Mystery Bottles

After attending SPAB’s 2015 autumn lectures on curious things found in old buildings, Kelly Appleton-Swaine, building conservation officer, Heritage Lincolnshire, was inspired to find out more about the Old Kings Head, Kirton, a former coaching inn  with a story to tell. This story first appeared in the SPAB Magazine, a benefit of SPAB membership.

The darkness of a cold, wintery night can set the mind imagining all sorts of horrors. Our senses are heightened and small sounds seem large and frightening. The noises of nocturnal animals -scratching, sniffing, scurrying –  mutate, conjuring monsters, witches and evil spirits. In the absence of light, the creaks, cracks and groans of the building around us moving and settling after the heat of the day sound more like someone (or something) knocking, tapping or scraping at the doors and windows trying to get in.
Terrifying! Then we flick the light switch and after blinking in the sudden brightness, everything returns to normal again. It’s only the cat prowling outside, sizzling sap from the cooling fire, a twig tapping against the window.


It is no wonder that our 17th century counterparts were so superstitious when the fear of witches, evil spirits, spells and curses was very real. Warding off the supernatural was a powerful motive for actions which seem to us, in our light-filled, busy modern day world, decidedly odd and strange.

After attending the 2015 SPAB Autumn Lectures I understood this a little more, although some aspects did still seem baffling. I could understand why ritual and sacred marks were carved into windows, doors and fireplaces, but the reasons for hiding dead cats, shoes and skulls in walls or under floorboards still took an extra leap of the imagination. It was, however, fascinating and was made more so by Brian Hoggard whose lecture, ‘Shoes in the chimney, cats in the floor’ left me intrigued and wanting to know more. Afterwards as I stepped out into the busy October semi-darkness, I wanted nothing more than to race back to Lincolnshire, find a torch and start scouring Heritage Lincolnshire’s new building conservation project, The Old King’s Head, for signs of marks or buried felines.
Luckily I didn’t have too long to wait until something curious turned up.


The Old King’s Head. Credit: Beverley Gormley

Heritage Lincolnshire is a Building Preservation Trust that works across the county to help protect, preserve and celebrate Lincolnshire’s rich heritage.  Purchased in early 2016, the Old King’s Head is a brick built former coaching inn, located in Kirton, on what was the main London road into Boston. After decades of neglect, the Grade II – Listed building has become at risk and in danger of being lost.

The Old Kings Head was built in two main phases. The first was completed  in 1599 and the second phase, in 1661, consisted of major remodelling. This second phase, as noted by Pevsner, is in the Fen Artisan Mannerist style, an architectural term coined by Sir John Summerson in the 1950s to describe a style of building which was designed and built by craftsmen rather than architects. There are several examples in the Fenland area such as Church House in Boston and Aslackby Hall near Bourne.


The Old King’s Head stairs. Credit: Ian Moore

The building has a long and fascinating history as a coaching inn and was mentioned in the autobiography ‘The Life of John Rastrick’ (1650-1727). As a Lincolnshire non-conformist clergyman. Rastrick used his money to release fellow non-conformists and refused to baptise the local children if he felt their parents were ‘loose and scandalous’ people. This made him extremely unpopular with the Kirton locals who, by his own admission, all hated him and felt he was ‘too rigorous and cruell [sic] to make the Children suffer for the Parents faults’. This led to a near fatal incident in 1678 when Rastrick was locked in the dining room of the King’s Head with a Mr William Hunt (Rastrick would not give him communion due to Mr Hunt refusing to repent his ‘former ill life’) who flew into a rage shouting ‘We’ll die together in this room!’  Rastrick only survived due to a neighbour intervening. There were several other lively characters associated with the King’s Head, which remained as a pub until the late 1960’s when it was converted to residential use.


The entrance room at The Old King’s Head. Credit: Ian Moore

Since purchasing the building, the Trust has been spending time investigating its construction and development and we are benefitting from expert advice on the historic timbers, thatch, paint and mortar. Due to the age of the building we suspected we might find marks or items of apotropaic interest and I attended the SPAB lectures to ensure that we would know what to look out for. We have also been talking to the local community, including previous occupants, and it was at a meeting with a former resident that I first heard of the bottles in the roof.

Up to this point we had not fully investigated the roof space apart from shining a torch into its gloomy depths. We knew that the pub had once been thatched and that a pantile roof had been built over the top of it. From what the torch illuminated, some if not all of the original thatch base survives.

On hearing about the bottles we investigated further and found three broken glass bottles covered in dust and cobwebs hanging from a roof beam. Our source told us that his grandmother ordered him and his siblings never to touch them but they were never told the reason why.  We decided to ask Brian Hoggard to visit to see if there was an explanation. Brian’s visit was enlightening and extremely interesting, and although we still don’t really know why the bottles were put there a few theories have been put forward. When we first saw the bottles the idea of them being ‘witch bottles’ was mooted. Witch bottles are normally buried; they contain items such as pins, nails and urine and are complete (upon burial).


Our bottles are hanging, broken and it is believed that they date from between 1800 and 1850. One theory is that they were used as part of a game when coach men and stable boys would sleep in the roof space and throw stones at hanging bottles, scoring points whenever one was smashed. However the rope that the bottles are hung with appears to be the same age as the bottles and the way it is knotted shows they could only have been hung after they were broken.

If they are not witch bottles or the remnants of a game, what are they? The last and slightly speculative (or romantic) theory is that the bottles represent people who lived in the inn. Looking into historic records we found that a John and Elizabeth Pulford lived at the King’s Head in the mid 1800’s. They married in 1835 and had their first child, William, the following year. Sadly there is record of William’s burial aged 2 in July 1837 and later in the year Elizabeth was buried too, along with another child – Richard Pulford – who was only 25 weeks and three days old.

Could it be that in his grief John Pulford had hung the bottles in the roof as representations of Elizabeth, William and Richard? Choosing broken bottles because they had been tragically taken away from him? It is quite likely that we will never know, but the mystery is intriguing and it brings the building and former inhabitants to life.
Heritage Lincolnshire is only at the beginning of our journey exploring and renovating the Old King’s Head. Our hope is to return it back into a thriving centre of the community.  There is still a lot to discover so who knows what other mysteries we will find on the way?

If you would like to make a donation to the conservation of this historic building and/or to the work of Heritage Lincolnshire, you can do so online.

SPAB and Historic Royal Palaces partnership turns 5

In 2016 we will celebrate the 5 year anniversary of our Masterclass partnership with Historic Royal Palaces. We kick-started celebrations this year with a competition for past delegates. They were invited to write a short piece on how a Masterclass influenced their work. Congratulations to James Crick, senior architect at Donald Insall Associates, for his winning entry describing how what he learnt on a ‘Conserving Historic Buildings: Repair of Gauged Arches’ masterclass helped him during a condition survey of the Crystal Palace Subway in south London.

The masterclasses are limited to a small group size to allow for the hands-on workshop element, and have so far reached over 120 delegates. Since 2012, we have run masterclasses to cover these popular topics of conservation and repair: gauged arches; cut and rubbed chimneys; free-standing walls; metalwork; stonework; timber; historic finishes. They offer a unique learning environment through case studies, demonstrations, hands-on workshops and access to live conservation projects. The masterclasses are delivered by experts in their fields and presented at the magnificent HRP sites – Hampton Court Palace, Tower of London and Banqueting House.

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace

James Crick’s winning entry:

Courses, such as the Repair of Gauged Arches which I attended in 2014, offer a wonderful opportunity to engage with materials and the experts who work with them. Following a day of practical teaching by Emma Simpson, my zealously rubbed brick slotted into a perfectly formed gauged brick arch especially created for learners. It was clear to all that my brick was rubbed too small, demonstrated by the surrounding thick white putty lines. Not the perfect brick repair but my enjoyment was not diminished. The process and teaching was by far the greatest reward of the day.

James (left) at the Gauged Arches Masterclass

James (left) at the Gauged Arches Masterclass

Working as a young architect in conservation, I have often felt that university and subsequent practice can fail to unite designers with the process of ‘doing’. That is to say, we are prepared with a wealth of invaluable theory (supported by years of personal research and interest), which can assist us immeasurably in developing construction proposals, yet often this education fails to teach the on-site reality. There is an education gap between those that do and those who instruct, which is clearly no good for either party, nor for the poor buildings we work on.

In professional practice hands-on courses rapidly find relevance in daily work. The knowledge gained from my course was immensely useful during a condition survey of E. M. Barry’s Crystal Palace Subway in South London. Hidden under a main road, with little above ground presence, a startling array of columns and polychromatic brick vaults remains one of the last remnants of the the Crystal Palace High Level Station (circa. 1864).

Crystal Palce Subway

Crystal Palace Subway


Crystal Palace Subway

Crystal Palace Subway


Although long closed, the relatively good condition of the the brick vaults is a testament to the qual-ity of the original construction. Sadly, in various locations, localised decay of the brick has occurred due to water ingress. Damage ranges from minor spalling and efflorescence, to limited areas of deeply eroded brick.

Supported by the knowledge gained from hands-on experience, we were able to make informed judgments regarding the practical aspects of repairs. For instance, it was apparent that cutting out for brick replacement was likely to have a consequential impact upon surrounding undamaged masonry (either through disturbance, or necessity in enabling bedding of replacement brickwork). Understanding this was essential in appraising the financial cost of these repairs. Knowing that limited funds may restrict future repair options, it was important to identify damage that was likely to affect future structural stability, to enable these areas to be prioritised.

Working closely with a structural engineer, an assessment of the structural implications of brick loss was undertaken. This allowed repairs to be identified as ‘necessary’ or ‘preferable’. Due to the risk associated with repair methods, it was also identified that some areas could remain un-repaired (subject to resolution of the origin of the decay) in order to protect adjacent sound brick-work.

Crystal Palace Subway, James' survey notes

Crystal Palace Subway, James’ survey notes

I implore all professionals (perhaps especially those entering conservation, having just left university) to take the opportunity to engage with hands-on experiences such as the masterclasses. For myself the workshop not only reinforced and expanded upon previous experiences, but also offered a friendly forum in which to meet people from differing disciplines within the construction industry. Shared experience and knowledge between parties is, surely, essential if we are to successfully care for our historic environment.