It was the Phoenicians who revolutionised the way we make glass. They discovered that you could take a blob of molten glass on the end of a hollow iron tube and 'blow' glass. These new skills were learnt by the Romans who in turn, introduced glassblowing throughout their substantial empire. It was the Romans who brought glassmaking to Bristol.
GLASSMAKING IN BRITAIN
The Romans were the first peoples to bring the art of glass making into Britain around 2000 years ago, setting up small workshops and producing utilitarian wares for general consumption. They also produced glass for glazing their windows using Lead calm, in the same way as Medieval and modern stained glass. Bristol Museum has a fantastic collection of Roman glasswares a lot of which look incredibly modern, this is 'The Bomford' collection, if not on general display just ask the security and they can escort to the cellars to see it.
Glass making ceased in Britain when the Romans left in 412AD, in all probability it has stopped before as Rome declined. There was no glass making in the whole of northern Europe during the 'Dark Ages' but a lot of Roman glass remained in use as precious artefacts such as the 'Pagan's Hill Jar', a piece of Roman glass buried with a young Prince warrior in Lulsgate near Bristol in 740AD. This piece of glass can also be seen at Bristol Museum. There were papers written in the 1950's regarding Anglo Saxon glass but since the advent of scientific testing all this glass wares are now taken as old Roman glass but to their chemical composition being identical. https://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/bristol-museum-and-art-gallery/ upon request.
Glass making eventually returned to Britain with the re-build of Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, after a fire had destroyed the older Norman Cathedral, The glass was inspired by the building of Chartres Cathedral in France just prior to this, whose Glass makers were imported from the Middle East, as there were no persons with the required skills in Europe at that time. So the original glass makers of Chartres were Muslims and this is evident in some of the windows there.
Aside – If you ever want to see something that will blow your mind visit Chartres, stay for a couple of days there and study this amazing piece of 'Divine Architecture'.
The Glass maker who came to make the glass was called Lawrence Le Viteraux (The Glass), he set up in Kent. The glass being made was very rough and ready during the Middle Ages in Britain and a lot was still being imported from the Continent. There was a bit of a scorched earth policy for the glass makers as they made their wares in the ~Forest or in medieval time the Weald. Welding, the modern word means to join metal together using heat, the origination of the word comes from the medieval word for forest as all the work was done there. A lot of deforestation occurred during this period, which lasted right until James 1st was on the throne and he decreed that 'No Glass can be made using wood as fuel, save there being a single tree left standing upon this isle'. Therefore a new fuel had to be utilised and coal was the obvious choice.
Aside – Gaffer, is the medieval word for Glass maker – 'Glasser' the F & S were not defined at this time.
Coal was a difficult fuel to use as it does not burn clean like wood does so the furnaces had to be completely redesigned to allow for this new fuel. They came up with a Glass cone with covered pots to keep the glass clean. These edifices became landmarks in the the glass making centres around the country.
There is little known about the history of glassmaking in Britain during the next one thousand years, although we do know that glassmaking survived as a trade. In early 2004, a Saxon burial chamber was unearthed in Prittlewell in Essex and amongst the artefacts buried with the early Saxon was a beautifully preserved and intact blue glass bowl.
Glassmaking underwent a renaissance in the and 14th centuries. The revival began in Venice (a city which is still thought of as the glass capital of the world) and spread throughout Northern Europe. It would have been very likely that all towns of any size would have had their own glassmaker.
In Britain, during the reign of James I, a law was passed which forbade the use of wood as a fuel for trades. The effect of this was that glassmakers, along with potters and other craftsmen who needed substantial amounts of fuel, had to move to areas where there were alternative fuel sources. Bristol was one such place, having mined coal in the wooded areas to the north of the city since Tudor times. Other areas were the Midlands (even today, Stoke on Trent is renowned for its potteries and Stourbridge for its glass), the North East (again Sunderland was a major centre for glass and today has the National Glass Centre) and London where some of the most well-known firms operated including Whitefriars.
Bristol not only had a good supply of fuel but it had established trading links along the River Severn and out to the Atlantic and was second only to London in terms of economic importance. It also had easy access to other raw materials used in glassmaking such as sand from the Redcliffe Caves, kelp from Bridgwater, clay from further north along the Severn.
The city made very good use of its strategic importance and soon became one of the most important glassmaking centres in Europe. By the late eighteenth century there were some twenty glassmaking firms in Bristol. Most made crown (or window) glass or bottles but a good proportion made a beautiful range of flint glass tableware that was to become the city's legacy. Flint glass is known today as lead crystal.
THE ORIGINS OF BRISTOL BLUE GLASS
The late 1700s was a time of invention and social change: the industrial revolution had begun. In Bristol a merchant and potter named Richard Champion was using the technology of the glass furnaces to develop a recipe for making porcelain. Porcelain had been made in the Orient for many years before and was very highly prized and the demand for cups and saucers was unprecedented, with the import of tea from the East, hot drinks were being taken by the population at large for the first time in history.
Richard Champion succeeded in making porcelain and patented his invention. He was working in conjunction with a chemist, William Cookworthy and it was Cookworthy who began a search for good quality cobalt oxide to give the beautiful blue glaze decoration on the milky white porcelain. He found what it was he was looking for at the Royal Saxon Cobalt Works in Saxony and obtained exclusive import rights. All the cobalt oxide which came into Britain for the next 20 years was controlled by Cookworthy.
Nobody is exactly sure when Bristol Blue Glass was first made but we do know that the dazzling combination of the fine cobalt oxide with the recently invented lead crystal gave the most remarkable deep, rich blue, the like of which had never been seen before.
The most celebrated maker of Bristol Blue Glass was Isaac Jacobs, whose father, Lazarus started their Nonsuch Flint Glass Manufactory in the 1780s. By the turn of the century the company held a royal warrant and were making glass for the aristocracy of Europe. Isaac was the first glassmaker in history to sign his work offering an undisputed provenance.
In 1851, Bristol's glassmakers were invited to show their skills to the world at the Great Exhibition opened by Victoria and Albert. They made Ruby Glass for the very first time, using 24 carat gold to give the glass its delicious ruby tones.
THE DEMISE OF THE INDUSTRY
Shortly after however, glassmaking in the city began its decline. The country was suffering an economic recession and one by one the glasshouses began to close. In 1922, the very last one, Powell and Ricketts on Redcliffe Way closed its doors.
BRISTOL BLUE GLASS TODAY
For most of the twentieth century there was little or no glassmaking in Bristol. In 1988 James Adlington revived Bristol Blue Glass and the rest is a living history. Today our glassmakers still make glass the way it was made over 300 years ago, in fact the tools and techniques have barely changed since Roman Times. Just as it was in the 1800s, Bristol Blue Glass is highly collectible and sought after. We are very proud of our glass and hope that you will share with us a little of the magic. There are other companies that have sought to imitate us and pass themselves off as the same Company as us. Beware pale imitations.