My ancestry research led me to Stephen and Hannah Emmerson, born 1806 and 1804, a brother and sister who were a great, great aunt and uncle. They farmed Hollybush Farm, Skelton in Cleveland, which had belonged to the Emmersons since the 1400s. Skelton had expanded rapidly since the late 1850s with the discovery of an ironstone seam in the surrounding Cleveland Hills, and the mining industry that sprang up in its wake. The Emmersons’ income was supplemented by royalties from the tons of ironstone that passed under their land, plus rents from houses that they owned, (often built on land they had sold), so they were comfortably off. Yet from 1872, the year the Cleveland Ironstone Miners Association was born, they let their fields to the miners for their annual Gala. This was not a small undertaking; in May 1872 there were upwards of 7000 miners trampling over their land. It was a large and important Gala Day. A key speaker was Alexander Macdonald, then President of the NUM, who became the first MP to have started his working life as a miner. He spoke from the hay wagon that passed for a platform, demanding shorter hours, better pay, safer working conditions and the need to educate the young. Stephen Emmerson was also seated on the platform; he and his sister were active in their support of the Association, Stephen attending all meetings.
Until 1888, with very few exceptions, (and sometimes twice a year), Gala Days took place on Hollybush Farm. Stephen died in 1887 and from 1889 Hannah, in her late eighties, let others host the event. The miners made no secret of their gratitude towards the Emmersons, and this was demonstrated in a number of presentations made to Stephen and Hannah over the years. Hannah was given a gold watch, and Stephen an electroplated silver tea and coffee set. He was the subject of a portrait, paid for by the miners, and such was his popularity that it was possible to purchase a photograph of the portrait for the sum of six stamps. Each gift was accompanied by an eloquent address by the Association’s President, Joseph Toyn.
Engraved bottles belonging to the Emmersons
In 2016 I was shown two engraved spirit bottles, by Stephen’s namesake, yet another Emmerson descendent. The bottles are named, STEPHEN EMMERSON, and HANNAH EMMERSON. Each has the date 1886 and the location, SKELTON. Stephen’s bottle is for WHISKY, Hannah’s for BRANDY. Each has holly leaves within the circle formed by their names. To date I can find no record of how they came to be in their possession. My initial reaction was that they were yet another gift from the mining community, although the newspaper report of the Gala Day in early June 1886 has no mention of a presentation. Yet – I strongly suspect the miners were involved in some way.
The bottles are examples of a fairly short-lived folk art, glass engraving done by miners. These were men in need of an income who were incapacitated, perhaps unable to undertake heavy manual work due to injury or illness.The Beamish Museum has a small collection of this type of engraved glass, and sells a book dedicated to it, An Alarming Accident by John Brooks and William Cowen. The title stems from the fact that much of this glassware was produced whenever a pit disaster occurred, and is engraved with inscriptions outlining the event. For example, ‘Hetton Colliery Explosion 20.12.1860. 22 Lives Lost.’ ‘An Alarming Accident Occurred at Barrington Colliery. 13 July 1894.’ ‘Hartley Colliery Disaster. Jany 16 1862. 204 Lives Lost.’ Amongst collectors these were known as ‘Disaster Glasses’. The authors insist that the majority of this glassware was produced between 1860 and 1895, and its circulation was confined to the area surrounding the Durham coalfields.
There were other themes related to the glassware – events, commemorations – but these also were specific to the area. So, the Emmerson bottles continue to mystify. There are no examples of engraved bottles in An Alarming Accident. Plenty of bowls, tankards, glasses – but no bottles. So, they could be unique. They are in the right time frame, and stylistically comparable to the rest of the glassware, but their maker seems to have strayed a good distance from home. It’s possible that a
miner may have moved to the Cleveland area from County Durham, from coal to ironstone, and brought his skills with him. Another possibility is an itinerant ex-miner, mentioned by the authors of An Alarming Accident, who travelled round the East and South Coasts by boat and more than likely touted his wares at Gala Days. Could this be our bottle engraver, peripatetic rather than permanent?
What do the bottles tell us?
What do the bottles tell us about Hannah and Stephen? As well as the name, date and venue on each bottle, there are several images relating to the siblings.Occupying a large area of Stephen’s bottle is a line drawing of All Saints Church, Skelton-in-Cleveland. Consecrated in 1884 it was brand new, and signalled the growth and status of this previously rural village. Stephen’s family played a large role in the church community. His father, grandfather and generations before them had participated in services at the former All Saints, a much smaller church near to Skelton Castle. In fact, they had two named pews, and had been churchwardens. Our Stephen does not appear to have carried on this family tradition, but from the image on the bottle we must assume that the church was important to him. Was he a royalist? A large ceremonial crown of the kind worn at coronations is drawn on Stephen’s bottle. Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was held the following year, could this anticipate the event? Two flags are placed diagonally each side of the crown. Queen Victoria opened an Exhibition of Navigation, Commerce and Industry on the 11th May 1886, and the flags may well be naval flags. Stephen the proud Englishman? All farmers have a dog and Stephen is no exception, there is a seated dog on one side of the crown and a badly-drawn cat on the other.
Hannah’s bottle has different imagery. A large bush in a tub – could this be the Hollybush of her farm’s name? A well-executed heron and less well-drawn swans suggest the local pond where swans and herons can still be seen today. Skelton has a tradition of sword dancing, and enthusiasts still perform the dances. The final move of the Skelton Sword Dance is shown on Hannah’s bottle. In this move the dancers interweave their swords to form a star, which is held aloft.
What can we make of this imagery? Stephen is represented through church, crown and navy. A possible Brexiteer had he lived today, yet this is a man who went to every trade union meeting of the local ironstone miners, and offered his land for Gala Days. Hannah was not quite the sweet, little old lady suggested by her bottle. In 1880 she twice directed her farm hand to remove a fence, put there by the Skelton Castle bailiff. A fence that prevented the miners walking along a public footpath to Saltburn. Hannah and Stephen were a complex pair, let’s hope more sources come to light.
The bottles are not great art, but like the other Disaster glasses they are a window into the past. In this instance a virtually unknown craft practised by ex-miners, and the past of two Skelton-in- Cleveland farmers, supporters of working-class rights and loved by the local mining community. It has been a privilege to explore the lives of these two, and a bonus to know they were my ancestors.
References: Brooks, J. Cowan, W. An Alarming Accident. Or Every Glass Tells a Story. Tyne Bridge Publications. 1996.
Newspaper reports on Miners’ Galas and the Emmersons from British Newspaper Archive Online