Workers endured “crushing heat” in South Shields’ glass industry

Blowing glass.
Blowing glass.

Following on from our look-back at Shields’ long-gone glass industry, Dorothy Ramser today begins her account of what life was like for the people who worked as, and with, the area’s bottle blowers.

“My great-grandparents were Patrick Devine and Mary Devlin, and their sons Francis, who was born in 1862, and Hugh Devine, born in 1864, were both bottle blowers apprentices around 1875,” explains Dorothy.

“They were joined as fully- trained bottle blowers in subsequent years by their brothers Thomas Patrick, born 1870, and Henry Devine, born 1873, all of them older brothers of my paternal grandmother Margaret Devine, who – as the youngest child of Mary and Patrick – was born in 1880.

“Both parents had been born in Northern Ireland, and married in South Shields in 1856. Family lore said they eloped.”

Dorothy, who is the youngest daughter of the founder of MI Dicksons butchers, reveals that bottle works were situated in areas wherever sand, lime and fuel was cheap and plentiful.

“The most expensive element of bottle manufacturing was the labour involved in production.

The materials used for wine and beer bottles were sea sand, lime, marl (a clay-like substance), common brick clay and some salt. All these ingredients were mixed and placed in a subsidiary furnace and burned for about 24 hours, and then shovelled into pots.

“The furnace was then heated to maximum, and the substance rapidly melted, and the pots replenished until they were completely full of molten glass.

“This would have taken about 12 to 14 hours.

“When the glass was ready, the boys were called out from their homes and, they in turn, went round the homes of the glass blowers to call them to work.

“At this point, the men who melted the glass at the furnace went home, having finished their shift.

“Each furnace in the glass works usually had four holes and five people worked at each hole – the finisher, the blower, the gatherer, the putter up and the taker in.

“Boys were employed as takers at about 11 years old, sometimes as young as nine. Boys were apprenticed to gatherers, aged 14 or 15.”

Dorothy goes on to say that the temperatures endured in the glass house were “crushing”.

“At the mouth of the furnace it was 172° to 220°. Where the glass blowers stood, it was 95° to 118° and the boys who were takers-in endured temperatures of 80° to 196°.

“The workforce worked six days a week, and the bottle blower at each hole was expected to make at least 63 dozen, quart or pint bottles.

“Any bottles that were made beyond that number counted as overtime in the wages.

“On average, 90 dozen bottles per hole were made.

“One to two hours of the day was allotted to breaks for food. An average working day was 11 hours, with the day normally beginning at 1am on a Monday, and gradually later by an hour each day as the week progressed.

“A pot containing molten glass was often broken and all or part of the contents lost.

“In a case like that, the boys had a holiday, receiving full wage and, because of work regulations passed, could not be forced to make up the lost time.”

“The takers-in worked a 12-hour shift, arriving about half an hour before the men. They were usually allowed about 20 minutes for breakfast and dinner.”

Dorothy continues by saying that the weight of a quart bottle was about 1lb 9oz or 19lb to the dozen, and that in a normal day they carried 90 dozen.

“Boys handled them at the end of a very long fork.

“The ‘putters-up’ of bottles were also boys, usually older than the takers-in but under the age of 13.

“They had to take great care while working, as they could get hurt by the hot metal as it was manipulated by the men.

“Burns were usually caused by getting in the way of hot metal as it was carried about on irons or falling on it when left about.

“Boys suffered from headaches, caused by the heat, and often had a pale complexion and were small for their age. Many were described as being ‘ill grown about the legs’ which was put down to the excessive strain put upon them by the work.”

l More from Dorothy tomorrow.