Ball and chain from 17th-18th century discovered on Thames riverbank

By Culture 24 Staff | 26 August 2009
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a woman with a metal ball and chain

Finds Officer Kate Sumnall with a Ball and Chain. © Museum of London Docklands

Mudlarks in the river Thames have discovered a ball and chain dating from the 17th-18th century which will go on display at the Museum of London Docklands on August 26.

Museum experts believe the piece, which weighs a hefty eight kilograms, would have been used to shackle prisoners during transport.

The find was made by Steve Brooker and Rick Jones, who initially thought they had come across a cannon ball until the chain slithered out of the Thames mud.

The contraption was discovered fastened with no key, meaning the prisoner either escaped or met a more sinister fate by drowning in the Thames.

a locked ball and chain

Iron Ball and Chain 17th-18th century. © Museum of London Docklands

"The river is the repository for so many of London's stories," said Kate Sumnall, Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London Docklands.

"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 foreshore has large areas of thick black mud which preserves objects that would in other conditions corrode or rot away. The ball and chain is made from iron while the padlock has a brass plate around the key hole, and is skilfully crafted in a continental fashion.

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