For centuries, suitors would carve names on coins before tossing them into the river. Mudlark Steve Brooker has unearthed hundreds of them.

During the reign of William III, in the second half of the 17th century, it was the fashion for a young man to give a crooked coin to the object of his affections.

The suitor would bend the coin, both to make it an amulet and to prevent it being reused. If the token was kept, it indicated that affection was reciprocated, but if the coin was discarded then it was a rejection.

Mudlark Steve Brooker has unearthed thousands of coins from the banks of the River Thames over the past 25 years. In spite of his appearance – chest-high bespattered waders, grizzled beard and clutching a yellow plastic bucket and trowel – Brooker is a romantic at heart. Of all the treasures he has discovered in the mud, he cherishes his collection of love tokens the most, even if his passion for collecting them might occasionally risk compromising his own romantic appeal. “The smell is so unbearable down there it’s unreal,” he says. “Even once you’ve had a shower you stink. My wife is a bit upset about it.”

The Thames has always been the natural receptacle for concealing and disposing of things, creating the miry hoard of secrets that Brooker uncovers at low tide – his task made easier by erosion from the wash of Thames Clippers and other river traffic.

“With a river flowing forever to the sea, there is a sense of a connection to the infinite. There is also an undeniable romance in the notion of a lover secretly throwing a token into the water.”

For centuries, smoothed coins were used as love tokens, with the initials of the sender engraved or embossed on the surface. Sometimes these were pierced, which gave recipient the option to wear it around the neck.

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Brooker’s collection ranges from heavy silver coins with initials professionally engraved, to pennies worn smooth through hours of labour and painstakingly engraved letters. The amount of effort expended in working these coins – smoothing, engraving or cutting them – speaks of the longing of the makers.

It was not part of the conceit that someone might ever find these coins centuries later. We can only surmise that engraving your or your beloved’s name on a coin and throwing it into the water was a gesture to attract good fortune.

All we can imagine are coins tossed by unseen hands, flying from the river bank or the parapet of a bridge or a boat, turning over in the air, plipping into the water and spiralling down to lie undisturbed for centuries, until the mudlark came along to gather them up.

 

This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.



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