Description of the Glassworks

Image: The Glass and Lighthouse Works at Smethwick. This view of Chances’s Smethwick factory shows the size of the works in the early 20th century. Glass cones can be seen at various locations across the site. 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

In 1868 Elihu Burritt visited the Smethwick site and described it as “large enough to constitute a village itself”. His language may be a little fanciful, but his writing captured the awe of watching a skilled glass blower at work.

The Glass works of the Messrs. Chance constitute one of the most remarkable establishments in the world, both for extent and character of their operations and productions.  They embrace a small, compact town of edifices difficult to represent in any familiar simile.  If seen from a certain distance by moonlight,when quiet and smokeless, they might look to an imaginative eye like a great nest of cathedrals and Turkish mosques. These buildings cover a territory of about 24 acres.  It is intersected by a canal, with its landings in the middle of the works, which have about a score of boats of their own for transportation of the raw material and its wonderful productions when ready for home and exportation. This may serve to convey some idea of the establishment when cold and silent But when all aglow with its fiery industries, it represents a scene which Virgil and Dante would have described in terms and figures unsuited to modern conceptions and facts. In one section of these great works are bowls made of Stourbridge fire clay, which hold about two tons of the liquid, which is called metal.  The pipes are iron, nearly as long as a fishing rod.  The bubbles blown are perfectly marvellous.  They weigh about thirty pounds each, and are from five to six feet in length.  The whole operation seems like magic.  Nothing in the working of other metals is like these strange manipulations.  That is not the word for them either, for the mouth seems to have more to do in the matter than the hand. Here a score of men dipping their pipes into those terrible pots taking up a ball of the red metal, and then blowing and twirling the bubble until it becomes a cylinder as long as a two-bushel bag of wheat.  What lungpower must be brought to bear upon the thousands inflated here in a week! The human breath forced through all those iron pipes, if put in one volume, ought to be enough to propel a ship of the line across the Atlantic.  Few artisans could have trained the measurement of the eye to such a fine precision as these glass blowers.  To take up an ounce the exact quantity of metal, then to blow and twirl it into a cylinder that shall not vary a hair’s breath from the requisite thickness and diameter is a remarkable, almost unparalleled feat of skill.

Description of the Glassworks

Image: View of Chance Brothers Glassworks, Smethwick (1857) from a print. James Frederick Chance, A History of the Firm of Chance Brothers and Co. Glass and Alkali Manufacturers (London, Spotiswoode, Ballantyne and Co Ltd, 1919).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

In 1835 Robert Lucas Chance wrote a detailed description of the site of the glassworks, when hoping to raise further capital from investors.

The premises consist of a large mansion and pleasure grounds, a House for an under Manager, about 40 cottages for the Workmen.  One single and two double crown Houses, capable of working from ten to twelve thousand tables per week.  One House for working German sheet glass and shades.  Lead chambers, and alkali works, in which about 25 tons of soda can be made per week.  Carpenter’s shop, a smith’s shop on an extensive scale.  Engines for grinding materials, &c. Gas apparatus, Warehouses, cutting rooms, pot rooms, &c., upon a very extensive scale. The premises occupy 12 or 14 acres of ground, which is Freehold and is bounded and intersected by the Birmingham Canal, both on the upper and lower level.

French and Belgian Workers

Image: Manufacture of coloured sheet window-glass. This photograph dates from the early 20th century but shows a process that was brought to Chance Brothers by French workers in the 1830s and 1840s. 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

Skilled European glassworkers were recruited by Chances in three main phases:

  • 1832 when French blowers were recruited to develop sheet glass production;
  • 1845 when Belgian workers were engaged after sales of glass increased following the repeal of the window tax.
  • 1850 when additional workers from France were recruited to produce glass for the Crystal Palace.

The procurement of overseas workmen was a dangerous activity. It was illegal in France, Belgium and Germany to entice workers to work away from their native homeland. Members of the Chance family or the agents who acted on their behalf faced imprisonment if their activities were discovered.

Robert Lucas Chance’s original plan was to substitute the French and Belgian workers with local workmen once they had acquired the necessary skills to produce sheet glass. However, the blowers and flatteners operated a familial precept where skills could only be taught to their own descendants. They insisted on only working with their compatriots in their own glasshouses so that their methods could be kept secret.  The training of native blowers was a slow process and explains why several French and Belgian families resided in Smethwick for many years.  Their influence was long-term and they brought their own terms into the trade: a day’s work was measured in “journeys” from the French “journée” and the boys who helped the blowers were called “gamins”.

Incentives were offered to French and Belgian workers to apply and impart their skills.  They were paid at a higher rate than the native glass workers. Evidence of this can be found in the company’s wage books and the account books which detail the disparity between rates paid to the English and overseas workers. They also received free housing, coal and monthly bonuses. The first foreign workers and their families were provided with workmen’s cottages which were known as Scotch Row. Robert Lucas Chance had originally intended to recruit glass workers from Scotland and amongst the original workers were families from Dumbarton, an area known for glass making in the early nineteenth century. Another row of cottages in Union Street, Spon Lane was purchased by Chances from a William Grigg, these were to house recruits from Belgium. This sequence of houses was known as Belgian Row.

The newcomers introduced wine drinking and allegedly the eating of frog’s legs. Like all newcomers from different countries they were stereotyped. There is an urban myth that once the French arrived the number of legless frogs in the canal increased! The new families did not always get on well with their Smethwick neighbours; many of the street fights were Anglo-French encounters.

An account of the French community was given in the company’s records:

Amongst the “glasshouse crew” bearded, blue-bloused and with dark eyes and olive cheeks under their heavy flapped leather hats, are a little colony of French workmen, who with their families occupy a row of houses adjoining the works and support a native “cabaret” of their own, where ordinaire, (a light wine), is to be bought by the “chopine.”

Amongst the first contingent of French glassblowers to arrive at Spon Lane were two brothers, Nicholas Gaspard and Caspar André. They were born in Monthermé, Ardennes and were employed by Georges Bontemps at his Choisy-le-Roi glassworks.   In a letter penned by his son who was born in Smethwick, Nicholas Gaspard was described as “a splendid specimen of manhood of more than six feet high and known at the works as ‘Big Gaspard’.”  Robert Lucas Chance made Big Gaspard head-workman of the glassworks and he remained there for eighteen years.

Many of the French and Belgian workers arranged with the company to open a special savings account and accumulated considerable amounts of money.  Some returned to their homeland and purchased land on which they could retire. The letter written by Gaspard André’s son detailed how ‘Big Gaspard’ left the employment of Chance Brothers.

In 1850, Nicholas Gaspard had attained his 48th year of age and in the glassblowing trade, this is generally considered as the reasonable working limit of a glass blower. Although in capital health and in fact, a real athlete, he deemed it prudent to cease glass blowing and accordingly informed Messrs. Chance of his determination to retire, requesting at the same time that his special account at the firm should be squared up. This account, capital and interest comprised, amounted to the rather stupendous sum, for a simple workman of 5,000 Francs.

Not all French and Belgians returned to their homeland. Many of the “bon-‘omes”, as the locals called them, married local girls and settled in Smethwick. Two brothers, Alphonse and Eugene Bregy became owners of The Wagon and Horses and The Castle public houses. Another notable émigré was Joseph Zeller. On retirement from Chance Brothers he became a local entrepreneur and his son became an hotelier and a director of Walsall Football Club. Undoubtedly other descendants of the Spon Lane French colony are still resident within the local area.

Relations between Workers and the Company

Image: Group of Long-serving medallists at Chance Brothers, Smethwick (1916). Each member of the group had been in the service of the company for at least 50 years

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The contract to glaze the Crystal Palace gave the company a sound financial base.   This had not always been the case. Lucas had to call on his own brother to add funds to the firm in the early 1830s.  After the repeal of the tax on glass in 1845 increased funding was required by Chances to extend glass production.  One way of acquiring extra funds was to cut the rate of pay of the workforce. A request was sent to the workers in July 1847 to ask them to reduce their rates, which had been agreed with their trade union in the previous year.  Their reply, which is reproduced below, not only highlights the polite correspondence between the workers and the owners but also features the number of literate workmen: only 11 out of the 49 signatories signed their name with an X. In over 125 years of glass production the workers never came out on strike at Chance Brothers.  Areas of dispute and disagreement were resolved by dialogue and conciliation.

Smethwick July 30th 1847

To Messrs. Chance, Brothers & Co.


We have called a meeting together today according to your request and we hereby beg to state that the undermentioned, and subsequent to their most serious consideration too, what with the high price of provisions  – we really cannot with justice to ourselves and our families as respects our comforts at home – but adhere too and maintain our present prices according to our agreement as specified in the same, and which agreement we considered quite reciprocal between master and servants.  Could we meet your views we certainly should have been glad to do so, but really when you come to consider our objection as laid down we feel assur’d that you will as rational gentlemen consider our determination reasonable. 

We are Gentlemen

Your Respectful Servants

The Undermentioned

49 signatories follow.

Company Philanthropic Activity

Image: The Spon Lane Schools, Smethwick built by Chance Brothers, Glassmakers (1845) from an original design in watercolour. James Frederick Chance, A History of the Firm of Chance Brothers and Co. Glass and Alkali Manufacturers (London, Spotiswoode, Ballantyne and Co Ltd, 1919).

Image: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The Chance Company engaged in local philanthropic activity. It built a school within the factory grounds, which not only educated the boys and girls of employees but also the children of the local area. A fee of threepence per week for each scholar was charged but for boys, “whose parents were well-to-do people”  the fee was sixpence a week.  The Chance family met the salaries for the masters and female teachers as well as providing housing.

The endowment of West Smethwick Park, the building of St. Paul’s Church in Smethwick (now demolished) and the opening of the first convalescent home in “the rural green fields of Quinton” were examples of activities to enhance local facilities.

Lighthouse Production

Image: Chance Brothers Lighthouse Work: Lightship with Lantern and illuminating Apparatus. Typical Illustrations of the Lighthouse Work of Chance Brothers and Co. Limited Birmingham (1919).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Chance’s Black Country and Birmingham workers found themselves in far flung destinations, such as Sierra Leone, Australia and China.  The lenses were unpacked carefully, reconstructed on site and then underwent rigorous testing. A boat was sent out which checked the angle and reflection of the beam at the distances of 5 miles, 15 miles and 20 miles.  Every single light was 100% accurate, a tremendous achievement.  In recognition of his endeavours James Timmins Chance was awarded the Telford Gold Medal by the Institute of Civil Engineers and was also knighted by Queen Victoria.

Lighthouse Production

Image: Chance Brothers Lighthouse Work: Manual Reed Fog Horn. Typical Illustrations of the Lighthouse Work of Chance Brothers and Co. Limited Birmingham (1919).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

James Timmins Chance personally supervised every detail of lighthouse work. Chances produced each piece of precision glass to ensure the light turned, burned and beamed out to sea. They also manufactured the mechanical equipment, illuminants, towers and foghorns; every part of the lighthouse except the masonry towers.  The lights were constructed at the Chance glassworks and inspected by officials from Trinity House.  Each one was dismantled, packed, shipped out and rebuilt on site by Chances’ workers. This was because of Chance Brothers experience when they produced lenses for Whitby Lighthouse. The lenses were perfect upon leaving the factory, however, when refitting took place at Whitby the assemblers did not take sufficient care and the refracted light beam was faulty.  James Timmins Chance personally supervised the correction at Whitby and demanded that any other lights were constructed on site by Chance workers.

Lighthouse Production

Image: Chance Brothers Lighthouse Work: Lighthouse Towers in Course of Erection at the Works. Typical Illustrations of the Lighthouse Work of Chance Brothers and Co. Limited Birmingham (1919).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Before James turned his attention to the construction of lighthouse lenses two French firms dominated the market, M. Lepaute and Mm. Sautter & Cie. of Paris. James commenced designing lighthouses on the advice of Sir David Brewster, the eminent Scottish scientist, whose achievements included the kaleidoscope and stereoscope. Brewster visited the Spon Lane site and on viewing the various experiments James had conducted on optical lenses and light refraction, he persuaded him to manufacture dioptric apparatus, (refractive lenses).

James researched, experimented and consulted with the leading French experts.  He became fully absorbed with the design and manufacture of the complicated arrangement of lenses.  This did not always make him popular with the older members of the family firm, as it was to the detriment of the more profitable undertakings.  James persevered and one of his first lights obtained a First Class Medal at a Paris exhibition. He steadily advanced the excellence of the power of the lights until they were far superior to the French products. The firm won the commission to supply lights from Trinity House, the authority that controlled the provision and maintenance lighthouses.

So great was the improvement of the intensity of the light that was transmitted from Chances’ lighthouses, that when a new light was supplied for St. Catherine in the Isle of Wight, the keepers requested blue spectacles to protect their eyes.

Lighthouse Production

Image: Chance Brothers Lighthouse Work: Interior Views of Shops. Typical Illustrations of the Lighthouse Work of Chance Brothers and Co. Limited Birmingham (1919).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The part that Chance Brothers played in the production and development of lighthouse lenses and machinery elevated the company into the status of world leader in glass. The man behind this accomplishment was James Timmins Chance. The complexity of manufacturing, assembling and positioning lenses to produce the light beams required skills needed across a spectrum of subjects, including mathematics, geometry, mechanics and science. James acknowledged: “the resources of physical, mathematical and mechanical science alike are taxed in the production of these beautiful instruments.”

Glazing the Crystal Palace

Image: The Crystal Palace at Sydenham. Hand-coloured print. After the 1851 Exhibition in Hyde Park, the Crystal Palace was taken down and rebuilt at Sydenham in South London. This image of the interior shows the sheet glass made at Chance Brothers to provide the glazing for the building. Illustrated London News.

Image from: Private Collection

The contract was completed on time despite the fact that much of the glass delivered to Hyde Park was smashed by the carelessness of construction workers. The company recorded that some of those employed during the construction of the Palace “saw fit to use a pile of packed crates for standing on.”

The Crystal Palace did not meet with everyone’s approval.  The Times thought it would become the “bivouac of all the vagabonds of London.”  One Colonel Sibthorpe, M.P. warned householders of the area to lock up their silverware and their maids.  John Ruskin likened the building to a great cucumber frame with two chimneys.  What cannot be denied is that it was a great success and made the name of Chance synonymous with excellence in design and manufacture.  Although the company exhibited many items of glassware at the Great Exhibition, they were not allowed to enter any of the competitions because Robert Lucas Chance was one of the judges who awarded the medals.  A quote from the official presentation is recorded in A History of Chance Brothers and Co.:

The name Chance occurs so frequently in the preceding observations and is so honourable connected with every branch of the manufacture that we cannot but regret that, according to the regulations laid down by the Commissioners, their firm is precluded from entering into competition for the Medals by the fact of one of the partners having consented to act as a member of our jury.

Glazing the Crystal Palace

Image: Print of the Crystal Palace, engraved by A Le Blond (1819-94)

Image from: Private Collection

One of the greatest achievements of Chance Brothers was to supply the glass used to glaze Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Hyde Park, London. The firm had already supplied the glass for Paxton’s famous glasshouse at Chatsworth and they tendered for the new contract. Lucas, the firm’s founder sent his son Robert and the leading French glassblower, Stengre, to Rive-de-Gier to secure the services of more expert workmen.  Reaching Lyons on July 25 1850, they were able to engage thirteen blowers. When news reached Robert junior and Stengre that the tender had been accepted and that extra labour was required they extended their recruitment drive and secured the services of thirty blowers and flatteners.  The first eight of those engaged arrived at Spon Lane in Stengre’s charge on August 8 and were set to work immediately.

All the furnaces had to be worked at extra pressure.  The Spon Lane works hummed with activity because the company still maintained their ordinary output.  In a few weeks more than a million square feet of glass in panes measuring 49 by 10 inches were produced. In January 1851, 63,000 panes of glass were turned out in just one fortnight.  This was indeed a fantastic feat as glass had to be blown into a cylinder, then split, flattened, annealed, skimmed, ground, polished and cut to size.

New Technology

Image: James Timmins Chance at the age of 40, from a painting by J.C. Horsley, 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

One area where the company surpassed competition was in the development of polishing and grinding machines to produce the finest plate glass.  James Timmins Chance, the founder’s nephew, invented a machine that carried out both polishing and grinding in one procedure. Work began in May 1840 with the introduction of polishing and grinding machines powered by a Boulton, Watt & Co. 60 h.p. beam engines from their nearby Soho Foundry. In the polishing room of the glassworks the sheets of glass were placed on machines and furnished with felt covered polishing rubbers.  As the glass travelled along the bed of the machine the rubbers rotated in different directions so that the sheet of glass was polished evenly on both sides. The company expanded the work and by May 1841 4,000 feet of glass a week were being produced. During the process iron oxide was used which gave off a red residue, this not only covered the machines and walls of the polishing room but also the workers.  This must have been an eerie sight when late at night strange red creatures emerged from the glow of the glassworks into the dark streets of Smethwick.

Flint Glass

Image: Glassmaking. Rolling a tube of red-hot glass to reach the desired shape. The boy or gamin continued to blow through the tube. William Cooper, Crown Glass Cutter & Glazier’s Manual (1835).

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

Flint glass production was similar to the making of Crown glass.  A ball of “metal” was placed on an iron rod, which the workman whirled around his head before rolling it on an iron slab.  The “metal” was then rendered hollow by blowing down the tube. The blower then sat on a chair with arms sloping downwards and rolled the tube rapidly on the arms of the chair.  A boy or “gamin” continued to blow down the tube at regular intervals until the desired dimensions were attained. Great care was needed to regulate the thickness of the glass and the workman constantly measured the glass with his compass and scale.  Flint glass was of a high transparency and was often used to make highly ornate pieces of glassware.  These were made principally by blowing molten glass into a hollow and then teasing the shape with hand tools or moulds to produce the desired article.

Plate or Sheet Glass

Image: Manufacture of Rolled Plate Glass.  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

Blowing the “metal” into the form of a cylinder was the first stage of making sheet glass. J F Chance detailed the modes of production in his book. The workman judged the dimensions and thickness of the walls of these cylinders with a skill that could only be acquired after years of practice.  The perfectly formed cylinder was then cut longitudinally and reheated in a flattening kiln or “lear” where it gradually opened out into a flat sheet, limited in size and thickness only by the weight of the glass that the blower could wield. The advantage over crown glass was that greater dimensions could be achieved in one single pane of glass, therefore, avoiding wastage. The disadvantage of this glass was an unevenness of surface and a comparative lack of brilliance. These shortcomings were soon resolved by the invention of grinding and polishing machines by James Timmins Chance.

Crown Glass

Image: One stage in the process of Crown glass manufacturing. The workman rotated the heated globe of glass on the iron pontil or punty rod with increasing velocity. A circular glass sheet was formed, held in the centre by the rod to form the “bulls-eye” or “bullion” prior to taking it to the annealing oven. William Cooper, Crown Glass Cutter & Glazier’s Manual (1835).

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

In Crown glass production, the blower dipped a hollow iron rod into the “metal” and by blowing, rolling and reheating the “metal”, a large globe was formed with an elongated tubular neck.  This globule was transferred to another workman who rotated and slowly heated the neck of the globe causing it to open gradually. This form was then passed to the “flasher” who placed the rod once again in the furnace but this time it rested on a hook fixed into the wall.  The “metal” was then rotated rapidly until the glass assumed the shape of a flat sheet or “table” with a thick boss at the centre. This table was then placed in the annealing oven for twenty-four hours at an extremely high temperature of 600-700º Fahrenheit. The table was then removed and cut up into window glass. The thick boss in the centre formed the panes, which were known as “bulls-eye” or “bullion” glass.  Crown glass survived for many years longer in England than on the continent, where sheet or plate glass became the norm.

Types of Glass

Image: Glass Pots in which the ingredients used in glassmaking were fired. These were made from Stourbridge clay in controlled conditions to ensure that they were free of air bubbles and dried very slowly. The Useful Arts and Manufacturers of Great Britain of Great Britain, Vol. 1 (London, SPCK, 1846?)

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

The three types of glass that Chances produced were crown, plate or sheet glass and flint glass.  The bases for all three were silica and a metallic oxide.  The proportions of ingredients varied according to the kind of glass made and the individual practice of each glass producer, who guarded their recipes carefully.  Generally the ingredients and proportions were as follows:

  • Crown glass: 63 % white sand, 7 % chalk, 30 % soda
  • Plate glass: 55 % white sand, 35 % soda, 8 % soda, 2% lime
  • Flint glass: 52% white sea sand, 14% potash, 34% oxide of lead


The glass was produced in cone-shaped glass houses with wide open-top chimneys.  Inside there was a central furnace surrounded by six to eight pots made of Stourbridge clay. Raw ingredients were placed into these pots and heated and mixed until the “metal” fused into a soft mass. The exhibition The Smethwick Glass Works of Chance Brothers, West Midlands (Theme: Industry and Innovation) provides a further insight into manufacturing processes.

The Chemical Works

Image: View of Chance Brothers Alkali Works, Oldbury (1862). James Frederick Chance, A History of the Firm of Chance Brothers and Co. Glass and Alkali Manufacturers (London, Spotiswoode, Ballantyne and Co Ltd, 1919). The huge chimneys were typical of alkali works, they were built to release hydrochloric acid fumes which were produced during the manufacturing process into the upper atmosphere and diffuse their polluting effects. The attempt was not successful and led chemical manufacturers to develop means of condensing acid vapour before releasing fumes into the air.

Image from:  Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The production of sheet glass, as with every other type of glass required various chemicals, including sulphate of soda.  Chance Brothers were dissatisfied with the supplies of the chemical and decided to manufacture soda themselves. They began by erecting a vitriol chamber and saltcake furnaces to produce sulphur, acid and white ash for the production of their glass. This process took place in buildings situated within the confines of the glass works. In 1835 the company bought land in Oldbury and built a chemical plant, the Oldbury Chemical Works, which became the largest chemical works in the Midlands and was known locally as the Acid Works. The Chances employed an analyst Richard Phillips who developed a process for making sulphate of soda by furnacing salt with sulphate of iron obtained by atmospheric oxidation of iron pyrites.  Chances obtained the English patent No 6846 for this process on 4 June 1835. This invention and the development of recovering lime and sulphur from the waste of the process was another first for the firm.

The Arrival of Expert Workers

Image: Interior of a Crown-Glass Works. William Cooper, Crown Glass Cutter & Glazier’s Manual (1835).

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

In early 19th century Britain, crown glass was used for glazing windows, but on the continent sheet or plate glass was manufactured. Robert Lucas Chance visited France, Belgium and Germany and investigated new ways of producing window glass. He visited Georges Bontemps, the leading expert in glass manufacture who had his own glassworks at Choisy-le Roi, near Paris. Bontemps had succeeded in reproducing the brilliant ruby glass of the ancients and had founded a school specialising in the art of painting windows.  A friendship was formed between the two businessmen and Bontemps help was invaluable when Lucas decided to produce sheet glass at Spon Lane.  Bontemps helped to recruit French and Belgian glass blowers to work in Smethwick and teach local glass blowers to blow their globes of molten glass into cylinders rather than spheres. In August 1832 sheet glass production began in No.2 glasshouse, which from that time was described as the French house. It was many years before any of Chance’s competitors began their own production of sheet glass.

Chance Brothers and Company

Image: View of a Crown Glass House. Title page of William Cooper, Crown Glass Cutter & Glazier’s Manual (1835). The British Crown Glass Works probably resembled the glassworks in this image prior to the purchase of the business by Robert Lucas Chance.

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

Robert Lucas Chance purchased the British Crown Glass Company of Spon Lane, Smethwick from Joseph Stock in 1824 where glass had been manufactured since 1814. The land formed part of Blakeley Hall Farm and the area of 10 acres extended from Spon Lane to Oldbury bounded by the canal on one side and the Birmingham Road turnpike on the other. The old Blakely Hall had been Oldbury’s half-timbered 14th century Manor House, surrounded by a moat, but when Robert Lucas Chance acquired the land there only stood a three-storey farmhouse, which had replaced the original Manor House in 1768.

The business benefited from its location, with the canal and wharf dissecting the site. This mode of transport was essential for the movement of the very fragile glass, as the roads of the day were pitted with potholes and ridges. The ability of Chance Brothers to move glass safely and quickly was one of the reasons for their expansion and success.

Lucas, as the family called him, had great hopes for the enterprise as a letter to his brother Henry, a barrister of Lincoln’s Inn showed: “I have every reason for thinking that the concern will realize the most sanguine expectations I form’d and it presents a scope for the exercise of my acquirements as a man of business.” On purchase the business only contained one glass house situated next to the canal. Lucas erected a second glass house and in 1828, a third was added to meet the demand of the export trade. In the early 1830s during a depression in the glass trade, Lucas faced financial difficulties. These were surmounted by the aid of his brother William. William along with his younger brother George had a successful iron merchants business operating from premises in Great Charles Street, Birmingham. They traded almost exclusively with America and William found the capital to guarantee the survival of the firm and became a full partner of the company.

The Infinite Uses of Glass: Chance Brothers, Glassmakers of Smethwick

Image: Hyper-radial single flashing light. Typical Illustrations of the Lighthouse Work of Chance Brothers and Co. Limited Birmingham (1919).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Text: Jan Symes


It is difficult to determine when glass itself was first made. For many centuries, churches and monasteries were the only buildings to have their windows glazed. Private houses had either oil-paper or wooden lattices covering window spaces. The manufacture of crown glass, reputedly first produced in Britain at Crutched Friars in London, in 15571, literally let light into people’s homes. This bullion glass which was cut from blown globes of glass survived in Britain longer than on the continent.

In the early 19th century, a new method, the cylinder process, was developed in Europe. In Britain four companies adopted this process, Chances of Smethwick, Pilkingtons (originally Greenall and Pilkington) of St. Helens, Hartleys of Sunderland and Cooksons of Newcastle. In 1832 Chance Brothers of Spon Lane, Smethwick. were the first to adopt the cylinder method and produce sheet glass. They overtook their rivals and became the main producer of window glass in Great Britain.

Chance Brothers was a family business for six generations. The founder was Robert Lucas Chance, who purchased an existing glass making company in Spon Lane Smethwick in 1824. With his driving force and business acumen he established the largest enterprise in Great Britain for the manufacture of plate and window glass, lighthouse lenses and optical glasses.

It was the founder’s nephew James Timmins Chance, whose ingenuity in mechanising the glass-making process gave the firm their pre-eminent position. The firm glazed the Crystal Palace and Houses of Parliament, made the white glass for the four faces of Big Ben and created ornamental windows for the White House in America. Chances manufactured stained glass windows, ornamental lamp shades, microscope glass slides, painted glassware and the lenses, lights and machinery for lighthouses around the world. Chances even perfected the first optical lenses to block the harmful ultra-violet rays of the sun.

Elihu Burritt summarised the scope of glass production at Chance Brothers: “In no other establishment in the world can one get such a full idea of the infinite uses which glass is made to serve as in these immense works”2

1 The Useful Arts and Manufacturers of Great Britain, p. 7.
2 E. Burritt, Walks in the Black Country and its Green Borderland (1868), p.149.