By Rebecca Ruger Wightman
Perhaps it’s not exactly what the wife of the famous aviator had in mind, but there is reason to think of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Gifts from the Sea” when collecting sea glass and beach glass. This is nowhere more true than when on the beaches in the little town of Seaham, England, population 20,000, give or take.
Prior to its relatively recent history as a beachcomber's delight, Seaham was known mostly for the fact a local landowner’s daughter, Anne Isabella Millbanke, married the infamous Lord Byron. The Right Honourable Lord Byron, as described by one of his own paramours, was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. He proved himself worthy of the expression—his moods were dark and his drinking heavy—and was thus rewarded by a separation from his wife within a year. Nefarious character aside, Byron did love the sea, writing to his friend, Thomas Moore in 1815, “Upon this dreary coast we have nothing but county meetings and shipwrecks; and I have this day dined upon fish, which probably dined upon the crews of several colliers lost in the late gales. But I saw the sea once more in all the glories of surf and foam.”
Byron stayed in Seaham only long enough to father a child with his wife and deplete the Millbanke fortune, which may or may not have played a role in Millbanke’s decision to sell the estate to the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry within a few years. That first Seaham Londonderry marquess built a harbor in 1828, which would serve the burgeoning coal industry immediately and then see great use when the 4th Marquess of Londonderry sponsored John Candlish’ bottle factory, the Londonderrry Bottleworks, founded in the 1850s.
John Candlish seemed willing to try his hand at almost anything. When he was only about 20 years old he and a partner started a drapery business, then he purchased a newspaper which folded within a year, and so he dabbled in exporting coal and then building ships. He returned once again unsuccessfully to publishing with the Sunderland News in 1851 and eventually took up a lease of the Seaham Bottle Works in 1853. Here he stayed, first with one ‘house’ making black glass bottles, and then with the marquess’ backing, renamed the business and made it grow. At various times during the course of its life, the Londonderry Bottleworks produced as much as 20,000 hand-blown bottles a day, and was until 1921 the largest maker of glass bottles in England.
Every week from the Seaham harbor, the bottleboat—first the Lollard, and the later the Oakwell—were loaded with the empty glass cargo and headed to warehouses in Antwerp or the London market, often returning with the hull filled with sand. During WWI, the Oakwell, on the 28th of March, 1917, left the Seaham dock bound for Rotherhithe, London and was sunk in the North Sea by a German laid mine; four men were killed.
The glass we now call the “English multis” was borne of this great bottleworks business. While most sea glass hunters know that the refuse glass was dumped into the harbor, or ferried out to the North Sea as waste, a more detailed description can be given to the pieces themselves.
First, we know of the end-of-the-day glass—molten remains of glass of various colors discarded throughout the day into one vat for disposal, colors mixing while some still heated to form colored blobs of fantastic combinations, then dumped without a thought into the sea. (Would those glass makers of yesteryear have included more ceremony in the dumping if they’d know today how sought after their rubbish would be?)
Another possible source of the English multis is friggers. These might be lunchtime or end-of-day projects that a glassblower would “play” at. Sometimes referred to as “whimsies,” it was an object of glass purposefully blown on the glassmaker’s own time. Generally one of a kind, not made for production but just for fun or practice, the frigger might be sock darners, doorstop turtles, bells, horns, pipes or whimsical canes. Given their fragile nature, these objects rarely saw practical use and might themselves be pitched into the disposal bin by a frustrated glass blower. Being such a large glass house, the Londonderry Bottleworks would have had many pots and possibly several colors available at one time, whereas the friggers and whimsies of a smaller glasshouse would have been made with less colors, or possibly only one color. The glass worker who had made the frigger would be lucky to claim it for himself; the item had to be cooled and was usually left overnight and often gone by the time he returned the next morning.
If the multis came not from the refuse glass or from the fanciful friggers, its origin might be the crucible used to mix the colors. A crucible is a container that can withstand very high temperatures and was used to store the molten glass while it waited to be used, or to color the glass. Likely made of clay then (now made of ceramic or metal), the crucible might have been used for the mixing of the coloring agent (cobalt, selenium, copper, etc.) and the glass. Layers of color would build up on the sides of the container over time, as it was not regularly cleaned between batches, maybe not cleaned for weeks at a time. This poor housekeeping would result in many deposits of color at the rim of the crucible, which would eventually find its way, with all the other discarded glass from the house, into the sea.
For almost 70 years, the Londonderry Bottleworks produced glass from as many as six glass houses in Seaham, sometimes 24 hours a day in 12 hour shifts. Factory conditions were hot, dirty, and sometimes dangerous and the majority of the workers were considered “unskilled labor” and called “boy” which had little to do with their age. End-of-day, crucibles, and friggers aside, the English multis have the history not only of their age, but of the thousands of people (most glass houses employed males and females) over many decades who had a hand in our current sea glass bounty.
While some of the simple multis found in Seaham may be from the Bottleworks, rainbow-colored pieces could be from the glassworks of Hartley Wood, maker of beautiful multicolored glass vases and stained glass.
Take a trip to the beach in Seaham with Paula from Peblsrock
Watch videos about all the colors of sea and beach glass
Learn more about sea and beach glass colors:
This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine November 2017 issue.
firstname.lastname@example.org. I have been collecting Seaglass for the past 15 years in New Jersey and have been so intrigued with Seaham and is one of the places I long to visit. I love reading the history of Londerry Glass works and the many ship wrecks in this area. I have yet to find a multi-colored “Seaham” piece of glass and look forward to visiting Seaham and loved your story. Thank you
Multies are too colorful for bottle glass remnants. It has been verified by an art glass historian in England that MOST Of the multies found in Seaham linked to the Hartely and Wood art glass house in Sunderland just up the coast. See https://bytheseajewelry.com/by-the-sea-blog/james-hartely-glass-a-new-source-possibility-for-seaham-sea-glass/