Let’s raise a glass to a dying tradition

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MUSEUM bosses are appealing to Wearsiders to dig deep into dusty drawers and attics – to help add to a unique collection of mining memorabilia.

A fashion for commemorating disasters with engraved glassware, as well as happier occasions such as christenings, flourished in the North East during the 19th century.

Now staff at Beamish Museum, which is home to one of Britain’s most comprehensive collections of disaster glass, are hoping Echo readers can help out.

“Disaster glasses are a fascinating, but often forgotten, part of North East mining tradition,” said Jonathan Kindleysides, keeper of industry at the museum.

“Usually engraved to commemorate the deaths of miners, both single and disasters, the glassware was a tradition peculiar to the Durham and Northumberland Coalfield.

“Strangely, despite the fact Sunderland produced vast quantities of glass, we only know of one disaster to be marked by disaster glass there – the Victoria Hall tragedy.

“We don’t actually have one of those glasses in our collection, but would love to add one. We’d also like to hear from anyone with other disaster glass from the region.”

The industrial boom of the Victorian age saw dozens of pits flourish across the North East but, as thousands toiled for black gold, so the industry was blighted by disasters.

Indeed, tragedies such as an explosion at Seaham pit in 1880 left 164 dead, while 42 perished in an explosion at Usworth in 1885 and a further 204 at Hartley in 1862.

“In view of the national scale of colliery disasters, it may seem strange that the great majority of accidents recorded on glass occurred in the North East,” said Jonathan.

“But this is because glass-making, as much as coal mining, was part of North East tradition. Glass was readily available, relatively cheap and easy to engrave.

“Sometimes disaster glass was mass produced to raise funds for the families of victims. In other cases, people would simply engrave a glass they already owned.

“Victorians were very preoccupied with death. For instance, funerals were far more elaborate then compared to nowadays. Therefore, they wanted to mark great disasters.

“Often, the glasses were engraved with a fern leaf, as well as details of the disaster, as ferns were a symbol of remembrance.”

The Hartley Colliery disaster of January 16, 1862 – in which 204 miners perished when a shaft collapsed – was marked by the first mass production of disaster glass.

The pit had just the one shaft and rescuers took days to reach the men. Tragically, they had all suffocated – prompting laws requiring all new mines to have two shafts.

“It was after this tragedy that disaster glass became a local tradition, a tradition that continued until, and for at least part of, the First World War,” said Jonathan. “But the one that interests me most, on a personal level, is the West Stanley glass. This was issued after an explosion on February 16, 1909, after methane built up in the air.

“Almost 170 miners died. My great-grandfather survived, but he lost two sons and a nephew. This is very personal to me. It’s what got me interested in mining history.

“But the tradition of disaster glass pretty much died out during World War One. Some of the men were remembered at first, but sadly just too many were killed by the end.

“Luckily, these fascinating remnants of our industrial heritage were comprehensively catalogued by the late Dr William Cowan, who donated his catalogue to our archive.”

Dr Cowan started collecting disaster glass in the 1970s and, in 2008, collaborated with glass expert John Brooks to produce a glassware book – An Alarming Incident.

Over the years he build up a huge catalogue of all disaster glass he had ever bought, seen or been aware of – which now forms a vital part of the Beamish glass archive.

“His last wish was that his catalogue could be made available, through Beamish, for others who shared his interest in the history of the North East region,” said Jonathan.

“Following Dr Cowan’s wishes, his catalogue is maintained as a living document. If readers can provide details of an unknown glass, they will be added to the catalogue.

“Even if people don’t want to donate their glass, we would love them to get in touch and just share some details. In this way, we can ensure disaster glass is not forgotten.”

• Dr Cown’s work is available on the Transport and Industry website tun by Beamish at beamishtransportonline.co.uk – along with details on the Beamish glass collection.

Disaster Glass was issued for many mining tragedies, including:

• Hartley Colliery: A disaster on January 16, 1863, resulted in the loss of 204 lives. Most of the miners died when a shaft collapsed and they suffocated.

• Sacriston Colliery: Three miners were entombed on November 16, 1903. Robert Richardson was the only one to be rescued alive - and a glass was engraved for this.

• Kelloe Colliery: Ten lives were lost on May 6, 1897 - when the pit was flooded by water bursting through from the adjacent Old Cassop Pit.

• Seaham Colliery: An explosion on September 8, 1880, cost 231 men and boys their lives. The explosion was so loud that it shook the village above ground.

• Barrington Colliery: An accident involving a broken cage and trapped miners - but no loss off life - was recorded in disaster glass on July 13, 1894.

• North Seaton Colliery: The death of Edward Wilson was recorded on disaster glass after an incident on November 16, after his leg was crushed in a rock fall.

• New Deleval: A glass was produced to mark the death of John George Whitlock, who was just 13 when he was crushed by a coal tub on April 8, 1895.

• Usworth Colliery: An explosion left 42 men and boys deadon March 2, 1885.

• Bebside Colliery: Two men were killed after a faulty pulley was torn from the pit roof and brought down timber and iron beams. A third was trapped, but rescued alive.

• West Stanley: An explosion on February 16, 1909, left 168 dead.

• Woodhorn Colliery: The most recent incident recorded on disaster glass so far discovered - when 13 miners died following an explosion on Ausgust 13, 1916.

• Whitburn Colliery: A glass was made for shift foreman Daniel Mark Bence, 45, after his body was discovered in a disused part of the pit. Death by starvation.

Other incidents commemorated by disaster glass

• Sinking of Titanic in 1912 – with loss of more than 1,500 people.

• Victoria Hall Disaster of 1883 – when 183 children died in Sunderland stampede.

• The outbreak of war between Britain and Germany in August 1914.

• The gibbetting of William Jobling at Jarrow Slake on August 3, 1832.

• Death of Queen Victoria in 1901.

• The drowning of four sailors during a pleasure cruise from Blyth in 1895.

• The death of Lady Grey, who was thrown from her trap near Alnwick in 1906.