Cider Musings

Glass making Newcastle and Cider!

Nowadays, Newcastle upon Tyne is rarely associated with glass making, let alone its principal players. However it had a prominent roll to play. A role s important as coal, shipbuilding and heavy industry for which it is now remembered. In 1760 Newcastle was at its peak in glass making and the largest centre in the world. (That was also the date William Beilby arrived in Newcastle penniless to make some of the finest enamelled glass ever made, - however more of that later. )

Glass and Newcastle first became entwined soon after the proclamation of James 1st to forbid charcoal burning to fire glass furnaces (see in 1615. James was urged on in this by Robert Mansell, the Admiral of the Fleet, partly to protect timber for building ships. This left the industry in disarray. James second proclamation in 1623 gave the monopoly of glass making to Robert Mansell!

This was a curious decision at first. Even James was noted to say that he “wondered Sir Robert being seaman whereby he got so much honour, should fall from water to tamper with fire, which are two contrary elements”

However Robert already had interests in coal in several parts of England and especially in Newcastle where sea coal had been used for decades before mining came to prominence.

However swapping coal for wood in glass making was difficult. After considerable expense and trial and error Mansell’s gamble paid off and his companies perfected window glass in Newcastle. He was assisted initially by the movement of calvinist protestant Huguenots from France. They were often of noble birth and suffered religious persecution culminating in the Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre of 1572 when up to 50,000 were killed.

They were also expert glass makers. Mansell was active in recruiting them to Newcastle and they settled just outside the town wall on the Skinnerburn stream, (burn being the Geordie word for stream) This was called the Closegate Without, as being outside the Closegate, one of the gates though the strong defensive City walls

It was a narrow valley and the stream was navigable with keel boats up to the glassworks. It has subsequently been culverted and now the only evidence is its mouth onto the Tyne

The City Council placed dangerous esp. fire related industries at a distance not surprisingly as many City buildings were wooden. This site also allowed coal to be brought in and glass out by the shallow draughted keel boats of the Tyne and be defended by the cannon of the nearby Neville Tower and Closegate itself.

The smoke from the glass furnace can be seen on the left, just outside the city walls leading to the Tyne at the Closegate in this engraving

Sadly they did not succeed so left their furnaces and building to travel south. Mansell was none too pleased with this and brought them back but to the east of Newcastle, the Ouseburn valley where more glass houses were built. This was successful. This history of glass making in Newcastle is remembered in the name Glasshouse bridge across the Ouseburn, now demolished,and nearby road of the same name.

However a second group of glass makers were to make Newcastle their home The Dagnia of Venetian descent, who were working in the Forest of Dean and heard of the success of the Huguenots in Newcastle with coal. They set up in the abandoned glass works at the Closegate Without. They began producing broad or window glass, bottle glass aka Digby, and flint glass ( with a higher lead content as developed by Ravenscroft.) 

Glass making in Newcastle flourish as in other centres until the fateful Glass Excise Tax of 1745 which placed a tax on glass by weight. This reduced the demand for glass considerably and many building owners bricked up some of their windows. 60% of glass makers went out of business. 

In Newcastle this spurred on innovation and the design of a new glass shape. Lighter and more elegant; the Newcastle Light Baluster

Entering the scene is William and Ralph Beilby whose family were originally from Yorkshire. Penniless engravers, due to family fortunes, they approached a Thomas Jameson engraver who monopolised the local Newcastle market. He refused their employment until he was tried for forgery of bank plates that destroyed his reputation in 1760. This was the entry Thomas and his brother needed, and soon they took over the business were accepting all sorts of engraving work. They were based in Jameson's old business and living rooms at Amen Corner adjacent to the Cathedral a short walk to the glass makers at Closegate Without.

William had already done an apprenticeship to John Hezeldine, an enameler who worked at Bilston, near Wolverhampton, the centre of the enamelling trade in 1755. Here is an enamel of William

Enamel (or to be more precise, vitreous enamel) consists of powdered glass in a range of colours, which can be applied as a paste or paint onto metal, or other surfaces. William was enthralled at the quality of the glassware being produced in the furnaces especially the flint glass of the Dagnia family and he was the first to master applying enamels to glass. The decorated vessel is then fired in a kiln, at around 750 to 850 degrees Celsius. This causes the enamel to fuse with the body of the glass beneath. The firing temperature is absolutely critical; if too low, the enamel does not fuse and will soon wear off; if too high, the vessel itself may slump and be destroyed. William developed a means of perfecting this with the glassmakers.

This combined with with his artistry has created glasses of truely world statue. And he taught his skills to his younger sister Mary. His first efforts were with white enamel. But soon he achieved a range of brilliant colours. His first piece was made in 1761.

The Beilbys somehow were lost to history perhaps partly because they encouraged another star in the engraving business who is much better known now. A local Thomas Bewick. He was apprenticed to Ralph and William Beilby, at the age of fourteen. During his seven–year apprenticeship, Bewick was instructed in all the skills necessary to excel in the engraving business, but Beilby was soon to recognise his young protégé’s obvious talent for woodcut engraving. 

Several of the woodcut prints here in this article are his, including the glass furnace above, however his interests lay more in animals and rural scenes such as the famous Chillingham Cattle

He illustrated many books and gained fame and wealth. Enough to become a partner in the firm in 1776. He and Mary became romantically entangled which led to a dispute with Ralph who was protective of Mary. This was the first of several disputes with Ralph they had a love hate relationship throughout their careers, another a dispute over an opus magnus on book "The History of the Quadrupeds". However the breaking up of the business in 1778 really started after Thomas' and Ralph's mother died. Ralph joined forces with a local Newcastle clockmaker James Hawthorn, having married his father John's daughter Ellen in 1780. Ralph always the outgoing man about town was a founding member of the "Lit & Phil" a subscription Library and Society which I belong to.

Thomas retained the engraving business, although Thomas and Ralph continued their partnership till 1798.

No glass was produced after 1778; the business became more concentrated on Thomas' woodcut engraving . William more estranged from the business decided to leave with Mary, and travelled to London where he first set up an art school in Battersea, then moved Scotland where he painted and mixed with aristocracy, where Mary died in 1797 from the stroke she suffered in 1774. Thomas also a fine artist and painted several long case clock faces for Ralph during this period.

In 1910 he left for Kingston upon Hull where he had relatives. His fortunes being diminished by then he and his wife lived in a modest house until his death in 1819.

Although this flint glass was never used for cider bottles it was for cider glasses and one of William’s early white enamel glasses is painted with apples and apple blossom, the only one known out of the  around 100 glasses remaining.

And the Beilby 'butterfly'