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 !  

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 !

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

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.

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”.

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…