The story of glassmaking in the north east of England is another one of the topics on which we have touched in several other articles without ever taking a more studious look at the subject in its own right. It was – at one point – an industry which had grown to such an extent that it was responsible for almost half of all the glass and glassware produced in England – from bottle glass and “crown glass” for windows, to plate and mirror glass and the finest of decorative table wares. The extent of the industry in the area may seem a little incongruous, tucked away at the northernmost extremity of England, but it’s a little more readily understandable when you consider that, by the time it reached its zenith in the 19th century, it was the culmination of 1200 years of continuous development !  

The north of England was home to many substantial ecclesiastical buildings – the cathedrals at Durham, Ripon, Wakefield, Carlisle and Newcastle itself, York’s renowned minster, and the great abbeys at Reivaulx, Rosedale, Whitby and Fountains to name but a few. Initially, a more modest structure at Monkwearmouth on Wearside was established by Benedict Biscop Baudecing in 674, with the founding father making several trips to Rome and France to recruit the very finest of craftsmen to construct his vision of venerational splendour. He first brought back structural architects and stonemasons to frame his edifice, then sculptors, decorative carver and glaziers to embellish the building as it neared completion. Once his first project had been consecrated, Baudecing undertook the construction of another monastery at nearby Jarrow, and his existing team of master-craftsmen soon became recognised as the go-to source of manpower for anyone looking to throw up a quick monumental exaltation to the almighty in stone and glass anywhere across northern England. As these buildings evolved in to ever-more impressive structures, the inclusion of increasingly ornate and ambitious windows became a matter of pride and no little competitiveness, and what had started out as little more than a loose collective of itinerant, immigrant workers grew in to an established community of stained-glass craftsmen, based in and around the communities where they had first been employed.

There was, therefore, a longstanding local tradition of glassmaking to be found across the north east by the time that the first stirrings of the industrial revolution began to stoke the fires of creativity and manufacturing in the region. Newcastle had always been an important bulwark for the English against invasion from the north, developed strong links to seafaring, trade and shipbuilding as a result, and grew exponentially in the 17th century when receiving what amounted to tax breaks from the crown for the consolidation of its coalmining industry in order to maintain its wealth and resilience. Where there is trade by sea, there is – obviously – regular contact with the outside world and Newcastle was, during this same period, second only to London with regard to the number of immigrants and refugees making landfall in England from continental Europe.

As ever, there were elements of serendipitous good fortune in the fates which befell some of these new arrivals, and when a steady stream of Huguenot craftsmen began to settle around Skinnerburn on the Tyne, they found everything they needed in order to resurrect the glassmaking trade which had sustained them in their native lands. Local coal fired the furnaces, but it was the fact that there was a readily available source of sand - drawn from the ballast of the myriad ships which docked in the ever-growing sea port – that enabled them to begin glass production in earnest. Italian refugees who had already made an abortive effort to set up a glass producing concern in Stourbridge far to the south relocated to the city in numbers during the 1680’s and soon established a production facility near the Ouse Burn (the Dagnia, later Airey & Cookson works) which, before long, were producing considerable quantities of good quality flint glass. And thus the die was cast, and glass production had evolved from an albeit substantial cottage industry producing stained glass for those of a pious persuivance to something on a genuinely industrial scale servicing more temporal needs.

With this growth in mind, there are now two points of reference to previous articles which it becomes appropriate to mention. In the first instance, the quality of the region’s flint glass was enhanced further by the regular importation of the very best sand – from Kings Lynn in Norfolk. Newcastle, Waterford and Leith in Edinburgh are noted as being the three main destinations for shipments of this prized commodity, and – therefore – the most likely sources for Lynn Sand glass, decorated with its distinctive rings or internal optic corrugations, as they are known to extreme pedants and website editors alike. Secondly, as was to remain the case for decades, Newcastle was one of two main gateways for English trade with The Netherlands, and the fine glass exported from the area was to provide the bulk of the “blanks” which ended up in Amsterdam, Leiden, The Hague and Liege under the diamond-point tools of the gifted engravers who worked there, as detailed in our piece on Dutch engraved glassware

In the early part of the 18th century, English lead-crystal baluster glasses had begun to evolve in form away from the heavy-set, substantially-knopped pieces that characterised the manufacturing processes which initially used the clear, lustrous but slow-to-cool material which was difficult to manipulate with any great finesse. Improved crystal formulation, more measured control of heating during manufacture, better quality tools and the simple acquisition of more experience meant that glass structure and composition was able to become lighter and more elegant – less clunky if you will. As one of the foremost centres for the production of this new, more sophisticated form of drinking glass, Tyneside consequently gave rise to one of glassmaking’s most enduring toponyms – the Newcastle Light Baluster.

It remains a bone of some contention with regard to exactly what proportion of pieces bearing this name were actually made in the city; it is known that a great many of them ended up in the low countries for finishing, and that these can be distinguished from locally-made glasses by the sheer quality of the crystal which was used. Liege, to be fair, comes close, but there tends to be a discernible difference in shade which hints that a specific piece may be more likely to be either Belgian or English. Also, Liege examples have a tendency to be just that little bit more slight than any English glasses – marginally thinner stems, more defined transitions between the constituent parts (foot and stem, stem and knop, stem and bowl, that sort of thing). However, London’s glasshouses were equally capable of producing articles of flawless clarity which were likely to more closely replicate the design subtleties of other English pieces. It may well be the case, therefore, that the name became commonly used to refer to anything that closely resembled light baluster glasses from Newcastle rather than specifically referring to those which actually came from the city – what with this being 250 years or so in advance of the European Union’s DOC designations and the like !

So, what of the characters that populated the world of Newcastle’s glass industry ? We have already made mention of Frans Greenwood, the son of a Yorkshire merchant who moved to Dordrecht in the Netherlands in around 1718, and who went on to become one of the foremost engravers working on the pieces which his family shipped to his studio from Newcastle, thereby playing a pivotal role in the development of the trade axis between Tyneside and the Dutch engraving houses.

The other names which are absolutely integral to Newcastle’s glassmaking heritage are those off William Beilby and his family. The sons of a Durham jeweller, William and his brother Richard were apprenticed to creative workshops in Birmingham, where they learned the basics of the engraver's art. Relocating to Newcastle on the death of their father – only for Richard to follow suit and turn his toes skywards shortly afterwards – William and his sister Mary secured work in the city's glasshouses. Before long, under the stewardship of elder brother Ralph, they had set up their own workshop at premises in the shadow of The Black Gate. It was here that the art of fusing coloured-glass elements on to clear crystal was perfected, not as whole-coloured, add-on pieces which had already been seen on ornate Venetian pieces, but as vivid embellishments to engraved images. The method was far more durable that simply painting and firing on to a clear base as was the general practise to date, and William was able to use it to extraordinarily striking effect in conjunction with his engraving and illustrative talents.

The Bielbys worked at Amen Corner for less than twenty years up to 1778, but the quality of their pieces did much to enhance the reputation of the city as a centre of glassmaking excellence, and the industry continued to grow rapidly in to the 19th century. There were over forty different manufactories in production there during the Regency period, and the importance of the trade to the local economy can be gauged by the fact that, on 12th September each year, there was an annual Procession of Glassmakers along a circuitous route through the city, which on occasion, numbered as many as 7,000 participants – each one of whom was required to carry an example of his work with him. Note the exhortation to the spectating public at the foot of the handbill reproduced below – "It is particularly requested that the Populace will give (the parade) as much room as possible, as there will be many very valuable Articles exhibited in the Procession".

It's hard to imagine anything engendering quite as much enthusiasm in the city nowadays, other than the unlikely event of the football team ever managing to win anything of actual substance, but until that point, the Dagnias, Greenwoods and Beilbys of yore are right up alongside your Milburns, Macdonalds and Shearers when it comes to putting the city on the map. And Viz, of course, you can’t go wrong with a bit of Roger Melly or Sidney Smutt !

And the title of this article is, of course, a line from the epic Geordie song The Blaydon Races – in case you didn’t realise !
Link below to our website and all the Newcastle related content – well worth a browse, as some of the items are incredibly valuable…


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