This summer, I was invited to inspect a hollow in the grounds of a beautiful rectory in south Norfolk. The area lies to the rear of the rectory garden, screened by trees, and the owners had discovered bottles and old metal buckets there while planting shrubs. When I opened a trench, I soon discovered that the bottom of the large pit was full of ash, broken glass, clinker, crockery and rusty metal. A few hours later it was clear that the hollow had served as a tip for the rectory during the 1910s. Tom arrived the next day to assist, and we soon had a pile of stoneware furniture cream bottles, inks, sauces, bottles for Scrubbs Fluid and similar items of the period. It was notable that no drinks bottles – nor indeed re-usable bottles of any kind – had been thrown into the hollow. And since the rector was not poor, his household must have either kept them by choice or disposed of them to people who needed them in the village. The other possibility, given that the rubbish lay near the surface in a pit easily accessible from the churchyard and adjacent land, is that local children had scavenged it to extract useful bottles and jars.
A second trench, this time not in the bottom but in the side of the pit, closer to the rectory, had us digging through about five feet of ash before we came across a similar crusty layer of rubbish. Here the heavy items, such as intact bottles, had sunk through the ash that had been tipped in large quantities from the household grates; but the rubbish was basically the same as that in the bottom of the hollow: indeed both trenches contained a number of intact or near-intact glass tumblers, which the rector seems to have discarded in profusion at this date.
From these trenches we concluded that tipping into the hollow had begun in the Edwardian era, or at the latest c. 1910. Prior to that it had been a large sandpit, as fresh sand at the bottom revealed. The hunt was now on for the earlier rubbish, given that the rector had to have dumped it somewhere else. He must have generated a lot of it too, considering the stables, servants’ quarters for three servants listed in the census, and the presence of his own household, as well as a cellar with the original racks for hundreds of wine bottles. The rector from the 1840s until c. 1900 was George France, a cleric of independent means who also held the patronage of the rectory. On taking up the living, he paid for the rectory to be rebuilt, installed a walled garden, and also paid for the rebuilding of the church and its tower. Although the living was modest at £325 p/a, France had inherited a fortune, being from a family of royal coffin and cabinet makers.
Moving our search closer to the house, we began to sink the probe into an area adjacent to the stables at the end of a path running behind the walled yard and privies. This area, screened by old trees, was conveniently accessible from the back of the house. In the middle, we noticed a large circular patch overgrown with a sparse spread of nettles but largely with cow parsley, apparently delineating a filled-in pit. Tiny bits of glass and pottery visible on the surface dated no later than c. 1900, and probing turned up a thick seam of dark ash and clay and chalk mixed together. We decided therefore to put in a long trench, extending from roughly the edge of the ‘pit’ to the middle.
After digging through topsoil and roots, we hit a layer of capping, made up of chalky clay, with a few bits of glass, brick and pottery included. Below this we found the first layer of ash, which was a dark purple-grey colour. In this layer, broken and whole bottles began to appear, as well as pottery, oyster shell and broken glass. Beneath the purple ash was another layer of dumped yellow clay and rubble – possibly another capping layer; and below that was the ash, just as before, in a thick seam. This alternation of layers, made up of ashy seams and capping layers, continued more than six feet downwards, with at least five alternations down to that point. It may be that the dump was being filled each winter and capped in the spring, in consecutive years, to deter vermin and contain bad odours in the summer. The ashy material consisted mostly of ash and coke from the rectory, organic matter (with a large quantity of oyster shells and bones attesting to what might have rotted away), and hardcore of various sorts, mostly bottles, tiles and crockery.
The bulk of the bottle glass came from black-glass wine bottles and ale bottles, which dominate the left hand side of the photo above. The next most common type of bottle was a light green blob-top soda or mineral water bottle, one of which was found intact. After that, Hamilton bottles were the most numerous, although all the ones in this trench were broken. A handful of light blue medicine and sauce bottles made by the York Glass Company, along with a few stoneware inks, a champagne bottle, and a couple of medicine phials has been discarded intact. Some of the ale-bottle necks had the remains of ‘foil-topping’. Crimped lead foil around the neck to prevent tampering and long bottles for hock were innovations of the 1840s.
The wine bottles included free-blown specimens with a bulge at the base (typically dating before 1830), dip-moulded examples, and a number with pontil scars from the period 1850-70, as well as a few made in two-piece moulds with base plates and three-piece moulds. Since wine bottles were often old when discarded, these features did not help much with the dating. The crudely moulded medicine and sauce bottles were more helpful because none of them had a pontil scar; and the Doulton master ink bore a pottery stamp first used in 1858. But none of the items looked as though it was manufactured after the 1870s. (Note the base of a dip-moulded gin bottle on the right hand side next to the intact bottles in the photo below.)
The rubbish also contained a number of rectangular glass off-cuts which relate to the diamond panes in the rear door of the rectory, where the glass cutter has engraved his initials and the date 1852. The off-cuts were either made at that date or subsequently, during repairs. Other building debris associated with the rectory included a floor tile, part of a slate slab like the cool slab shelves in the cellar and sections of zinc guttering like that still in situ over the roof of the privies.
The photo above shows the off-cuts, with broken lamp chimneys above them (centre left), crockery, bottle glass and stoneware ink bottles top right. A banded-ware bowl, willow-pattern plates, two buttons, bones, a ceramic pot (minus the lid), and other items can be seen in the photo below.
After a day’s work digging this trench into the side of the pit, we had begun to gain insights into life at the rectory in the time of George France, but there was not enough material yet to tell his story. Nine tenths or more remained buried, and it could only be excavated with mechanical help (Part 2).