Why is seaglass at seaham?

by | Sep 30, 2020 | Beachcombing

People often ask, why is there seaglass at Seaham? The answer to this is simple: it is due to the old glasswork factories that were based in Seaham.

Seaham and nearby Sunderland housed some of the largest bottle factories in Great Britain. They were manufacturing hand-blown glass bottles, such as perfume bottles, vases and the like, some were brightly coloured and patterned resulting in the seaglass that you find washed up on the beaches of Seaham today.

Way back before we had a refuse collection service rubbish was often disposed of onto our beautiful beaches, glass from the bottle works was no different. It was discarded directly onto the beach and into the sea. 

Unlike modern-day plastic that creates pollution and kills wildlife and fish etc. victorian rubbish was mostly glass. Unlike plastic, the glass evolved to become part of the beach, reforming it into smooth pebble-shaped beauties. Some of this glass has been rolling around in the sea since they first opened the bottle factories in 1850. 

People travel far and wide to visit Seaham just for the seaglass because it is the most spectacular seaglass that you will ever find. I’ve spoken to people who have travelled all the way from America just to visit Seaham because the seaglass is so lovely. Lots of people use Seaham seaglass for making jewellery because it is absolutely perfect! And you can tell just by looking at it that it is Seaham seaglass because it is so perfectly shaped.

What is seaglass?

Seaglass is just that, glass that has been discarded into the sea. Over many, many years the glass has been smoothed and shaped each piece creating these wonderful round/oval nuggets of beautiful coloured glass. 

The longer the glass is in the sea, the better quality it is because it becomes so smooth. Many people think that the glass dumped was items that got broken, but many pieces of glass were from spills and even waste glass, this is where the huge pieces of seaglass that can be found on the beach come from. There was also a lot from misshapen or faulty pieces that were discarded. 

What can you find at Seaham?

You can find many types of seaglass at Seaham, from plain clear, green and brown to more unusual colours like red, blue pink, orange and also multi’s. Multi’s are the coloured glass with patterns in it. You can find small pieces and huge pieces; you can also find bottle stoppers, pottery, milk glass and marbles.

One of the other things you can find is slag glass, slag glass or malachite glass as it is also known. Slag glass in its original form would have been like a swirly marble type milk glass used to make all kinds of things like vases and bowls.

Where is the best place to seaglass hunt?

When we went we went to Seaham hall beach; it’s the beach with Tonia’s cafe in the car park. We parked there and walked down the steps onto the beach. It’s free to park, which is always great when you are out beachcombing for the day as car parking fees can add up, making it an expensive hobby. There is also blast beach and chemical beach to visit on the same stretch of coast. We didn’t go to these beaches as we were only staying for two days.

How do I find seaglass?

You find seaglass just by looking on the ground; it’s usually just sitting there on the surface waiting to be found.

The first day we went to Seaham we just walked down the beach directly to the water and started walking across the beach. There were lots of people on the beach that day, and I think we didn’t find as much because people were walking in front of us picking it up before we even got to it.

The second day we walked up the beach and then slowly back down but walking up and then back to the sea in a little zig-zag pattern, we found this to be the most productive way of seaglass hunting. We also searched the shingle patches; we took a long handheld garden rake to scrape the shingle, doing this reveals the seaglass that is hidden in there. 

What do I need to go seaglass hunting?

Tide table or an app

You need an accurate way of telling what the tide is going to be; there is absolutely no point in going if the tide is in, or coming in because you either won’t be able to get on the beach or you will be rushed off it because the tide comes in so fast. I recommend using a mobile phone app called anytide, I use this app all the time, and it’s never failed me yet at predicting the tide times. 

I always go 2 hours after a high tide leaving plenty of time for me to get on the beach and more time to explore up to when the tide reaches the lowest point. Misjudging the tide can also be extremely dangerous, especially if there is only one access point to the beach and you have ventured off a ways from that access point. 

Always check where the tide is during your visit because it is easy to get carried away collecting and not realise the tide is coming in and trust me it comes in quicker than it goes out leaving you cut off.

Hand rake

As mentioned above, we took along a hand rake; this came in handy for scraping at the shingle and also for grabbing pieces of seaglass before the sea took it away with the next sneaky high wave. The one we have is telescopic which saves a lot of bending down unless you find some cracking seaglass of course. 

Wellies 

I also recommend wearing a pair of wellies, and it’s one of the things I will be getting as I don’t actually own a pair. The tide can be quite deceiving at times at Seaham, tempting you to walk out a bit further and it catches you out with a wave that comes rushing in really fast! There’s nothing worse than having wet feet, especially if you are going to stay for a few hours, it can be absolutely miserable if you are wet and cold.

Finds pouch/bag

A pouch or a bag for your finds, I use a pouch I made which goes around my waist, it has plenty of pockets to store seaglass and also for carrying essentials like wet wipes or hand sanitiser and don’t forget plenty of tissues! 

History of glassworks at Seaham

In 1852 the marquis of Londonderry leased a piece of land to John Candlish and Robert Greenwell upon which the Seaham bottle works would be built. The factory opened in 1853  manufacturing black glass bottles, (known to us seaglass collectors as pirate glass) a nearby pottery and bottle works went up for auction in 1854 and was subsequently purchased by Candlish to form part of the Seaham bottle works.

John Candlish would go on to buy out Robert Greenwell, and it was renamed the Londonderry bottle works. The site originally housed just two bottle works, a managers house and housing for the workers it would later become a major industrial strip that would go on to define Seaham.

By 1894 the site would become home to a total of six-bottle houses, chemical works, ironworks and Londonderry railway making it an almost self-sufficient community with housing, churches and schools being built in the surrounding area. John and Robert would work to improve the worker’s community by adding banks and even a library.

The relationship between themselves and the workers were reported to be so great that the workers agreed to work a month with no wages when John ran into financial difficulty. This allowed him to recover financially, keeping the company afloat. After both men died the workers of the Londonderry bottle works built the Candlish memorial hall in memory of them both, I think this sums up the relationship that was forged between themselves and the workers.

Ownership of the six Seaham bottle works and one in Sunderland transferred to john’s son Joseph.  Joseph then partnered up with a wine and spirits company, and they would go on to transport various glass products from Sunderland docks down to London, bringing back other items in its place such as sand.

The bottle works would go on to employ 500 workers manufacturing 20,000,000 bottles per year. Seaham bottle works were eventually closed after moving to London in 1921 and the site today is nothing than a storage area.

It is only a matter of time before Seaham beaches stop producing any seaglass at all, with the bottle works and old refuse practices long gone the seaglass at Seaham will eventually dry up. 

I spoke to some locals when I visited, and they say the seaglass that is there now is nothing compared to what it was when they were children. In another 50 years, Seaham seaglass will, along with the bottle works become just another piece of history.

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