The Industry & Railways of the South West Black Country




Brierley Hill Glass Works.

In the Brierley Hill Glass Works of Messrs. Stevens and Williams will be found well exemplified all that has contributed to making Stourbridge Glass famous the world over. For purity and lustre, variety of form, and artistic embellishment, glass stands unrivalled among industrial art products, and it might almost in the dark ages, have been put down to necromancy that mere sand and red lead and potash, which form the principal ingredients of flint glass, are transformable into the beautiful articles one sees in Messrs. Stevens and Williams's show rooms.

It is parallel to the evolution of the bright butterfly from the chrysalis, but instead of natural development there has been the alchemy of patient industry, expert technical skill, and applied art, to secure the triumphs secured in the manufacture of glass. That they are triumphs goes without saying, especially when it is remembered how brittle is the material that has to be treated. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever," is a common-place saying, but in the case of glass the "forever" is subject to qualifications, and mischances in the process of manufacture or decoration cannot be left out of mind.

The works of Messrs. Stevens and Williams, which are in convenient proximity to Brierley Hill railway station, and are connected with the Great Western line by a siding, are some six acres in area, and, as will be seen from the accompanying illustration, comprise a series of buildings for the storage of materials, the manufacture of glass itself, and ranges of shopping for engraving, cutting, etching, and other kinds of decoration, together with warehouses, offices and showrooms.

The first glasshouses in the district were built cone-shaped, and the first glasshouse of this firm was of that form; this was superseded by the modern shaped structures, two of which are predominant in the contour of the works. Before speaking of what goes on within them, it maybe recorded that the original business of the firm dates back to 1766, when Richard Honeybourne founded it. Later on the business was carried on in the name of Honeybourne and Batson. Messrs. Silvers, Mills and Stevens subsequently took to it, an then, as years went on, the trading name became Silvers and Stevens, and lastly Stevens and Williams. This last title it has held since 1846, when Mr. William Stevens and Mr. Samuel Cox Williams acquired it. The latter gentleman became the sole proprietor in 1878, and his son Mr. Joseph Silvers Williams succeeded him on his death, in 1889. Under the conduct and control of Mr. J. Silvers Williams, the reputation of the firm abroad as well as at home, has widely extended and its connection with the markets of the world is well upheld, much as heavy tariffs tell at the present time against English producers. Mr. Hubert S. Williams, we may remark, is now associated with the business which his father controls.

Before saying anything of the process of manufacture, the facts may be noted that the pots used for the melting of glass are made of Stourbridge clay of exceptional quality, and that it is to the discovery of this clay by some wandering refugees from the Continent, that the introduction of the glass trade into the Stourbridge districts is attributed.

In Queen Elizabeth's reign some of the persecuted Huguenots fled to England for shelter found their way too this neighbourhood, and the story goes, while digging holes for their tent poles, they noticed clay of similar quality to that which they knew was used in their own country for making glass-house pots. There may have been some glass making on a small scale in England before this, but whether there was or not, this existence of fire clay in the neighbourhood seems to have settled the question of the glass trade finding a firm settlement in the district. Hungary Hill, near the site of the old Junction Station at Stourbridge, is credited with being the locality where the Stourbridge glass trade had its beginning, but harking back to Messrs. Stevens and Williams works, we will assume the pots for receiving the raw material are in their orthodox place in the glasshouse, and that preparations are going on in a mixing room for supplying them with the ingredients needful for producing glass.

For flint glass, these consisted of white sand from Fontainebleau, of red lead, and carbonate of potash, to which saltpetre and oxide of manganese are sparingly added, and here we have the "batch," as it is called before it undergoes the ordeal of melting. This is no quick process, and it takes about forty-eight hours to bring the batch up to the needful point for the glass maker to attack it. In these forty-eight hours all the bubbles and impurities of the metal are got rid of, and it is left clear and ductile for the glass maker to compel it to his will.

The pots first spoken of have a life of eight or ten months. Arsenic is used sometimes for the purpose of purifying the metal, and a number of chemicals are made of service for securing the beautiful colours and tints that are often seen in the finished article. The precious metals themselves are put under the yoke by the glass maker, and gold yields the rich ruby colour that is met with. Oxides of cobalt and of copper gives different shades of blue, manganese produces a purple, iron is turned to account for green and yellow, and outside of these broadly constructed colours, many compounds are used for the gamuts of tints and iridescences with which the glass manufacturer has added to his armoury for providing things beautiful and novel. Chemical knowledge, it will be realised, has thus become one of the helpmates of the trade in the present day, when new effects in colouring as well as design and decoration are sought.

Those who have not penetrated into a glasshouse can hardly imagine the scene which its interior presents. A dim religious light prevails, with the strong set-off of the glare from the eye of the pots of molten metal, and the ends of the steel rods on which sufficient glass is withdrawn from time to time for the workmen to operate on. The tools used in themselves of the simplest kind, and the tips of viscid metal on the steel rods are quickly blown and wrought into the shape of goblets, wine decanters, or what ever class of goods the glass blower may have to produce.

It would be too technical to detail how all the legerdemain of production goes on with the regularity of clockwork, but after the glass makers part is fulfilled, the brittle article he has made would stand little of the ups and downs of life but for being first annealed. This is effected in the lear, a kind of oven with a high temperature, one end of which gradually tapers off into a state of coolness. The glass slowly progresses through this lear, and in the process acquires a consistency sufficient for the ordinary wear and tear of glass. Were one glass is cased with glass of another colour, more trouble has to be taken with the annealing, but in either case the glass is ready after the annealing, for cut or otherwise decorated.

In the cutting shop, machinery comes into play, and their are pulleys worked from a long shaft which turn the lathes and the wheels that the cutter uses. An iron wheel, on which sand and water drops, bites into the surface of the glass and has to be cut, and the pattern is left dug the requisite depth into the body of the glass. After the iron wheel has done its work, a stone one takes up the business, and smooths away the roughness the iron has left, this being in turn being in turn being followed by a wooden one which, aided by rotten stone and putty powder gives the glass a brilliant surface.

If the glass has to be engraved, that is done with the aid of a small lathe and of copper wheels of varying size, according to the nature of the work. The delicacy of the effects the engraver secures can hardly be too highly spoken of, and all round the embellishment of glass in the present days seems to be carried to the highest degree of perfection.

The show rooms of Messrs. Stevens and Williams bear eloquent witness to their perfection of the art of glass making and glass decorating, and there seems no limit to the various forms that this takes. From the first glance at the array of charming and beautiful articles that meet the eye, one finds that here is an actual embarras de richesses, something to puzzle the mind as to which is deserving of most admiration.

The cameo glass that has now become familiar to the public holds, however, no second rank among the artistic products of a glass works. This glass consists of two or more layers of a different coloured glass, and after the rough outline of the design to be worked out is put on the external layer, the engravers wheel grinds away part of the surface, and then comes the patient hand work of the hand work of the cameo engraver for weeks and months, perhaps, in patiently delving out the particles of glass that have to be removed to secure the desired result. Most beautiful works of art are now produced by this process. It was the reproduction of the Portland Vase by the late Mr. Northwood that gave to the modern glass trade the secret of this ancient cameo work, of which the Portland Vase is one of the few surviving examples. That celebrated vase once was dashed to pieces by a maniac, but was happily put together again, and can still be seen in the British Museum. Mr. Northwood, we may remark, was associated with the firm of Messrs. Stevens and Williams for many years, and he will long be remembered not only for practically rediscovering the lost art of cameo engraving in the glass trade, but for his conspicuous abilities generally in this industry. The plaque of Venus instructing Cupid, which took a gold medal at Edinburgh, is an exquisite example of the fine cameo work this firm produces.

Etching, gilding, enamelling and other kinds of ornamentation are effectively used in the decoration of glass, as the show rooms prove. Here we must content ourselves with the noting some few of these classes of decoration, as we come across them haphazard. There is, for instance, the Matsunokee style taken from the Japanese, were flowers and leaves are laid on differently coloured grounds with pretty effects. Filigree glass is a reminder of the Venetian glass that has been famous for centuries. There is a network produced of the finest filaments of glass, and the silk may find itself challenged in the immense yardage of vitreous threads these networks present. Then we come upon so-called grotesque flower vases, for which there was a great demand at one time, and which illustrate some of the infinite forms of fancy glass.

Intaglio glass is a style Messrs. Stevens and Williams introduced some twelve years ago. It is distinguished by a freer style of cutting than that which is ordinarily seen. In the usual cut glass flowers and leaves cannot be introduced, but they can in this intaglio glass, in which the curves of nature can be given. The effect is most happy, and the intaglio glass, it is not surprising to hear, is in very great demand. As to the conventional cut glass of the type known and admired of all men, the examples to be seen in the show room uphold to perfection the qualities of which Stourbridge flint glass is unrivalled. Its brilliancy and prismatic and other effects cannot be seen without being admired, and the cutting which is executed with so much technical skill provides dazzling results. Fashion changes in glass as in other things, but no change of fashion can ever rob the richly-cut glass referred to of its brilliancy and beauty, and what ever other styles of decoration comes in, it can never fail to hold its own.

Rock crystal is another kind of glass which insists on admiration. Messrs. Stevens and Williams make a special feature of this rock crystal glass, which is very beautiful in style. It is really an imitation of the rock crystal or quartz which is practically a natural glass. It has been hewn out in a quaint and curious shapes by the Chinese, and a number of examples can be seen in the museums of England and France, notably in the British Museum and in the Louvre at Paris. Glass of the purest make is required for it, and the largest pieces when completed run to a very high figure in price. This kind of glass is used for bowels, decanters, and full table services. It is peculierly suited for massive pieces, but besides use for these, there is also a lighter description of rock crystal which is also very effective.

It should be remembered, too, that the firm have a specialist department for electrical and incandescent glass shades. They have some beautiful specimens of etched shades, etching being a very effective method for glass decoration generally, and adding to the attractiveness of many classes of goods in the present day. Gold, we have mentioned is used in the production of ruby coloured glass, but besides this it is also used in some cases for external decoration. Beauty unadorned is said to be adorned the most, and the effect of flashing brilliant flint glass, richly cut, requires no enhancement, such as gold decoration may give it. But still tastes differ, and all tastes have to catered for in the glass warehouse as well as elsewhere. As gold comes in such quantities from Australia, it is perhaps not surprising to find some special articles embellished with gold sent to the Australian market at the present time of celebration of the Federation. Portraits of the late Queen and the Duke and Duchess of York (who, it will be remembered, visited Australia at the time), hand of Lord Hopetoun and Sir Henry Parker form part of the decoration.

In spite of the German import duties, English glass is not altogether shut out of the fatherland, and some rock glass that the Teutons take are good proof that they can be well served in that particular, and indeed in others as well. One singularity of the wine glasses that are sent out to Germany is that the richer the wine the taller the wine glass used for drinking it from.

Like the Germans, the Americans come to the English market for glass of superior make and style, though they are now manufacturers on a large scale themselves, helped as they are by their high tariff on goods sent from this side. The American connoisseur however looks at the merits of the article rather than the price, and from this point of view, some stiff import duties have no effect. But for most markets price does come in as an all important factor, and Messrs. Stevens and Williams are moving with the times in catering for the make of glass so largely consumed at hotels, clubs, restaurant, and other establishments of the kind. Glass of this cheaper make finds its way in very considerable quantities to the colonial as well as the home markets. While novelty is being ever sought in the productions of the firm - and the show rooms proved how successfully this is done - some glass of the old school has still a place side by side with the latest successes and designs, and some decanters of a style in vogue a century ago are yet made. A fact that some 30,000 patterns have been produced by the firm shows how far-reaching have been their efforts to meet the demands of a public always crying out for something new. Royalty is not always so exacting as Royalties subjects in their particular, for some of the services of glass for the Royal table are almost meagre in their ornamentation compared with that obtains in other cases.

It would require a long descriptive catalogue indeed of a restricted article to convey adequately an idea of the infinite variety and beauty of the products of the firm. Table services and decorations, epergnes, flower vases, bowels, plaques, toilet sets and accessories, table lamps, and specimens of all kinds of articles manufactured in glass are set out in the show rooms, and form what is not only a brilliant display of what an individual firm can do, but a striking proof of the achievements of an important but, unfortunately, a too restricted national industry.

Besides the show rooms at Brierley Hill, Messrs.. Stevens and Williams have show rooms at 47, Holborn Viaduct, E.C.; 12, Barklay Street, New York (Davison Bros.); at 84, Admiralitat Strasse, Hamburg (where Messrs. Babst and Martens represent them); and at their Australian Agency, 193, Clarence Street, Sydney, of which Messrs. J. Shorter and Company have the charge.

© Tom Cockeram 1998