Disaster Recorded in Glass

Disaster Glass

Disaster Recorded in Glass

Disaster glasses are a fascinating, but often forgotten, part of north east mining tradition. Engraved to commemorate the deaths of miners, both single fatalities and disasters, they seem to have been a tradition peculiar to the Durham and Northumberland Coal Field. Most examples date from the relatively short period of 1840 until the outbreak of the First World War.

Beamish is now home to one of the most comprehensive collections of this glassware, which varies from small sherry glasses to large water jugs.

Commemorative glass jug for the Seaham Harbour Colliery Disaster, West Stanley Disaster and Washington Colliery Disaster

Commemorative glass jug for the Seaham Harbour Colliery Disaster, West Stanley Disaster and Washington Colliery Disaster

These fascinating remnants of our industrial heritage have been comprehensively catalogued by the late Dr William Cowan. This catalogue includes both museum and private collections and is the most comprehensive of its type. Shortly before his death Dr Cowan visited Beamish to donate his catalogue and research work, to ensure it was available for all to use and enjoy.

This work along with ‘An Alarming Incident’, a book written by Dr Cowan and John Brooks in 2008 forms our core understanding of the use and creation of this glassware. Dr Cowan’s daughter, Kate, kindly supplied the following tribute to her father explains how his passion for Glass began.

Disaster glass milk jug, inscribed West Stanley Disaster 168 lives, Feb 16 1909.

Disaster glass milk jug, inscribed West Stanley Disaster 168 lives, Feb 16 1909.

Our thanks to Dr Cowan’s daughter Kate White for supplying the following information and Introduction to her fathers work.

‘Dr William Cowan was born in Liverpool in 1926.

In 1965, he brought his family north when he took a job as a pathologist at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead.

William, or Bill as he was known, loved being a doctor but he had many other enthusiasms. These included the north east, his adopted home.

Bill was also a keen collector. He liked nothing better than auctions, fairs, boot sales and visiting every antique and collectables shop from Barnard Castle to Berwick.

During the 1970s he started to notice small, cheaply made glasses that recorded the dates and details of various northeastern events – most usually mining disasters.

When he asked what they were, he was told they were called “disaster glasses”. Another enthusiasm took hold.

Buying his first glass and researching the history of the event it commemorated led to a passion that developed into a large collection of glasses.

He also collaborated with his friend and antique glass expert John Brooks on a book about the history of this northeastern tradition: An Alarming Accident – or every glass tells a story (Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2008). .

Bill died in 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital where he had been so proud to work.

The year before, he had given Beamish Museum a catalogue of all the disaster glasses he had ever bought, seen or been made aware of.

His last wish was that his catalogue could be made available, through Beamish Museum, for others who share his interest in the history of the northeast region, and an admiration for the generations who have made it what it is today.’

Dr William Cowen

Dr William Cowan

Following Dr Cowan’s  wishes the catalogue will be maintained at the museum as a living document. If any, currently unknown, glasses are found we would be happy to add their details to the list.

The link below will take you to a PDF copy of Dr Cowan’s work

LOOK BACK IN WONDER by William Cowan (Adobe Flash Player Required)

8 Responses

  1. Graham Johnson
    Graham Johnson / 2-6-2015 / ·

    Absolutely fascinating article in Sunderland Echo about Dr Cowans work. My elderly mother read the article and has given me two glasses ( identical shape and size) which have been in our family, probably since they were issued.
    1 Small tankard 55 mm high engraved ” West Stanley explosion 168 lives lost Feb 16 1909″ the reverse is engraved with what I can describe as a series of looped swirls.
    2 Small tankard 55 mm high engraved “Elemore Coll explosion 28 lives lost Dec 2nd 1886” the reverse is engraved with a fern? (Christmas tree).
    We have no idea if these are unusual, in demand or were mass produced in abundance.
    If the museum is interested in them please let me know.
    Thank you, Graham Johnson.

  2. David Slassor
    David Slassor / 2-13-2015 / ·

    Hi Graham
    I have been given 2 small glasses from my 89 year old mother. She was given them when she was a young girl by her grandmother. The glasses are approx
    6″ high , one has Seaham disaster 1880, the other Victoria hall 1883 . Her wish is to give them to beamish if possible
    Dave S

  3. David Gresko
    David Gresko / 2-29-2016 / ·

    Great article! I am presently researching the history of an early miner’s safety lamp that has a plaque on it that says “George Bowers, One of the 168 Victims who lost his life at West Stanley Explosion Feb. 16th 1909”. I acquired this lamp in America where I live. I am not sure if this was a presentation piece to the family, or if this was used to raise money for the victims. I would by happy to provide a photo to anyone that has an interest.

    Thanks, David Gresko

  4. Sarah
    Sarah / 9-14-2020 / ·

    I have a small jug from the Harrtley Colliery disaster

  5. David Anderson
    David Anderson / 11-17-2020 / ·

    I have two disaster glasses and also two glasses with the names of my great grandparents and a date. Who do I contact to have them added to the catalogue? I can provide photos and dimensions.

  6. Brian Delaney
    Brian Delaney / 5-12-2022 / ·

    I have a water jug given to me commemorating the West Stanley 1909 disaster and also a card describing the event. Unfortunately there is a large crack to the back of the jug. I can provide photographs if you are interested and bring it next time I’m visiting.

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