Sir James Timmins Chance: Engineer

Image: James Timmins Chance at the age of 80, from the bust by Hamo Thorneycroft R.A. John Frederick Chance, A History of the Firm of Chance Brothers & Co. Glass and Alkali Manufacturers, (London, Spottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co. Ltd, 1919).

Image from:  Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The eldest son of William (V) and Phoebe Chance, James Timmins Chance was recognised as an engineering genius in the Midlands, nationally and internationally.  Eminent scientists consulted him throughout his life. Sir G.B. Airy, the Astronomer Royal (1836-1881) and Michael Faraday regularly contacted James to help solve problems with lenses and prisms.  Michael Faraday, during a four-day visit to the glassworks to confer with James stated: “of the subject of lenses and small mechanical devices, he is undoubtedly the foremost authority in the land.”

Like other members of the Chance family he was recruited into the family firm. The glass trade, however, was not James Timmins first choice of career.  He studied at Cambridge University, where he graduated as seventh wrangler in 1838.  James at first decided to enter the legal profession and was admitted as a student at Lincoln’s Inn, but he gave up this career to join the family firm.

James Timmins Chance was the leading authority on engineering in the glass industry.  Frederick Chance wrote:

James Chance’s intellectual and physical powers must have brought him to the front in any profession.  Several were open to him: besides his high mathematical attainments he was versed in the classics and in theology, having read as a youth for Holy Orders; his knowledge of the law was singularly wide and sound, and he was a very competent engineer.  With his Uncle’s energy and initiative he combined with his father’s caution. 

James Timmins Chance became a full partner in the business on January 1 1839. His first achievement was to design the machinery to grind and polish sheet glass, which made the firm’s glass exceed all others in brilliance and transparency.  By May 1841, with the aid of the new machines, the company was turning out more than 4,000 feet of glass per week to meet the enormous demand for the new, patent plate glass.  One of the first orders that James supervised was 28,000 feet of glass supplied to glaze the Houses of Parliament.

James Timmins Chance’s greatest achievements were made in the design and manufacturing of lighthouse machinery and lenses. He was so passionate about the construction and assembling of the dioptric lights that he favoured this work to the detriment of the more lucrative areas of glass production. The production of lighthouse machinery and lenses at Chance Brothers was so prolific, that in the space of fifteen years they produced and installed one hundred lights.  The location of these lights ranged from Kingswear in Devon to Ningpo in China, in fact to every corner of the globe as the list provided proves.  In recognition of his revolutionary work and his contribution to maritime safety, James Timmins Chance received a baronetcy from Queen Victoria.

William Chance: Public Figure

Image:  William Chance (died 1856), from an oil painting by Thomas Philips RA, John Frederick Chance, A History of the Firm of Chance Brothers & Co. Glass and Alkali Manufacturers, (London, Spottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co. Ltd, 1919)

Image from:  Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

William Chance (V) managed the Birmingham enterprise with his brother George when Lucas left to take charge of the Nailsea glassworks. They expanded the business and became American merchants renting premises in Great Charles Street, Birmingham.  George crossed the Atlantic and ran another highly profitable venture. He remained in America with offices in New York and married into the wealthy De Peyster family.

William lived in Newhall Street before moving first to Spring Grove and then Monument Road in Edgbaston within the Calthorpe Estate, the location for Birmingham’s wealthy elite. He filled many public roles and with his wife Phoebe, the daughter of another leading Birmingham family the Timmins, graced many grand functions of Birmingham society. He served as Constable of Birmingham in 1817-18.  The title was an honorary one, but the holder presided over the magistrates and oversaw law and order. William’s office as High Bailiff of Birmingham in 1829-30 proved to be eventful.

One of his first duties was to receive Princess Victoria. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, brought the eleven year-old to Birmingham to view important manufactories. As the Princess arrived at the Royal Hotel, Temple Row, a Mrs Fairfax was so overcome at the sight of the young Victoria that she rushed forward, caught the Princess in her arms and kissed her.  Apart from this overly enthusiastic welcome the rest of the visit went well.  William arranged for the party to tour the Chance Glassworks. They travelled along the newly recut canal to the Smethwick works and cheering crowds gathered at every vantage point to welcome the royal visitors.

A visit by the Tory Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, Home Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons to Birmingham was more eventful. It was arranged by William to persuade the two politicians that Birmingham was sufficiently important to elect its own MPs to Parliament. The Duke and Sir Robert were unpopular in Birmingham and beyond because of their opposition to parliamentary reform. William invited the party of dignitaries to visit the Smethwick Glassworks. The journey was made by canal to show the visitors the engineering feats that had been carried out by Thomas Telford in cutting the new waterway, but when the barge approached each bridge along the route, the crowds booed and hissed. William also hosted a banquet for the Duke and Sir Robert Peel at the Royal Hotel in Birmingham. A crowd gathered outside and the guests had to seek cover when protestors broke windows and shouted insults and threats. The rest of his year of office passed more peacefully and in recognition of his services as High Bailiff of Birmingham he was presented with a silver claret jug. Birmingham eventually obtained its right to elect two MPs in 1832, but not until the Tories resigned and a new Whig government took office.

William continued to hold public office and was a magistrate at the time of the Bull Ring Riots in 1839. Chartist speakers came to Birmingham in July to rally support for the Charter which called for parliamentary reform and universal suffrage. Crowds gathered in the Bull Ring. Birmingham had no police force, and the help of London’s Metropolitan Force was enlisted, but they, in turn, had no powers in Birmingham and needed the authority of a magistrate to enforce the law.  William Chance, the only magistrate available, received the contingent when they arrived at Curzon Street Railway Station on 4 July. He thought that armed police striding into the Bull Ring waving swords would incite the people of Birmingham and demanded that they leave their sabres at the railway station. He was proved right when the peaceful meeting turned into a public affray.  At the sight of the police marching into the Bull Ring with wooden staves raised in readiness to enforce law and order, the crowd turned and pulled down the railings of St Thomas’ Church and attacked the police. They were saved with the arrival of troops from the 4th Royal Irish and Company of the Rifle Brigade. Even so two Constables were stabbed and several were severely wounded. The “riots” were short lived and peace returned to the streets of Birmingham.  William remained a magistrate serving both Birmingham and Warwick for the rest of his life.

Robert Lucas Chance: Glassmaker

Image:  Robert Lucas Chance (died 1865). From a photograph. Chance Brothers & Co., Limited, 100 Years of British Glass Making 1824-1924 (Smethwick and Glasgow, Chance Brothers & Co., 1924)

Image from:  Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

William’s eldest son, Robert Lucas Chance was a man of great mental capacity with a voracious appetite for enterprise, but he was more of a doer than a thinker.  He had a passion for work, a strong constitution and temperate habits, all virtues that would stand him in good stead in business. Robert Lucas Chance joined his father’s business at the age of twelve. So well did he take to work that by the age of fourteen he was put in sole charge of the warehouse and trading establishments.  He was known as “the little master in the jacket”. Robert Lucas was resourceful and a natural leader. The business and profits continued to expand and William made his son a full partner on 1 January 1804.

In 1809 William’s beloved wife Sarah died and his grief was immense as an entry in his private diary shows:

1809 September 7th – My wife Sarah departed this life between 7 and 8 of the clock in the morning aged 53.  She was buried September 13 at St. Paul’s chapel – mourners, our five sons and also our son Sargant, also pallbearers with hatbands, scarves and kid gloves and two clergymen, Mr Young and Kennedy and Dr John Johnson.  Myself not attended for want methinks of fortitude.

Although William lived another twenty years, his desire for the cut and thrust of work diminished. The reins of the business were passed to Robert Lucas Chance who took complete charge after his mother’s death.  Lucas, as the family called him, seemed to have the Midas touch. In 1810 the Nailsea glassworks needed help, profits had dropped and problems with supplies, credit and excise duties indicated that the company would fold. Leaving the Birmingham enterprise in the hands of the younger brother, William (V), Lucas went down to Nailsea. He soon made his mark. His first decision was to enlist the help from one John Hartley from Dumbarton.  At the time Hartley was considered to be the leading expert in Crown glass making. He and Lucas made a formidable team and the glassworks began to flourish. Lucas like his father had an ulterior motive for heading to Bristol, to ask his cousin, Louisa Homer, daughter of Edward to marry him.  His proposal was accepted and the couple were married on 7 May 1811.

Marriage did not dent Lucas’ appetite for business. Having steered the Nailsea glassworks back into profit, he looked to expand his enterprise. In 1815 he set up as a glass merchant in London, residing with his young family at 14 Gower Street.  It was not long before profits swelled and the family moved to a large house, boasting an extensive garden at the top of Highgate Hill.  Lucas decided to extend his business to include export as well as inland trade, needing extra capital he sold his shares in the Nailsea glassworks.

The London business was very profitable and ever keen to expand Lucas decided to secure his own source of glass. In 1824 he purchased the British Crown Glass Company at Spon Lane, Smethwick, which became the famous Chance Brothers Glassworks.  Attempting to run two businesses proved difficult, even though Lucas thought nothing of journeying to Birmingham on one night coach and returning to London on the next.  His solution was to attract John Hartley from the Nailsea works to Smethwick, a move that hardly made him popular with his in-laws.

The image of Lucas shows him to be a lively dapper gentleman and this description fits well with his brother’s opinion.  William (V) described Lucas as a “devourer of books and would read them at meals and while driving to the works and back. Lucas would take his meals walking up and down for exercise and while talking to anyone would sometimes eat a piece of bread to save time.” Not surprisingly this affected his digestion. Robert Lucas Chance suffered from dyspepsia most of his life and he attributed the loss of his teeth later in life to this complaint.

1 Private diary of William Chance. Private collection of Chance family.

William Chance IV: The Start of a Commercial Dynasty

Image: South-West Prospect of Birmingham, 1829, attributed to Frederick Calvert. Watercolour on Paper.

Image from: Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

William Chance (IV) was born on 16 May 1749 but was orphaned when he was a tiny child. His father John, (the disinherited son), died when William was less than nine months old and his mother, (the shilling widow) died when he was three. His uncle, William (III), raised William. The young orphan attended a school at “a red brick house” in Winson Green, Birmingham. Here young William met Edward Homer and a life-long association began. After leaving school, William and Edward were apprenticed to Messrs Male and Rock, iron factors of Birmingham. A factor was a merchant who confined himself to inland trading; he could be described as a middleman between the manufacturer and the retailer.

William and Edward learnt the trade quickly and in 1771 at the age of 21, and with help from Uncle William, they began their own business. They traded as hardware merchants each providing £700 capital and conducted their business from premises in Church Street. In 1773 Edward Homer cemented their bond further by marrying William’s elder sister, Sarah. As their business prospered and expanded they transferred to the warehouse and stables in Bread Street built by Captain Thomas Chance. The newly weds moved into the new house at 17 Newhall Street and William resided at number 18. Sarah Homer did not survive for long and died three years into her marriage leaving a nine-month-old daughter, Sarah.

The business thrived and account books show that William and Edward traded in Birmingham and the district between Bristol and South Wales. By ploughing profits back into the business and living economically they amassed a considerable fortune.
Ties were strengthened by their marriages on 30 June 1778 to two sisters, Mary and Sarah Lucas, daughters of Robert Lucas of Bristol, the trading partner of Thomas Chance. The double marriage was given notice in one of Birmingham’s early newspapers, Aris’ Gazette, dated Monday 6th July 1778: “Married … Tuesday at Bristol, Mr Homer, merchant of this place to Miss Lucas of Bristol. At the same time and place Mr Chance merchant of this town to Miss Sally Lucas of Bristol.” The Birmingham business continued to trade in Bristol. So well did this trade flourish, that in recognition of bringing prosperity to the area William Chance was granted the freedom of the city of Bristol on 30 March 1780.

William and Edward’s new brother-in-law was John Robert Lucas, a Bristol businessman who had purchased some glassworks at Nailsea in Somerset. The business needed a cash injection. It may have faced problems with excise duty as tax was paid on every pane of glass produced. Alternatively, Lucas may have wanted to finance business expansion. He invited William Chance and Edward Homer to become partners in the glassworks. They ventured £10,000 into the business, an indication that they had done well trading their pots and pans.

Edward Homer decided to leave his native Birmingham and in 1794 settled in West Town not far from the Nailsea glassworks. William however, loved Birmingham and brought his wife Sarah to live at 18 Newhall Street. He was a devout Christian and attended both St Philip’s and St Paul’s churches. William and Sarah had thirteen children, although three died in infancy. In January 1805 his estate was estimated at £18,600. The Birmingham business accounted for £3,800, the Nailsea works for £8,000 and he had canal shares of £6,800. On the death of his uncle William (III) the Newhall properties were bequeathed to him, expanding his personal wealth.

Captain Thomas Chance: Merchant

Image: View of Bristol, 1827, Patrick Nasmyth (1787-1831)

Image from: Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Thomas Chance, the third son of John Chance entered commerce and connected the family with international trade. Thomas Chance was born in 1721 and became the captain of a merchant vessel trading in many ports of the world, especially the West Indies. He led an adventurous life and remained unmarried. Thomas traded in the wares of Birmingham taking farming implements, tools, pots, and pans, any other examples of metalware, to the early settlers of the Caribbean and Americas. These metal goods were, of course, supplied from his older brother’s business. Thomas was also engaged in various mercantile pursuits trading with among others the Lucas family of Bristol. There was a close connection between these two families; the estate of the Lucas family was adjacent to the land of the Chance family in Burcott and Shepley. Like the younger generations of the Chance family the younger sons of the Lucas family had ventured away from home and now traded in Bristol. The Lucas connection was important for the later history of the Chance family.

Captain Thomas Chance “made great adventures to the friendly ports of Jamaica” throughout his sailing life. The seafaring life paid well; In 1773 he purchased a lease of 97 years costing £18 and 15 shillings, on pieces of land in Ring Close, Birmingham. This was part of the Colmore Estate and on this land Thomas built two houses built. These became 17 and 18 Newhall Street. He also constructed a warehouse and stables. These were built around the corner from his houses and opened onto what was later called Bread Street. The houses cost £440 and the warehouse and stable £220. Unfortunately Thomas did not live long enough to rest his sea legs in the property as he died the next year in 1774. The property was passed onto his brother William Chance (III).

William I to William III: Farmers, Craftsmen and Traders

Image: A View of Bromsgrove from Hill Top. Thomas Sanders, Perspective Views of the Market Towns within the County of Worcester drawn and engraved by Thomas Sanders (Worcester, 1777).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The origins of the Chance family can be traced back to yeoman farmers in Worcestershire. Each generation of the family included at least one William, so are identified numerically. William Chance (I) died on Boxing Day 1739 and owned freehold and copyhold land at Shepley and Burcott, now parts of Bromsgrove. He left behind two sons and a daughter, William (II), Hannah and John Chance. William (II) continued to manage the family lands at Burcott and raised a large family.

John, the younger brother did not inherit land from his father and decided to branch into trade, he became a cordwainer and mercer in Bromsgrove. A cordwainer was a shoemaker working in cordovan leather, or goats’ leather. This is very soft and lends itself to the making of the high quality boots and the smooth gloves. They are soft and gentle to the touch, and gave birth to the expression “treating with kid gloves”. The business thrived so John was able to take on apprentices to learn the trade. He married a Bromsgrove girl and followed a morally devout life expecting his three sons, John, William (III), and Thomas to adhere to a strict Christian doctrine. John, the eldest, entered into the family business and set up his own establishment at an early age. He married into a well-connected family, the Hunts of Bromsgrove. Unfortunately his wife Hannah and their two baby daughters died within three years of the wedding. Widower John waited less than 8 months before marrying again. This marriage angered his strict Christian father, John Chance the elder, whether this was because of the short duration after the death of the first wife or the choice of the bride is not confirmed. What is recorded is that the elder John Chance had nothing more to do with his son and when John Junior died aged only 39, John Senior made a new will leaving only 1 shilling to his son’s widow.

It was William (III), the devout John’s second son who inherited his father’s estate. William was first a saddler in Bromsgrove, but later moved to Birmingham and traded in iron. By combined economy and enterprise, and this appears to be a family trait, he acquired considerable wealth.

The Chance Family: Merchants and Glassmakers

Image: Front cover of Chance Brothers & Co., Limited, 100 Years of British Glass Making 1824-1924 (Smethwick and Glasgow, Chance Brothers & Co., 1924). A window opens onto a view with a lighthouse. The picture illustrates two of the many products manufactured by the family business during its first one hundred years.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Text: Jan Symes


The Chances were a West Midlands industrial dynasty. They began as Worcestershire farmers and craftsmen, entered commerce and created a huge glassmaking business in Smethwick in the 19th century. They produced sheet glass for the Houses of Parliament and Crystal Palace and high quality optical glass that was used in lighthouses. The men of the family were skilled and successful merchants, financial partners and manufacturers. They earned a reputation for being hard-nosed businessmen but they also held public office and provided schools and other welfare services for their workforce.