What’s in a bottle? Uncovering a Victorian business bust-up

Work placement student Ruth Headlam discovered a rocky business partnership while researching 19th century mineral water manufacturers at Abbey House Museum.

a glass bottle in an oblong shape.
Harston & Co. glass bottle from about 1890.

Often research starts from just a few clues on a museum object, such as an inscription and may reveal unexpected links between objects in the collection.

I researched various Victorian companies and individuals during my six week placement at Abbey House Museum. One of the companies I did extensive research on was Harston & Co. Surprisingly, the origins of this company start with the mineral water manufacturer Barrett & Co. 

A stone bottle with a stamp on the front saying Barrett & Co. of Leeds.
Barrett & Co. stoneware bottle about 1900. This style of stoneware bottle was originally intended for ink, but Barrett’s used them to sell mineral water.

A lucky discovery

When faced with the task of researching Barrett & Co. I came across various obstacles. Trying to find information about this company resembled extracting blood from a stone! 

When I was about to give up and move on to another company to research, I came across a document online. It consisted of two pages of the London Gazette from 1873, stating the dissolution of the partnership between George Alfred Harston and John Simpson, the owners of Barrett & Co. This dissolution may have led to the creation of company of Harston & Co.

Extensive research in Leeds Central Library and online revealed that George Alfred Harston decided to carry on Barrett &Co. alone. He then decided to create his own mineral water manufacturer aptly named Harston & Co. in 1881, and ran it alongside Barrett & Co. Harston & Co. acquired Barrett & Co. in 1899 and continued to be in business until 1955. 

Although I had a rocky start with regards to the research, I was still able to find out more than I would have imagined, which delighted me as a lover of history. 
By Ruth Headlam, work placement from Leeds Trinity University.

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