Of all the bottles I have dug over the
years a pictorial slab-sealed veterinary medicine bottle from Horncastle in
Lincolnshire is without doubt my favourite. It came out of the ground in Lincoln
in April 1993, from a tip known as ‘The Scrapyard’. Now under the
car park behind the St Marks Station retail development, this early tip was
dug by a handful of persistent diggers over a 12 to 18 month period in 1992
and 1993 (long before digital cameras, and I don't have any photos of digging
there, or the site itself).
Located in filled in clay pits, most of the site
dated to between about 1865 and 1880, and was typical of most pre-1880 dumps
in Britain, that it was extremely sparse, the rubbish having been heavily scavenged
at the time it was dumped. Concrete rafts between 4” and 10” (12cm
to 25cm) thick over most of the tip, overlying 18” of compressed hardcore
meant that lots of hard work and perseverance was needed! I dug there for several
months of weekends, and only on about one day in three of four would I take
anything home. Disheartening it certainly was at times, but almost every day
one or two fragments of fantastic ‘in my dreams’ items (a piece
of slab sealed flask, a pontilled amethyst bird beak ink with registration diamond,
a mid-green pontilled hamilton, and a narrow neck amber dumpy Codd, to name
but a few) would drop out of the side. I was constantly drawn back by the small
but exciting possibility of finding items of this kind of quality.
Above: The slab sealed
bottle, on the left. The '8' indicates an 8 fluid ounce capacity.
On this occasion I had taken a couple of days off work, and was backfilling
a trench below thin concrete (about 4” or 5” thick – easy
enough to get through with a sledgehammer) along the edge of a huge slab of
concrete that had once been part of a road. In the course of three days I had
moved the hole forward about 30 feet, and by undercutting the huge slab along
the left hand side of my hole by a few feet had managed to widen the trench
to about 8 or 9 feet, and move a lot of ash.
By day three the routine of forking
through the ash to undercut the concrete in front, shovelling the spoil behind,
sledge-hammering three or four feet forward through the concrete and hardcore,
and then repeating the whole process was beginning to reap some rewards: a narrow
neck Codd from J. T. Lee of Newark dating to the mid 1870s, a small slab sealed
flagon of the 1850s or 60s from T. Obbinson of Sleaford, a rare local slip glazed
porter, and a handful of early Lincoln beers. By late afternoon I was completely
out of energy after three days of this. I decided to just undercut the concrete
in front one more time and then have an early finish.
I was feebly prodding the ash walls
of the trench about six feet down, just above and in the water level, when salt
glazed ginger beer – shaped bottles started to turn up. Over ten or fifteen
minutes I pulled out about 6 or 8 of these. All were damaged, and all were completely
plain. After a quick check for writing or pottery marks they went over my shoulder
onto the heap of backfill. I was at the end of my tether, and had undercut the
concrete further forward than I was comfortable with. Bricks and other lumps
stuck to the underneath of the concrete were dropping onto my fork, as I reached
out to pull in the last little bit of ash that I could reach.
I dug my fork into the side, and a small part of
the wall fell into the water leaving a mound of ash about a foot high. Sitting
on top was another of the plain dark coloured salt glazed gingers, with the
neck towards me. It was a long way under the concrete and by this time my back
was hurting too much to make bending down for it very easy, so I carelessly
jabbed my fork down the neck and flicked the bottle towards me. Rubbing the
dirt off I was very surprised to see some writing, almost hidden under what
looked liked a large lump of rust stuck to the bottle!!! Fantastic, an early
impressed GB!! Thinking the lump of rust might be covering more writing I picked
up my fork to chip it off the side of the bottle and …. Aaaarrrgh!!! Noooooooo!!!
came within a tenth of an inch of clunking into a slab seal.
Only two other diggers, Brian and Robin Patterson,
were on the tip that day, digging just a few feet to one side of me but trenching
in the opposite direction. At first the strange sound coming from my hole meant
they thought I must have had some terrible accident. They were about to leap
out of their hole to rescue me, when I appeared in front of them babbling about
a bottle with a cow on it, having exited my own six foot hole without even touching
The first wash this great little bottle had was done
using Robin's orange drink. Once I got over my initial demented excitement Robin
helped me do a little more digging, as I could barely walk with exhaustion by
that stage. Robin turned up a lovely little Market Rasen vets bottle (HODGSON
/ VETERINARY / SURGEON / RASEN), within a foot of the spot where the slab seal
had come out.
Over the next few days of digging I found absolutely
nothing more in that hole (although it wasn’t for want of trying) but
within a week Brian and Robin had a ‘dream hole’ of their own just
yards away, full of stoneware Lincoln vets bottles (some of which eventually
found their way into my vets
bottle collection), rare porters and early gingers. That hole became a bit
of a legend for the broken items it produced, most incredible of which were
several fragmentary examples of the previously unheard-of square cross section
slab sealed bottles ‘G*SMITH / BROWN STOUT / LINCOLN’. Just a few
feet further on, a huge but broken "Gaskells Celebrated Pleuropneumonia"
flask, the king of all British veterinary bottles, turned up.
© J. M. Kemp.
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