Antique 'Disaster Glass' - The Stories Behind These Poignant Pieces

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Hello and welcome to another instalment of 'Blog Post Monday'.

I was visiting the Red House antiques centre in York last week when I got chatting to Matt and Val, the dealers behind the cabinet, 'Not Just Glass', in the centre.  We were sharing stories of recent finds and our love of folk art when they began telling me about their collection of something called 'Disaster Glass'. 

Now, I'd not heard of 'Disaster Glass' before so I was quite intrigued.  They told a story about one piece in particular which, while tragic, highlighted just how poignant these pieces are.  We agreed that this was something that needed to be shared, so I offered my blog writing services.

So, join me as we take a look at the stories behind these collectible pieces of glass, with one story so tragic, it's classed as the worst of its kind in British history...

!!! The following blog post contains material that may be traumatising to some audiences !!!


Image:  commemorative glass jug for the Seaham Harbour Colliery Disaster, West Stanley Disaster and Washington Colliery Disaster


Disaster glass is a fascinating part of north east mining tradition.  In the aftermath of mining disasters or fatalities, glassware, which varied from small sherry glasses to large water jugs, were engraved to commemorate the deaths of the victims.  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. 


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


As far as I know, these engraved pieces were then sold in pubs within the local area, with any funds made going to the families of the victims to help pay for funerals and memorials.  There are many tragic stories that highlight just how dangerous a job mining was but also just how essential it was to communities.  It wasn't just a job, it was a way of life.


Image:  a poster advertising the variety show at the Victoria Hall


The story that Matt and Val told me is a particularly tragic one.  Whilst not related to mining itself, I'm certain it will have involved many families of the mining communities in and around Sunderland.  It happened at the Victoria Hall in Sunderland and was a disaster so tragic that it is classed as the worst of its kind in British history.



On 16 June 1883, a children's variety show was presented by travelling entertainers at the Victoria Hall, Sunderland.  The show was a huge success and was enjoyed by thousands of children (up until the end, that is...), all aged between 3 and 14 years old.



However, at the end of the show, an announcement was made that children would be presented with a prize upon exit, while at the same time, entertainers began distributing gifts from the stage to the children in the stalls.  Worried about missing out, many of the estimated 1,100 children in the gallery surged toward the staircase leading downstairs.


Image:  Illustration of the disaster, from Le Journal illustré


At the bottom of the staircase, the door opened inward and had been bolted so as to leave a gap only wide enough for one child to pass at a time.  With few accompanying adults to maintain order, the children surged down the stairs toward the door.  Those at the front became trapped and were crushed to death by the weight of the crowd behind them.

When the adults in the auditorium realised what was happening they rushed to the door, but they could not open it fully as the bolt was on the children's side. The caretaker tried in vain to disentangle the pile-up, then ran up another staircase and diverted approximately 600 children to safety by another exit.  Meanwhile, other adults pulled the children one by one through the narrow gap, before one man ripped the door from its hinges.



The bodies of the child victims were laid down in rows on the street outside the hall and the parents were made to work their way along the rows to identify the bodies of their own children.


Image:  the Victoria Hall Disaster Memorial in Mowbray Park 


Queen Victoria sent a message of condolence to the grieving families and contributed to the disaster fund.  Donations sent from all over Britain totalled £5,000 (equivalent to £514,855 in 2020) and were used for the children's funerals and a memorial in Mowbray Park.



Newspaper reports at the time triggered a mood of national outrage and the resulting inquiry led to legislation that public entertainment venues be fitted with a minimum number of outward opening emergency exits, which led to the invention of "push bar" emergency doors.  This law still remains in force.  No one was prosecuted for the disaster and the person responsible for bolting the door was never identified. The Victoria Hall remained in use until 1941 when it was destroyed by a World War II parachute bomb.


Image:  Matt and Val's Victoria Hall disaster glass 


A tragic story that shows you just how poignant these pieces of 'Disaster Glass' are, with each one a piece of social history in its own right.  Small reminders of some of the life changing events that have occurred through our history and the impact they had on small communities and, in some cases, the nation as a whole.  Matt and Val have quite the collection of 'Disaster Glass' and although they are dealers, they've told me this collection is one they'll never sell. 



Well, that's it for this week folks.  As always, let me know what you think in the comments section below, particularly if you're the owner of a piece of 'Disaster Glass' yourself.

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So, until next week, stay safe, keep buying those antiques and keep spreading that Source Vintage love!




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  • Steve Stahl on

    Just purchased an etched glass this weekend with 2 hours research found out its a Durham disaster glass commemorating the Kelloe colliery disaster of 1897 and the sad story it represents.

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