Bradford was never an important Yorkshire centre for the manufacture of glass, unlike Hunslet, Rotherham, Barnsley, or Kottingley. It is regrettable then that the construction of its solitary glass-house seems to be one of the least well-understood episodes in Bradford’s industrial history. The glass-house was situated in the district of Low Moor, then variously called Wibsey Moor, Morley Carr, or North Bierley. A circular feature described as a ‘glass-house’ is drawn on a map produced by George Fox in 1827 for the famous Low Moor Iron Company. The whole area was known as Glass House, with a Glass House farm and a Glass House terrace existing as place names in the first OS map of the area (1850) and almost within living memory. The history of the works has proved very difficult to piece together.
Some readers may be familiar with a book by R.C.N. Thornes’s entitled West Yorkshire: A Noble Scene of Industry. This actually has an illustration labelled ‘bottle cone in North Bierley’. Sadly further research suggests that this structure may have been shaped like a bottle but was a nearby malting kiln with no glass-making connection. There is no reference to a glasshouse in the West Yorkshire Historical Environment Record, and in fact the only mention of it that I had ever come across in the literature was in Francis Buckley’s Old English Glass Houses written in the 1920s; with considerable prescience Buckley writes ‘local enquiry should surely yield further information about this isolated glasshouse’. The very active Low Moor Local History Group have proved that Buckley was correct and have been a great help with my researches.
A reference to a glass house at Wibsey Moor, near Bradford is contained in the Leeds Mercury of 11 June 11 1751. This reads: ‘to be lett: a very good glass house adjoining to Wibsey-Moor, three miles from Halifax and two from Bradford with a very good farm-house and 22 acres of good land belonging to it. Also eight cottages for workmen to dwell in. For further particulars enquire of the printer of this paper or of Mr Abram Swain, cow doctor, at Horton near Bradford. N.B. There is plenty of very good stone upon the place that grinds to a good sand, and is as proper as any that can be bought to make flint and crown glass with. Also very good coal within 300 yards of this glass-house at two pence per horse load.’ In this context crown glass means window glass, with flint glass being employed for higher quality bottles and jars.
Clearly the construction of the glass-house must pre-date 1751. This date is fine since two more glass works are believed to have been built in south Yorkshire in the 1740s; one of these, at Catcliffe, is illustrated. Nobody would construct such a large structure without intending to use it, although from the wording of the Leeds Mercury notice I don’t think we can be quite certain that it had been actually employed for glass-making prior to its sale. It sounds as if the eight cottages are available with vacant possession so perhaps an original glass-maker and his men have moved elsewhere. One very definite possibility, as we shall see, is that the glass-house was financed by local landowner Edward Rookes Leeds. This would have happened some time after his marriage in 1740 when he was in funds. However if he was still the owner at the time of the 1751 sale it is strange that he did not have his own agent and rather had to employ a Horton cow doctor.
Leeds Archives have a schedule of deeds signed by William Rookes (Edward’s brother) after Edward Leeds’s subsequent bankruptcy. These date from 1783-84 and seem to indicate that after his financial failure several parcels of land & cottages were sold off for cash. Many are in Wibsey Low Moor or North Bierley, but the glass-house is not one of them. The name is not even used as a place name, or to indicate the position of another property. James Parker’s Rambles from Hipperholme to Tong mentions that a glass-house was the source of dissent among landowners. It had been constructed by Leeds on common land and fellow land-owner Richard Richardson, the younger (1708-1781), of Bierley Hall had the glass-house (and also pot ovens and a smithy) destroyed in 1780. He and other commoners objected to what they saw as an infringement of their common land rights. Parker further states that the trustees of Edward Leeds later sold the glass-house after it had been ‘newly erected’, although his words do not make it certain that it was necessarily re-erected on the same site as its destroyed predecessor. Edward Rookes Leeds owned Royds Hall and its estate. As Lord of the Manor he had some rights over common, unenclosed, land but he shared these rights with other land-owners and local ‘commoners’. In the maps of 1824, and later, there are straight sided field boundaries in this area which look like enclosure fields, but in 1780 we are evidently considering a time before any local enclosure act. After Leeds’s bankruptcy and death (in 1787) his trustees sold off a property which consisted of a glass-house, pot-oven, three cottages and a smithy; it was worth £105.
The first major difficulty is the knowledge, from the Leeds Mercury report, that the Wibsey Moor glass-house was available for purchase as early as 1751. Surely the time to demolish the ‘illegal’ building would be soon after its completion, not thirty years after its erection. So could Parker’s quoted date be incorrect? But if the date of 1780 is indeed accurate we then have to consider that there was more than one glass-house in Low Moor at different times. Also if the 1780 date is correct then the intervention of Richard Richardson was in the year before his death when he was 72 years old. Is this really likely? Finally Edward Leeds commission of bankruptcy was actually established by July 1781. Would Leeds or his trustees have been involved in an expensive re-building project when he was so near to the edge, or indeed over it?
The second difficulty is the question of whether the glass-house and pot-oven were rebuilt on one site or two sites. The Wibsey pottery was reconstructed at ‘Pothouse’ near Folly Hall Mill, which is nowhere near ‘Glass House’, Morley Carr. So re-erection of the two works on two separate locations seems highly likely. A pot-oven and a glass-furnace were different technologies and there would be no reason to have them in close proximity. A glass cone was a major piece of construction and not a project you could easily extemporise. For one thing if it were coal fuelled then it would need very large underground flues. If the commoners attacked it when it was fired up (an extremely dangerous thing to do) it would have been destroyed completely as molten glass sprayed into the furnace area. If it was attacked during or immediately after construction, but before firing, it would have been more sensible for Leeds to have reached some financial accommodation with his neighbours which would have enabled him to rebuild on the same site.
The final small piece of evidence I have at the moment comes from the diary of local businessman Abraham Balme which is quoted by William Cudworth in his History of Bowling. This suggests that Edward Leeds may not have been blameless in the vigorous enforcement of his own rights in respect of a coal pit. On 3 March 1775 Balme writes: ‘a very remarkable day. Mr. Leeds sent down his myrmidons to destroy the new work let to Jarratt & Co., which they filled up, broke all the sough stones. Went to Mr. Wickham, took out a warrant against ten of them, came back, sent Fox the bailiff to take them up, which he did, and immediately we had them bound to appear at Pontefract Sessions’. He followed this up with 25 April 1775 ‘was at Pontefract preferring bills of indictment against Leeds’s collyers’. Could this episode have triggered the subsequent neighbourly vengeance which brought Bradford’s glass industry to its premature conclusion?