MY ANCESTOR WAS A... GLASSMAKER
Your glassmaking ancestors braved the blazing heat of the furnace to create things of beauty, says Sue Wilkes
Sue Wilkes investigates the skilful work of our glassmaking forebears
Tyneside glass dominated the industry in Britain for over two centuries
Glass is made by heating sand, limestone and soda ash to extremely high temperatures so, up until the 17th century, glass-making was concentrated in forest districts where fuel was plentiful. After James I banned the use of wood as fuel for furnaces (to conserve England’s forests) north-east England became a major glass-making centre, owing to the vast Durham and Northumberland coalfields. Tyneside glass dominated the industry in Britain for over two centuries. Glass was also made in Lancashire, London, the West Country, Yorkshire, Scotland and northern Ireland.
Glass was manufactured in ‘ houses’: huge brick cones 80-100 feet high, and from 50- 60 feet in diameter at the bottom. These towering cones were major landmarks in the glass-making districts. Molten glass (‘metal’) is incredibly versatile. The glassblower – a master craftsman – used a blowpipe to blow the metal into a globular mass. Using different techniques, he created items such as bottles, cheap window glass and more complex pieces.
Boys started out as apprentices at the age of eight or nine (in northern Ireland, as young as seven). They ‘gathered’ the metal in the furnace onto the end of the blowpipe. The boys also assisted the blower as he worked the metal into the correct shape.
Formerly, glass-blowers tried to limit the numbers entering the trade to keep wages high. Fathers passed their skills on to their sons and newcomers were discouraged. But during the 1840s demand for workers soared after the excise duty on glass was lifted and skilled hands were scarce. Glass-making firms recruited local lads as apprentices to fill the gap. The boys were ‘out-door’ apprentices who lived at home, hired and paid by the owners of the glass-houses.
People earned good wages in this highly skilled occupation. In the early 1840s, Birmingham glass-makers earned 25s to 45s per week. Children under the age of 13 earned from 3s to 5s, and 9s to 10s when older. At the Newcastle Broad and Crown Glass Works, apprentices were allowed to keep half their earnings as spending money. The other half was saved for them until the end of their apprenticeship, when they were given a lump sum.
Young boys also worked in the glass cutting, grinding and polishing rooms. The ‘putty-powder’ used when glass-cutting contained lead (which is poisonous) and cuts and burns were common. Girls were not usually employed in the furnace areas, but they were employed to wash the finished glass, or worked in the polishing rooms at plate glass firms such as Cookson’s in Newcastle.
Furnace work was blisteringly hot, tiring and unhealthy. At Mr Rice Harris’s Birmingham glass works the temperature reached 200°F (over 93°C) near the furnace mouth. At the Nailsea Crown Glass works, temperatures reached 330°F (over 165°C). The workers’ clothing was often scorched as they toiled.
Workers’ shift times depended on the type of glass being made. Crown, flint and bottle glass required different furnace cycles or ‘ journeys’. At Pilkington’s, each furnace had a ‘set’ or ‘chair’ of four blowers plus their four gatherers. Three pairs worked while the remaining blower and gatherer rested. Crown glass workers did 12-hour shifts, while glass bottle-makers did five 12-hour shifts per week.
In 1861, over 13,800 people worked in the glass industry in England and Wales. Over one-quarter of these were under 20 years old. Nine-year-old Johnnie Mathers, who earned 3s 6d per week at James Hartley’s Sunderland firm, said: “We are called [to work] at any hour of the day or night… when I am off working sometimes I am sleeping and in bed and sometimes I get a play.” The Factory Act Extension Act (1867) banned boys under the age of 12 from melting glass in the furnace.
By this date, new designs for glass-houses improved ventilation for the workers. Instead of the old ‘cones’, a large shed was constructed around a central chimney, which vented the furnace smoke and made working conditions more pleasant.
Large pieces of glass for windows and mirrors were made by ‘casting’. In the late 18th century, skilled workers were imported from France (where this process was invented) to help perfect the casting technique here.
Molten glass straight from the furnace was poured from a ladle onto a huge casting table, rolled flat (by hand or by steam engine), then ground and polished to a perfect finish. The huge hall for casting plate glass at Ravenhead in Lancashire (1776) was a wonder of the age. Industrial glassmaking really came of age when Chance Bros of Birmingham manufactured the staggering 900,000 square foot of glass needed to construct the Crystal Palace, home to the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Unlike other industries, glass workers had weekends off. Employers like Chance Bros and Pilkington also had schools for their child workers. They also organised social activities like sports, clubs and works outings. Pension schemes, provident funds and dispensaries cared for workers and their families.
When checking the censuses for glass workers, remember that because they worked long shifts, they may have been at work on census night. Trade directories listing glassmaking firms are on the University of Leicester website ( bit.ly/ LE directories). County record offices keep copies and some genealogy websites have their own online collections.
Search The National Archives Discovery catalogue to locate business archives and family papers ( discovery. nationalarchives.gov.uk). Look for wage books, minutes, accounts, property records, cash books apprenticeship indentures, and so on. For example, Sandwell Community History and Archives Service holds the records for Chance Brothers Ltd ( bit.ly/ chancebros).
The Modern Records Centre in Warwick holds annual reports for the National Union of Flint Glass Workers 1948–1972; quarterly reports of one of its predecessor bodies, the National Flint Glass Workers’ Friendly Society (Britain and Ireland) 1921–1946; and copies of the Flint Glass Makers’ Magazine 1850–1902, which included membership rolls by branch ( bit.ly/modernrecords).
See also Glassmakers of Stourbridge and Dudley 1612– 2002 by Jason Ellis, ( Xlibris, 2003); The Labour Aristocracy Revisited: Victorian Flint Glassmakers 1850– 80 by Takao Matsumura (Manchester University Press, 1983); and The Scottish Glass Industry 1610–1750 by Jill Turnbull (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph, 2011). Sue Wilkes is an author who specialises in family, social and industrial history
Unlike other industries, glass workers had weekends off
A craftsman working on a glass ornament
A 20th century glassblower at work