An Account of Peggy Jones, the London Mudlark

Peggy Jones (c1765-1805)

Yesterday I posted this image of Peggy Jones on Twitter, which I obtained from the British Museum image database, and because it received a very widespread reaction, I have done a little digging of my own to add more information about the hard life and times of this renowned London character.

I very quickly discovered that Peggy appears in Pierce Egan’s ground-breaking guide Real Life in London (1820-21) which describes the practice of gathering waste from the Thames:  ‘The mud-lark returns home, when his labours are ended, sorts the indiscriminate heterogeneous ” mass of matter,” and disposes of it as well as he can.’  Though she was long-dead by 1821, Peggy has gone into legend for being one of the few women entering this gruelling ‘occupation’.

View of Blackfriars Bridge c.1800 showing people foraging in the water and river bank (rear background)

The full story of Peggy Jones appeared (along with the above portrait) in Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum of Remarkable Characters, Volume III published in London in June 1805 – an extract of which follows:

Poverty often teaches the people the most extraordinary means of getting a livelihood… Among these the class of Mud-larks is not the least extraordinary. Many of our readers may possibly be ignorant that a Mud-lark is a person, who on the ebb of the tide, repairs to the river-side, in quest of any article that the water may have left behind in the mud. To this description of people belonged Peggy Jones. She was a woman, apparently about forty years of age, with red hair, the particular object of whose researches was the coals which accidentally fell from the sides of the lighters. She was always to be seen at Blackfriars, even before the tide was down, wading into the water, nearly up to the middle, and scraping together from the bottom, the coals which she felt with her feet. Numbers of passengers who have passed by that quarter, particularly over Blackfriars Bridge, have often stopped to contemplate with astonishment a female engaged in an occupation, apparently so painful and disagreeable. She appeared dressed in very short ragged petticoats, without shoes or stockings, and with a kind of apron made of some strong substance, that folded like a bag all round her, in which she collected whatever she was so fortunate as to find. In this strange apparel, and her legs encrusted with mud, she traversed the streets of London. Sometimes she was industrious enough to pick up three, and at others even four loads a day; and as they consisted entirely of what are termed round coals, she never was at a loss for customers, whom she charged at the rate of eight pence a load. In the collection of her sable treasures, she was frequently assisted by the coal-heavers, who when she happened to approach the lighters, would, as if undesignedly, kick overboard a large coal, at the same time, bidding her, with apparent surliness, to go about her business.

The above paragraph really brings home the back-breaking graft Peggy Jones and her ilk put into merely existing on the streets of London. Its at once ghastly and touching to know that the lightermen plying their trade along the Thames were prepared to give her scraps from their boatloads – yet still expected her to wade through the mud to reach what they had donated. She had to work bare-footed so that she could detect her quarry using her toes – this must have been bone-chilling even at the best of times. Kirby’s description of Peggy Jones continues:

We are sorry to be obliged to state, that Peggy Jones was not exempt from a failing to which most individuals of the lower orders are subject, namely, inebriety. Her propensity to liquor was sometimes indulged to such a degree, that she would tumble about the streets with her load, to the no small amusement of mischievous boys, and others, who, on such occasions, never failed to collect around her. After concluding the labours of the day, she retired to a wretched lodging in Chick Lane.

Chick Lane was one of the many streets and alleys associated with nearby Smithfield market , by 1850 it was known as West Street, and was demolished soon afterwards


Peggy’s elevation to the status of ‘English Eccentric’ in June 1805 was probably more due to her sudden disappearance earlier that year having

carried on her extraordinary calling for many years, but about the month of February, 1805, she suddenly disappeared from her usual places of resort, and nobody can tell what is become of her. A man who has the appearance of a coal-heaver, has since stepped into her place, and adopted the profession which she so long followed. Though the facts we have been able to procure concerning Peggy Jones are but scanty, yet our readers will doubtless approve of our desire to perpetuate, by means of the annexed design, taken from life, the memory of such a singular character.

It seems probable that Peggy was taken by the river, where she spent so much of her life. Imagine scrabbling around in mud on a freezing wet February day hoping to find a few lumps of coal to carry in the folds of her dress and sell on to other equally distressed city-dwellers.

The Thames near the Tower of London c.1790 – a busy and dangerous place for wading around in the mud

It is good to learn a little more about Peggy’s life and times, even though it must have been relentlessly bleak.  because it shines a light on the awful deprivation the majority of our ancestors endured in order to survive.

A big thank you to Susan from Witness2Fashion Blog for providing the following additional image a of a Thames mudlark – seen  receiving a scrap of food from a Thames lighterman. According to Susan, Arthur Munby sketched this in 1855;and  it can be seen in Victorian Working Women, by Michael Hiley. Perhaps the sketch recalls Peggy Jones, otherwise it suggests that this type of existence was a more routine site in early-Victorian London than we might otherwise have imagined.

Image Courtesy of witness2fashion Word Press Blog

For more information on life amidst 19th Century London mud, I recommend the following essential reading

Jerry White, London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘A Human Awful Wonder of God’  (London: Cape, 2007)

Virginia Smith & others, Dirt, The Filthy Reality of Every Day Life (London: Profile, 2011)

Lee JacksonDirty Old London; The Victorian Fight Against Filth (Yale University Press, 2015)

If you liked this post, you may also be interested to learn the sad tale of a London Prizefighter – or to find out how to get away from London’s mean streets by locating her principal stagecoach inns. Finally, you could learn about one house in London with 5 layers of British history

Has Wanstead become a byword for neglect?

The grotto, Wanstead Park, a symbol of neglect stretching back two centuries

At the turn of the millennium Redbridge held the dubious honour of being the only borough not to feature any places of interest in the official Blue Guide to London. Despite the restoration of Valentines Mansion in Ilford between 2006-09, Redbridge remains missing from the Blue Guide for 2017; though at least it now shares this distinction with outlying boroughs of Bromley, Croydon, Havering, and Sutton.

Whereas other boroughs have majestic buildings of note, Redbridge just has a hole in the ground where Wanstead House once stood

This sense of neglect is no more epitomised than by Wanstead, an area of historical importance that is nonetheless too keenly associated with loss. Since the demolition of Wanstead House, Britain’s first and finest Palladian mansion (1824), it can sometimes feel that the circus has left town and that Wanstead has nothing left to offer but memories of a glorious past. Yet anyone who knows Wanstead and its environs would rightfully assert that today, even without its magnificent mansion, Wanstead Park remains a jewel in the crown not just of Redbridge, but of the whole of east London.

Wanstead Park – Loved yet unknown to most Londoners

Despite a chronic lack of investment, during which time its ornamental waters have drained and dried up, Wanstead Park remains a doggedly popular leisure amenity. It is enthusiastically championed by a dedicated group of Friends, anxious to turn back the tide of decay which is allowing this enclave of London – once favoured by Tudor Kings and Queens, to slip away without ceremony before our very eyes. The Corporation of London, current custodians of Wanstead Park have long asked us to accept that their finances have limits, yet one can’t help feeling that Wanstead is well down their list of priorities, and certainly easier to ignore than more high profile assets such as Hampstead Heath, with its richer and more powerful supporters.

News today however, that the future of St Mary the Virgin Church in Overton Drive is now under threat because its owner the Church of England are finding it too expensive to upkeep, may just be the tipping point at which we must all stand up and demand change. A church has stood on this site for 800 years, and the present version (c.1790) is the only Grade I listed building in the borough of Redbridge. A by-product of Britain’s East India Company and slave trading past, St Mary’s is both architecturally and socially significant; well worth a visit for anyone interested in London’s cultural history.

I had the good fortune to visit St Mary’s recently whilst a choir practice was in progress and it was a truly memorable experience not only for the delightful interiors but the wonderful acoustic provided by its galleried aisles – leaving me chuffed to know that we have this gem of a building in our midst

Of course buildings like St Mary’s Church are costly to maintain, and reports that the congregation has dwindled to a few dozen mass attendees, clearly contribute to the Anglican Church’s decision to review its future. But isn’t this so typically Wanstead, so typically Redbridge? Here we have the Church of England, sitting on landholdings conservatively valued at £8bn, pleading poverty and implying disinterest as a means to disengage. One must ask the obvious question – why hasn’t the Church invited proposals to increase the use of St Mary’s? Is it because they don’t want help to keep the church open – and are simply looking for excuses to bail out?

The M11 Link protest of early 1990s proves that Wanstead does not always have to take decisions lying down

In the long run listed status will conserve St Mary’s for future generations but doesn’t this whole episode smack of yet more neglect, and a rather patronising assumption that the people of Wanstead will accept another loss in their usual stoic manner? One can only hope that this news will be greeted with a call to arms (like to M11 link protest days) rather than a collective sigh passively confirming that Redbridge, and especially Wanstead, really do deserve to be overlooked by the London guidebooks.

For news and other information about Wanstead why not visit