The Bottleworks history

The Londonderry Bottleworks Extract from Seaham Harbour, The first hundred years, 1829-1928 by Tom McNee & David Angus  

Undoubtedly the most important of Seaham’s subsidiary industries was the manufacture of glass bottles by the Candlish family — for almost 70 years a household word.

Towers and the Gas works in the forground

John Candlish, previously a jack of all trades, but later to become mayor and M.P. for Sunderland, began the works in 1853 by building one ‘house’ for black bottles. For 21 years he carried on the enterprise, absorbing Fenwick’s small bottleworks in 1856, ever extending until his death in 1874 when he left a large and prosperous concern of seven bottlehouses. Seaham bottles went to all parts of the world. John loved to tell the story of how he was served British beer in a bottle of his own manufacture at a lonely station in India while on holiday there.

In 1858 was laid the foundation of the excellent relations which always existed between masters and men. The district bank in Sunderland had failed. John had no money to pay his men. They sent a deputation and offered to work for a month without wages.

Profoundly touched he accepted, not as a gift but as a loan which was speedily repaid with interest. Bishop Westcott of Durham considered this the finest episode of industrial relations of which he had ever heard. Soon afterwards John began a school and a library within the works. On the occasion of his daughter’s marriage he shared his pleasure with his workers by entertaining 600 men, apprentices, wives and sweethearts to tea, a concert and a ball in the long pot loft of the works.

Brother Robert then successfully guided the destinies of the works for 13 years. With the erection of the Ropery School in 1876, the Bottleworks school had to be closed, whereupon Robert gave the room for the use of his workers with free firing and light. During the deep depression of the early ’80’s his men refused to strike and were rewarded in 1886 when Robert introduced the continuous gas furnace in place of the older type fired by coal.

Candlish Bottleworks, date not known,but after 1886 when the first tall chimney for the new gas process was built

This brought great changes. A huge 200 foot chimney had to be built to carry off waste gases. Glass could now be made continuously for 24 hours in two 12 hour shifts. 128 men and boys could be employed in each new ‘house’, four times as many as in each old ‘house’. 20,000 bottles could be made in the day, not only black bottles, but bottles in the new popular pale glass, bottles of every shape, colour and size.

The bottleworkers were a proud little community, with their own chapel, living chiefly in four streets near the works, the old streets of Gallery Row and Fenwick Row, and two newer streets of neat cottages, Candlish Terrace and Stewart Street. Following Robert’s death, a grateful workforce and his many friends subscribed to build the Candlish Memorial Hall in 1893. Used for dances and concerts, the hall was 50 feet long and 23 feet wide with a musicians’ gallery. Three anterooms for library, games and meetings adjoined.

Robert’s son, Joseph converted the business into a limited company linked with Gilbey’s the great wine and spirit merchants. The works now ranked among the biggest in the country. At peak it produced 20 million bottles a year. Over 500 men, boys and women were employed. The principle of self-containment’ was practised. All packing cases were made in the carpenters’ shop; the moulds and other tools were made in an admirably equipped engineering shop; electric light was generated on the premises — 200 lights altogether; the firm’s private railway ran through the works and connected with Londonderry’s railway. The firm’s own ships — first the ‘Lollard’, and then the steamer ‘Oakwell’, ran each week to the huge London warehouse at Rotherhithe, often going on to Antwerp to collect silver sand for the return journey.

Bottlemaking was hot and thirsty work. The furnaces, where the ‘batch’ was made from a mixture of sand, lime and soda, were so hot that the huge concrete blocks forming the walls had to be renewed every six months. One corner of the works was constantly devoted to making these blocks. Oatmeal water and beer were favourite drinks. Young apprentices were sent, cans in hand, to the ‘Parrot’ (Londonderry Arms) directly opposite the bottleworks, or to the ‘Red Light’ at the end of Pilot Terrace. Beer at 3d a pint was often allowed ‘on the slate’ or for a token — a knife, watch or key — until pay day.

Many young boys were employed as ‘takers in’; they carried the bottles from the bottlemaker to the annealing furnaces. On days when ‘small nip’ bottles were being made — often 160 dozen by a team — the ‘taker in’ could walk 20 miles to and fro.

After 72 hours annealing, the bottles were pushed in trucks along a tramway by strong men like the one armed ‘Stumpy’ Miller to the south end of the works. There, a small army of girls waited to test, wash, dry, stuff clean paper into bottle necks and lay them on soft beds of straw in sacks or packing cases. Distillers and bottles of wines and beers the world over could depend on the quality of bottles bearing the Candlish trade mark — three spots on the base at equal distances.

Ace bottlemakers like ‘Scotch Joe’ Thompson and William Miller, in spare time often made glass objects in fantastic shapes and beautiful glass flower ‘dumps’. Oftenjust used as door stops, they are now valuable collectors’ items worth £100 each.

In 1913 J.J. Candlish joined with other big bottlemaking establishments in forming the United Glass Bottle Manufacturers Ltd. He was its first chairman. A year later J.J., public man connected with nearly every Seaham institution, was dead.

This heralded the beginning of the end for the bottleworks. The bottleboat Oakwell, so long a comforting sight as she left harbour with decks piled high with bottles, struck a mine in March 1917 and sank with the loss of four lives. The introduction of machine made bottles made Seaham’s hand crafted bottles obsolete. The company transferred its work to London and closed down the Seaham factory during the 1921 coal strike. No more would the Bottleworks Band lead Seaham’s parades, no more would old bottleworkers see the glowing white hot glass, or the sky lit up at night by the red glow of the furnaces. No more would voices swell in song during the last shift of the week, to entrance passers by.

“In-n-n O-O-O!” the well known cry from the throats of tired workers as the bell rang at the end of their eleven hour shift, had sounded for the last time.


SS OAKWELL, “The Bottleboat”

A successor to the Londonderry Bottleworks ship ‘Lollard’, the ‘Oakwell’ left Seaham Dock weekly loaded with bottles for Rotherhithe, London. Known to Seaham folk as the Bottleboat, she was sunk by a German mine off the North Yorkshire coast in 1917.

Below is a description of the ship and the wreck.

Depth 45m

Reference N 54 25 278 W 000 25 170

3 miles E.N.E. of South Cheek, Robin Hood’s Bay.

The Oakwell was a small iron 248-ton British steamship, registered at Stockton and had dimensions of 38.1m length, by 6.73m beam and a draught of 3.14m. She was owned by United Glass Bottle Manufacturers Ltd and built by Craig, Taylor & Company Ltd at Stockton-on-Tees in 1887. Her single iron-propeller was powered by a two-cylinder, compound steam engine that developed 50hp, using one boiler and her aft positioned machinery was built by Westgarth, English & Company, at Middlesbrough. She had one deck, a well-deck and a superstructure consisting of a 12.8m quarter-deck, 2.4m bridge-deck and a poop-deck of 5.4m.

Under the command of Captain W. Chilvers, this little merchant vessel was on passage from Seaham for London, with a cargo of empty bottles and a crew of nine when at 11.40 a.m., on 28 March 1917, she detonated a German-laid mine nearly three miles east-north-east of the North Cheek at Robin Hood’s Bay. The vessel foundered almost immediately, taking four crew members down with her, while the others, including her captain, clung to floating wreckage, until they were picked up sometime later by a Royal Navy destroyer and taken to North Shields.


The wreck is reported as orientated in an east-north-east to west-south-west direction on a hard sea-bed of dirty sand, mud and black shells, in a general depth of 45m, being the lowest astronomical depth. She is said to be totally collapsed, decayed and broken up, with her boiler and engine visibly exposed and the condenser burst open. The highest point is around her boiler and engine, which stands about 3§ m high at the stern end, while the rest of the wreck is just a mound of broken machinery, bent pipes and flattened iron plates, standing no more than a metre high. Occasionally, part of her cargo of empty bottles can be found among the pile of debris, but otherwise there are not too many interesting things to be seen, although there are portholes still being discovered. She has been dived on a number of times and her bell has been recovered by local divers, along with some other artefacts. However, she is reported to be a reasonable dive-site and still worth a visit. Fair numbers of cod have been seen on and around the wreck and large lobsters are not an uncommon sight. Usually, this is a fairly dark dive with very poor visibility, which requires a good torch. Tidal streams are strong and the best time to dive her would be on a neap tide after a spell of settled, dry weather and light south-westerly winds. The dive also requires a little pre-planning.


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