Treasure in the English Chalk Streams

By Jane Eastman

english beachcombed bottles

At sun up the excitement is palpable. I remember seeing a twisting ribbon of mist hang above the water meadow and every single blade of grass was dropleted with beads of silver. A heron launched as a herd of deer broke through the reeds, noisily crossing the water in front of us before leaping the old fence and away. It was if we had imagined it! These moments, which seem to come at the beginning of an adventure, always feel like good omens and the passion for treasure hunting always starts with place. For me it’s the Hampshire countryside and the chalk streams that I know and love.

beachcomber in chalk streams england

We paced on through the water in our waders. There was a fallen willow near the bend as the stream narrowed, the current was stronger here, and it became harder to move forwards. Changes to the river flow can strip back the silt, potentially revealing something very old languishing in the river bed; it’s always worth a closer look. The glass-bottomed bucket is a window into the water. Here the underlying chalk filters it “gin clear,” but the speed of the flow on the surface blurs what is below. Freshwater shrimp dance in the current when disturbed and there’s a Miller’s thumb sculpin under almost every stone! But it is the brown trout that make these rivers famous for those who try to emulate the touch of damselfly on water with a tiny attached hook. It is always a pleasure to enjoy the view of the river teeming with life.

colorful antique glass bottles

But what else can be seen through the glass of my homemade bucket? Around the bend in the river sits a beautiful Georgian mansion house. The original inhabitants and the generations that came after used the river as their bottle dump, discarding kitchen empties, glass waste, and crockery into the water along with the ash and clinker from the many hearth fires. This is typical of how rubbish was disposed of by the houses that edge the river here and over the years. Bottles, pots, clay pipes, jars, bones, and crockery have slowly moved downstream to be concealed within the silt and gravel. Household refuse of another era has become part of the geology of the riverbed.

Aqua glass was the standard color for everyday Victorian utility bottles, and it is something to behold in the water. The varying iron content in the sand used in the glass mix combined with the amount of oxygen made available to create the flame resulted in an array of blue-green hues. Seeing the slither of the side of a bottle peeking out of the gravels is always exciting! On this day just over a year ago, the first time we discovered this particular spot, I found my first Hamilton “torpedo” bottle. I would like to say that I had to dig it out of the riverbed and that it took considerable effort, but this one was just lolling around in the shallows like a gift; a rare bottle that we had hardly dared dream of finding!

torpedo bottle english antique

Artificial carbonated waters were first made in the 1770s, but there was always an issue with the gas pressure created by the fizz-loosening corks in bottles if they dried out. In 1814, William Hamilton patented a torpedo-shaped bottle that had to be stored on its side so ensuring the cork remained moist and the seal remained good until opened.

This beautifully impractical Victorian amphora of a bottle with its bubbly glass and applied lip dates from the mid to late nineteenth century. Since that day, I have been very lucky to find five Hamilton bottles from other locations, including examples with the names of local brands either embossed or etched on the glass.

antique burgess pot lid

Late nineteenth century Burgess’s Anchovy Paste lid, few people knew what a lion really looked like!

We now affectionately call this stretch of river “pot lid alley” as the former occupants clearly had a love of anchovy paste. We have found several of the wonderful transfer-printed Burgess’s anchovy paste lids here, a well marketed brand that started in 1760, famously supplying Nelson’s HMS Victory in 1805, Scott’s Antarctica expedition in 1910, and topping the morning toast at this residence, it seems, for all the years in between.

antique ink bottles

I love all old glass, but my favorite finds have to be antique ink bottles. From the middle of the nineteenth century, increasing levels of literacy opened up a new market and a mind boggling array of brands supplying ink in liquid form became available. Most popular were the little bottles known as “penny inks.” English glass penny inks are crudely made. They are often wonky with beautiful bubbly glass and finished with a rough top where the bottle was simply burst off the blow pipe, to be filled with ink, bunged with a cork and sealed with wax. Penny inks were available in stoneware bottles, too. These are also known as “pork pies” and with their beautiful drippy glazes, no two are ever the same. The occasional thumb print in the clay brings an evocative connection with the maker. I imagine letters penned, shopping lists made, bookkeeping done, and lines written after school for misbehavior; what tales were held in these little bottles of ink! I always hope to find an ink bottle, but these are gifts from the river and I take nothing for granted.

antique bottles beachcombed in england

The Georgian mansion house river dump that I have described has given up many ink bottles in several designs and as an affluent household, there have been more unusual bottles too. A Blackwood’s Patent “igloo” ink in a beautiful deep green color is a treasured find here, along with a pouring syphon ink bottle by the same brand, my first umbrella-shaped ink bottle, and an array of the more familiar bottles in every shade of aqua, to add to my treasured collection.

beachcombing in a river

It is not just Victorian bottles that can be found in rivers of course. In some spots it’s a mishmash of finds and eras and the archaeological context can be as long as there has been human activity using the water. This is what makes river hunting so exciting, you just never know what you could find next! It is a glorious muddle where beautiful fragments of centuries old pottery, mobile phones, lead toys, clay pipes, last week’s discarded beer bottles, even Roman beads, all can be found and sometimes together! But on this particular day, turning the corner to the Georgian mansion beside the stream, my first find was not a bottle or any of these things, but a boar’s tusk, perfectly preserved in the water. I scooped it up from the gravel and was transported straight back to a time before the wild boar were hunted to extinction 700 years ago.

Note: Never go wading into fast, deep water alone!

With thanks to my treasure hunting friend, Mike @thebottlewader

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2020 issue.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published