You can see through the past

4th February 2000 at 00:00
Andy Farquarson looks at one of the last surviving smokestack industries of the Black Country - glassmaking.

The Black Country runs in a great sweep to the west and north of the Birmingham conurbation. Once the manufacturing heart of the British Empire, most of the old "smokestack" industries - coalmining, iron and steel, heavy engineering and the like - have long gone, replaced by light manufacturing, retailing and service industries. But one tradition lingers on in the south-west corner of the region - glass manufacture.

Glass has a fascinating history spanning more than 4,000 years. The material is made by mixing silica sand and alkaline fluxes - other ingredients may be added for colour or to give special properties - and heating them to 1500C.

The earliest man-made examples of glass are from Mesopotamia and Egypt. Later, the Romans introduced glassmaking to their northern colonies, including the British Isles. After the fall of the Roman Empire, glassmaking declined in Europe but by the 13th century it had revived and Venice became the leading centre of manufacture.

The first records of glassmaking in the west Midlands date from the early 17th century when French craftsmen from Lorraine arrived in Kingswinsford, west of Birmingham. The trade spread and by the 19th century the glassmaking areas were centred on the towns of Stourbridge, Wordsley and Brierley Hill.

At first, the emigres specialised in window glass; the high point of the Black Country's sheet glass trade came in 1851 when 300,000 panes of the Crystal Palace were manufactured by Chance Brothers in Smethwick. Roundabout 1700, the discovery of lead glass (commonly called crystal) and the development of engraving techniques saw glassmakers diversify into table and decorative ware.

Most of the Black Country's glassworks have gone, together with the thousands of highly-skilled craftsmen they employed. Today, a few firms, such as Stuart Crystal and Royal Brierley manufacturer crystal glass tableware in the area and one company, Plowden and Thompson, still makes and supplies the glass itself.

Plenty of evidence of the past remains. Perhapsthe most spectacular example stands beside the A491 main road to Wolverhampton, a mile north of Stourbridge - a distinctive brickbuilt structure reminiscent of a pottery bottle-kiln which looms about 30m over the surrounding building. It is the glass cone of Redhouse Works, now part of Stuart Crystal's factory complex. Built in 1795, it is the last surviving cone in an area once dotted with them and one of only four still standing in the UK.

The Crystal and Glass Centre stands on the same road. Primarily a retail outlet, the centre has an exhibition and glassmaking studio. Another mile or so on is the glass museum housed in the Georgian splendour of Broadfield House. The road which climbs towards the Merry Hill shopping complex will take you to Royal Brierley's factory, which offers tours most weekdays.

Adrian Hyde, who teaches Year five at Blanford Mere primary school, Dudley, says: "The children found their visit to the glass museum very stimulating, particularly the studio demonstrations.

"The glass industry is part of our key stage 2 local history project. The glass museum is a fantastic practical resource and its teachers' folder supports national curriculum requirements."

Visitors to the area's factories and studios can still watch craftsmen practising age-old arts such as glass-blowing, whereby a dollop of molten glass is picked up on the end of a long hollow "iron", blown into a bubble and worked into the shape wanted.

* Broadfield House Glass Museum, Compton Drive, Kingswinford, Staffordshire DY6 9NS. Tel: 01384 812745. Open Tuesdays-Sundays.

Organised school parties limited to 36 pupils. Morning visit (9.30am-1pm) pound;62, afternoon visit (1.30pm-4pm) pound;40, all-day visit pound;70. Charges include a 60-page teachers' pack (also available separately) and resources, primarily designed for key stage 2, covering art, science, design and technology, Victorian and local history.

A scholarship studio for graduates allows visitors to watch glassmakers at work, Wednesdays-Sundays, 2pm-5pm.

Dudley Tourist Information Office, tel: 01384 250333.

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