Clouds over Gateshead

The impact of the Davidson family on glassmaking

by

David M Issitt ~ Leading Expert on English Coloured Glass


The Davidson Glass Factory in 1889
The Davidson Teams Flint Glass Works in 1889

To glass lovers all over the world, say the name, Gateshead and one thinks of 'Cloud' glass or 'Pearline' glass which was synonymous to that area of England. Glassmaking was one of the most important industries on Tyneside along with shipbuilding. The location of this town, the ample supply of coal and transport accessibility were all major factors to the success of glassmaking in the North East of England. It was in the 1840s that John Sowerby commenced to produce 'Pressed Glass', which was achieved by pressing the semi-molten glass into a metal mould. It was soon to become a very profitable concern as it allowed those less wealthy than the 'Upper Class' to own glass which looked as wonderful as any of the cut glass being produced in the Stourbridge area. It was John Sowerby's glassworks, which inspired a young butcher by trade called George Davidson to see the potential for such glassware.

Purple Cloud Glass Bowl c.1930's & Blue Pearline Jug c.1880's
Purple Cloud Glass Bowl c.1930's
and Blue Pearline Glass Jug c.1893
Davidson Glass Trademark c.1880's
The Davidson trademark
used during the 1880's
George Davidson [1822-1891] was the son of a miller, who saw the true potential for 'Pressed Glass' on the market place and in 1867 he opened his glassworks, the Teams Flint Glass Works in a field by the river Teams. Davidson himself was a man of enormous energy and enthusiasm, involving himself in the management of many local societies and businesses as well as his glassmaking enterprise. He was an active member in local politics under the banner of the Liberal party and he became Mayor of Gateshead from 1886 to 1888. Davidson was universally respected not only for his quiet unassuming manner, but also for his kindliness of disposition and charitable nature. It was whilst walking to church with his daughter on 22nd February 1891 that he died, but his legacy and passion for glassmaking continued to flourish.

Amongst the first items produced by Davidson, were glass chimneys for paraffin lamps which were a household item before the gas light and the now taken for granted electric light. These chimneys gave two distinct advantages for the owner. The first was the chimney increased the light given off from the lamp and secondly confined the unpleasant fumes of the burning paraffin coated wick. Within twenty years of him starting his glassworks he received praise for his exceedingly beautiful specimens of pressed glass in such forms as fruit dishes, salad bowls, jugs, plates and butter coolers to name but a few of the items being produced during these early years. It was the low cost of these items, which coupled with the enormous range of items that gave the Victorians their desire for elegant table manners. During this time one of the most popular forms of glass was one called 'Malachite', which imitated the marbled stone. It is nowadays often referred to as 'Slag' glass as it was made by mixing two colours of glass, one of them usually being white. Although Davidson perfected the process and technique for producing this form of glass, he had copied the idea from Sowerby's in the late 1870s. Purple Slag Glass Spill Vase c.1880's
Purple Slag Glass
Vase c.1880's
Davidson Blue Pearline Tumblers and Tray c.1884
Davidson Blue Pearline
Tumblers and Tray c.1884
One of the most famous styles of glassware produced in these years was what collectors' world wide have become to treasure, 'Pearline'. Although, patented on 7th December 1889 by Davidson's, it was copied by many other glassmakers of the era. It continued to be produced for nearly 30 years by Davidson's. There were two major colours, which Davidson's produced in this type of glass. The first to be introduced was blue and the second was an acidic yellow which is known as 'Primrose' and is uranium glass (called 'Vaseline Glass' in the USA). The final perfection of this type of glass saw the introduction of 'Moonshine', which was a virtually clear glass.
After the death of George Davidson, his son, Thomas Davidson [1860-1937] became manager of the glassworks. As well as being a keen supporter of local affairs, much as his father had been, his other passions included horses and his glassworks. Thomas was a skilled glassmaker having learnt his trade in his fathers glass house and was very instrumental in the design and development of Davidson's domestic glassware at the turn of the twentieth century. It was under his management that the glassworks were completely updated, with new furnaces replacing the old ones, which relied on coal as fuel. Oil, gas and finally electric furnaces were to be installed which consequently increased production. Davidson's range of glassware was considerably increased during the 1920s, which led to the doubling of the numbers of female employees in both the finishing and packing departments. It was a well-known fact that Tom, as he was called by employees, enjoyed and encouraged his female staff to sing whilst they attended to their work. Davidson Yellow Pearline vaseline Glass Sweetmeat Dish c.1893
Primrose Pearline Glass
Sweetmeat Dish c.1893
The Davidson 'Saturn' Lamp c.1930's
Davidson 'Saturn' Lamp c.1930's
Thomas Davidson was not only a first class designer but a superb businessman and he saw the threat of foreign competition and with his skill he was able to look at his own firm and recognise what processes they had that could create something unique on the glassware market. Many of his other British rivals were content to just copy foreign imports, but not Thomas. He saw that his own company's production held great potential to develop into something which could with the correct colour combination, still be at home in the most classical environment. One can see how shrewd a businessman he was when one realises how with his guidance certain pieces designed could be easily adapted. If Davidson designed a fruit bowl, he designed it so that with the addition of a stand and dome it became a flower bowl, or with the addition of a lid and ladle it became a punch bowl or with salad servers as salad bowl. The man's ingenuity can be seen in the 1940 catalogue, three years after his death, which shows some 26 flower sets ranging in size from four inches to twenty inches, 13 different types of ashtray plus 11 vases and numerous other items, including a set of ashtrays in the shape of the four different suits from a pack of cards.
Amongst Davidson's most famous products is 'Cloud' glass. This was introduced by Thomas Davidson in 1923 and continued to be made up until World War II. It was never reintroduced into their production line after the war but old stocks were finished and sold in the 1950s. 'Cloud' glass was made by adding trails of semi-molten dark coloured glass to a gather of lighter coloured semi-molten glass that had been laid in the mould. The plunger mould was then lowered and raised, resulting in the cloud-like trails being fairly randomly spread and integrated into the body of the piece. The first colour produced was purple in 1923, followed by amber in 1929, orange in 1931 and green in 1934. In 1929 a red coloured cloud glass was introduced and finally in 1934 a modified orange range was produced. The latter two colours proved less popular but nowadays it is these two colours which collectors seek and covert in their collections with high prices being paid for such pieces. Purple Cloud Glass Vase c.1930's
Purple Cloud Glass
Vase c.1930's
Davdison Topaz Briar Cloud Glass Vase c.1930's
Topaz Briar Cloud
Glass Vase c.1930's
The range of pieces made in 'Cloud' glass was very extensive and varied and in October 1923, the year 'Cloud' glass was released to the public, the Pottery Gazette and Glass Trades Review mentioned; ' Production of this firm, previously utilitarian interest, has now invaded the ornamental realm also, with the latest addition in a unique purple cloud glass with alabaster effect'. The list of what colours were produced is by no means definitive as other colours known to exist are topaz, an exquisite combination of green and purple, black cloud, grey, moss green, violet and sepia. There was clearly no limit to the different number of colour combinations and this is one reason why 'Cloud' glass has such an avid following, for one day they may find a combination unseen before. Out of all the colours collected, the red cloud glass piece is a prize possession to the collector. Trade marked 'ORA'; it is the only type of 'Cloud' glass to bear any maker's mark in the form of a gold and black label. Where would we be if it were not for the Pottery Gazette and Glass Trades Review, for in April 1930 they described red 'Cloud' thus; 'A line of pressed glass in brilliant scarlet, introducing a curtain effect in black'. This may be perfectly correct but it does not reflect the fact that 'ORA' glass was in fact painted red by a process patented by Davidson in 1929. It is more than likely this is the reason red 'Cloud' glass is so scarce today, as with the use over the years the paint has worn away leaving only traces of its former glory.
All 'Cloud' glass with the exception of the modified orange, started in a transparent form. This can be seen when examining closely certain objects such as tall candlesticks and stemmed vases. The translucent effect of most 'Cloud' pieces is achieved by a matting process of acid etching, giving a satin finish which enhanced the cloud effect. This process involved coating one or both sides of the piece with a paste flour and sulphuric acid followed by firing. On can only assume that the original orange made in 1931 proved unsuitable for this process thus necessitating modification in 1934, at which time one must assume the original transparent orange glass was replaced by an opaque glass. It is fairly rare to find a piece of 'Cloud' glass in its original transparent form, although it does exist most notably in tortoiseshell, which originally was the amber produced in 1929. Davidson Amber Cloud Satin Glass Flower Bowl c.1930's
Amber Cloud Satin
Glass Bowl c.1930's
However, like so many industries and despite their success, Davidson's was put on short time working during the coal strike of 1926 and it was during this time that foreign competitors proved to be a threat to the company. Czechoslovakia, the USA and other European countries led this threat to this English glassmaker.
Davidson Amber Glass Violet Vase c.1930's
Amber Glass Violet
Vase c.1930's
Davidson's always put an urgent emphasis on the advertising of their products, which was mainly directed at the female population. The concept felt at this time was that it was the woman who was usually the main person in furnishing a home. An advertisement to the trade buyers of the day declared that Davidson's "great variety of coloured effects enables every housewife who delights in a distinctive table to display elegant taste at a moderate cost". Trade buyers would visit many of the London showrooms being the centre of British fashion and the Empire market, as well as the annual British Industries Fair, at which Davidson's exhibited from 1929 onwards. At this time George Francis was their appointed agent in London. The foremost trade journal of the day, 'The Pottery Gazette and Glass Trade Review' often carried advertisements for Davidson's line items. They also used a trusted and proven world-wide network of agents to distribute Davidson' Glass to the world market. The Pottery Gazette and Glass Trade Review in 1933 when reporting on the British Industries fair said of Davidson's stand; "Bright multicoloured pressed glass were features of this exhibit".
Apart from 'Malachite' and 'Pearline' glass, another renowned glass for which Davidson's will go down in history is known as 'Chippendale' glass. First produced in 1930, this line was to be one of the most successful products to be produced by the company. Originally 'Chippendale' glass had been patented in the USA in 1907 and imported into Britain by Charles Pratt's National Glass Company. It was Pratt who purchased the moulds and used Davidson's as one of the manufacturers from the late 1930s. It was not long before Thomas Davidson realised that they were producing a very popular product and in 1933 they bought the sole manufacturing rights. It was soon to prove a very wise investment which was further promoted by Queen Mary in 1934 obtaining some 'Chippendale' dishes from Davidson's trade stand at the British Industries Fair of that year. By 1935 'Chippendale' shapes were being produced in coloured glass. Other names used by Davidson for their design ranges included 'Jacobean' and 'Georgian' but neither bore any relation to the decorative style names as used today. Davidson Chippendale Handled Glass Bowl c.1930's
Chippendale Handled
Glass Bowl c.1930's
The glassmakers at Davidson's worked, as in all other glassworks, in teams, known as 'shops' around the press to produce glass. At Davidson's two types of 'shop' operated. One known as the 'unmelted' shop, which produced glass that required no further process after it, was removed from the mould. The other was known as the 'melted' shop, which produced items, which did require additional work to form a shape not possible to achieve solely from the moulding. The 'shops' worked on a shift basis from 6am to 2pm and 2pm to 10pm on a six-day week. The glassworks also operated a night shift to enable a continuous production line to meet the market needs. Most glassmakers were paid according to how many pieces that their 'shop' produced the rate per piece being set through negotiations between, management, employees and the unions.

It was not unusual for young girls to leave school at the age of fourteen and immediately join the firm of Davidson's. Most of them worked five and a half days a week, employed in the packing department, as checkers or as finishers, who grinded off the excess glass using 'bevelling' or 'flattening' machines. The final operation was to use a cork wheel to give a polish to the piece and the white 'bloom' of powdered glass was washed off in warm water which soon became cold as the day past. Most of the employees of this time recognised Davidson's as a good and happy workforce.
Davidson amber glass ripple vase - c.1940's
Amber Glass 'Ripple'
Vase - c.1940's
After the death of Thomas Davidson in 1937, his nephew Claude Fraser took charge as manager of the established company. Fraser was not a glassmaker himself but he made a good job of steering the firm through the difficult years of World War II. It was during the war that all production of decorative glassware was stopped. Most of their production through these terrible years included glass for radar screens, tanks, ships' wirelesses and landing lights for the numerous aerodromes scattered around the countryside. Back in 1907, Thomas Davidson had undertaken a verbal agreement with the London lighting firm of Holophane Limited and this agreement although never in writing was to exist for some 60 years. Holophane glass made by Davidson's was used for lighting Westminster Abbey for Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation in 1953 and also in the House of Lords in the 1950s. After the war, the restrictions imposed on the production of decorative glass continued, with just a limited range being exported to boost the British economy. Once the restrictions were lifted in the 1950s, Davidson's continued to produce their popular traditional ranges including 'hobnail' and 'diamond' patterns, which had always proved so successful. Times were changing and they made more organic forms, which followed the style of glass in contemporary form being made in the Scandinavian countries. However a continued importance was placed on their production of street light glass and many British Standard technical glassware.
Fraser once wrote about Davidson's whilst Managing Director; 'This Company is a family business, not only at the top, but also through the Works where in a large number of cases three or four generations have worked'. Even though the firm went through hard times, the workforce remained loyal to the company and the employees were all skilled workers, dedicated to their jobs. For the time, the pay was relatively good and the company enjoyed a good working relationship with their staff. Until 1970 the company had never had to advertise for staff, relying on people coming to the factory in search of work. During the period between the wars, the workers organised outings as well as other popular recreation activities. When Abrahams finally took over the company, an Annual Dinner and Dance was established and a Social Club was established for the workforce. Factory outings were often arranged, and records show in 1920 a Martha Carter organised such an outing to Allendale, Northumberland aboard Joseph Crozier's charabanc.
Davidson's only employed one specialist designer in its history, that of W. J. G. Fullerton who worked for them from 1939 to 1947. It is reported his commencing yearly salary to have been two hundred and fifty pounds. Fullerton designed several popular products including the 'Ripple' shape, the 'Fan' vase and the circular 'Norman' pattern, which was named after the Norman Archer, a popular production manager at the works. Many other styles and patterns were designed by the staff of the works and also including their selling agents. It is said that the green 'Eva' vase, featuring a nude female, was designed by the firm's London agent George Francis. One wonders if Mrs. Francis was known as Eva? Davidson green glass 'Fan' vase c.1940's
Green Glass 'Fan'
Vase c.1940's
Claude Fraser, who had steered Davidson's through this very critical period in their history, died in 1959, at which time the management underwent several changes. The firm was finally part of a take over in 1966 by Abrahams the Birmingham based electroplating company. Prior to the take over Davidson's had supplied glass to Abrahams. The workforce was drastically cut and many making and finishing processes were abandoned in an attempt to increase productivity, and new working methods and equipment were introduced to keep the firm alive. The company was renamed at the time of the take over and thereafter was to be known as Abrahams & Co. At first the company did well with their export targets, but slowly they saw their share of the market place be eroded away with rival foreign firms supplying glass more cheaply. One of the major factors in their decline was due to the high price and erratic supply of fuel in the 1970s. In 1987 the glassworks which had stood proud for some 120 years was finally closed and demolished soon after, marking the end of Davidson's tradition of supplying popular pressed glass of high quality from Gateshead to the world. In such a short period of time the renowned glassmaking firm of Gateshead had gone but had surely left its mark on the glass industry.

A legacy started by George Davidson and continued through his son, Thomas Davidson and his nephew Claude Fraser had come to an end but that legacy has left us with three major types of glass produced in Gateshead and shipped world wide, 'Cloud' ~ 'Pearline' ~ 'Chippendale' and all are so collectable by glass lovers in every corner of the earth.


David M Issitt

Note: Additional examples of Davidson glass can be viewed in the various Glass Photo Galleries on this website.


This article is copyright protected and cannot be used
in any form without the expressed permission of
David M. Issitt the author.
Copyright 2005

The illustrations within this document are copyright Tony Hayter (1st.Glass) 2008


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