Hunting for snails

In the vast cannon of case law that law students have to memorise are a few cases so remarkable that they are almost impossible to forget.

Sometimes what makes them special is the impact of the judgement, sometimes the bizarre facts, and occasionally both. In this last category, I'd place Donoghue v. Stevenson and, naturally, Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball.

I love these cases. I have all the books on them, a video cassette (useful!) on Donoghue, and lots of prints and facsimiles of contemporary reports. For the last 15 years I've been trying to track down artefacts that have anything to do with them.

To which end, I can report one success and one failure.

The success first.

Five years ago a builder from Scotland emailed me out of the blue to ask if I'd be interested in buying a bottle he'd found in the rafters of a croft he was reroofing. It was a stubby black bottle with 'D. Stevenson' on it. A ginger beer bottle. Empty (not even a decomposed snail inside), but with a cork stopper. Would I, he wondered, be interested in buying it before he put it on eBay?

I snatched my breath. I'd been looking for one of these for years. It's right up there in my top 5.

In the 90s, I'd been told of a Canadian judge who had one, had even tracked him down to his holiday home in the Caribbean, phoned him and and asked if he'd sell it. No dice.

I'd placed advertisements on bottle-collecting websites.

Every few months or so I'd google 'Stevenson Ginger Beer Bottle' just in case. But years had gone by without one surfacing in my direction, and I'd pretty much given up hope.

Then from nowhere came this missive from a Scottish builder who had chanced on a priceless historical artefact in his day job, and had the presence of mind to do his own google search where he came across the replica products I sell.


So, was I interested?

I emailed back asking what sort of condition it was in and where he'd found it. You know. All casual. Like it was of small interest to me.

Back came his reply.

"certanly i have had about 15years i was stripping a barn roof to slate again and in between the the roof joyce ther it was lying and until this day i have had since.i have various bottles coins things you find when  working . i actually stay in paisley  renfrewshire 1half miles from were this paisley snail happend.ther has been 1 other person that  has found 1.  our local paper which is the paisley daily express apperntly he found 1 in the clyde water which runs threw glasgow it was full of its contents .i did cut the  page out but over the years  i lost the page. is this info any good to you  cheers"

with a photo.

Yes, I might be interested, I said. Depending on the price, of course because, again, it was only of minor interest to me.

And then he made it clear where the power lay in this negotiation:

"As monetary goes, I know it's worth a good few of your English notes, but I'm quite happy to hang on to it, showing it off quite a bit the now between fellow metal detectorists and bottle diggers because I'm the only one with this type!"

£175 later, it was mine. Maybe he'd have settled for less, but I couldn't risk losing it. To me was a bargain. A unique piece of legal history*.

So that's the success story in my hunt for legal artefacts. Not a bad one to chalk up, I'd say. I love the bottle.

In fact, the only thing I'd willingly exchange it for is .... an original Carbolic Smoke Ball, which I came so close to acquiring a few years later that the telling of how it slipped from my grasp will have to wait for another post. It's just too painful.


  • In July 2016 a Kelvinbridge architect emailed me to say, "I saw your request in the Bottle Dump and thought I should let you know that I finally found a bottle of the type you are looking for, after many years, and I had to pay a pretty high price for it, from someone who knew about the history and who had found it in a dump, when looking for this very type of thing. It is not precisely the bottle that I was looking for because it is a one pint bottle, and I am sure that the bottle in question was a half pint, because that is what you would receive in a café, indeed I can tell that from the curvature of the bottle against the name in the original photograph. Still it is of the same material and vintage, from the same supplier, delivered to the same works in Paisley for filling with the same ginger beer and to me that matters a lot. And indeed, when you hold it up to the light when it is full of ginger beer, you would not be able to discern any sizeable foreign bodies in it."

What would Fred do?

In its 125 year history, Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. has had its highs and lows.

There was a time when our founder Frederick Roe, flush with the  success of his inhaler, thought he was going places, a new force in the medical market, and a damn clever marketing man to boot.

The High Court came to a different judgement. Law students know Roe only as a spiv and a loser.

Yet for the most part Roe did exactly what entrepreneurs are meant to do:

• He spotted a large and needy market (of 1890's influenza sufferers).

• He developed a product for that market.


• He had the guts to set up a factory to make his product.

• He marketed the hell out of it, placing full pages in leading magazines.

Granted, the smoke ball was useless, but it was no worse than countless other quack remedies of its day (eucalyptus oil in the rectum, anyone?)

And then his world came crashing down because of one litigious crone who didn't know a mere puff when she read one.

I've been thinking about Fred Roe recently because Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. is on the verge of making a move which could have a similarly decisive impact. In three words, we are considering -


For the last 20 years we've sold only by catalogue and website. 15,000 customers in the UK, Australia, the USA, Canada, Hong Kong, India, New Zealand and South Africa have somehow come across us, liked something they've seen, and placed an order. Yay.

But in truth, it's a minute business. Really tiny. No employees. No office. We dream of a Nespresso machine. Our Christmas party is a quiet affair.

People don't need our products. They're nice-to-have, not must-have. If a year goes by without a repeat purchase, so what?

My brilliant strategy is to make Carbolic more visible, be more in the face of lawyers, and try to increase the chances of those impulse buys. Hence, the shop.

• It probably has to be in London, within striking distance of the big law firms, the barristers' chambers and the law courts, and ideally it would be on the tourist trail too.

• The City is heaving with law firms, but retail space is expensive, it closes at weekends, and tourists in their right mind do not go there. Also, City lawyers work far too hard and leave their desks only to eat. Sometimes not even then.

• Chancery Lane, then? The epicentre of Legal London, Dickensian vibe, close to the Inns of Courts and the Royal Courts of Justice. That'd be cool, wouldn't it? Yes, except it is pricey, not open at weekends, and is losing its character as old buildings are replaced by new.

There is, I think, one street in London which is perfect for Carbolic. A short, 100-metre long, easily-missed, late Victorian thoroughfare tucked behind Trafalgar Square, called Cecil Court.

It has no more than 20 shops, most of them dealers in rare and antiquarian books, maps and prints. All the shops are independents. The shopfronts haven't changed in a century. Every shop has a swinging wooden sign announcing its trade. It is pedestrianised.

Here's a picture:

Nice, huh?

As far as I'm concerned, Cecil Court is where it's at, Carbolic-wise. Every shop in the street has a distinctive personality and there is an overall whiff of decay about the place which I find agreeable.

It's near lawyer-land, but also gets lots of tourists. And the sort of people who'd be attracted to the other 19 shops would probably quite like the cut of Carbolic's cloth.

Leases come up rarely. We're in a queue. At the front of it, I'm told. But tenants don't move quickly at Cecil Court. Some of them barely move at all - I've watched them.

My family think it's a daft idea. I'd have to commute, for God's sake. No more working in pyjamas (although, this is Cecil Court, so ...) I'd be standing on my feet all day waiting for people to come in, and for long periods of the day, they woudn't.

Plus, even a chimp knows that retail is a money pit. Far from delivering a boost to Carbolic's fortunes, they say, taking premises in Cecil Court would be a knock-out blow.

That's what I'm being told by people who have my interests at heart. But I can't let the idea go. For now, the only thing stopping me from taking this leap is the non-availability of premises.

So I'm thinking to myself, what would would Fred do?

Answers on a postcard, please.

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