Mudlarking: Victorian Bottles and Stoppers
By Jason Sandy
During the 19th century, new types of drinks were developed and became very popular. Victorians especially liked carbonated drinks such as ginger beer, lemonade, cream soda, lemon squash, soda water, and koala. To prevent the carbonation from escaping, a British soft drink maker named Hiram Codd designed and patented a uniquely shaped bottle in London in 1872. Known as a “Codd” bottle, the pinched neck of the bottle provided a hollow chamber that contained a glass marble and rubber washer. The pressure of the gas from the carbonation in the bottle pushed the marble tight against the washer, creating an air-tight seal.
Although they are relatively rare, several of these bottles have been recovered from the Thames. Ed Bucknall found a stunning example from T. COCKERTON with colorful blue and green iridescence (above left). Over the years, Nicola White has a collected several beautiful Codd bottles with frosted, aqua tones (above right). The names of shops and bottle makers are molded into the surface of the glass which allows us to research and discover their interesting backstories.
After drinking the refreshing beverages, children would often smash the bottles to retrieve the glass marble so they could play with them. The British term “codswallop” is possibly derived from the act of walloping a Codd bottle to release the marble. Over the years, I have found numerous Codd marbles in the river. They have a beautiful aqua color and frosted appearance after tumbling around in the river for over 100 years.
In 1809, William Hamilton came up with another ingenious solution to keep carbonated drinks fizzy. It seems strange now, but he invented an unusual bottle designed to lay on its side. This kept the cork wet so the carbonation couldn’t escape from the bottle. These oblong Hamilton bottles were nicknamed “torpedo” bottles. Over the years, I have found many broken pieces of torpedo bottles, but it took six years before I discovered my first complete one (above left). Molded on the surface of the glass, it has an image of a spread eagle and the inscription: H. D. RAWLINGS, NASSAU STREET, LONDON. Henry Doo Rawlings produced a wide range of carbonated drinks including lemonade, soda, and ginger beer.
A few years ago, Nicola White found a complete torpedo bottle with the name, HARRODS STORES, molded into the surface of the glass (above right). Established by Charles Henry Harrod in 1824, the business started from humble beginnings. Now Harrods is one of the largest and most famous department stores in the world. Located on a prominent 5.5-acre site in West London, the store boasts 330 separate departments with 1.1 million square feet (100,000 square meters) of retail space. In 1832, Charles’s first grocery store business called Harrod & Co. Grocers opened in Central London. Perhaps this bottle containing a carbonated drink was sold at his grocery store before it was discarded in the Thames.
In the 19th century, medicines and poisons were developed for domestic use and were sold in small glass bottles. The words, NOT TO BE TAKEN, were often embossed on the bottles to indicate its poisonous contents (above left). However, not everyone was literate and could read the warning labels or embossed lettering. To prevent accidents, bottles that contained poison often had a distinct color (emerald green or cobalt blue) and unique shape (usually hexagonal) so that people could easily recognize that the bottle contained poison.
Sarah Newton has recovered many of these poison bottles which had been discarded in the Thames. In her collection, she has numerous emerald green (above center) and cobalt blue bottles (above right) in all different shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, the colorful and unusually shaped bottles sometimes attracted children’s attention rather than repelling them, which tragically led to several deaths.
Over the years, Sarah Newton has also found a wide range of beautiful glass bottle stoppers (above), which are wonderfully ornate and decorative. Some of the smaller glass stoppers are from delicate perfume bottles dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The faceted, globular stoppers are from cut glass decanters which were used for storing wine and spirits. My favorite stopper found by Sarah is an emerald green bottle stopper in the shape of a British crown (right). It is from a small, emerald green bottle which contained smelling salts produced by The Crown Perfumery Company established in London in 1872.
Jo Cook has also recovered a lovely selection of glass bottle stoppers (above). One of the most unusual ones is made of black glass, possibly from an Art Deco perfume bottle. It is decorated with an image of a woman wearing a stunning dress with her hair tied high in a ponytail. She is holding a crown in her outstretched arms.
Update: The black stopper was identified! Eagle-eyed Canadian reader Jennifer Becherel has a bottle with the same logo — Arpège perfume, released by Lanvin in 1927, which features Jeanne Lanvin and her daughter. A symbol of motherly love, it still graces the bottles of this perfume today. Thanks for the ID, Jennifer!
Since 2013, mudlark and artist Christine Fernbank has been collecting beautiful pieces of colorful shards of glass along the Thames foreshore. You would never know that she is 84 years old because of her youthful enthusiasm and boundless energy. After purchasing and repairing a damaged, vintage Tiffany lamp several years ago, Christine was inspired to start producing her own mosaics with patterned and textured glass found in the river.
On her first trip to the Thames Estuary, she discovered “a treasure trove of old broken glass from an old tip. Many pieces were from old poison and wine bottles. There were also chunks of cut glass bowls and tumblers, some with star cut bases. I knew these would look beautiful against the light, and I started a massive collection.
Christine carefully arranges the shards of river glass with complementary colors before fixing them in place. “The technique I use is to surround each piece with copper foil, paint with liquid flux, solder it, and join it to the next piece,” explains Christine. “I don’t plan anything, but assemble panels like a jigsaw puzzle, finding colors and shapes that look good together. Bottle bottoms and colored wine glass bases are the main components, but I also use large chips of glass, glass pebbles, and construct borders from plain cut glass.”
Over the past few years, Christine has made a wide variety of colorful mosaics (top of this page). The works of art are intended to be backlit so that natural daylight brings the ancient glass to life. Illuminated from behind, the individual shards glow, and the sun passes through the patterned glass, casting vivid colors and playful shadows on the surrounding surfaces.
Inspired by the vintage Tiffany lamp she repaired years ago, Christine is currently working on a lampshade (below) “constructed from 1930s Czech glass from the Estuary, which is quite difficult to find. The multi-colored shards from old vases are very beautiful. The glass is lined on the back with either yellow, red, or blue, so when it is lit, it will have a golden glow.” Christine enthusiastically proclaims, “my obsession with glass will continue, and each trip to the Thames Estuary gives me new ideas!
With a renewed appreciation, mudlarks and artists like Christine are creating beautiful works of art with reclaimed glass from the Thames. They are transforming and breathing new life into something which was broken and discarded. A new story is born out of historic glass.
Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›
Learn more about bottles
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Learn more about mudlarking
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2022 issue.