The tale of Sunderland’s sunken glass treasure

Duke of Edinburgh at Pyrex in 1963.
Duke of Edinburgh at Pyrex in 1963.
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TODAY we dip into the archives kept by Wearside lawman Thomas Middlemist for a glassy tale from the Great Depression.

Wearside-made Pyrex cooking dishes once took pride of place in kitchens up and down the land.

Not many people know, however, that in the late 1930s there was probably more of the must-have glassware in the River Wear than stocked in Britain’s crockery cupboards.

“Happy revellers welcomed in 1938 as the night watchman at Wearmouth Colliery lit up his pipe and sheltered against the coal drops,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“The new year had dawned with clear skies and thick frost. But, although all was quiet at the pit, over the water at Deptford something very strange was happening.”

Indeed, houses that had been in darkness just minutes before suddenly began to flicker as gas mantles were turned on – and ghostly figures were soon creeping towards the river.

“And then, one by one, the heavily laden spectres began to throw glistening objects into the water. Was this some kind of strange ancient Ayre’s Quay New Year ritual?” said Norman.

The puzzled watchman raised his binoculars to his eyes and peered into the gloom for a better look. Splash! Yes, that was definitely a casserole dish hitting the murky waters.

“Something was very definitely brewing over at Deptford, but Wearside lawman DCI Thomas Middlemist was already on the case,” said Norman, a retired Wearside police inspector.

“Indeed, a young lad had just been captured breaking into Pyrex - a company known world-wide for its heat-resistant cookware - and he was now spilling all the beans to Middlemist.”

Within minutes of starting the interview, DCI Middlemist realised the boy had been supplying most of Pallion, Millfield and Deptford with stolen crockery for the past few months.

And, as word of the youngster’s capture quickly spread throughout the town, so Wearsiders by the dozen were emptying their sculleries of evidence – straight into the murky river.

“When the cops eventually got to the bottom of the case, the burglar having sung like a proverbial canary, it transpired the stolen glassware industry was a thriving one,” said Norman.

“Indeed, the extremely lucrative criminal empire was being operated by independent gangs of young men, led by two “Godmothers” - a couple of housewives from the Deptford area.

“It was these two women who were making sure that the stolen booty was properly distributed to whosoever needed a decent dinner service at a very competitive price.”

DCI Middlemist quickly rounded up the ring-leaders, with several appearing before a shocked - but stern – band of Sunderland magistrates on January 13, 1938.

Henry Pearson, 17, of Ropery Road, Thomas Smillie, 20, of Church Street West and “inside man” Thomas Fairley, 18 - an apprentice glassmaker of Ropery Road, were all sent to Borstal for three years.

“Other young men were also dragged before the court on similar charges, but it was the appearance of the Godmothers that caused the real uproar in Court Number One,” said Norman.

Emily Jayne Robinson, 32, of Aylmer Street, and Sarah Jane Oliphant, 37, of Close Street, were accused of “standing in Fagin-like competition” as the burglars brought stolen goods to their houses.

“The Recorder heard that Robinson even resorted to blackmailing tactics when lads had stolen money from burglaries. She demanded a share as her price for silence,” said Norman.

“Both were sentenced to 12 months with hard labour.”

The court was eventually cleared and order restored, but Pyrex glass for many years would be one of the most cherished items for burglars and thieves.

“They say the River Wear is still full of vintage glassware, courtesy of the great 1938 New Year’s Day Dip!” added Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

•Thomas Middlemist’s crime archive is available to study at Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace. It can be viewed each Wednesday and Saturday morning.