Shields’ lost glass industry

In one of the Gazette’s nostalgia-based publications, Aall Tgithor Like The Folk O’Shieds, my predecessor, Janis Blower, turned the spotlight on an industry which once thrived on South Tyneside, but which is no more – glass-making.

She says: “It is hard to believe that such a lucrative trade, which dates back to the 17th century, has disappeared so comprehensively, not just in Shields, but almost wholly on Tyneside to which it was brought by Huguenot exiles fleeing persecution.”

True enough, such was the dramatic decline of the industry, that many people (especially those not familiar with Shields’ history) will have little knowledge of the works, the workers and the conditions they endured during their working day.

But now Dorothy Ramser, the youngest daughter of the founder of MI Dicksons butchers, has helped shed some much-needed light on the industry – and the people involved in it – in a detailed account which particularly focuses on the specialised world of bottle blowing.

However, before I share her writing with you, I thought it would be useful to take a general look-back at the glass making history of Shields, as recorded in the previously-mentioned Gazette publication.

The book goes on to recall that the earliest glass works in the town were those of Isaac Cookson, on a site roughly between the present ferry landing and the Mill Dam.

Complementary to glass making was the founding, also by Isaac Cookson, of the town’s early chemical industry, initially for the manufacture of alum, used in the glass making process.

By the early years of the 19th century there were eight large glass works in the town, rendering South Shields one of the largest glass making centres in the country (in 1845 the town paid more than £94,000 in duties on glass, a sixth of the total for the whole of Britain).

The main products were crown or window glass; but also blown, plate, bottle, and flint glass were made, some of it enormously ornamental.

The industry, though, was plagued with restrictive practices by its employees (an obligation to provide “drink money” often led to intoxication, for instance), and the works themselves were often the subject of prosecutions for smoke emission.

Fires were also a hazard, caused by the pots boiling over. But many men made their names – and fortunes – in Shields glass, among them Robert Swinburne and Richard Shortridge, and others who had diverse industrial interests elsewhere, among them shipyard tycoon Sir Charles Palmer and colliery entrepreneur Simon Temple.

By the end of the Victorian era, however, only one glass works was left in operation in the town, Edward Moore & Co’s works at West Holborn.

They’re seen here (in the main picture) in the background to a view of Harton High Staiths – “Bullock’s Spoots” as they were known – in 1905, with an old Ridley paddle tug, believed to be the Favourite, tucked in behind a sailing vessel (possibly called the Livingstone).

Eventually Moore’s, too, closed, and the works were demolished to make way for the old power station, now also gone.

l Read Dorothy’s fascinating account on Thursday.