Under the floorboards: a message in a bottle at Knole in Kent

Published: 20 May 2021

Last update: 20 May 2021

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This blog post is written by Knole archaeology volunteers, Archaeology volunteer team Knole archaeology volunteers Archaeology volunteer team
Aerial view of Knole in Kent

The £20 million 'Inspired by Knole' project included a five-day training course each year from 2014 to 2018 (‘Archaeology Unwrapped’), led by archaeologist Nathalie Cohen. This included training from specialists in graffiti recording and interpretation, landscape archaeology, geophysics, digital techniques, standing building recording, finds identification and cataloguing, plus an introduction to excavation methods. In this blog, Knole archaeology volunteers Brenda Jarvis and Veronica Walker-Smith share a discovery made in the attics and their further research on a message from the past and its maker.

Underfloor archaeology

In 2017, while working in the attics above Lady Betty's Dressing Room (one of the Showrooms at Knole), we spotted what looked like the shape of a bottle lying at the bottom of a deep, narrow void below the floorboards. It was impossible to reach but after much head scratching by the team, it was retrieved using a slightly unorthodox method… very careful hoovering!

Exploring under the floorboards at Knole, Kent

What lies beneath?

Volunteers Jim and Brenda looking down into the void exposed by removing floorboards in the East Attics

The dust-covered bottle right at the bottom of the void

A dusty find

The dust-covered bottle just visible right at the bottom of the void below the floorboards

As the vacuum cleaner was lowered and the first layers of dust removed, our hearts sank a little as it appeared to be a Perrier bottle and by its shape, a relatively modern one.

Little did we know that this unassuming bottle would reveal so much.

The vacuum cleaner gradually brought it to the surface with hands strategically placed beneath and yes, it was a Perrier bottle in very good condition. It wasn’t as modern as we had thought: as further dust was removed a label showing a Royal Warrant, By Appointment to HM King Edward VII could be seen. Even more interesting was a piece of rolled up paper inside, held in place by a plug of newspaper. To tempt us further it read ‘Take this out and see inside’.

The Perrier bottle carefully retrieved by ingenious vacuum suction.
Message in a bottle from Knole
The Perrier bottle carefully retrieved by ingenious vacuum suction.

So, we did exactly that. Written on embossed Knole paper the note read ‘Sept 26th1906. This bottle was dropted here in the year AD 1906 by S.G.Doggett when these radiators were put in, also the Hot Water Service’. In the very next room there is an early 20th-century cast iron radiator. As we read the name on the note, we recognised it immediately. S.G. Doggett’s entire working life at Knole had previously been found documented in the form of graffiti on a wall just one floor below, behind Lady Betty’s bedroom.

We now had to find out more about this man who had spent so many years at Knole.

detail of message in bottle

A message from the past

Sidney Doggett's note on Knole headed paper from inside the Perrier bottle.

Sidney Doggett graffiti at Knole

The writing on the wall

Pencil graffiti by Sidney Doggett records his decades of service at Knole.

Meet the family

Through our Knole Oral History database, we were able to confirm that Sidney George Doggett was the estate carpenter at Knole for 62 years. He was born at Knole in 1884, one of four sons to James Cox Doggett who walked from the east end of London to Knole in Sevenoaks, Kent in the 1880s to find work. Sidney was apprenticed then qualified as carpenter and worked at Knole for the Sackville family until he retired in September 1960.

Soon after finding his bottle in 2017, Nathalie shared the story on Knole’s social media accounts, and as a result, Sidney’s three grand-children and two great-grandchildren contacted our Oral History team. Five Doggett descendants had a family reunion at Knole in July 2017: Sue Thomas, Anne Duggan and Gerald Bodily are the children of Sidney and his wife Augusta’s twin daughters, Betty and Freda, who were born at Knole and grew up living in a Knole Estate flat in Green Court. Gerald’s son and daughter also joined the family gathering, eager to hear all about Sidney’s message left in 1906, and how and where it was found during project work under Knole’s floorboards.

We recorded Sue, Anne and Gerald’s childhood memories of visiting their grandparents from 1953 to 1960 when Sidney retired.

Twins Betty and Freda Doggett grew up at Knole

Growing up at Knole

Twins Betty and Freda Doggett spent their childhoods at Knole.

Twins Betty and Freda in Green Court at Knole

In Green Court

Betty and Freda outside the Knole Estate flat.

Sidney at the Gatehouse Knole

Knole at war

Sidney (right) on the rooftop of the Gatehouse Tower with Knole chauffeur Manfred Fairweather (left) in their Second World War Home Guard uniforms.

When she was seven, staying overnight in the Green Court flat, Anne remembered pulling a large wardrobe down on top of herself and suffering a fractured arm. Her sister Sue had a vivid memory of walking to Sevenoaks with her grandmother, passing close to the icehouse in Knole Park, and being stung when a nest of bees was alarmed.

Gerald remembered visiting his grandparents mostly in the winter. Sleeping at Knole, his strongest memories were of how cold it was even under an enormous thick eiderdown. On one occasion, in the Sackville-Wests’ private garden, Gerald fell into an ornamental pond with steeply sloping sides lined with lead and covered in algae. His father jumped in to rescue him but failed, and his mother eventually hauled them both out. 

Later that year, we also arranged for Anne and Sue to meet Brenda on a behind-the-scenes Archaeology tour of the showrooms to see for themselves the physical location of Sidney’s Perrier bottle.

Anne and Sue with Brenda in Lady Betty’s Bedroom; Sidney’s bottle was found in a ceiling void above this room
guided tour at knole
Anne and Sue with Brenda in Lady Betty’s Bedroom; Sidney’s bottle was found in a ceiling void above this room

Sidney Doggett’s story

Since then, we have learnt even more about Sidney through research into enlistment and war records.

At the age of 31, Sidney signed up in March 1916 as a Private in the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment.  He was wounded a number of times: in February 1917 he sustained gas and shrapnel injuries and was transferred back to England. After returning to France, he sustained gunshot wounds in his chest and arm in 1918. Luckily, he survived and returned to Knole where he worked for many, many more years as the estate carpenter.

When Sidney retired after 62 years’ service, he moved to Birmingham to live with Anne. When he died, Anne inherited his carpentry toolbox and all his tools. In the autumn of 2017, Anne decided to donate Sidney’s oak toolbox with more than 100 tools, many with wooden handles carved with Sidney’s initials. The tools included eight types of saw; 12 different sets of chisels, including cold, curved and flat ones; planes, a bradawl, drill bits, a spoke shave, a scriver, a brace, clamps and hammers.

This collection of vintage carpentry tools is now part of the Knole Collection [NT131699]. The Trust’s (then) Lead Curator for London and the South East, James Rothwell’s description of this gift to Knole reveals its significance: 'Knole is such a place of fettling, mending, melding and layers that to have the working tools of one who was part of it is rather wonderful.'

Sidney Doggett's toolbox

Sidney Doggett's toolbox

Toolbox engraved ‘S.G.D’, donated to Knole by Anne Duggan.

Sidney Doggett's tools

Tools of the trade

A selection of Sidney’s work tools, fettling, mending and melding of Knole.

It has been fascinating to discover Sidney’s story and to think that he might have felt as much excitement as we did in finding his bottle at a milestone in Knole’s long history.

At the turn of the 20th century all things French were de rigeur. The Sackville family embraced this, employing a French chef, installing a high-end Parisian kitchen range as well as impressing their guests by serving Perrier – the ‘champagne of table waters’.

Sidney would have seen it all, although from a very different view point.

" It was so exciting when the bottle was discovered. It’s such a personal item and one of the best stories we have to tell from Knole; it links to the graffiti, with the oral histories, and with the running of the house and what Sidney Doggett was here to do - maintaining and installing things. In terms of just how evocative it is, the message-in-a-bottle will always be my favourite find. "
- Nathalie Cohen, Archaeologist

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