"They may be seen of all ages, from mere childhood to positive decrepitude, crawling among the barges at the various wharfs along the river; it cannot be said that they are clad in rags, for they are scarcely half covered by the tattered indescribable things that serve them for clothing; their bodies are grimed with the foul soil of the river, and their torn garments stiffened up like boards with dirt of every possible description."
- Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 1851.
Mudlark is an English word for a desperate occupation resorted to by the utterly destitute in times gone by. It means "larking about in the mud", or scavenging on the riverbanks at low tide, looking through the rotting animals and shit left behind by the water for anything of any value, such as piece of old rope, driftwood or spilt coal; or the contents of the water-borne dead's pockets.
This occurred particularly in London, where the Thames is tidal and the population large. Destitute widows and orphans particularly fell into this occupation.
In recent years, Mudlark can also refer to a bourgeois amateur archaeologist who prowls the same muddy banks on the lookout for ancient coins or shards or pottery, but better is dressed in wellington boots and anorak, possibly with a metal detector and usually with a beard. The official group of them is the secretive "Society of Thames Mudlarks", founded in 1980, who have obtained the necessary permits.
Similar occupations to the original mudlarks exist today; people still scavenge the rivers and rubbish dumps of third world slums.
Kalen says: Actual mudlarks still exist. I recall watching a group of them in India. They were moving along the riverbed of the river that runs through Ahmedabad. They were at the edge of the water, in the mud, feeling with their feet (and hands) for submerged stuff. The river was "going down" as it was the beginning of summer, so they were searching for stuff that was being revealed by the receding waters. The water goes down to a trickle most summers.