The iron shackles, dating from either the seventeenth or eighteenth century, were uncovered about a year ago next to Salt Wharf, by mudlarks Steve Brooker and Rick Jones, who thought they were looking at a more commonly found cannon ball until the chain slipped out of the mud.
Experts are now pondering whether the find came from an escaped prisoner, who would have been due to be transported, instead of serving his or her prison term in Britain.
Steve, 48, from Bexleyheath, who has been a mudlark for about twelve years, said: “There are hundreds of items down there, from bodies to ironing boards. Three weeks before, I had found at least twenty cannon balls.”
The Thames, he said, was home to a large number of body building weights which metal detectors are naturally drawn to. The ball and chain was sitting on top of the weights.
Talking about the significant find, Steve said: “Because there is no comparison to it, it is extremely hard to get a date on it.” The find has been dated by its barrel lock, which Roy Stephenson, Head of Archaeology at the Museum of London Docklands, says is likely to have originated from the Rhineland, now Germany.
Kate Sumnall, Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London Docklands, which has put the ball and chain on display after unveiling it last week, said: “The river is the repository for so many of London’s stories.
“This extraordinary find gives us a tantalising glimpse of the human trials and tribulations of past Londoners.
“Whether a real-life Magwitch freed himself from the ‘great iron on his leg’, or perished in shackles, or whether this ball and chain was simply discarded, we can never know. Visitors to Museum of London Docklands will have to decide for themselves.”
The ball and chain is made from iron and weighs 8kg, with a skilfully crafted brass plate around the padlock keyhole.
Museum experts believe it would have been used to shackle prisoners during transport, but as it was uncovered with the lock fastened and no key, it raises the possibility a prisoner may have escaped from custody. From the eighteenth century prisoners were transported to Australia, turned into a penal colony by the British, instead of serving their terms in England.
Steve told the ‘News’ that the reason the Thames was so good for mudlarking, was because it was anaerobic and there was no oxygen in the mud.
The foreshore has large areas of thick black mud, which preserves objects that would corrode or rot away in other conditions. Steve, who has a licence which allows him to carry out searches on the Thames foreshore, allowing only mudlarks to dig, added: “There are two items coming up that will blow away the ball and chain. It’s quite special.”
The ball and chain will be on display at the Museum of London Docklands for one month.
Mudlarks, history enthusiasts some of whom have been likened to amateur archaeologists, have special permits to search and dig the foreshore from the Port of London Authority.
Digging on the north side of the Thames between Westminster in central London and Wapping in the east of the city is strictly prohibited because it is so rich in archaeological deposits.
There are only 51 “official” mudlarks who have achieved this recognized status — through the Society of Thames Mudlarks — by recording their finds through institutions like the Museum of London.
Shackles found in River Thames hold ghoulish tale
HOW TO MUDLARK
The Port of London Authority: The PLA owns the riverbed of the Thames, up to the mean high-water mark. The public is allowed to beachcomb on the shores, but serious mudlarks – and anyone intending to dig (even if it’s only scraping the surface) or use a metal detector – must obtain a license (£9 per annum) from the PLA and abide by its rules. The Authority also issues licenses to the Society of Thames Mud-larks and Antiquarians, a group of serious searchers with no desire for either publicity or increased membership. The Port of London Authority is at Devon House, 58-60 St Katharine’s Way, London E1 9LB (071-265 2656).
Mudlarks and the law: In any area, laws of trespass and other restrictions should be observed. When in doubt, contact the landowner or landowning authority. Any interesting objects found should be shown to the local museum. Museums are generally happy to give opinions and advice. Since resources are limited, however, assessments can take time.