Pictures from the past: History society investigate garden mystery

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Following the discovery of more than 700 ‘Blacking Bottles’ under the floor of a summer house in the Heath Road garden of Mark and Lyn Austin, a three-day Time Team-style excavation was carried out last week by the Leighton Buzzard and District Archaeological and Historical Society under the direction of site director Bernard Jones.

In Time Team fashion, the historical side of the society has been carrying out further research into the history of the ‘Blacking Bottles’ which appear to date from between 1817 and 1834. This is exactly the same time that Charles Dickens, aged 11, was sent to work in a Blacking Factory in London, an experience so horrible that it left an indelible mark on his memory.

He uses the experience to describe the life of the poor underclass in the 1820s. Blacking is a dye and polish used for leather and iron work to preserve them against the damp.

Mystery still surrounds the reason why all those bottles were placed inverted in a circular pattern on a bed of golden sand but it could have been a decorative floor similar to a Roman mosaic, or decoration like a shell grotto, albeit that it was later covered in concrete.

The building was circular in shape with a sandstone wall at the rear, a wooden wall at the front and with a self-supporting conical roof. The front wall and roof had already been removed and the concrete floor broken up.

The bottle floor was not the earliest floor in the building as evidence was found of a pre-existing sandstone cobbled floor beneath it with a wooden threshold for a door. In addition there was a post-hole in the middle of the building, which could, at one time, have held a post to support the conical roof.

The date of the building is not clear but there were buildings on the site from before 1851 when Wm. Stevens conveyed them to Thos. Toffield, so it might date from around that period. The enclosure of Leighton Heath in the 1840s supports that theory. But the riddle remains as to how bottles dating from the early 1800s came to be used to re-lay a floor in a building dating from after the 1840s.

One of the bottles still had a paper label on it with the name of Day and Martin. They were a very successful company making blacking from around 1770 to the 1900s.

Blacking was used for many purposes but extensively for preserving the leather of harnesses, and boots and shoes. We have found connections in Leighton Buzzard to shoemakers and binders living on the Heath Road. Another link to the industry is Thomas Collier, originally from Manchester was also in the blacking trade. He lived at the White House in Hockliffe Street in 1901, currently the town council offices, and was described as a manager of a “Blacking Manufactury”. His uncle in Manchester employed 150 hands in his factory making blacking but there is no record so far of a similar enterprise in Leighton. Thomas Collier subsequently went bankrupt in 1904 and was forced to sell his Rembrandt drawings among other things according to the “Observer” of the day.

The society is still looking for an answer as to why someone accumulated such a large number of blacking bottles from that earlier period.