Antique Bristol Blue Glass – a Brief History

Antique Bristol Blue Glass – a Brief History

In 1651 the Iron Masters in the Forest of Dean, faced with problems in making the post in which they smelted their ore, called in an Ingenious Glass-Maker Master Edward Dagney, an Italian then living in Bristol. Dagney was probably one of the Dagnia family did not continue working in Bristol, and Edward’s sons, Onesiphorous, and then to Tyneside.

There are earlier references to glassworkers in Bristol, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, for example, but with no precise indication of the nature of their trade. Glaziers feature in the 16th century apprentices books, which is not surprising, since the demand for window glass for ecclesiastical use and, when the standard of living improved, for domestic purposes, was one of the main stimulants of they early native glass industry.

It was at the turn of the 17th century, however, that definitive evidence of the size and nature of the Bristol glass industry appeared. In 1969 John Houghton, in one of his letters on husbandry and trade, listed the glass houses in England and Wales. He recorded that ‘In and about Bristol’ there were five making bottles, one making bottles and window glass, and three making flint glass and ordinary glass. It was, outside London, the largest concentration of glasshouses.

What had attracted the glassmakers to Bristol? Until the first part of the 17thcentury glassmakers used wood to fire the furnaces in which they melted their glass. In 1615, however in the face of an increasing demand for a decreasing commodity, the use of wood was forbidden to several industries, including that of glassmaking. The development of coal fired furnaces had already begun, and glassmakers started to move from the forests to those areas where coal was readily available. One such are was Bristol, but for the glassmakers it had additional attractions.  By the 17th century Bristol was already an established trading centre. As early as 1552 its merchants, in recognition of their success in developing foreign trade, had been incorporated as Merchant Venturers, under a charter granted by Edward VI. They had, by reason of their mercantile success, built Bristol into one of the most prosperous cities in the land. By the third quarter of the 17th century ships were sailing to New England, Virginia, Portugal, Spain and the northern  European countries, carrying windows glass and ‘English glass bottles’. Another factor was the availability of raw materials for making glass. Sand, limestone and red lead were available locally, or could if necessary be brought in by boat, as were special sands later. Kelp, subsequently burned, and in the from Ireland for soap making. Clay for making the pots in which the glass was melted could be shipped down the Severn from Stourbridge.

There was a further important factor. The importation of sugar, which was become one of the commodities on which the fortunes of Bristol depended, led to a growth in liquor distilling. This, together with the traditional trade in wine and the locally produced beer and cider, provided markets for the glass bottle manufacturers.

     In 1695, faced with the need to pay for the war with france, the Government introduced an excise tax which, for the glass industry, was levied at 20% ad valorem on flint glass, 10% on window glass, and one shilling a dozen on bottles. The ultimate effect upon Bristol trade does not appear to have been too serious, but this may have been at the expense of neighbouring  glassmakers. One of the Gloucester bottlemakers, for instance, in evidence to the house of Commons in February 1697, said that there were five glasshouses in Gloucester and Newnham and that not one of them had worked a fornight since the duty commented. Only one of the Gloucester glasshouses, and neither of the Bristol bottle makers suffered temporary hardship since the increase in the price bottles caused many of their customers to turn to casks.

The excise tax was repealed in 1699, and this appears to have stimulated the glass trade. Within the next quarter of a century a further five glasshouses were built, and Bristol was firmly established as an encouraged by the confidence of the merchants. Daniel Defoe, visiting they city in the 1720s, commended their industriousness. Bristol was, he said, ‘. . . the greatest, the richest, and the best port of trade in Great Britain, London only excepted . . .’.

At the turn of the century the Bristol surveyor, James Millerd, published a series of maps of the city. On one version, that of circa 1710,the sites of six glasshouses are shown. The map is interesting in that each glasshouse, with one exception, is shown having a brick cone shaped chimney, a design of building that was to become universally used by glassmakers throughout the country. The cones were circular in cross section, on average about fifty feet in diameter at the base, rising to a height of one hundred feet, and sometimes more. When first introduced they could be unstable, as is instanced by the reports of those which fell down. In 1725 one collapsed in Bristol during a hurricane, with the loss of fourteen lives.

The design of the cones developed from the change from wood to coal fired furnaces, the cone providing both the extra draught required from the use of coal, and the means by which the noxious fumes were extracted from the working area. This was advantageous for the glassmakers, if not for the public in general, and led the Master of the Bristol Grammar School to comment on the pollution in no uncertain terms.

‘Thick dark’ning Clouds in curling smoaky Wreaths Whose sooty stench the Earth and Air anooys And Nature’s blooming Verdure half destroys’

Since, according to Seyer, it was in 1698 or 1699 that the first brick building was erected in the city it must have been about the turn of the century that glasshouses cones began to appear on the Bristol scene. But the smoke from the cones, and the danger of their collapsing, were not the only environmental problems set by the glassmakers. In 1700 the Corporation was empowered to fine glassmakers, among others, for throwing refuse into the river which was used universally as a tip. In the same year a committee was set up to ‘examine into the case of strangers and all other disorderly persons’ who came to live in the city, in order that they should not become chargeable to the parishes. The committee was enjoined to take particular care ‘about workmen belonging to the glasshouses’, which indicates a migration to Bristol at this time.


One site on the Millerd map, that by Redcliff Hill marked ‘Glasshouse’ has the appearance of the traditional wooden building that preceded the brick cone, and it was here that flint glass was made. The glasshouses at Redcliff Gate and St Thomas Street were owned by Richard Warren who, in an advertisement in 1712, offered crown glass and bottles. The glasshouse in Red Lane was in the hands of the Perrott family, broad glassmakers who had migrated from Belbroughton to Bristol in the late 17th century, and who later changed to the manufacturer of crown glass as a result of an agreement with the Stourbridge manufacturers.

Bottles were made at the glasshouse on Temple Backs. Abraham Elton built the glasshouse on what is referred to as Coldharbour, and which later became Cheese Lane, and this was an interest that was to remain in the hands of various members of the family for the next century. Crown glass was made here. Finally, although not shown on the Millerd map, there was a flint glasshouse at Bedminster.

     Apart from the repeal of the excise tax, other developments in this period stimulated the growth of the glass industry in Bristol. Bath was moving toward its great period as a watering place, and needed window glass for its buildings, wine glasses for the dining tables, and bottles for drinks, both medicinal and alcoholic. Unfortunately, roads were bad abd scarcely capable of taking the commercial traffic that Bristol was generating, let alone so fragile a commodity as glass. In this builders Dictionary in 1726 Richard Neve wrote on the subject of window glass made in Bristol, ‘. . . but by reason they have not the convenience to send it by Sea, . . . it is very rare to have any of it in London, tho’ it be as cheap, and better than Newcastle Glass’.

In 1712, however, a plan for deepening and widening the Avon was drawn up and, by 1727, it was navigable to Bath. The route opened up a profitable business for the Bristol traders, and was probably the reason for the concentration of new glasshouses on the side of the avon, in Cheese Lane and Avon Street. There was, however, another attraction in the scheme to link the Avon to the Thames, and thus create a direct link between the who great ports of Bristol and London. So much so that in 1720 it was reported that several eminent merchants and tradesmen in the two cities had formed a co-partnership for the manufacture of glass. By now the interest of the merchants had become a feature of the Bristol glass industry. In 1713, on the corner of Temple Street and portwall Lane, a flint glasshouse known as the ‘Venus’ was built. There is reason for believing  that the adjoining glasshouse, built at about the same time, belonged to Humphrey Perrott whose father, Benjamin, was the owner of the Red Lane glasshouse. In 1715 a group of soap boilers built a bottle glasshouse in Cheese Lane, and followed this some years later with a crown glasshouse on an adjoining site. Next to these, in 1720, Robert Hiscox, a barber surgeon, built a bottle glasshouse which, since five of the partners were hoopers, was subsequently known by that name. away from this complex, on the west side of Canons Marsh, was another bottle glasshouse, well situated on the band of the Avon and close to hotwell and Jacob’s Well, the waters of which were bottled and exported in substantial quantities. By 1720, therefore, there were at least twelve glasshouses in Bristol, at Redcliff Gate was pulled down in 1718 to allow better access to Redcliff Backs, and the wooden building of the glasshouse on Redcliff Hill appears to have been replaced by a brick cone. The glass industry in Bristol was now well established, and only three more glasshouses were Bristol glassmakers were to extend their interests to Stanton Drew, Nailsea and Chepstow, with varying degrees of success.

    One of the contributory reasons for the successful growth of Bristol trade, and hence the growth of the glass industry, was the political stability of the county under Walpole. The war with France ended in 1713, and the subsequent financial and economic policies of the government aided industrial and commercial growth. But these policies were not without their problems. An attack was made on the evasion of customs duties, and a ban on the importation of wine in bottles was one way in which the glass industry was affected. However, when an attempt was made to introduce bonded warehouses for wine and tobacco the proposals met with strong opposition and had to be abandoned. Furthermore, the attempt to stem the increase in alcoholism by prohibitive taxation was openly defied, and whilst ‘drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence’ may have stimulated the sale of glass bottles, it did nothing to raise the confidence of the public in effective taxation. Eventually the years of peace came to an end, and once again the Government was faced with the need to raise money for war. In 1745 the glass industry found itself again saddled with a tax which, half a century earlier, it had successfully, and it was a hundred years before the burden was lifted.

Glassmaking in the 18th century had remained virtually unchanged for almost two thousand years, and its methods are similar to those used today when glass is made by hand. It was never failed to capture the imagination and those who queue today to see glass made this way were matched by their forebears in Bristol. Shiercliff, in his 1789 Bristol and Hotwell Guide, wrote, ‘. . . and to those who have never seen the manner of working this material, it may be a pleasing entertainment to attend the process . . . strangers are never denied seeing the people at work, on a small gratuity being given to the men employed’. Glassmakers have always been proud of their skills. So confident, in fact, they are prepared to try their hand at making anything in glass. When the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Bristol in 1738 the report read as follows:

‘The company of Glassmen went first dressed in white Holland shirts, on horseback, some with swords, others with crowns and sceptres in their hands made of glass.’

These pieces, known as friggers, were usually made during break time, or at the end of the day, from glass at the bottom of the pot, and it was one of the ways in which the glassmaker improved his skills, and frequently his pocket, since they were often sold outside the glasshouse as mementos. Not all commentators saw the glassmakers in so romantic a light. Patty more, visiting the Nailsea glasshouses with her sister toward the end of the 18th century was less than flattering when she wrote:

‘The work of a glass-house is an irregular thing, uncertain whether by day or by night; not only infringing upon man’s rest, but constantly intruding upon the privileges of the Sabbath. The wages high, the eating and drinking luxurious – the body scarcely covered, but fed with dainties of a shameful description. The high buildings of the glasshouses ranged before the doors of these cottages – the great furnaces roaring – the swearing, eating, and drinking of these half-dressed, black-looking beings, gave it a most infernal and horrible appearance.’

     Whilst window glass, and in particular bottles, formed the basis of the Bristol glass industry, its reputation was established by the flint glassmakers. In 1675 glass with a high lead oxide content, ‘glass of lead’ as it was termed, was introduced. Because of the ease with which it could be worked, its clarity and quality, this glass soon began to replace the conventional soda based flint glass. By the end of the 17th century most, if not all, of Bristol glasshouses that made domestic products such as drinking glasses had adopted the lead glass.

It was, however, the second half of the 18th century that saw the name of Bristol written into the history books on glass. It was during this period that coloured glasses became popular, particularly blue glass, subsequently associated with the expression ‘Bristol blue’.  Blue glass was neither confined to this period, nor was it exclusive to Bristol, since the use of cobalt as the means of obtaining this colour had been known to glassmakers for centuries. It was, however, cobalt from a particular source in Saxony which, in the 18th century, was credited with a quality of colour that had never been surpassed. During the third quarter if the century the British supply of cobalt from that source appears to have been in the hands of William Cookworthy, a west country porcelain manufacturer and raw materials merchant, who had built up considerable interests in Bristol. Since Cookworthy imposed no restrictions as to who could purchase from his stock of cobalt it was readily available to glassmakers throughout the country. Thus, the term ‘Bristol blue’ could equally have arisen from the fact that Bristol was where this colouring agent was purchased. A further development in the second half of the 18th century was that of opaque white glass, which resembled porcelain, but cost far less. Widley made throughout the country, the quality of the product was enhanced by decorators who painted flowers, birds, chinese and other motifs on the surface. Foremost among these was Michael Edkins, who began his career at the Bristol delftware works at Redcliff. Michael Edkins set up on his own circa 1760, and decorated for the Redcliff Backs glasshouse, the short lived glasshouse of William Dunbar and Co at Chepstow, and for the Bristol glass merchant, Lazarus Jacobs. Owing to the small amount being made at the time opaque white glass was not included in the 1745 excise act. This omission was rectified in 1778, when it was listed with flint glass, the rate of which that year was doubled, effectively killing the trade in opaque white glass.

     Any hope that the excise tax would quickly be withdrawn was dashed when, in 1756, war was declared on France. Worse was to follow from the government’s policy toward the American colonies. Friction between the two sides led eventually to a non-important agreement on the part of some of the colonies. Nothing could have been calculated to hit the Bristol merchants harder, and in 1775, the Merchant Venturers petitioned Parliament. They cited the effect that certain of the earlier duties had had on trade in ‘glass, paper and other articles’. This trade had revived since these duties had been replaced, but other measures were causing uneasiness. They concluded with a reference to ‘the many thousands of miserable subjects who by the total stop put to the export trade to America will be discharged from their manufactories for want of employment and must be reduced to great distress’.

However, despite the imposition of the excise tax, glass production in the United Kingdom had gradually increased until, at the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775, it was some 70% higher than it had been in 1745, when the tax was introduced. Nevertheless, within three years production fell by one-third, and it was to be a further ten years before the previous level was regained. Bristol glassmakers, dependent as they were on the American colonies for much of their trade, may well have suffered more severely since it was this decade that marked the start of the decline of Bristol as a centre of glassmaking. A number of glasshouse came up for sale as some of the well known merchant and glassmakers began to withdraw from the trade. Since the rush of investment at the early part of the century only two more glasshouses had been built; one at Crews Hole and the other on the continuation of Red Lane, later to become Prewitt Street. Now, with industry in decline, a glasshouse was built  on the site of the Phoenix Inn, on Portwall Lane. The man behind this enterprise was Jacob Wilcox Ricketts, of the Bristol glassmaking entrepreneurs possibly the most implacable, whose other interests included tobacco and brewing. Within the next twenty years Ricketts was to bring together all the Bristol flint glasshouse, re-open a bottle glasshouse, and make a handsome profit. All this, whilst the glass industry in Bristol was shrinking to about a quarter of its previous size.

     The causes of the decline are complex, arising partly from the problems that faced the country as a whole, and partly from those that were particular to Bristol. The end of the 18th century saw England once more at war with France, and by the time dispute was settled the glass industry had suffered two serious recessions. The excise tax on flint glass industry was by now some ten times greater than at the outbreak of the War of Independence, whilst the tax on bottles was up by about three and a half times. It could be argued that Bristol, with its high proportion of exports, and the drawback that these attracted, would have suffered less than other glassmaking areas. But a high proportion of these exports went to America, and that was where the problem began. As early as the 17th century the American colonies had hoped to create their own industries and William Penn, with Bristol support, had aimed at establishing glasshouses in Pennsylvania for the manufacturing of bottles, drinking glasses and window glass. But the policy of the British government was to treat the colonies as sources of raw materials and markets for finished goods. The intention of the colonists was clear, and in 1771 the Bristol Journal carried a report of a meeting in Philadelphia where ‘were exhibited several specimens of Flint Glass . . . Decanters Wine Glasses, Beer Glasses, etc., manufactured by Mr Henry Stiegel, of Lancaster County, which were judged equal in beauty and quality to the generality of Flint Glass imported from England’. Up to independence the American economy had developed fitfully. Once achieved however, there was pressure for protection of the new and developing industries, in 1789 a duty was imposed on all imported glassware. The puff of cotton wool on the western horizon was beginning to turn into a storm cloud. Over the next few years these duties were gradually increased until, during the Anglo American war, they were doubled. But prior to this the English bottle makers had received a severe body blow. Under the existing tariff imported empty bottles were subject to a 10% ad valorem tax and, as a result, a good trade developed in re-using bottles which had been imported filled with liquor of one sort or another. The result was that in 1795 all imported bottles, whether empty or filled, were taxed at the same rate, with the result that British traders reverted to the policy of a century earlier and put their liquor into casks. The reason for so comprehensive a tariff structure was understandable, but in practice the American glassmakers could not meet home demand, as was shown by the massive increase in imports when the war came to an end. This was no consolation to the Bristol glassmakers since, by the time the markets reopened, most of their glasshouses were closed. Moreover, America was no longer the protected market of the British trader.

Importers were free to buy in the cheapest market, and there were other glass industries in Europe anxious to exploit these opportunities. In Bristol trade was controlled from the centre of the city, from which there was direct access to the sea. As one writer put it, ‘ . . . in the middle of the street, as far as you can see, hundreds of ships, their masts as thick as they can stand by one another . . .’. But to get to the quays the Avon gorge had to be negotiated, and this involved additional expense since the ships had either to be towed, or the goods unloaded on to lighters. Furthermore the Avon was tidal, with a difference in levels greater than any other navigable river in western Europe, with the result that at low tide ships were reduced to lying on their side incapable of being loaded or unloaded. The situation called for a tideless basin, but prevarication delayed such a project for a century or more; by the time it was completed the relative importance of Bristol as a port had waned. There were other problem associated with the docks, particularly those related to charges which, it was said, ‘ were higher than those levied at Liverpool or London. Furthermore, the great dream of a direct river route to London by linking the Avon to the Thames, which may well have inspired some of the 18th century merchants to invest in the glass industry, was eventually realised some two hundred years after the idea was first mooted. Both this, and the floating harbour, however, were too late to be of great interest to the glass industry since, by the time the facilities became available in the early 19th century, only four of the sixteen glasshouses remained at work.

     In 1820 the production of flint glass and bottles in the United Kingdom fell precipitously. The successful Phoenix glasshouse began to lose heavily and was never to regain its previous profitability whilst the decorating from of Lazarus Jacobs, described in an advertisement as ‘glass manufacturer to His Majesty’, and for whom Michael Edkins had worked as early as 1763, went out of business. On the previous occasion that an excise tax had been imposed the Bristol glassmakers had voiced their objections, but on this occasion they were less vociferous. By the time the government set up an enquiry into its effect the Limekiln Lane bottle house was on the point of closing down, the Rickets family seem to have lost their enthusiasm, and it was left to William Powell, proprietor of the Hoopers glasshouse in Avon Street, to present the Bristol point of view.

The report of the Commissioners, when it was published in 1835, was particularly revealing. It listed 106 glasshouses in England and 10 in Scotland. Most glasshouses were by now in the midlands and the north, with the north east, with 41 glasshouse, the predominate area. Bristol with four glasshouses, Nailsea with two and London with three were the only areas in the south where glassmaking continued. Just under 10% of all bottles, less that 3% of flint glass and no crown glass was now made at Bristol. Glassmaking had moved inexorably to those regions where coal was more readily obtained, and where the growing industrial towns had better means of communicating with their markets.

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