Matthew Slocombe, Bottle Expert
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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