Kent Ginger Beer Stoneware Bottles

Late 19th-Mid-20th Century

Copyright © Ken Elks 2015

There are four ginger-flavoured drink products, two of which are known as ginger beer although there is a great difference between them; there is also ginger wine and ginger ale.  Ginger wine is alcoholic, a fortified wine with an ABV (Alcohol By Volume) of 13.5-13.9% (compared with about 5% for beer, 12% for wine and 40% for spirits in modern beverages).  Made from fermented raisins and root ginger blended with brandy, it was first produced by the Finsbury Distillery Company of London in 1740.  At one time there were also non-alcoholic ginger wines made especially for children and teetotallers.  Ginger ale, however, is non-alcoholic, despite its name.  It was (or so he claimed) invented by an American doctor, Thomas Cantrell, and first manufactured in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Grattan and Company, under the slogan "The Original Makers of Ginger Ale".  Sometimes referred to as “golden ginger ale”, it was dark in colour and sweetened.  Dry ginger ale is also non-alcoholic and was created by a Canadian, John McLaughlin, a chemist and pharmacist who opened a soda water bottling plant in 1890.  Following experiments adding different flavours to the soda water, he finally settled on "Pale Dry Ginger Ale," patented in 1907 as "Canada Dry Ginger Ale".  Used as a mixer for alcoholic drinks, it became an instant success that is still with us today.

Ginger Beer originated in Yorkshire during the mid-18th century but it was not until large-scale manufacture commenced nearly a century later as part of the boom in the consumption of aerated mineral waters (“fizzy drinks”) that it really became popular and remained so in Britain until the start of World War 2 in 1939 and to the present day.   Originally an alcoholic home-brewed drink (probably around 4%), following the 1855 legislation that stipulated a maximum alcohol content of 2% for ginger beer it is clear that although these later drinks use terms like “home brewed” they were almost entirely non-alcoholic.  Sold in glass or stoneware bottles, ginger beer was made in hundreds of small local factories throughout the length and breadth of Britain as well as overseas, these bottles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.  They are usually marked with the name of the manufacturer and the town where made.  Although mostly for local consumption, some of the large manufacturers managed a widespread national distribution and even supplied an international market.  Because the subject is so vast this webpage is to record and illustrate those stoneware bottles originating from places in Kent, though examples from elsewhere may be used for explanatory purposes.  No attempt is made to deal with the even wider subject of glass bottles used for ginger beer.

Another process usually associated with bottles on which the beer maker’s name is impressed is salt-glazing, in which salt is added to the kiln during final firing.  This produces a brownish-coloured orange peel effect and is extremely strong and waterproof, hence why at one time it was favoured in the manufacture of such things as drainpipes.  Transfer-printed stoneware bottles are made from white clay given a greyish-white slip and then fired at a very high temperature.  This produced a vitreous glaze inside and out that made them watertight.  Many of these bottles have an added yellow-brown colour at the top, usually from the shoulder upwards, occasionally all over.  Although few (so far) have been noted from Kent, other colours such as green or blue were used occasionally.  The bottles themselves were usually manufactured by specialist potters, among them the famous Denby company, who marked their wares with a small oval stamp that included the date of manufacture.  Other bottle manufacturers found on Kent bottles include Doulton, Lambeth in London, Stiff, also from Lambeth, Price of Bristol (some of which also include the date of manufacture), Skey, Tamworth in Staffordshire, Lovatt & Lovatt, Nottinghamshire,  the Fulham Pottery, London, Smith & Co, Old Kent Road, London, and Port Dundas, Glasgow.

The present site is confined to the bottles where the manufacturing details were impressed into the bottles when the clay was still soft or transfer-printed ( i.e. ink transferred from a plate, not an actual transfer) under the vitreous glazing. Other bottles etc. may be covered separately at a later stage.

There are several different shapes, including those that are known as "champagne" and also "skittle".  The most commonly encountered shape after 1900 has straight sides with a sharp shoulder and has a concave neck which is usually brown in colour.  This is often referred to as the "standard" shape.  The tops were closed with a cork or, from about 1900 onwards, by a screw-in stopper, either a flat-topped version made of hard wood or Vulcanised rubber, or the Riley’s Patent chisel-shaped version.  There were also two rarer types of stopper, the Galtee More Patent (a porcelain stopper with a hole from side to side, designed so that it could be attached to the bottle and so prevent it being lost), and the swing type, which consisted of a sprung wire clip holding a porcelain stopper with rubber seal.  These bottles were intended to be re-usable and occasionally carry warnings about illegal use, sometimes by refilling with an inferior or “own brand” mixture (as cited in the case where an official of the Mineral Water Bottle Exchange Company, which was formed for the purpose of restoring bottles to mineral water manufacturers, took a street trader to court for selling his own brew in R. White bottles).  It is clear that the nature of the contents of some bottles would have been shown by affixing a printed paper label to the side.  This would have been particularly true of the salt-glazed bottles, where the details of the brewer were exceedingly brief, often just giving the name, but was also the case with some of the vitreous –glazed bottles, the one for H. &. G. Watts of Sandwich being a typical example.

To qualify for inclusion here, the stoneware bottles must either include the word "ginger beer" on the label or where there is good reason to believe that they were used for this purpose.  It should be noted that other aerated mineral waters and also beers, notably stout, were sold in similar bottles, though not always labelled as such.  

In the catalogue the bottles are listed in alphabetical order of the place of manufacture and by manufacturer within that location.  They include some locations that were part of Kent but have since been swallowed up by London.

Minor amendments to the text 2 June 2016