The summer has been and gone, segueing quietly into autumn which arrived with strong winds and what felt like non-stop rain, resulting in some very high recent tide levels. This is also the time of year when Europe’s flood barriers are tested to ensure they’re fit for winter. The Thames Flood Barrier was tested on the 4th October and, when the Barrier is closed, this means that tides stay low much longer than normal, which is the perfect scenario for mudlarks. I wasn’t able to go mudlarking on that particular day of Thames Barrier closure so I don’t know whether that resulted in some interesting mudlarking finds, but I know these closure dates are always of special interest to the Thames Mudlarking community.
In my part of South West London Thames water levels have seen very high fluvial flows following almost three days of non-stop rain and wind, and also culminating with the end of this particular period of what’s known as a spring tide. Contrary to what’s commonly thought, spring tides are nothing to do with the season of spring. There are two spring tide periods in the lunar cycle during dates close to the new and full moon. This means we get spring tides all year round as the term actually refers to a ‘coiled spring’, or that the river is ‘springing up’ as a result of the cycle of the moon. The spring tide can also result in both exceptionally high and exceptionally low tides. Low-lying roads and pathways adjacent to the river are prone to flooding at this time, resulting in regular flood alerts due to excess water flow coming into the tidal part of the Thames. The flooding risk passes once astronomical tide levels fall. Continuous heavy rain also creates problems.
A star find from the last few weeks mudlarking was my very first complete apothecary bottle, photo above, literally thrown at my feet by wash from a passing Thames Clipper. This doesn’t happen often but, when it does, it’s a magical moment and totally unexpected. Made in clear glass by Pascall, the stopper was, not surprisingly, missing after so many years although these are often found separately by mudlarks. It’s staggering how many of them survive the ebb and flow of the tides and tumbling about in the river for centuries. And yet they still emerge in one piece.
The label has long since washed off in the river but it’s possible the bottle contained something like Laudanum. Laudanum is an opium tincture containing opium alkoloids; morphine and codeine. Popular throughout Victorian society as a muscle relaxant, cough suppressant, cure for rheumatism, nerves and just about every ailment you can think of, it was even given to children to keep them quiet and stop them crying. A highly addictive substance, it was nonetheless the Victorians’ favourite drug of choice. Twenty or twenty five drops of laudanum could be bought for a single penny, meaning it was easily affordable.
In contrast to our more tightly regulated times, in the Victorian period it was relatively straightforward for someone to walk into a chemist and buy, without prescription, laudanum, cocaine or arsenic. All manner of different opium preparations were freely and easily sold in towns and country markets, the consumption and use of opium was as popular in country areas as it was in cities. Many opium-based medicines were specifically targeted at women and widely prescribed to ease menstrual cramps and for pain during childbirth. These were also prescribed for hysteria, depression and fainting fits known in this era as ‘the vapours.’
In the late 18th and throughout the 19th century, many well known people used laudanum as a painkiller. These included writers such as Charles Dickens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey (who specifically wrote about his experiences in ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’), George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley suffered terrible laudanum-induced hallucinations and used opium, flavoured with saffron and cinnamon, to help with the chronic pain of nephritis. Lord Byron, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lewis Carroll were also laudanum addicts as was Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of US President Abraham Lincoln, who began to use opium when suffering severe depression after the death of one of her sons.
By the mid-1800s, the English chemist and druggist was a well established professional offering a range of medical goods and services and selling a variety of items from toiletries through to ointments, pills and preparations. This period witnessed a boom in advertising and the term ‘apothecary’, the more archaic word used for someone who made and sold drugs and potions, still continued to be used on posters. An apothecary had initially been the lowest ranking (untrained) medical practitioner serving as a pharmacist and prescribing all manner of medicines. Apothecaries considered themselves as physicians and doctors but were nothing of the sort.
In 1852 and 1868 Parliament tried to regulate the sale of pharmaceuticals by passing a Pharmacy Act, attempting to control the sale of opium-based preparations by insisting these were only sold by registered chemists. Unfortunately this wasn’t as effective as hoped and unregistered chemists and apothecaries continued to sell drugs to the public. This period also saw special schools established in order to teach pharmacy, however not all chemists were properly trained and many continued to dispense unwisely and illegally, offering cures using substances such as whale oil and a variety of herbal treatments.
A Victorian chemist’s would have contained within it hundreds of different bottles and pots, the colour of each glass container hinting at the contents within. Cobalt blue and emerald green indicated poison, the bottles decorated with a warning ‘NOT TO BE TAKEN’ or even ‘POISON’, in capital letters. But because so many people were unable to read these bottles were also helpfully designed with long, raised ridges down the side, tactile to the touch, and therefore distinguished them from non-poison bottles. This helped to avoid fatal accidents due to the unwitting consumption of poisonous contents. The ridging was also helpful when someone taken ill at night, and blundering about in the dark by candlelight looking for pain relief, was less likely to be poisoned by the contents of their medicine cabinet.
Last year I was thrilled to find my first green poison bottle. Slightly chipped on the rim nonetheless, much like my recent Pascall apothecary bottle find, it had also survived a hundred years plus of being buffeted about in the river. I’ve yet to find a cobalt blue one (the ones in my photo have been given to me by fellow mudlarks) but I live in hope. They still turn up in the river and in old Victorian bottle dumps so they can be found if you know where to look.
During Lockdown my recently purchased Edwardian Lepidopterist’s Cabinet was faithfully restored by my other half and placed ceremoniously in its new home, our recently converted garage/now dining room, where it now proudly displays my Thames found bottles and other Thames Treasures.
Happy bottle hunting!