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