Billy’s got some bottle

Hobby or obsession?  Billy Firth with some of the bottles he has collected over nearly 40 years
Hobby or obsession? Billy Firth with some of the bottles he has collected over nearly 40 years
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BILLY Frith has been arrested more than 20 times. He has been threatened with divorce by his wife. He has had repeated and long-running battles with council officials.

All in the name of his hobby.

Because, for the last 40 years, Billy has dug up and collected old bottles.

He’s had thousands of them.

Wine bottles, ink bottles, medicine bottles, pop bottles and beer bottles. Big bottles and little bottles. Green bottles, blue bottles, brown bottles. Glass bottles and china bottles.

Some have marbles in (a 19th century gimmick to sell more pop) and some have coloured lips (a nineteenth century gimmick to encourage recycling).

Some are worth nothing at all, and some could sell for hundreds of pounds.

But mostly they have three things in common – they date from the 19th century, they were all found buried in the ground, and almost all of them have got Billy into trouble.

“I’ve been arrested for trespassing – although never charged – and I’ve had real hot arguments with council officials,” says the 48-year-old sales manager. “But my view is this: even if these bottles are on private land, if I didn’t dig them out they’d stay buried for ever and I couldn’t bare that. These bottles are works of art, and it’s not right to leave them.

“Sometimes, I’ve dug places at night which I shouldn’t have but I have to do it – it’s an obsession I suppose.”

Obsession is right.

Billy’s house is a treasure trove of bottles with more than 150 of them dotted everywhere.

“There use to be about 1,000,” he says. “But my wife said some had to go. She said she was tired of them taking up all our room.”

He’s been digging since he was 10-years-old when he stumbled on a bottle by accident and fell in love with it.

Now, the key to finding them, it seems, is research.

Back in the 1800s household waste, including bottles, was dumped on big out-of-town tips along with vast quantities of ash to soak up the smell.

Billy locates these by talking to old people, consulting council records and sometimes by instinct. “If there’s a dirt track away from houses where you get a lot of nettles that might be one because nettles grow well in ash,” he says.

Once he has a site, he commences a dig.

“You find a bottle for maybe one in every ten digs you do - but that’s the excitement,” he says. “If you found one every time it wouldn’t be special.

“When you get a bottle you’ve only read about before, it’s like winning the lottery. Except the odds are probably higher because the bottle has had to survive and then you’ve had to be lucky enough to find it.”

The hobby has taken him across the UK – from Aberdeen to Llandudno – but it is here in South Yorkshire that his favourites are buried.

“Barnsley was a big bottle making town and the old Hope Glass Works in Stairfoot made some really beautiful ones - it’s always a thrill to find one of those,” he says.

It may keep getting him in trouble but Billy Bottles says it is always worth it.