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The Story of Stourbridge Glass

A photograph of Wordsley in c1900
A view of Wordsley, c1900, where most of the production took place

 

Stretching from Stourbridge in the south to Dudley in the north, this area was a major glassmaking centre for 375 years. Not only was it the lifeblood of the community, but it was also a substantial contributor to Britain's manufacturing strength and national wealth. 

Print by Thomas Rowlandson showing Dr Syntax in the Glasshouse, c1790
'Dr Syntax in the Glass-House', T Rowlandson, c1790

 

1. The story begins

The industry was established at the beginning of the 17th century by glassmakers from Lorraine in north-eastern France, who were attracted to the area by the rich natural resources. The availability of coal for fuel and fireclay for making furnaces and melting pots made this area a perfect  location for glass making. Colemans Glasshouse, Lye, was probably the first glasshouse in the district, constructed in the early 1600s. At first the glasshouses produced window glass and bottles, it was not until the end of the 17th century that the glasshouses began to make the lead glass tableware for which the area is now famous. 

The Origin of Painting cameo vase carved by George Woodall
'The Origin of Painting' by George Woodall, 1887

 

3. Reaching the pinnacle

The industry grew and evolved for the next 275 years and glass from Wordsley, Amblecote and Brierley Hill is recognised as amongst the finest in the world and has been used countless times as gifts for royalty and visiting Dignitaries. Its golden age was the Victorian period when firms introduced a dazzling array of cameo, coloured glass and crystal that equalled the best in the world.

In the decades following World War Two, the fortunes of the glass industry slowly declined. Failure to modernise, foreign competition and changing tastes all contributed, not that the industry would agree there were any issues. The cones also disappeared from the landscape. This was a not a reflection of declining fortunes. Technological developments overtook them in the 1850s and industry is not sentimental. They were difficult to maintain, took up space and if a company had no use for it, why not demolish it? However, it was symbolic that one of the traditional sights of glassmaking were disappearing.      

'View of Dudley from Easey Hill' engraving by T Sanders, 1775
'View of Dudley from Easey Hill', T Sanders, 1775

 

2. Changes in the landscape

It was also towards the end of the 17th century that a new structure appeared in the area, the distinctive cone shaped glasshouse that would dominate the landscape. Cones were the next step in glass making technology. Earlier glasshouses were simple structures that protected the furnace and glass makers from the weather. The new design transformed the glasshouse into a giant chimney. It still sheltered the furnace and workers, but it also sucked air through the furnaces. The flow of air increased the temperature. Many were built across Britain and to a lesser extent in Europe. The best surviving example is the Red House Glass Cone in Wordsley.

A cameo, drill engraved, vase by Helen Millard
'Fish Swirl' by Helen Millard, 2008

 

4. The next chapter

Unfortunately the final decades of the 20th century saw the loss of the four major companies. In 1990 Thomas Webb and Sons closed and in 1995 Webb Corbett was closed by Royal Doulton. Royal Brierley Crystal went bankrupt and closed in 2000. A new works opened in 2002, Dartington Crystal acquired the company in 2006, but closed the works in 2007. In November 2001 the closure of Stuart Crystal was announced by the parent company Waterford Wedgwood, with the loss of 220 jobs. 

Today there are a handful of glassworks that remain in the area. Two of the the surviving factories specialise in cut crystal: Tudor Crystal and Brierley Hill Crystal. Contact them to enquire about visiting and watching the glassmakers at work. As well as these crystal companies, the Stourbridge glass industry retains some small traditional cut glass manufacturers. Plowden & Thompson, specialists in coloured and scientific glass, is the only glass factory still operating in an original glass cone site. The tradition of coloured glass is kept alive by a growing number of small glassmaking studios.