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.
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.
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.’
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)