Object of the Month - June 2018
Tucked away on the shelf of a wonky cupboard in Selly Manor sits a fairly ordinary object with some extraordinary connections. The leather costrel was bought by Laurence Cadbury from an artist and antiques collector called Oliver Baker, and given to the museum's grwoing collection. Baker was a specialist in such objects and in 1927 wrote a book called Black Jacks and Leather Bottels. Black jacks are a type of leather jug whilst the types of bottle he referred to were like this costrel. In his book Baker wrote about this particular bottle or costrel,
A large bottle holding more than a gallon, which was discovered in Worcestershire by the well-known artist Mr F.D. Millet, has on one side a large fleur de lis in low relief, and is now the property of Mr Laurence Cadbury
According to Laurence Cadbury the costrel was found full of grease on a cart at a Worcestershire farm. The previous owner was Francis Davis Millet (1846 - 1912) an American painter, sculptor and writer. Millet first worked in America before travelling to Europe, and eventually settling in Broadway in the Cotswolds. There he set up an artist’s colony in the 1880s which included the well known painter John Singer Sargent, and was visited by cultural figures such as Mark Twain, Edward Elgar, Oscar Wilde and Claude Monet. Whilst living in Broadway he presumably found the leather bottle and sold it to Laurence Cadbury, possibly via Oliver Baker. On 10th April 1912, Millet boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg in France, bound for New York City. He was last seen helping women and children into lifeboats.
At what point the leather costrel came to Laurence Cadbury we do not know. However it is a fine example of a leather bottle and such items were used for hundreds of years. In the medieval period a leather costrel was a standard piece of equipment provided to a working labourer although this one probably dates to the eighteenth century. It was designed to carry liquid and many workers would have used them to take their supply of beer or water to their place of work for the day. To ensure they were waterproof they were usually lined with pitch. It is likely that costrels like this one were also made to be used by people travelling long distances, such as soldiers, sailors or pilgrims.
Originally this bottle had a long strap so that it could be carried around the owner’s neck or on their shoulder. This strap would have been fixed to the bottle by threading it through the two holes at the top. Alongside each of these holes is a stamped letter H, probably the initials of the original owner. The leather costrel at Selly Manor has a striking decoration of a fleur de lis on the front of the barrel. The three leaves or petals represent the three medieval social classes; those who worked, those who fought and those who prayed. Although it is most associated with France, since medieval time the fleur de lis has been used across Europe by royal households, on coins, in religious images and in numerous other ways, including in this case on a fine leather bottle.