Mudlarking: Bottles filled with history

By Jason Sandy

antique apothecary bottles from london

Jason’s collection of apothecary bottles, Jason Sandy.

Collecting the city’s rubbish for nearly 2,000 years, the River Thames is a great repository of discarded objects, especially glass. The dense, soft mud of the Thames encapsulates the bottles and protects many of them from breakage. As the foreshore is slowly being eroded away by the waves of passing boats, historic glass bottles are revealed as the tide recedes. During very low tides, I have fortunately found and rescued several complete bottles before the strong river currents swept them away or smashed them on the rocks.

vintage bottles found on thames shore

Left: Central London illuminated at night, Jason Sandy. Center: Jason Sandy nightlarking with London Bridge and Tower Bridge in the background, Neil Hall. Right: Corked apothecary bottle containing its original contents, Jason Sandy.

In London, some of the lowest tides of the year occur late at night from July until October. Hoping to find older artifacts on stretches of the riverbed which are only accessible a few times a year, I strap on my high-powered headlamp and go mudlarking in the dark. At night, the empty foreshore is a magical place surrounded by wonderfully illuminated bridges and buildings whose reflections shimmer on the calm surface of the river. As I was night-larking with two friends in October 2018, I discovered an incredible 18th century apothecary bottle (top right). Remarkably, this complete bottle is still corked, and the original contents still remain inside.

aqua 1700s apothecary bottle from england

18th-century apothecary bottle, Jason Sandy.

On February 9th, 2020, a freak storm coincided with an extremely low Spring tide. Classified as an “extratropical cyclone,” Storm Ciara brought torrential rain and high winds from the west, which blew the tide out much further than predicted. There were only a few brave souls on the Thames foreshore that morning, and we were highly rewarded for our mudlarking efforts despite the horrendous weather conditions. As the tide receded lower than I had ever seen before, I spotted the beautiful, flared rim of an 18th-century apothecary bottle (above). As I extracted it from the mud, I couldn’t believe it was complete. It’s truly a miracle that these fragile glass vessels survived for 300 years in the turbulent River Thames.

Since I found these bottles on the riverbed below a historic dock, I can imagine that they could have been dropped from a ship, before or after a long journey on the open sea. In the 18th century, glass bottles were often used to store medicines until they were needed during a long voyage. These bottles I discovered could possibly have been a vital part of a sea surgeon’s medical supplies to treat ill sailors or those wounded in battles at sea. According to the inventory of a sea surgeon’s medical chest, glass bottles were used to store oils, balsams, juices, dried seeds, powders, smelling salts, minerals, preserves, distilled waters, syrups, decoctions, cinnamon, cloves, maces, nutmegs, whole and parts of animals, extract of coloquintida, essence of cantharidin, spirit of nitre, camphor, and turpentine. I wonder what medicine or apothecary’s concoction is still contained in the corked bottle I found?

onion bottle found in the mud of the thames river

Left: Onion bottle from c. 1700 found by Steve Camp, Jason Sandy. Center: 17th-century onion bottle fresh from the mud, Michal Knap. Right: Onion bottle painted by Coral Pearce, Michal Knap.

In the 17th century, bottles were developed with a unique, wide bottom and low center of gravity to prevent the bottle from tipping over and spilling its fine wine or spirits on ships sailing across stormy seas. These elegantly shaped, glass bottles (above left) became known as onion bottles. It is very rare to find an unbroken bottle of this type in the turbulent Thames.

While nightlarking in July 2021, Michal Knap discovered a complete onion bottle (above center), which was cushioned for centuries in the soft, dense mud. “When I first spotted the bottom of the bottle, I thought it was broken. As I slowly scraped and pulled the complete bottle out of the mud, I turned it around and saw the seal on the front of the 17th century onion bottle. I was shocked and very excited! On the way home, I was very nervous, because I thought I might break it. I have never seen an onion bottle with a seal, and it’s amazing 
it has survived intact,” explains Michal.

A glob of molten glass was used to create the bottle seal which has been stamped with two initials, “I D.” Although Michal has not yet been able to decipher whose initials they are, he says it is “a sealed wine bottle from around 1675–1680 and possibly belonged to a notable gentleman with those initials.” Mudlark and artist, Coral Pearce, created a beautiful painting (above right) of Michal’s onion bottle.

mudlark holding onion bottle

Let: Nicola White holding the onion bottle on the foreshore, Alessio Checconi. Right: 17th and 18th-century onion bottles, Nicola White.

During the extremely low Spring tides in February 2022, Nicola White bent down to pick up a clay pipe when she spotted a small dome of glass protruding from the surface of the mud. As she began digging, more and more of the bottle appeared. To her surprise, the bottle (above left) was miraculously complete. This is the second onion bottle which Nicola has found in the Thames. Not only are these bottles (above right) beautifully shaped, but their surface also has a vivid rainbow of colors that have developed over the centuries in the river. The iridescent appearance is caused by alkali (soluble salt) being leached from the glass by the slightly acidic water of the Thames. As light passes through the multiple layers of thin, flaking glass, a prism effect is created.

All Souls College Bottle Seal found in River Thames

Left: All Souls College bottle seal, Jason Sandy. Center: 18th-century bottle from All Souls College, Anthony Bagshaw. Right: All Souls College in Oxford, Ozeye.

In July 2018, I found a glass seal from an 18th-century bottle as I was mudlarking. The mysterious bottle seal took me on an adventure to a medieval college at Oxford University. Stamped on the surface of the seal (above left) is “All Souls Coll: C:R.” As very little information about the bottle is available online, I drove to Oxford University to find out more. After looking around the beautiful campus of All Souls College (above right), Professor Ian Maclean kindly gave me great information about the seal and said it “is from a pint port bottle. They were filled with port wine purchased in barrels by the College. The bottles were for College use only. ‘C R’ refers to the Common Room, which at that time was the owner of all the wine in the College.” The bottle seal which I found is from the very first All Souls bottles (above center) which were produced by Dennis Glasshouse in Stourbridge in 1750.

When Lawrence of Arabia was a Fellow at All Souls College in 1920, he personally conducted an inventory of the wine bottles by candlelight in the college cellars. The All Souls College students drank approximately 3,000–3,600 bottles of port wine per year. That’s a lot of wine! Did some students take a boozy trip down the Thames from Oxford to London and drop the bottle in the river? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s fun to imagine how the bottle seal ended up on the bottom of the Thames in London.

Old bottles recovered from the Thames are truly filled with so much history. Whether complete or broken, the bottles reveal intriguing backstories about the people who once used them.

Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›

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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2022 issue.

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