Mixbury Gardens Archaeology

September 2020

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece for the Shelswell News which could have had a subtitle used by the Time Team duo, the late Mick Aston and Tony Robinson, for a book they wrote, “Archaeology is Rubbish”. In the article I referred to bits and pieces which came out of Mixbury gardens and gave us information about the village’s past. Following from it, another person who shares my interest in the history and archaeology of the parish, Pat Beveridge, looked out some small bottles and what looked like an earthenware inkwell that she had found in her garden when they first moved into their house some years ago.

Two of the bottles were clear glass, just over 11cm long and 2cm in diameter, and had the name “Alex Parsons” embossed in the glass down one side. A check on the internet revealed that Alex Parsons was a pharmaceutical business based at Oldham and Chadderton in Lancashire, operational at least the first half of the 20th century. These particular bottles had held iodine which was widely used as an antiseptic until the 1960s. I can remember it as a child in the 1950s and 1960s: it went straight onto cuts and scrapes and stung like mad! After then it seems to have been replaced in popular use by various proprietary brands, mainly creams. So I was amazed when my aunt was telling me about a fall she had recently, and the nurse in the minor injury clinic asked her if she would mind having iodine on the cuts and scrapes on her legs! Is it coming back into popular use, or did it never leave the NHS?

Incidentally, Alex Parsons produced various other products whose containers and packaging could probably be found be found in Mixbury gardens and dumps, for example, “Walkeasy Corn Paste” (no explanation needed); “Finest non-clogging Machine Oil” (particularly for sewing machines); castor oil; glycerine (which we put into the icing on our Christmas cake); and “Fullers Earth” (for treating poisoning by herbicides, mopping up oil spills and decontaminating clothing exposed to hazardous substances). Alex Parsons seems to have been the Boots of its day.

The earthenware “inkwell” which Pat gave me had an extraordinary and somewhat sinister history. 5cm tall and 3cm in diameter, the mark on the bottom said “BRITISH MADE; STERILISED; FREE FROM ANTHRAX”! I wondered what on earth anthrax had to to do with ink! It transpires that the artefact was not an inkwell, but the handle for a shaving brush. Before WWI the bristles were commonly badger hair imported from Russia, but during the war this supply line was broken. As men in the trenches needed to shave regularly so that they could put on their gas masks, horse hair was used as an alternative. But the alternative supply was not disinfected properly and some of the bristles carried anthrax bacteria. A slight nick or cut when shaving provided a ready route for the bacteria. When the cause of the outbreak of anthrax amongst British soldiers was realised all bristles put into shaving brushes for military and civilian use had to be sterilised, and hence the message on the bottom of the brush handle. I’m not sure I would have found it reassuring, or whether I would have been put off shaving for life.