The Sowerby family had been manufacturing glass since 1760, but things were about to change when George Sowerby's son, John, joined the firm in 1820. John travelled the length and the breadth of the country promoting Sowerby glass in order to produce sales and it was his forward thinking that helped the growth of the company. In 1850, the firm moved to Ellison Street where they soon created not only one of the largest glass works in the UK with 8, 10 pot furnaces by the 1860s, but they also created a thriving community for the workers.
With the advent of the new pressed glass processes, the Glass Blower's Society felt threatened because they believed that it would replace the skilled workmen they represented. Unfortunately Sowerby enraged them even more when they decided to pay their workforce with a fixed weekly wage rather than paid by piece, which led to many negotiations and strikes.
In 1855 Samuel Neville went into partnership with Sowerby and two years later in 1857 they changed the company's name to Sowerby and Neville's (flint) Ellison Glass Works. By 1863, they were employing over 450 people and producing 30 tons of pressed glass a week.
This new way of manufacturing glass had changed the way that people dined. In Simon Cottle's book entitled Sowerby - Gateshead Glass features a quote from the Industrial Resources of Tyne, Wear and Tees (1864) saying that 'The manufacture of pressed glass has cheapened flint glass articles to such an extent that almost the poorest of the population may be supplied with elegant articles of domestic use, which a few years ago were far beyond their reach."
The success of their glass designs also meant that the other factories poached their designs, reproducing them with substandard raw materials and finishing. It was because of this that they started to patent their inventions, whether it was a new method of moulding the glass or coloured glass recipes.
They also registered their more popular (and poachable) designs from 1872, with the Patent Office Design Registry. Between 1874 to 1894, they registered at least 437 individual designs, 79 made in 1879 alone.
In 1871 John's son, John George Sowerby, a well known artist, was made manager and colour mixer in the firm; who became one of the major figureheads for the advancement of pressed glass. Also in that year, Samuel Neville left the firm and in 1872 started his own firm - Neville Glass Works Ltd. While he had many good ideas, business was slow and unfortunately in 1880, a fire burnt down the factory started by the pot furnace that was left heated to keep the others dry while they were being used for storage until business picked up. Four months later the company folded and the following year, Davidson bought all of their patterns and moulds.
With Neville's departure, the company's name changed again to Sowerby and Co in 1874. Ninety designs were registered under this new name, with John George making a second patent for an improved press.
Stippled flint toast rack with a registration diamond date 1 June 1874
In 1876, with many other manufacturers, they created their own trademark, a peacock's head inspired by their family crest. This was initially only to appear on opaque vitro-porcelain items, but was soon found on most of their items and used until the 1930's with the trademark featuring on black glossy labels with gold lettering, rather than impressed into the glass.
Monkey handled dish, with diamond and registration mark 6 March 1876, Single monkey handled dish with diamond and registration mark 6 March 1876, Stippled butter dish with rope edging with diamond mark 8 March 1876, Biscuit barrel in the shape of a barrel 1870's and a small salt dish with diamond and registration mark 20 February 1878.
At the start of the 1880's they had not only established themselves as a market leader in the UK, but also abroad too where there was stiff competition from the experienced Americans and the cheap products made in mainland Europe. Unfortunately due to this success many of their designs were still being copied by their competitors and according to the Pottery Gazette in 1881, they were forced to reduce their prices by 35% because of this. They were also one of the first firms to make coloured glass items.
Lidded sugar dish with a stippled effect, with cut outs around the base. It has a registration diamond for 20 February 1878 on the lid and 14 May 1878 on the base.
"art glass for the millions" - Vitro-Porcelain
Like Davidson who had their trademark Pearline range, Sowerby's flagship product was their Vitro-Porcelain suite. Introduced in 1877, Vitro-Porcelain looked both like glass and china and was something that had never been seen before. Both of the only surviving existing pattern books No. VIII (1879) and No. IX (1880) were full of Vitro-Porcelain items ranging from small posy spills to large flower pots and vases. These designs were influenced by the 16th Century, Venice, the Classical world, Japan and country living. Rather than being a completely pressed item, the handles of the baskets (as seen below) were manipulated while still hot to change their position.
The first colour they produced was a Turquoise that was similar to the colour of Chinese Porcelain. They then introduced Opal, which was a transparent opaque, and by 1880 they launched Blanc de Lait, a solid white and Jet, black. According to Sowerby - Gateshead Glass, the Pottery Gazette reported at the International Health Exhibition on May 1884, that Sowerby had a stand of Vitro-Porcelain, that "in taste and artistic treatment, they rank as art goods, not withstanding their cheapness, we may call it art for the million."
A vitro Porcelain selection, Basket weave plate with diamond and registration mark 18 August 1876; long woven basket with diamond and registration mark 13th February 1877; black basket with registration mark 1882; blue basket with registration mark 1882; umbrella basket with diamond and registration mark 24 July 1876; small white basket with registration mark 24 May 1876; small blue basket with registration mark 24 May 1876
Experts in Colour
In 1877 they introduced another of their most popular colours, Patent Ivory Queen's Ware, that looks like carved ivory . It was very expensive to make and after the first year, they had to reduce the price of their items as they were not being sold. Despite the prices the pieces have been very hardwearing which is why so many intricate examples are found today. Many of the moulds were specifically made for the Queen's Ware and were often of an oriental style, the most famous being a vase featuring Japanese figures in honour of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado.
On 29 May 1878, they patented their recipe to make purple malachite glass, often described as 'slag' glass and blackberries and cream by the US market. Soon other colours were added to their malachite range including the very rare brown, green, blue (Sorbini), red, black and grey. All of these were made by adding the colour to an opaque white glass mixture to give a streaky appearance.
Ruby and Pomona, an ugly opaque olive green, was added to their repertoire of colours in 1881, followed by a lemon-yellow called Giallo and an imitation of tortoiseshell in 1882. They also experimented with their Ruby colour making a more pinker shade, and then adding it to an opal mix to make Rose Opalescent.
For their more substantial pieces they made the Gold and Blue Nugget colours in 1883. This was achieved by adding cadmium to the molten glass. The extravagant colouring of this mix, led to the myth that John George would throw handfuls of gold sovereigns into an amber mix to create the colour.
Like many of the glass houses, Sowerby experimented with the recipes for coloured glass, and John George used to mix up the last of the batches of colour so difference examples can be discovered. Many of the smaller items, like the cauldron and baskets are seen in different, non-Sowerby colours as a result of these experiments.
They took advantage of their experience in coloured glass and sold batches of the mix to other glass works. There is very little information about the details, but it seems that most of the companies who purchased these mixes were American, for example the Elsan Glass Coy.
In order to pick out the intricate designs and raised decorations on some of the items, especially in the darker colours like jet, they used gilding or silver - or in the case of the opal glass, amber enamelling.
Sowerby became a limited company on 30 December 1881, and changed their name to Sowerby's Ellison Glass Works Ltd. By 1882, it was reported in the glass and pottery press that they were the largest pressed glass manufacturer in the world, with a production of 150 tons of finished pieces of glass every week.
After his father's death on 19 March 1879, John George had a tough time in the company culminating in his resignation from the board in 1882. He became the Joint Manager of the Works alongside Mr. H. H. Pitt in 1884, but left on 27 April 1887 only to return on 2 September 1889. Unfortunately he became ill and had to leave the company in 1896 and died on 14 December 1914.
Throughout this time, they were making suites of domestic glass, with some imitating lead crystal glass with gadroons and diamond facets. While others looked like Wedgwood, especially with the Queens Ware range where they took their designs directly from their 1790 Creamware pattern books.
In 1887 Sowerby introduced a collection based on the "The Baby's Opera" by Walter Crane. These nursery rhymes included Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy and Bess; King Cole; Jack and Jill; Oranges and Lemons; Multiplication; Little Jack Horner; Gathering Apples and . Flower holders were made in semi circles and oblongs, so they could be built up over the length of the table brimming with flowers.
Oranges and Lemons Flower Spills with trade mark - 1882
Like the other glasshouses, they also made commemorative glass with tumblers engraved with dates and inscriptions surrounded by foliage. One of the ways that their products differ from the other manufacturers is that they used gilding on the portraits. They also recycled their moulds using the one for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 for King George VI's Coronation in 1937 as well as Queen Elizabeth's Coronation in 1953!
The 1890's was a troublesome time for the factory with their profits dropping dramatically in 1891. While they were producing more glass, Davidson was still renowned for having a better finish and a more extensive range of products than Sowerby. Their rivals on mainland Europe, especially in Belgium, had improved their quality and was still cheaper than UK items. In a desperate measure to save money, they sent moulds to Petrus Regent and Co of Maastricht, who would then re-import Sowerby glass. Demand for Sowerby items abroad were also falling courtesy of Davidson, who were selling their products at 20% lower price than anyone else.
They tried to inject some more life into their company by replacing 97 moulds and introducing another 214. They also patented a new steam pressing machine in 1894, that replaced the old hand operated presses. Again trying to fight the competition in Europe, they erected a glass works in Hoboken only for it to be blown down a year later. They rebuilt the glass works, but they closed it in 1907.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, things didn't look good for Sowerby. Henry Pitt was accused of bad management and the Sunbeam lamp company, complained about the substandard quality of the glass for their electric bulbs. The only positive on the horizon was that the Minister Plenipotentiary of China opened trade lines to Peking for them.
In 1905, they created an iridised finish for the glass by spraying selenium onto amber or blue glass. This was later called Carnival Glass, but at this time was deemed a failure and production stopped. It wasn't until later in the 1920's with the successes of Carnival glass in the US, prompted them to reintroduce them under the names of sunglow and rainbow lustre.
The very unpopular Henry Pitt resigned in 1907 and joined Davidson's Team Valley Glass works. He is often blamed for the departure of John George Sowerby, the decline of the overseas markets and the loss of customers. Under the new management of Adam Dodds, they employed more German glass blowers because they were not governed by tight union production rules and were more skilled. By 1908, only 190 people were employed, although in 1912 they introduced new lines and a new catalogue and rather than using line drawings as illustrations, they used photographs instead.
Thankfully this new approached had the desired effect and from July 1913, sales slowly reached that of 1883 when their monthly sales record was £4,815. Just as things were getting better World War One turned the market on its head. Many of their workforce enlisted, and there were restrictions on raw materials. They were hit particularly hard because they obtained their sand from Rouen, and could not find other suppliers who had the right quality sand for them.
Throughout the war, Sowerby had problems with their workforce, ranging from drunkenness, and unlike the other glasshouses, a refusal to work throughout the nights. They even had problem with shortages of straw that was used as packaging the finished glass ready for transport.
These problems still continued after the war had ended, with strikes over wages in 1918. Yet again, their old rivals were threatening them, with cheap, stylish art deco products coming from mainland Europe. Davidson had become the main pressed glass manufacturer in the UK, updating their machinery and furnaces in the 1920's and doubling their workforce.
Tyneside Glassware Series
The introduction of Carnival glass between 1926 to 1930 helped their fortunes as did the appointment of a new designer. Herr Schottner created the Tyneside Glassware Series, and was responsible for the sitting nude lady flower block and bowl which was used by Cadburys for their chocolates. They also produced the polar bear (after buying Joblings' mould) for Fox's glacier mints.
In 1931, they employed Czech mould makers and introduced a new series of designs. In 1933, Pattern Book 30 contained art deco items such as the Ladye Powder Bowl depicting a woman in her bathing suit sitting on a rock, the Lily and Iris vases, the popular Swan butter dish and the dolphin bowl (from and old mould dating back to 1880). All of these designs were available in a range of pastel colours, a pink called Rosalin, powder blue, green and amber and they were both had clear and a matt acid etched finishings.
Queen Mary loved pressed glass and at the 1934 British Industries Fair, she made many purchases including trinket sets, 12 salad bowls of the frog designs (see below), 12 vases and holders, 12 rose bowls and black stands and 12 water jug.
Frog Salad bowl that Queen Mary was so fond of with acid etched reeds with Registration Number 787048 9th October 1933
At the fair the following year, she made another 30 purchases which also lead to Sowerby providing all of the domestic glass for the Queen Mary ship!
Yet again as soon as their fortunes had changed, a war broke out and World War 2 changed everything. Raw materials were so rare that the pink Rosalin line had to be stopped and many of the workforce enlisted again. Thankfully the glass works were kept afloat with orders from the NAAFI to make pint tumblers.
When the war ended it was decided to completely modernise the works, but during this time they made fewer and fewer moulds, until in 1952, their mould shop closed. This doesn't mean that they weren't on the look out for moulds to use though, as they bought traffic light lens moulds from Joblings, erased their trademark and used them to make ashtrays! They also purchased more moulds from Joblings in 1959 as well as some from a German factory. There was a brief resurgence for glass souvenir wear in 1953 for the Queen's Coronation using the same moulds that had been used for Queen Victoria's Coronation.
The company went into receivership in 1956, but was saved the following year when it was taken over by Suntex Safety Glass Industries Ltd, where the MD, Jack Davis, tried to maintain their operations, albeit on a smaller scale. They continued to make trinket sets, ashtrays, ornaments, vases and bowls including a new cloud range that was very similar to that of Davidson. Moving away from domestic items, they made coloured glass for signal lamps and the blue domed covers for emergency vehicles. Naturally, they also continued to make safety bullet proof glass for Suntex.
The factory ceased producing coloured and domestic glass in March 1972, due to high prices and increased competition, something that had dogged to company for most of its existence. Their moulds were bought by Nazeing Glass works and in Sowerby - Gateshead Glass an old employee recollects that they went to collect the glass in furniture vans, only to have the bottoms fall out of the vans leaving the moulds strewn across the road. It seems that Nazeing was not destined to recreate Sowerby designs as 80% of the moulds were in such bad condition that they had to be scrapped. The Ellison Works were demolished in 1982, and Tyneside Safety Glass was built in its place now making safety glass for cars, buses, metro trains, and bullet proof glass for banks.