It was under the Arsenic Act of 1851 that the sale of toxic substances – some of them use for murder most foul – first became more regulated.
However, it was not until the Poisons and Pharmacy Act of 1908 that it became a legal requirement for a bottle containing poison to carry a warning.
In the intervening half a century, at a time when it was often necessary to reach for medicine by candlelight, the marketplace had responded to the need for safer bottles with an array of patent applications from chemists, doctors and glass companies. These containers which would be recognisable by touch and colour.
The most common in blue and green glass were moulded with ridges and grooves.
The most collectable today are the quirky models that assumed a range of shapes.
A rare type patented in 1905 is a bottle formed with two conjoined cylinders and a single neck. The so-called ‘binoculars’ poison, embossed with the word Poison and a figure of eight reading 8482 and Patent 1905, is known in different sizes and colours but all of them are in the ultra-rare category.
Just the 49 bids
The 3¾in (10cm) example in aqua glass that was offered at South Yorkshire bottle and advertising specialist BBR Auctions (15% buyer’s premium) as part of the Summer National on July 2 is the only recorded version in this colour and size.
The estimate of £3000-4000 in Elsecar was based on a previous private sale of a similar bottle – but what would happen when the open market was tested? Some 49 bids later the hammer fell to a determined phone bidder at £11,000. That is one of the highest prices ever paid for an English poison bottle.
A number of other poisons – many from the vast collection of long-time enthusiast Roy Sherwin – showed the strength of interest in this very specialised area. This top lot went to the UK, but Australian and US buyers also made purchases.
There were two examples of the Gilbertson’s Wedge, an earlier patent bottle embossed H Gilbertson & Sons and Regd 30th Octr 1860.
An example in green glass is one of only a handful known and had previously sold at BBR in October 1999 for £1100. This time out it took £3200. Another example of this rare wedge form bottle in clear glass sold at £950. It had previously made £880 in 2005.
The similar Quines patent – an inclined bottle that would sit flat in the medicine cupboard – was offered in a range of sizes. The largest at 7½in (18cm) and the smallest at 4in (12cm) are some of the hardest to find: here they took £1000 and £850 respectively.
Sold at £2600 was the 1887 ES Hermes Patent, an apparently unique ribbed hexagonal bottle with a false, blocked neck. Instead, the liquid was withdrawn via a cork stopper to an indentation in the base. This example is in cobalt glass: the only other known is in amber glass and damaged.
Some of the best poison novelties were made in the US. Sherwin owned three versions of the much-coveted skull and crossed bones bottle (more correctly called the death head) patented by Boston manufacturer Carlton H Lee in 1894. They took prices from £1300-1500.
Some of the earliest bottles in the sale came from the well-known collection of David Walker Barker (1947-2019).
These included two small shaft and globes from the 1660s.
One very well-preserved ‘half-size’ bottle standing 7in (17cm) high with inscribed initials to the shoulder sold for £3500. However, a miniature example, just 3½in (10cm) high with a characterful worn surface, was sufficiently rare to bring £4400.
Alan Blakeman of BBR said he had not seen another in over 40 years of cataloguing.
Walker Barker had bought an exceptional sealed onion at Sotheby’s in 1986. Probably the bottle pictured in Sheelah Ruggles Brise’s Sealed Bottles (first printed in 1949) and illustrated again in David Burton’s magnum opus Antique Sealed Bottles (2015), the seal depicts a cockatrice and the words Wingerworth 1711 – a reference to Wingerworth Hall, near Chesterfield, the Derbyshire seat of the royalist Hunloke family.
It is likely that Henry Hunloke, 2nd Baronet of Wingerworth (1645- 1715), commissioned this and other similar bottles for decanting table wine at the house. A Derbyshire collector bought it against international interest for £4000.
Walker Barker’s Daffy’s Elixir collection was considered among the very best. He owned at least seven variants of the famous English medicine bottle, most dating from the late 18th and early 19th century.
These pontil-scarred bottles have brought some muscular sums in recent years; one from c.1790-1800 selling for £3600 in 2017.
The slightly later and larger 4½in (11.5cm) tall bottle offered here in a dark olive-green glass was embossed True Daffys Elixir to the front and Dicey & Co No 10 Bow Church Yard, London to the rear. With numerous David Walker Barker handwritten labels to the base, it doubled hopes at £3500.