Five-figure poison bottles, antique soda containers and other trinkets – GRANT HENDERSON can't stop looking out for submerged glassware
“SOMEONE PAID HOW MUCH for a bottle? A bottle!” I would hear this phrase repeatedly after selling a particular piece of litter I had found buried in a few feet of sand.
On first sight, this bottle wasn’t terribly exciting. I had been living in Bermuda for a few years and was looking for a souvenir, something that at least had “Bermuda” embossed on it. This bottle emerged and the inscription on the side read: “Codd’s Patent 4 – Dan Ryland’s – Barnsley”.
I cleaned it out and perched it (precariously, in hindsight) on a shelf in my house. It was still only 20m away from the seabed where I had unearthed it, more than 100 years after a sailor had tossed it over the side of his boat.
My first foray into bottle-diving had been closer to home. It was the Gutter Sound dive in Scapa Flow, a common afternoon dive in an area in which the Royal Navy used to have its moorings, and the crews would throw anything overboard. Crockery, brass shell-casings, bottles – there were no recycling bins in those days!
I didn’t have much luck that day, a few bottles picked up, but nothing memorable. It must, however, have planted a seed.
Many years later, I was testing my recently serviced regulators in front of my house in Bermuda. It was just another dive in a very large, shallow, natural harbour.
Plunging in at this site, I could see at once that the sandy bottom was covered in glass bottles. Most were of a modern lager brand, but there were older ones there too.
A quick rummage around and I had found an odd-looking glass bottle with a marble stopper in the top. “Gosling’s – Hamilton – Bermuda”, it was marked, and I immediately recognised the name, as it’s the local rum. However, this bottle was clearly very old.
Surfacing, I found that it was a pretty aqua colour, and heavy too – treasure! I had been bitten by the bug.
A little research showed that I was not alone in my new pursuit. There were a couple of bottle-divers on the island, and one had even written a book on the subject.
Stephen R McPhee’s A Guide to Collecting Old Bermuda Bottles would become a priceless source of information and wisdom for me. It contained all the different bottles and how to identify and date them.
Codd bottles, blob-tops, case gins, inkwells, soda bottles, crown-tops, burst-tops, torpedoes – there was so much to learn.
Of course, many galleons and clippers would have come in to repair their sails in this large harbour midway across the Atlantic before heading on to North America or back to Europe.
Steve and I would spend many weekends diving around the island, searching out new spots and scouring old ones. It was a far cry from the normal diving for which Bermuda is known, which normally takes place around the island’s outer reefs and historic shipwrecks.
Our pursuit would take us to old jetties, naval dockyards and ferry points around the island, certainly less glamorous locations. It was always a thrill comparing what we’d found at the end of a dive, although with Steve’s experienced eye he would nearly always have trumped my discoveries.
ONE OF THE JOYS of the Internet is that if you do find a bottle with writing on it, it’s easy to do a search and find out exactly what you have found.
Finding a brass contraption, I managed to brush off some of the black encrustation, presumably from iron that had corroded next it.
This revealed the engraving “Moldacot – London – No.1076”, and my online search concluded that it was an 18th-century handheld sewing machine. Unfortunately, there were far more intact examples online.
Another interesting find was a clay smoking pipe with the lettering “R.A.O.B.” around the bowl – this was found to stand for the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, a UK fraternal organisation.
It was actually very early on in my bottle-diving career that I found the Barnsley-marked bottle
I mentioned at the start, and as I began to learn more about bottles and their shapes and colours, I felt I should revisit this curious-looking specimen.
It was a Codd’s marble bottle, a precursor to the modern crown-top bottles we know today. A gentleman called Hiram Codd invented this type of stopper for soda bottles – a marble would be placed in the bottle during manufacture and the pressure of the soda inside would keep it pressed against a rubber O-ring in the rim.
This dated the bottle I had found to anywhere between 1880 and the 1920s.
It was a deep cobalt blue, not like the regular aqua blue we’d find all the time, and by now I had learnt that such colouring was often used to indicate that a bottle contained “poison” or, in other words, was potentially dangerous, as household bleach is.
The bottle was torpedo-shaped, a relic of the previous means of stopping bottles using a cork. Having a rounded base, it would have had to be kept on its side, which would keep the cork swollen and tight in the neck.
This dated my bottle to the late 1800s. The colour-and-shape combination led me to think that further investigation was warranted.
I contacted a bottle merchant in North Carolina. His website indicated that he organised “bottle-collecting fayres” around the USA. I sent him some pictures and asked him what he thought the bottle was worth.
His response was underwhelming – he reckoned the bottle could be worth a few hundred dollars. If I sent it to him, he’d let the bottle world know that it was coming up, list it on eBay and sell it for a small commission.
A few weeks later the listing went up online. After the first day the bidding was up to $400, and I nearly fell off my chair. The price would continue up by around $1000 a day, eventually settling, with a couple of hours of the auction to go, at around $6000.
I was already astounded, but in the final minutes that figure nearly doubled. The winning bid was $11,300.
Unfortunately the top bidder was never heard of again, but the second bidder honoured his top bid of $10,000.
I learnt that the collector had this type of bottle in 13 different colours, but this colour was not one he had seen before – it really was a rare find.
NOW I’M BACK IN THE UK, I don’t hear much about people bottle-diving these days. Some older divers say it was popular in the 1970s and ’80s, and perhaps in the earlier days on the more frequented dive-sites there would have been richer pickings.
Undeterred, I often venture away from the main UK dive-sites in search of treasure. On one dive about 100m along the road at a very popular site
in Loch Fyne I found a clay pipe and a very old “John Mackay’s Chemists Ltd – Glasgow & Edinburgh” soda bottle (before the days of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, sodas were often brewed onsite at the local pharmacist’s).
There are still bits and pieces to be found, so why not have a look? You too might get more than you bargained for!
Where do I start?
- Disused ferry points/docks/quarries or any previously “well-peopled” areas are good places to look. The popular Ballachulish Slate Quarry on Scotland’s west coast has lots of bottles, though it has been well-rummaged over time.
- Old photos can reveal where boats used to moor back in the day, so where bottles and other detritus was thrown overboard. Gutter Sound in Scapa is a classic example.
- If a site is a good fishing-spot now, chances are it has been for hundreds of years – and most fishermen like a tipple.
- The best source is local information, older divers and scallop-divers. Bottle-diving was popular in the 1970s/’80s but sand and silt may have moved since, revealing previously buried treasure.
- A bottle-collecting book or the Internet can help to ID and date bottles – the style of top/lip and colour can be indicators.