Celebrating a Century of Glass Technology

Presenting Author:
David Martlew

article posted 6 Apr 2016

David Martlew

David Martlew is a glass technologist who after over forty years working in the flat glass industry is now retired and therefore free to pursue interests in the area of the history and heritage of glass and glassmaking technology. An early inspiration for this interest was provided by Victorian stained glass windows in which a certain choir boy found refuge from dull sermons. As a Lay Reader in the Church of England he is conscious of the importance of ecclesiastical stained glass windows, with their rich iconography, to the worshipping communities in churches of all denominations.

"To make much better glass ..."
AHG - SGT Joint Study Day

St Helens - Founded on Sand and Built of Glass
David Martlew
Glass Technologist

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.