"To make much better glass ..."
AHG - SGT Joint Study Day
St Helens - Founded on Sand and Built of Glass
St Helens is a town born of the Industrial Revolution. At the beginning of the 18th Century
there were four "townships"; Eccleston, Windle, Sutton and Parr - predominantly rural communities
clustered round the Chapel of Saint Ellen. These townships were sitting on the South
Lancashire Coal Field, where the coal was good and on top of it were seams of sand and clay.
Glassmakers came early in the 18th Century, attracted from nearby Warrington by these
essential resources. But it was the plate glass makers, with their perilous and gargantuan
investment, who were to trouble the complacency of the European economies.
Industrial espionage brought the French technology to St Helens, but it proved to be a
dramatic failure. Bankruptcy was staved off by good English innovation, thus establishing
in this smokey and grimy town a centuries-long dedication to the task of making much better glass.
Bottlemakers and Flint Glass flourished too, but it was the advent of a particular window
glass concern during the reign of George III which was to make the town famous the world over.
The St Helens Crown Glass Company was initially a speculative investment by a group of
local landowners, but tax fraud catapulted a certain Mr Pilkington into the firm. As ever,
it was the benign banker who kept the company going whilst the technology was under development.
Just as well, because in the wake of the Great Exhibition glass melting technology took off
within the perview of the Pilkingtons. Revolutionary new furnace developments made
St Helens flat glass profitable at a time when the rest of the UK glass industry was in serious
decline. Others went bankrupt: the Pilkingtons built a sumptuous mansion near leafy Crank
As the century turned and the shadows of war gathered, the bottlemakers broke through the
barriers and embraced bottle-making machines - though not everyone was enraptured by them!
Flat glass, though, grew apace as the inventive Windle Will brought plate glass to a pre-eminent
position, and his company took the lead in the profitable exploitation of new technology. Even
the common window glass process began to be mechanised, with great towers pulling enormous
cylinders to dizzying heights. The stage was set for British Glass Techology to stand up and be counted.