Industry's race to light up the world

THE glass industry in South Shields, despite being long-defunct, was a phenomenon that still inspires awe.

For a start, it drew so many leading figures of its day within its scope, from shipyard magnet Sir Charles Palmer to railway king, George Hudson.

And the statistics associated with it remain mind-boggling.

In 1845, the year that duty on glass was abolished, Shields, alone, paid the equivalent of what would now be more than 4m in glass tax, a sixth of the total for the country as a whole.

And it was so diverse, so adventurous.

It brought the manufacture of plate glass to Tyneside, and even indulged in what would now be classed as industrial espionage, to filch the secrets of sheet glass from the French.

But there's an aspect of the industry in the town that's less well known, but which, in its own way, was experimental and thrilling.

This was its contribution to the development of lighthouses, specifically, the manufacture of Britain's first diotropic lighthouse lenses.

The story is told in Lighthouses: The Race to Illuminate The World, by Toby Chance and Peter Williams.

Williams, himself a lighthouse attendant, is the founder of the lighthouse enthusiast magazine, Leading Lights.

Toby Chance, with whom Cookson Country has been in correspondence at his home in South Africa, is the great-great-grandson of Sir James Chance, the optical scientist and engineer who pioneered the use of lighthouse optics and whose family firm of glass-makers, Chance Brothers, glazed the original Crystal Palace.

It was James Chance who designed the lens of our own Souter Point lighthouse which, in 1871, was the first in the world to use alternating electric current.

Toby's grandfather, Sir Hugh Chance, was the last chairman of an independent Chance Brothers, which was bought by Pilkington's at the end of the Second World War.

The book is a marvellous exploration of the story of maritime navigation, going back to the great Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria which, before even the birth of Christ, was using mirrors to amplify firelight to create a beacon for ships.

Tallow candles were also used. The old lighthouse at the entrance to the Tyne, it's noted, used them when it was commissioned in 1540, with copper reflectors being added in the mid-18th century.

Lighthouse illumination took a major step forward early in the 19th century, with French engineer Augustin Fresnel's dioptric lens, made by placing a number of lens panels around the central light source of an oil wick burner.

This could then be set in a metal frame, if fixed, or revolved by clockwork.

In the early 1830s, the first lighthouses in Britain to use the dioptric lens were at Inchkeith and the Isle of May in Scotland, and at Start Point in South Devon.

It's here that Cookson's glassworks enter the picture.

Up until Fresnel died in 1827, the dioptric system had only been manufactured in France.

Subsequently, his brother, Leonor, came to Tyneside, where he showed the glass-makers at Cookson's how to make their first trial lenses.

Several hurdles had to be overcome but, eventually, a Cookson-made lens was shipped in one piece aboard the steamer Royal Victoria to Start Point, where cranes lifted it into the lantern room.

In all, between 1831 and 1845, when it was taken over by RW Swinburne & Co, Cookson's made 12 sets of lighthouse apparatus.

Swinburne's, by the way, continued making glass until the early 1890s, when it went bust.

The site of the glassworks afterwards became Harton Staithes.

What happened in lighthouse illumination over the course of the remainder of the 19th century make this book utterly absorbing reading.

It's a wonderful story of the sense of adventure, ambition, dedication and imagination that, over the years, has gone into lighting the great sea routes of the globe.

* Lighthouses: The Race To Illuminate The World, by Toby Chance and Peter Williams, is published in hardback by New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd, price 17.99.

Gazette readers can order a copy for the special price of 15.99 (including free UK p&p), by calling 0147 654 1080, quoting the book title and offer code NHLTH/01.