Your glass­mak­ing ancestors braved the blaz­ing heat of the fur­nace to cre­ate things of beauty, says Sue Wilkes

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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.

Closed pro­fes­sion

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.

Harsh con­di­tions

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.

Glass ar­chives

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 ( 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. na­tion­ 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 ( 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 (

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

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