A History of Glassmaking in London - 2nd Edition
This book, A History of Glassmaking in London, is the first ever to provide a complete account of London's glassmaking history from its earliest origins in Roman times to the present day. We all know that, even in this era of plastic, glass plays an essential role in all our daily activities from the moment you get up and switch on the light, radio or television to when you garage the car and go to bed. London, as one of the worlds first great cities, played a central role in all these activities.
It first began with glass imported from the Middle East. Then, as we learned to make our own, it became an expensive indulgence for the well-off. The invention of pressed glass brought domestic products to the general public at an affordable price. Machine mass-production finally made bottles, window glass, lamps and valves articles of common everyday use. The valve used by Marconi for his first radio transmission across the Atlantic was invented in North London as were those used by the BBC for their first radio and television programmes. Mosaic decorations for the Victoria and Albert museum were not just made by Salviati, albeit a professed Londoner. Even a common bottle of pop had its London associations.
Where was all this glass made? What do we know about London’s numerous glasshouses, who ran them, what they made, where they were located and what has happened to the sites today? The layout of London has hardly changed since the Great Fire of 1666. This has made possible the identification of most sites. Many have been visited by your author and recorded in pictures. Only a few are totally inaccessible today. Extensive research recorded in A History of Glassmaking in London casts a new light on London’s long history.
Glassmaking goes back into antiquity but its importance in London arose from the growing need for windows, both plain and decorated. Initially the glass was imported. Between the 7th and 14th centuries both window glass and tableware began to be made in England but it was a further 200 years before attempts were made to set up glassmaking as a commercial enterprise around London. Glaziers and glass painters arrived to exploit the opportunities offered by this rich and ever-expanding city. Then the change from wood-fired furnaces to coal firing brought an increasing body of glass makers from the surrounding countryside into London itself where coal could be brought in by boat up the river Thames.
Initially, the new coal-fired industry was controlled by one man, Sir Robert Mansell, but with the Restoration London’s entrepreneurs, who could now watch active glassmaking at sites around the City, were attracted to its potential for new investment. With notable exceptions the City itself, with the ever present risk of fire, was too crowded for such an industry. But, following the abolition of the monasteries and royal annexation of religious land, numerous well-built sites around London became available.
The Southwark Thames-side, between London and Blackfriars, once religious property, became a major centre of development. On the north side of the river glassmaking developed in disused monasteries on both sides of the city. The old Savoy palace became notable for the invention of English lead crystal glass and ensured the memory of one such entrepreneur, George Ravenscroft and his Italian glassmaker, John Baptista da Costa. Overall, the industry stretched from Woolwich and Ratcliffe in the east to Vauxhall and Whitefriars in the west, encompassing more than 30 factories.
As the 19th century dawned high prices in overcrowded London caused many manufacturers either to close or move elsewhere. Department stores and head offices took their place. But the demand for bottles in glass rather than pottery, the needs of the new National Health Service for vials and syringes and the exploitation of gas and electricity for both commercial and domestic use, brought a wave of new enterprises to London's periphery.
Glassmaking has always been a hazardous business. It was often restricted to only one family. Financial gain led to its takeover by consortia, initially small or local groups, but progressively becoming international. Successful glasshouses were bought out, closed and their facilities moved elsewhere, often abroad - today only one traditional family-run glasshouse exists in sprawling London. Their place has been taken by many small Studio Glassmakers using the traditional methods of hand working to supply both a discriminating public and the occasional commercial innovation or special requirement. It is their hands that hold the future for glassmaking in London.