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Glass making in Bilston

The Bilston glass making referred to here was discovered by Francesca Cambridge in conversation with the curator of the Broadfield House Glass Museum. This lead was pursued by Catherine Badley, who examined local trade directories and gathered information from Francis Buckley's article "Notes on the Glasshouses of Stourbridge, 1700 - 1830" in the Journal of the Society of Glass Technology, Vol. XI, 1927, pp. 106-123. Frank Sharman grabbed the idea and the research and wrote this article. He alone is to blame for the interpretation given here.

With the exception of The British Heat Resisting Glass Co. Ltd., who produced "Phoenix" ovenproof glass ware and scientific glass in Loxdale Road, Bilston, in the second half of the twentieth century, it was widely assumed that glass had not been produced in Bilston and Bradley. A statement by G. T. Lawley, in his History of Bilston, that a large glasshouse was erected at Bradley in 1674, which soon became disused and was dismantled in 1790, had been overlooked. Lawley, as usual, quoted no authority for his statement so, apart from his further assertion that Lord Monbodo was one of the partners, we know nothing further about this enterprise. As the assertion of rapid disuse and demolition many years later, do not tie up with the evidence of glass making considered here, it seems safe to suggest that this glassworks, assuming it existed at all, had no connection with the later enterprise.

The record of that later enterprise starts with an advertisement in the Birmingham Gazette on 11th May 1761, in which there is offered "to be let and entered upon immediately, the new glasshouse at Glassborough, which is now at work near Bilstone ... together with several houses for workmen to live in".

Buckley says that this glasshouse was erected on land leased from Thomas Hoo. He gives no authority for that assertion. The Hoo family were certainly large landowners in the area. But exactly who Thomas Hoo was is not known. The last Hoo to live in Bilston seems to have been Serjeant John Hoo, who died in 1719 (though his wife continued to live there for some years more). He had no children and his heir was John Hoo of Barr.

Buckley goes on to say that "glass making was probably carried on at Bilston many years before 1761. The place name alone suggests that; and "the new glasshouse" ... suggests an earlier establishment". The alleged activities of Lord Monbodo may give some credence to Buckley's proposition, though he seems to have been unaware of them. But the argument based on the name "Glassborough", which is otherwise unknown, is quite unconvincing. It looks like an invented name, of the sort people in the eighteenth century were fond of; it is a public relations name, intended to give some importance to what was, most likely, a newly built glass works and its associated housing.

The advert invites its readers to "enquire at the said glasshouse or of Mr. John Florry of Birmingham, one of the present partners, who will be glad to hold a share in the said works." Buckley refers to this as one of several attempts made to let or sell the glass house. On the face of this advert it appears that Florry and Partners were prepared to sell but were also prepared to become partners with a new comer. This suggests a need for more capital, rather than a desperate attempt to sell. Florry and his partners were entrepreneurs, with a wide variety of interests and investments, not committed glass makers.

The advertisement concludes: "There is now a good set of workmen at the said house for making window glass and bottles". Window glass and bottles were probably as far as their production ever got: they probably never attempted the finer or more artistic reaches of glass production.

In March 1762 advertisements appeared in the Birmingham Gazette and the London Evening Post: "To be sold or let on 12th April next, the glass house at Glassborough &c.. NB. There is now about 100 pots on the spot, and a new furnace, all fit for immediate use; also all materials for making window glass and bottles".

There is no mention of any vendor taking a share and this looks much more like a genuine attempt at an outright sale. The reference to "about 100 pots" seems to indicate production on quite a large scale.

In March 1763 advertisements in the Birmingham Gazette and in the Gloucester Journal say: "To be sold, the 12th July next, the glass houses at Glassborough, within three miles of Wolverhampton. All the premises are let under a lease of which about 20 years are unexpired. Window glass and bottles".

This seems to be the sale of the freehold, subject to a lease. (Whilst it may be a sale of a head lease subject to a sublease, this is very unlikely - it should have been indicated in the advertisement). The likelihood is that the advertisement of the previous year had been successful and someone had taken a 20 year lease of the glasshouse. Who the lease was to is not known but it could have been to Florry and his partners or some of them.

But then in 1765 an advertisement in the Birmingham Gazette says: "To be sold or let, the glasshouse at Glassborough &c. All which premises are held by lease by Thomas Hoo Esq, for a term of years yet to come and unexpired". This is a pretty unfathomable announcement. Presumably the "etcetera" refers not to the district around Glassborough but to the workmen's housing and any other property held with the glasshouse itself. It is then not at all clear whether what is meant is that Thomas Hoo holds a lease of the premises or that Thomas Hoo owns the premises and has leased them to the advertisers who are trying to sell their lease. (This advert alone cannot justify Buckley's unqualified assertion that the ground was leased from Thomas Hoo).

At this point it does seem that John Florry was in some financial difficulties for in the London Gazette of 1766 it is recorded that "John Florry of Birmingham, Merchant" had been adjudged bankrupt on the 18th January 1766 but that he had now, 20th May 1766, been discharged. Clearly he had come to some arrangement with his creditors or paid them off somehow but it seems this did not involve the sale of all his property. For we find in the Birmingham Gazette in 1774 that he still owns (or leases?) the glasshouse. The advertisement reads: "Wanted, a partner in a manufactory of broad glass and bottles, now entering upon in a glasshouse lately erected by Mr. John Florry, and now under lease from him, together with an advantageous contract for coal". (Broad glass was, basically, window glass). In 1761 the glasshouse had been described as "the new glasshouse". Now, fifteen years later, it is described as "lately erected". This probably represents an advertiser's optimism rather than a rebuilding of the glasshouse. Note also that the glasshouse is said to be under lease from John Florry and that there is no mention of a head lease from Thomas Hoo or anyone else. If the lease is the same one as seems to have been entered into in about 1762, the tenant who was actually operating the glassworks still had about 6 years of his lease left.

The advertisement also contains no reference to any partners or anyone else being interested in the sale. But the advert ends by saying: "Further particulars by leaving a line with S. Aris, directed HL and Company". This is the eighteenth century equivalent of a box number and shows that Florry is closely associated with, and may be a partner in, H. Loxdale & Co., which is the company most likely to be identified with "HL".   It would not be at all unusual at the time for an entrepreneur to be in several different partnerships and also trading on his own account in several different ventures.

This reference to Loxdale is tantalising as the next mention we have of the glass works is a notice of 1810 in the London Gazette: "Notice is hereby given that the partnership between Thomas Loxdale and George Elwell Jackson, as flint glass manufacturers, carried on at Bilstone, in the county of Stafford, under the firm of Loxdale and Jackson, was this day [dissolved] by mutual consent". Another London Gazette notice of 1811 refers to the dissolution, by consent, of a partnership between Thomas Loxdale, Joseph Loxdale and George Elwell Jackson, Bankers, with the firm name of Loxdale, Loxdale & Co.; the firm continued under the same name but with only Thomas and Joseph Loxdale as partners.

It seems from all this that the Loxdales were entrepreneurs, trading under the usual variety of names and partnerships, and that one of their enterprises was glass making. It is probable that they had acquired Florry's premises, either by lease or purchase, and possible that they had done so either round about 1774 when Florry advertised using their address; or in or about 1782 when the 20 years lease expired.

There is no further reference to glass works in Bilston. It is not known whether glass making had actually stopped in 1810 or whether it carried on after that. But there is no reference to glass making in Bilston in any of the available trade directories from 1860.

The outstanding question is: where were these glass works?

The 1901 Ordnance Survey map shows part of Bilston in the top left corner and part of Bradley in the bottom left corner.  Loxdale Road runs across the map, crossing the canal at Pothouse Bridge.  The ground rises steeply towards Bradley and the canal is cut into the slope just below the summit.

1901 O.S. Map

One suggestion is that the works were at Pothouse Bridge, Bradley. In favour of this is the name "Pothouse" and the fact that the road which runs from Oxford Street to that bridge is called Loxdale Road. The date of that road and the origin of its name are not known but the connections seems too close to be merely coincidental. It suggests that the Loxdales had major holdings around here.

Pothouse Bridge
Pothouse Bridge as it is today.  Despite appearances a main road crosses the bridge and all the land around is developed.

The canal here seems to have opened in about May 1770 and work on it would have started some time before. But wherever the glass works were they were built in or before 1761 and so were in existence before the canal, and any bridges over, it were made.

There is some suggestion that the glass works may have been taken over and used as a pottery. Ivor Noel-Hume has confirmed, from his own experience as an historical archaeologist, that it is not unknown for the same kiln to be adapted to both purposes. Unfortunately the location of Bilston potteries at this time is not precisely known but there is a reference to a pottery at Pothouse Bridge in 1833.

On the other hand Reg Aston has drawn attention to another canal bridge, not far from Pothouse Bridge and still in Bradley, called Glasshouse Bridge.  This names seems directly associated with glassworks rather than Pothouse Bridge's looser connection.  Reg has also found an account of the trial of the murderer Abel Smith which gives the route of his drunken walk from the Greyhound and Punchbowl.  This route can still be followed to the point where Smith committed the murder.  That point is Glasshouse Bridge and the contemporary account says that he did the deed in the ruins of the old glasshouse.  

None of the information we have is more precise than "Bilstone" and "within three miles of Wolverhampton". None of the advertisements refers to Bradley. Three miles from Queen Square, Wolverhampton, gets one to a point a few hundred yards along Oxford Street, Bilston, somewhat before Loxdale Road. One has to allow for an advertiser's enthusiasm and a measurement from somewhere on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, to get to Bradley; but it is near enough for either Pothouse or Glasshouse Bridge. At the time it would not be unlikely for the areas of Upper and Lower Bradley to be referred to as Bilston, a much bigger and better known place.

There is also the possibility that there was more than one glass works, either at the same time or at different times, either under the same ownership or different ownerships. There is nothing in the facts we have to counter this possibility and some hint in its favour in the fact that the name Glassborough disappears in later years.

But the probability remains that there was but one glass works and that it was almost certainly at Glasshouse Birdge. It was built around 1761 and continued to at least 1810.  It is reasonable to refer to the works as John Florry's and, later, as Loxdale. In all probability it only ever made bottles and window glass or similar utilitarian items and never ventured on anything more artistic. But no one has ever identified a piece of this Bilston glass.  The ground at both bridges has been heavily disturbed by the building of the canal and by later developments of various sorts.  Nevertheless a trial archaeological trench across the Glasshouse Bridge site would be interesting.

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