By Jane Eastman
A good day’s wading with antique bottles, including sauces, inks, and a hip flask, plus a servants bell and a Georgian oil lamp base.
Look into a chalk stream near an old house, footpath, or footbridge in the English countryside, and you will probably see the odd little fragment of 19th-century transfer printed pottery. Willow Pattern dinnerware was once used in almost every Victorian household; it now flecks the river gravels with white and cobalt blue.
Left to right: Easy wading on a warm summer’s day, with viewing bucket attached to belt. A late 19th-century transfer printed toothpaste pot lid, viewed in the water through the “glass” (Perspex) bottomed bucket. A handful of smaller finds, including 19th-century coins, a Codd bottle marble, non-spill antique ink bottle, 18th-century delftware pottery, and a scrap of gold from a watch.
Look closer and you may see other things nestled in the stream; perhaps the edge of an antique stoneware ginger beer bottle. A century ago it might have been consumed on a warm summer’s day before being tossed absentmindedly into the water. Maybe you’ll spot the bowl of an 18th-century clay pipe once smoked by a fisherman on the riverbank. Perhaps you’ll see the distinctive eight-sided shape of a “penny ink” bottle, used to record the accounts in the former fulling mill located upstream.
Over the years, bottles, pots, clay pipes, coins, beads, buttons, and countless other artifacts have been concealed within the silt and underwater gravels. These everyday objects that had been lost and forgotten tell the fascinating stories of the people who have used and crossed these ancient rivers for thousands of years.
Left to right: Left to right: Victorian “Hamilton” torpedo shaped bottle for carbonated drinks. A ginger beer bottle, probably thrown in by someone walking the riverside footpath 150 years ago. A Codd bottle spotted in shallow water; without the viewing bucket it looks like an underwater mirage.
Exploring the streams in search of the evidence of our ancestors is my favorite pastime. However, it isn’t just an historical (and sometimes modern) litterpick; it’s a privilege to enjoy the local landscape and to be immersed in a thriving river teeming with life. Without a doubt, being in the beautiful chalkstream environment is the ultimate “treasure” from every outing.
I grew up in Overton village, close to the River Test. I remember the long summer holidays of my childhood, spent mostly around the water. My brother and I would paddle in the ankle-deep water of the disused cress beds, chasing sticklebacks and lifting the larger stones to discover whirls of the tiny shrimp hiding beneath.
The water flowed through our childhood but it sustained many families too. My great-grandfather was chief electrical engineer at Portals paper mill, followed by my granddad, and then my dad. Historically one of the major employers in the area, the firm has produced banknotes for the Bank of England since the early 18th century.
As teenagers, wild paddling became wild swimming, and we started hanging out on the riverbank and in the deeper weirs. Today, though wild swimming has become wild wading, the childhood thrill of being in that crystal clear water hasn’t changed. What has is the attire. I don’t paddle barefoot these days; chest waders, arm coverings, and neoprene gloves let me search year-round. Even in the summer, the spring-fed waters remain cool, and in the colder months I’ll change to waterproof shoulder-length gloves with a second pair of woolly gloves inside. The only thing that stops a multi-hour search is freezing fingers, so you have to stay warm.
The chalk streams are wonderfully clear, but the water is often fast-moving, blurring the view below. A homemade viewing bucket with clear plastic seated into the base provides a window into the water. Peer through it and you immerse yourself in the riverbed, lost in the watery world.
A swirl of hexagonal “penny inks” from the water. These are commonly found in standard aqua colored glass, embossed bottles, and other colors are more unusual.
Aqua glass was the standard color for Victorian household glass, and it is something to behold in the water. The varying iron content in the sand used in the glass mix, combined with the level of oxygen used to create the flame, resulted in a beautiful array of bluey green hues. It was only after World War I that clear glass bottles, which could be made quickly and cheaply, became the norm. Aqua bottles found in the river are old and beautiful, precisely because they were hand blown into molds; no two bottles are the same.
I have been lucky to discover many types of old aqua glass bottles, ranging from the pointy-ended “Hamilton” bottles (which had to be stored on their sides to stop the cork from shrinking), to the “Codd” bottle, famously patented by Hiram Codd in the 1870s. Bottles from local companies are always favorites to find, but so are household bottles once used for sauces and pickles, which brought exciting flavors from across the British Empire.
Left to right: A Victorian bottle found at the Silk Mill. Dr. Hommel’s Haematogen, a quack cure, its bottle still full and unopened. A trio of flatback “coffin” poisons found in rivers.
Quack cures and remedies were popular purchases, and occasionally turn up in the river today. In the 19th century, sickness was commonplace, diseases were little understood, and few could afford to see a doctor. Unscrupulous vendors cashed in on a lucrative market that was wholly unregulated. Many of these cure-alls were laced with poisonous ingredients and addictive opiates. They’re buried alongside actual poison bottles, fancy-shaped and jewel-colored in either green, amber, or cobalt blue, and featuring tactile markings to signal danger upon touch.
Antique “penny ink” bottles and a “penny lamp” from a lucky day’s wading.
I love all old glass, but I always go to the water in the hope of finding an antique ink bottle. These often crudely made bottles are so characteristic of pre-machine age packaging and held the letters, lists, and postcards of another age in liquid form. Produced in the millions, they tell the story of 19th-century societal reform, and a demand for affordable ink at a time when literacy was no longer just for the affluent. This was the age of the “penny ink.” To be able to sell small bottles of ink for a penny, the containers had to be made in huge numbers, very cheaply. They were handmade, blown into a two-part mold, and simply burst off the blow pipe to finish. The sharp top, known as a “burst lip,” would simply have been corked and sealed with wax for sale. For me, the beauty of these bottles lies in their cheapness; the glass is often wonderfully flawed and full of trapped air bubbles, all caused by inferior bottle making techniques and poor quality ingredients. Spotting one of these enigmatic little bottles through my glass-bottomed bucket is always a treat, and with a mind-boggling array of bottle types produced way back when, today it has become the collecting dream for me.
18ct gold 1920 wristwatch, by royal jeweler, Garrard, as found (left) and now restored (center) and keeping perfect time, again. Right: Silver and mother of pearl fruit knife and fork set, 1899.
There’s not only glass hidden in the flowing water, but many other artifacts and finds. In the summer of 2020, the river gave me an 18-carat gold wrist watch, once sold by famous royal jeweler, Garrard, exactly 100 years earlier. I couldn’t believe it; it was my first gold find, but so much more than that, it was a treasure frozen in time. Or so I thought. After sharing the watch on my Instagram page, a generous watchmaker named Dominic Chapman offered up his time to bring my newfound timepiece back to life. Dominic painstakingly restored the watch to full working order. I still treasure and wear it today.
I once spotted a very standard-looking pen knife, which I removed from the water without too much thought. Dropped by fishermen, pen knives are not unusual finds, but this one was strangely small and I could spot just a glint of mother of pearl under the rust. After cleaning with electrolysis, I discovered that it wasn’t a penknife at all, but a late Victorian fruit set, comprising a detachable and folding knife and fork in hallmarked sterling silver. The set is beautifully made, with an ingenious patented interlocking design. The precious metal is traditionally chosen as it will not react with the acids in fruit. I have learned that fruit knives were popularized in the Georgian era, so you could slice your pear or apple before consuming it, which makes sense when you think about the poor state of people’s teeth at this time. And yes, false teeth sometimes show up in the river too!
Some favorite smaller finds including the restored gold watch and silver and mother of pearl fruit set.
I am privileged to have been granted access to explore the waters around the historic Whitchurch Silk Mill. The mill streams wrap around the original Georgian building, and I am finding some interesting artifacts relating to the mill and its workers, as well as a wider context of human activity going back into the mists of time. Finds so far include Georgian and Victorian bottles, crockery, and toys, as well as ancient (possibly Roman) beads, and a tiny worked flint blade of the Neolithic or Early Bronze age. I’m excited to have been invited to exhibit my finds and collections at the Silk Mill later this summer.
I share my finds and research on Instagram @myordinarytreasure. These are mostly “ordinary” things, but they connect us with the past in a very real and relatable way. This has become my online finding diary, research journal, and “virtual” museum. On my TikTok account, I share short videos that focus on the beautiful chalkstream setting as much as the finds. Social media is an excellent way to reach a wide audience and connect with like-minded folk around the world. It has been a revelation to discover a vibrant network of other “searchers,” whether they’re bottle diggers, scuba divers, metal detectorists, mudlarks, or beachcombers.
All photos courtesy of Jane Eastman.
Wade for treasures with Jane Eastman of My Ordinary Treasure
Come along as Jane Eastman @myordinarytreasure takes us on a video virtual beachcombing trip to some of her favorite rivers in England, where she finds treasures buried for centuries in the silt. She also shares some of her favorite pieces in her collection, and gives a brief history of some notable finds.
Learn more about bottles
Learn more about identifying bottles by shape and color, the history of bottle manufacturing, stoppers, marbles, and more. Articles ›
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2023 issue.