockery.

Thames mudlarking 070119 CREDIT BFBS

The banks of the River Thames in London are not a place that springs to mind when you think of military artefacts.

However, one mudlarker regularly combs the beaches when the tide is out looking for historical military finds.

Nicola White’s collection of military artefacts ranges from military buttons, pocket watches through to Royal Navy crockery.

Over 15 years of being a mudlarker, Ms White has also come across live bullets and grenades.

Most artefacts she finds pose no threat of exploding and some pieces bring with it the opportunity to trace the story it has to tell.

During two hours in Greenwich one morning she found a piece of 19th century Royal Navy crockery and a button that could be of military origin. 

“We have a saying in mudlarking, it’s called 'getting your eye in'" she said.

Ms White says one of the more significant finds she has uncovered was a small metal luggage tag with a name and an address on it.

It led to her uncovering the story of the previous owner, a First World War soldier called Frederick Jury.

Fred Jury luggage tag
A luggage tag belonging to a First World War soldier proved valuable in uncovering its owner's history.

"I was able to find out about a man who went to Australia to join the Australian Imperial Force, who then came back and fought in the trenches, was injured, lived not very far from here in Woolwich.

"All that from one little piece of metal, and it really brought that person back to life again.

"I was also then eventually able to trace where he was buried in Greenwich.

"So that one little piece of metal opened up a huge story."

Through online archives, Frederick Jury’s story began to unravel.

Ms White found he was born in 1873 and died in 1932, that he was a gas stoker in London before he enlisted with the Australian Imperial Forces, which she thinks is because of his age; at 42-years-old he may have been too old to join up in Britain but in Australia the upper age limit was higher.

Ms White then found he left Australia to fight on the Western Front having travelled from Britain to France on the SS Arundel in December 1916.

Fred fought with the Australian Imperial Forces 3rd infantry battalion, 19th reinforcement for two-and-a-half years in the trenches in Belgium and France.

It was in Meteren, France that he was severely injured.

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Frederick Jury's AIF papers.

Nicola traced his story back to find he spent time in two military hospitals The Harefield Hospital, London and the Shorncliffe, Kent.

Eventually, Fred was discharged from the Australian Imperial Expeditionary Force in London on the 23rd April 1919.

Among Ms White' other finds are several tags belonging to First and Second World soldiers and the metal bottom of a kit bag from a Great War soldier.

She thinks she finds so many military artefacts because the location is so close to where Woolwich Arsenal was located.

"I’ve found a fair few items that have people’s names on and that’s my favourite kind of find because then you can go onto ancestry or one of those sites and uncover the past and bring those people alive again for a little while," Ms White said.