Multicolored Sea Glass and Hartley Wood & Company

seaham sea glass rainbow

The history of glassmaking in North East England goes back more than 1,300 years, when Benedict Biscop brought glassmakers from Francia (which encompassed land in modern-day France, Germany, and northern Italy) around 680 AD to create the first stained glass windows in England for a monastery that had been newly established in Monkwearmouth.

Sunderland had cheap coal, high-quality sand, and great shipping links. By the nineteenth century, the area around Sunderland, the River Wear, and the North East coast were the heart of the English glass industry, with almost 100 glassmaking companies creating stained glass, bottles, industrial glass, and art glass.

Hartley Wood and Company vases from the collection of Mandy Peel

Hartley Wood and Company vases from the collection of Mandy Peel

Colored Glass Masters

Hartley Wood and Company was one of the companies that flourished in Sunderland, specializing in stained glass and multicolored art glass. Founded as Portobello Lane Works in 1893 by James Hartley Jr. (grandson of the founder of Wear Glass Works), it was renamed Hartley Wood in 1895 when Alfred Wood, an expert in colored glass from Birmingham (and son of the skilled color mixer George Wood), joined the company. While many companies closed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to overseas competition, Hartley Wood benefited from a high demand for stained glass, used in memorial windows after the Great War and needed to repair church windows across Europe After World War II. Hartley Wood stained glass can be found in the windows of Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the House of Commons today.

hartley wood and company glassmakers

Left to right: Hartley Wood’s Glass Works with James Hartley Jr. and Alfred Wood standing at the far right, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. Blue and white streaky glass handmade by Hartley Wood for the Ascension window at Hexham Abbey, Hexham Abbey Guide. Multicolored glass waste built up on the floor of the modern glassmaking studio in the National Glass Centre, Sunderland.

Antique Glass

To supplement their income, starting in the 1930s Hartley Wood also created “Antique Glass” vessels and other wares with colorful streaks and deliberate imperfections. The irregular surfaces, ripple effects, air bubbles, and colorful streaks were created with special glassblowing techniques and glass recipes. In the 1950s, the Clean Air Act and other legislation banned some of the processes used by Hartley Wood to create their signature glass, and production of the streaky pieces slowed. Hartley Wood and Company ceased production in 1997.

Hartley Wood and Company vases and sea glass from the collection of Mandy Peel

Hartley Wood and Company vases and sea glass from the collection of Mandy Peel

The Seaham Connection

Pieces of multicolored sea glass wash up regularly on the beaches of Seaham, 17 miles south of Sunderland. Early glassmakers regularly disposed of their trash in the ocean, including broken pieces, waste glass, and molten glass waste built up during the glassmaking process. There is some disagreement on the origin of Seaham’s multicolored sea glass. Some believe the sea glass in Seaham is waste from Seaham Bottleworks, which operated in Seaham from the 1850s to the 1920s, while others believe it comes from Hartley Wood and Company. The truth is that both may be right.

ocean currents in UK and Ireland

Sample ocean currents from the Yr website.

Twice a day, rising tidal waters in Great Britain come from the Atlantic, and half of the water flows through the English Channel and the other half around Scotland. This creates longshore currents that move parallel to the beach and can be extremely powerful. It is very possible that currents could carry glass discarded in Sunderland to North Beach in Seaham, to be found as multicolored sea glass today.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2019 issue.

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