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Matthew Slocombe, Bottle Expert

July 10, 2013
by Kate Griffin

The Bishopsgate Bottle

If you present Matthew Slocombe, Director of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, with a bottle, his eyes light up. Do not run away with the wrong idea though – the bottle has to be empty and at least two hundred years old.

“Yes, I admit it – I am a bottle man.” Matthew grins, “I’ve been fascinated since the age of eleven. Some boys are interested in cars or model trains, for me it was bottles. It began when we went to stay with some family friends who had a rustic cottage in the Marches on the Welsh border. There were some bits of broken glass poking out of a bank in the garden and I started excavating.”

“It turned out that hundred years or so earlier, the inhabitants of the cottage had simply been chucking their refuse over the hedge and their ‘rubbish’ was still there. That was when I first became interested. As a boy, my particular passion was quack cure medicine bottles. My absolute dream was to find a nineteenth century bottle for the wonderfully-named Radam’s Microbe Killer, mainly – I think – because it had a skeleton being bashed by a man with a club on the front!”

This enthusiasm grew and developed – as Matthew became more knowledgeable about bottles and their history he started to seek out even earlier finds, particularly ancient wine bottles. “I became a guerrilla bottler,” he says, “I used to look for likely places – usually old tips or ancient cess pits – where I could go digging. It seems odd, I happily admit it, but it’s impossible to emphasise the buzz of being on a site and delving down into the past to get to the ‘gold’.” He pauses for a moment and winces,“Archaeologists would be horrified to hear me say that – and quite rightly. These days I would be much more careful and ethical.”

An Architectural Historian, Matthew is something of a Bottle Expert, having published pamphlets and essays on the subject. His own collection of historic glass is displayed at his home in West Sussex. “Glass is fragile, but that’s the great beauty of it. At home my bottles are on a glass shelf suspended above the staircase. I like the drama and the jeopardy of that. That’s the thing about historic bottles – they are so old and so delicate and yet they have survived into the present.”

Appropriately, one of London’s most significant and earliest bottle-making sites was discovered close to the Society of the Preservation of Ancient Buildings’ offices in Spitalfields. In 1549, eight Murano glass workers from Italy arrived in London and set up their furnace in the Crutched-Friars Monastery. When the site burned down in 1575, glass house manager Giacomo Verzelini established a new furnace and thriving business in Broad St.

Matthew explains how important this was, both in terms of his hobby and his work with old buildings, “This is where the connection between the two happens for me. What you have down the road in Broad St is the development of glass for bottles and glass for windows hand-in-hand . Remember, up to this point, windows were a massive status symbol – light in a building was something only the very rich could afford. So this was a moment of a new technology surging forward, glass was the plastic of the Tudor age – solving all your household needs in one go!”

In the sixteenth century, glass suddenly became disposable, which is why it has found today in so many building sites across the City. Matthew explains, “Anyone with a Georgian house in Spitalfields would probably find old bottles – fragments at least – in their garden.”

“And they’d probably find them in other places too – in roof spaces, fireplaces and hidden beneath doorways. But these would be witch bottles, filled with items and fluids used in folk magic, sealed and deliberately concealed in the building. Some bottles would have been intended for protection others were curses.” He frowns,“As director of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, I strongly advise people against poking around in old chimneys or destroying the fabric of a building in the hope of finding a witch bottle.”

Collectors of early English wine bottles – Matthew included – particularly prize the mid-seventeenth century shaft and globe type. These are the earliest forms to survive in any number because the methods used in their manufacture made them more robust than their predecessors. The fact that these bottles are sometimes impressed with a seal, denoting original ownership (both by taverns and by wealthy individuals), is especially significant and thrilling to an enthusiast.

An exceptional example is on permanent display just a stone’s throw from the Society’s headquarters in Spital Sq, in the entrance hall of the modern offices at number two hundred and eighty-eight Bishopsgate. To a casual passer-by, the damaged bottle in the case might look like an unexceptional chunk of brown glass, but to the expert it is a magical piece. Excavated from the site when the foundations were going in, the bottle bears the seal of Thomas and Ann Kent.

Vintners records for the City of London show that the Kents were tenants of the King’s Head in Chancery Lane from 1630 until 1660. Thus there is strong evidence that any bottle seal relating to the Kents at the Kings Head must date from 1660 or before, making the Bishopsgate Bottle traceable survival of an exeptional early specimen.

“It is a fantastic thing,” says Matthew, adding rather wistfully, “It’s a bottle I would love to own. I can honestly say I walk past it every day on my way into the office to make sure it’s okay.”

“For any true bottle collector, the dream is to find an old bottle that can be linked with an individual through its seal, or a bottle that can be linked to a point in time because they are so completely dateable. The Bishopsgate Bottle does both which makes it important.” He thinks for a moment,“The Holy Grail would, I think, be to find something with the seal of Samuel Pepys. He was a proven drinker – the diaries show that. It would be the Tutankhamen’s tomb of all bottle finds.”

Tantalisingly, the Bishopsgate Bottle is linked, tangentially, to the celebrated diarist. Pepys visited the Kents’ establishment in Chancery Lane on June 26th 1660, noting, “Went to the King’s Head and had very good sport with one Mr Nicholls, a prating coxcomb that would be a poet but would not be got to repeat any of his verses.” On October 23ed 1663, the diary records that Samuel inspected his own “new bottles…with my crest upon them.”

Yet Matthew’s own ambition when it comes to expanding his collection is more modest. “To find a bottle marked with the seal of Peter Ogier who built number 37 Spital Square would be marvellous. Now that, for me, would be a very special bottle indeed.” he admits.

English wine bottle 1690s

English wine bottle of 1720 with surface irridescence caused by burial in the earth

English wine bottle 1730s

1790s English wine bottle from a shipwreck with contents, bought by Matthew aged twelve.

English wine bottle of c. 1850, dug up  by Matthew

Hand-applied lip to an early nineteenth medicine bottle from the East End

Some of Matthew’s collection.

Matthew Slocombe, architectural historian and bottle expert, with his son Felix.

Photographs copyright © Matthew Slocombe

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. July 10, 2013

    Gorgeous bottles. I can see why Matthew Slocombe’s so fascinated. I have one or two old bottles myself, and with their opaque and varied tints, they are things of beauty, though much humbler and smaller than the ones illustrating this post.

  2. Libby Hall permalink
    July 10, 2013

    I’m enjoying Kate Griffin’s contributions very much.

    During the drought of 1976 the pond behind my husband’s aunt’s 16th century row of thatched cottage dried up. (The deep pond had been made when the clay was dug out to build the wattle and daub walls.) There had been no rural rubbish collection there until, I think, the 20th century, and generations of Victorians and Edwardians had flung their empty bottles and pottery jars into the pond. I’ve never had more fun in my life than digging in the bottom mud of that pond! Such treasures – and so many undamaged because they had settled gently through the deep water.

    If was fascinating to see how much sauce, and patent medications had been consumed. Extraordinary amounts. My favourite bottle of all was a bottle that had contained ‘ZuZu sauce’.

    We hadn’t begun to tap all the riches when it finally began to rain again and the pond filled up. I’ve looked at it wistfully ever since wondering what treasures still remain deep in the mud. If only we’d had time to get down to earlier centuries!

  3. Vicky permalink
    July 10, 2013

    Wonderful! I love the shaft and globe bottles with surfaces changed by being buried for centuries. Excellent article.

  4. Cherub permalink
    July 10, 2013

    I have a friend in London who collects old bottles and I once spent an afternoon adding to his collection at an old flea market that used to be a church in Edinburgh (sadly now a nightclub I believe).

    I live round the corner from the former site of Wemyss Ware pottery which closed in the 1930s and often find little broken fragments when I’m digging in my garden. I keep them as they sometime have pretty patterns. The Bohemian designer Karel Nekola lived in a little cottage in the next street. They have some wonderful large pieces in our local museum.

    Also nice to see Matthew is still with the SPAB!

  5. Peter Holford permalink
    July 10, 2013

    This brings back great memories in the late 1970s of taking thirty 16-year olds on a bottle dig in a Victorian tip in Manchester. No protective clothing, no risk assessment, plenty of swinging spades and risky excavations. It brings me out in a cold sweat just remembering it! But what enthusiasm it generated for what was basically a treasure hunt. We had no casualties and I’ve still got my collection of old beer bottles.

  6. Chris permalink
    August 6, 2013

    I lived in a small cottage which was the village stores. Digging the garden we came upon the village refuse dump and it was fabulous . We dug and dug finding a huge selection of bottles… Their rubbish was our awesome find.; RW lemonade , bovril, meat paste and tooth powder lids, medicine and HP sauce bottles ….. Even a carriage lamp all rusted ! , all delicate shades of aqua, browns and occasionally black glasses. We were hooked , there is something wonderful about seeing the top …or bottom of a bottle and not knowing what you’ll find.

  7. Jeanette permalink
    September 14, 2013

    Please please can anyone help me.
    I am an ex publican and in that trade I often came across unusual bottles, however I have what seems to be a very old filled and corked hand made bottle with out a label or marks. The liquid appears to be a red wine or port and has a large dimple underneath.
    The bottle is a dark greenish brown colour and is almost like a misshapen wine bottle, I suppose because of its age and being handmade.
    Can anyone please shed any light on what its age and contents could be, also its value.

    Thanks
    Jen

  8. Karen Lloyd permalink
    February 26, 2014

    Hi I don’t know if you can help but over 40 years ago when I was younger I loved going bottle digging amount my many finds I have a lid from a bovril jar I think around the edge it has the saying the glory of a man is his strength and at the centre it looks like a man fighting a lion, have you any details on this as I have never been able to find out any thing. I would really appreciate any help you can give me
    Thank you
    Karen

  9. michael okeefe permalink
    March 23, 2015

    i have an amber looks like a wine bottle -seam almost to top but not about ten inches tall short tapering neck about three inches till it gets to the belly of the bottle which at widest part about ten inches around lots of air bubbles -what makes it unusual is the circle of what looks like about half way up it has inside the bottle a circle of uneven thumb prints going around the inside of the bottle but in an uneven line in a horizontal way the thumb prints-then barely above that looks like a finger print design in a vertical way goin g in circle around the inside top also on the inside of it the top of the bottle rim not perfectly shaped looks like it old be pretty old no markings that i could tell -has a small handle near the top about 3 or 4 inches long coul;d u make a guess to what i have looked and looked cant find a match anywhere

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