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Wednesday 27 May 2020

๐Ÿ“š Segment 3: Mudlarks and the Silent Highwayman - Alan M. Clark

Welcome to the third segment in the serialisation of Mudlarks and the Silent Highwayman, an Historical Supernatural Illustrated Novelette by (, IFD Publishing, 69 pages). A story of hope enduring in the midst of illness and death.

If you missed the previous segments, you can catch up, find out more about the story, its serialisation and Alan M. Clark here, or jump to the segment you missed by using the links below.

So, what is a "mudlark"? Alan M. Clark explains in his author note:

"I have been immersed in the history of Victorian London for nearly a decade while writing the Jack the Ripper Victims Series, novels about the lives of those killed by the Whitechapel Murderer. In the midst of research for the stories, I discovered all sorts of occupations of the period that involved scavenging and recycling. While that sounds good in the world of today that suffers such destruction from our various wastes, the recycling in Victorian times took a terrible toll on the health of those who did the work.

During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, jobs were scarce and many achingly poor Londoners became willing to do the worst things in order to earn a crust. Toshers scavenged in the sewers. Bone grubbers collected bones door to door or by going through the rubbish of taverns or households that could afford to serve joints of beef, pork, or mutton. Purefinders collected feces in the streets. Night soil men emptied the human waste from cesspits and privy vaults. This one actually paid well, but because of that, many allowed their vaults and cesspits to overflow before they were willing to pay the price. Mudlarks, mostly children, scavenged the banks of the River Thames, looking for anything that had been lost in the water and might be found at low tide in the exposed area known as the foreshore. Markets existed for nearly all that was collected, yet the returns were paltry considering the time and energy involved and the risks to health.[...]

[Mudlarks and the Silent Highwayman] is a fanciful story about a mudlark and the choices he made within that environment."
—Alan M. Clark

|| Synopsis || Segments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 || About the Author ||

      Albert couldn’t go home until his clothes had dried some or his mum would know he’d been in the river.
      He slipped the cloth inside his shirt for safekeeping, and made his way along the foreshore. Finding himself headed south on the western edge of the Isle of Dogs, he decided to risk a quick exploration among the rushes growing near the drain for the white lead works, a good spot to check since most of the scavengers avoided the area. While much of the foreshore of the Thames offered a firm gravel or sand surface at low tide, the stretch he presently walked held pockets of deep, thick mud that made progress difficult.
      Approaching the structure that supported the drain, he saw an unusual dark shape among the oversized grasses, one that he told himself was likely mere shadow. As he got close enough to see between the foliage, the doubt protecting him from unreasonable hope began to fall away. Indeed, the shape held true form and mass—he’d found the wreck of a clinker-built wherry, much like the one his father had once piloted to carry fares up and down, to and fro, along the Thames when he was a waterman.
      Pushing the long leaves out of his way, Albert made out the shapes of several crates, a metal chest, and a firkin, all held fast in the mud within the boat.
      Though he wanted to shout for joy, he knew better than to draw attention to the find. Instead, he stood holding his head, his heart thumping giddily in his chest. Plainly, the boat had sat unnoticed for a while, lying on its side, half-buried in the silt among the rushes. He imagined the vessel got free during recent wind storms, possibly at night while no one was watching. In his mind’s eye, he saw it wander down-stream beneath dim, flickering stars until it fetched up on the foreshore beside him.
      How might he present the possible treasure trove to his mother without her knowing where it came from?
      That he did not have her permission to work the river had always rankled. “It’s too dangerous,” she’d said the first time he’d brought it up. “The grundylows don’t just spread disease—they like to pull children down. You want to be the next to go missing, turn up drowned?”
      Albert had told Turvey what his mother said. He’d laughed. “They’re not grundylows! They’re grindylows. The mums of all scavengers tell that tall tale to keep their children from the water’s edge.” Turvey shook his head, giggling. “You are a gulpy one.”
      “I didn’t say I believed!”
      “You needn’t have done. I’ve seen the way you look at the water.”
      That forced Albert to reason it out. If there were such creatures drowning mudlarks, Turvey would have gone missing long ago. Albert had never seen anyone so willing to venture out into the river.
      With all that, he still imagined the creatures just beneath the glare on the rippling surface whenever he dangled his legs close to the water, or while wading out into it.

"Grundylows": click here to purchase the original drawings by Alan M. Clark
      Despite the childish fears, Albert was simply drawn to the water and scavenging. The possibility of finding unexpected reward held his interest like nothing else had in his short life. And ever since his father had run off, a year past, Albert had thought he should make decisions for himself about how to earn. After all, he would soon be a man.
      Knowing how much Papa’s departure had hurt her, Albert didn’t want to challenge his mum or bring further grief by disappointing her, so he’d kept his activities at the river a secret.
      He knew what she’d say: “You’ll be charged as a thief!”
      Yet here he’d made a real find, at long last—valuable goods, gold, jewels perhaps!
      Albert pried at the crates trying to get them open.
      The landlord hasn’t been paid in almost a month. She knows we must take every chance to earn. Yet I must know what I’ve found before I say anything, or she’ll become cross with me. If it’s worth enough, if it’s wonderful, Mum’ll have a change of heart.       The lids to the crates were nailed down tight.
      “Bloody butt and six toes,” he cursed aloud. Then, fearing that someone might have heard, he calmed himself and looked up and down the foreshore. Though he saw no one nearby, he crouched lower amidst the rushes and felt himself sink further into the mud.
      He abandoned the crates in favor of the metal chest. That, he decided, was the most promising container. The thing was a foot square and half a foot deep. Trying unsuccessfully to open it, he found a keyhole and decided it was locked. That meant it indeed held something valuable. He wiped some of the grit and mud from its surface. Seeing that where exposed, the metal gleamed brightly, he stopped.
      How might he keep it concealed while carrying it? He thought that heaping more mud on the chest would help disguise the shape, but anyone seeing him would know he carried a large object. Though he’d be able to lift the heavy box, he couldn’t run with it if spotted.
      Likewise the crates and firkin would be heavy and stand out if he tried to carry them away. Too bad he’d lost his heavy canvas sack in the fight with the tree limb. He needed to get the containers open and find a new sack to put things in, one he could dirty up and throw over his shoulder. A shapeless thing like that—no one would suspect he carried anything of value. The only other sack he had big enough hung on a hook back at the lodgings.
      With the shadows grown long, Albert knew the hour had become late. He didn’t have what he needed to open the containers and reveal his treasure, let alone haul it all away with him.
      He sat back and surveyed the scene again. Resting high on the foreshore beside the drain, surrounded with dense orange rushes, and hidden within the deepening shadows, the wherry wasn’t easy to spot. With the unusual color of the plants, and a fear that the drain exhausted poisons into the river, most of the scavengers, including George Hardly, avoided the area.
      The coming high tide wasn’t likely to dislodge any of the find from the mud’s tight grip, yet Albert had small hope that the wherry would remain hidden for long. Eventually, even if Hardly didn’t find it, someone on nearby Hutching’s Wharf would see the wreck and investigate, or another river scavenger unconcerned about the drain would stumble upon the site. Albert would return with a lantern to aid his salvage in the dark, but feared that would only draw attention to the find.
      No, he had to go home. Mum would be in their lodgings in Narrow Street, preparing a meal with what little they had. The salvage would have to wait until morning. Hopefully, no one would stumbled upon it in the night.
      Albert pulled his feet from the sucking mud. Placing them on the firmest patches of the foreshore, he made his way north toward home. One misplaced step found his left leg penetrating the muck half-way to the buttoned knee of his breeches. He wriggled and tugged it loose, and kept moving.

Mudlarks and the Silent Highwayman copyright © 2020 Alan M. Clark

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