'I've found stoneware bottles all over Ireland, but the one I really want is from Banbridge'
Neil Reid loves adding to his collection of old Irish stone bottles and he is currently on the hunt for his holy grail - a Bann Mineral Water bottle. By Una Brankin
Neil Reid's unusual idea of heaven is a day out digging at the sites of 18th century rubbish dumps. Hell is a day out at Ikea. The civil engineer from Banbridge has built up an impressive collection of Victorian era antiques from his digs - but he won't be satisfied until he finds an old Bann Mineral Water stone bottle, originating from his hometown.
"I know that two of these Banbridge stoneware bottles exist and would love to get my hands of them," says Neil (40). "They were produced approximately 100-130 years ago and were all hand made. No two bottles are the same, due to the processes involved, but the minor flaws are what add to their charm."
Neil displays his collection of over 90 bottles in an antique book case at his home in Naas, Co Kildare, where he has lived since taking up a job with Dublin Water Lead, two and a half years ago. His widowed father still lives in Banbridge and is helping Neil in his quest for the rare local bottle.
"I've an interest in local history and the stoneware bottle collecting grew out of that," Neil explains. "I was given one five years by Helen McFadden of the Wellington House bar in Dromore and I just liked it, because of the age of and the local interest, and I've picked one up wherever I can ever since.
"They display very well and I think they're a good representation of Victorian Ireland. They're small and no fuss. I started picking up a few of the stoneware bottles at various antique markets, with the initial intention of gathering one from every county in Ireland. I've covered most of them at this time, but I still can't find the Banbridge bottle."
Authentic Victorian stoneware bottles can range in value from £5 to hundreds of pounds. Neil spends most of his spare time scouring flea markets and antique shops in his quest to complete his collection.
"You could pick one up for 50p in a flea market or dig one up worth hundreds," he says. "I met a collector in Kildare who invited me to a dig at an old farmhouse, where he'd heard there were some buried. Apparently, a few had been found when a field was ploughed up there previously.
"We found a good few more - it was exciting; a great adrenaline rush. To see something 150 years old coming up out of the soil. Some of them were in immaculate condition; others pretty fragile. They'd been used for stout and ginger ale in the past."
Stoneware bottles were gradually replaced by mass produced glass bottles. As a result, many of the 'stonies', as they are described by collectors, were buried in landfill sites or dumped in rivers and canals, and are therefore difficult to locate.
"I've hunted everywhere for the Banbridge bottle," Neil admits. "I know of two in existence but none of my contacts can get a lead on them. They could be at the bottom of the Bann or in a landfill. If there was a detector for stoneware, it would make my life a lot easier.
"I contacted Waterways Ireland and the DRD but no luck yet. It's usually only when rivers are dredged that they turn up. But my circle of friends is now regularly helping me gather up bottles and although my focus is mainly bottles from Ireland, I have had friends who send me bottles from Chicago, New York and even South Africa.
"Oh, and I have when on holiday in Kerry tried to negotiate with a barman for a beautiful Dingle bottle in a pub - unsuccessfully, unfortunately."
Next stop on Neil's search for Victorian dump sites is the local historical societies. Everywhere he goes he puts up A5 sized posters asking for help in locating his quarry.
"I don't think it's a funny hobby to have - everybody has some sort of hobby or collection. Mine just happens to be these sort of antiques. What's being manufactured nowadays is throw-away and won't be around in another 100 years," he says.
"The Victorians had their idea of throwaway furniture too but it was very well made and long-lasting. My idea of hell is shopping in the likes of Ikea. I prefer to spend a bit more on something designed to last a lot longer.
"And I'm determined to get my Banbridge bottle on display while I'm here working in Kildare. Banbridge is home and you never forget where you come from, and to find a bottle from there would just be the icing on the cake of my collection. I am hugely proud of where I came from and no matter where I travel, Banbridge and Northern Ireland will always be my home.
"I'm also keen to further my overall collection so if anyone has any stoneware bottles or cream pots and pot lids from across Ireland - with product and place names stamped on - then I'd be delighted if they got in touch.
"I'm certainly open to the prospect of digging for buried bottles and pots, so if a reader is aware of an old bottle dump on a farm or private land, I would very much welcome the opportunity to get my spade out."
Neil can contacted on: Neilreid76@gmail.com or tel: 00353 86600 6622
How old rubbish dumps can hold key to a fortune
Some of the rarer stoneware bottles can sell for hundreds of pounds. In his book Digging for Treasure, veteran bottle digger Ron Dale said specimens worth £5 to £8 when he first started out in the Seventies now sell for £800 to £1,000.
The prize bottles are those dating from 130-100 years ago.
Stoneware bottles, used mainly for ginger beer in late Victorian and Edwardian times, continued to be produced individually, by hand, for some time after 1920.
Pictorial trade marks and strong embossing help with the price, and local rarities again push the price up. Watch out for a very famous rarity in the poisons field.
It is called a Wasp-waist and is cobalt blue, flat in shape but with a narrowed waist in the centre part of the container. There are less than a dozen of these known and they usually reach £1,000 at auction.
Tips for locating Victorian stoneware
- Collectable bottles can most often be found in old rubbish dumps from about 1880 to 1910
- These dumps contain mainly coal ash, so finding ash in the ground is a key sign
- Try to work out where rubbish was likely to have been dumped in relation to dwellings
- Look out for areas with nettles, elderberries and rosebay willowherbs, which thrive in ash-filled soil
- Always seek permission of the landowner