Bradford Glass-making

Catcliffe etc 006

I became interested in post-medieval glass making after visiting the nearest surviving glasshouse cone to Bradford, at Catcliffe in South Yorkshire. This is often claimed to be the finest example in Europe and the earliest example in UK. Judge for yourselves from the photograph. Generally this style of glass cone was in vogue around 1730-1830. Catcliffe was constructed 1740 by William Fenny and flint glass for bottles was made there. The works were excavated 1962 by Sheffield Museum. The probability is that during glass-working the basal apertures were open and the draught was quite sufficient to remove waste gases. During actual glass-making the basal openings were closed and the draught was drawn through the furnace flues beneath the cone to a central furnace containing the pots of molten glass. The cone is constructed, to a height of 68 feet, with hand-moulded bricks laid in English garden wall bond.

Bradford itself had a long association with the extractive industries including quarrying, brick-making, coal-mining and iron-smelting. But in the nineteenth century textile manufacture, particularly worsted production, replaced these as the city’s largest employer. But until quite recently, I should have said that no glass manufacture ever took place within the city boundaries. But this is not the case. The only reference I have ever come across in the literature to Bradford glass production is in Francis Buckley’s Old English Glass Houses, written in the 1920s. The author evidently used local newspapers as a source for his study and had come across this item in the Leeds Mercury 11 June 1751. It 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. NB 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.

Buckley also suggested that ‘local enquiry should surely yield further information about this isolated glasshouse’. I should explain that the area now normally called Low Moor was, at various times, known as Wibsey Moor, Morley Carr or North Bierley. A glass house meant a furnace for making glass from basic ingredients such as sand and soda, and did not have its modern meaning of a greenhouse or conservatory. Crown glass was used to make windows, and the finer quality flint glass was used for blowing bottles. Often the two types of glass-making were kept separate by law for taxation reasons.

Strong confirmatory evidence that the newspaper advertisement was correct came from the fact that ‘glass house’ remained as a local place name in the first OS map of the area, and in fact survived into the twentieth century. Unfortunately no glass cone was mapped in 1852. Clearly any glass-house would pre-date 1751 (two more were probably built in south Yorkshire in 1740) and surely nobody would construct such a complex structure without intending to use it. From the wording in the Leeds Mercury I don’t think we can be quite certain that it was ever actually employed for glass-making but it sounds as if the eight cottages are available with vacant possession so possibly an original glass-maker and his men had moved elsewhere.

I speculated that the glass-house was financed by the well known local land-owner Edward Rookes Leedes some time after his marriage in 1740 when he was in funds. At this stage I asked for guidance from the Low Moor Local History Group who were extremely helpful. They had in their possession a map of 1827-28, drawn up for the Low Moor Iron Company, which showed a circular feature compatible with a plan of a glass cone. They also drew my attention to James Parker’s book Rambles from Hipperholme to Tong which confirmed that the glass house had been erected by Edward Rookes Leedes, although the date of construction was not provided. Parker further stated that in 1780 it was demolished by local land-owner Richard Richardson and ‘other freeholders’ as an infringement of their rights. It was then re-erected on Leedes own enclosed ground, also in 1780.

Destroying the enterprises of local land-owners was not all that uncommon as we can see from some entries in the diary of Abraham Balme quoted by the the Victorian historian Cudworth in his History of Bowling.

January 20th, 1775. — Breakfasted with Mr. Jarratt, after went to view the pits. Dined  at the Sun and made an agreement with Jarratt and Co. for the coals. 

March 3rd. — A very remarkable day. Mr. Leedes sent down his mermidans (sic) 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. 

April 17th. — All my masons went to Halifax to see Normington hung in chains. 

April 25th. — Was at Pontefract preferring bills of indictment against Leedes' collyers. 

Putting the evidence together I think we can say that Edward Rookes Leeds owned Royds Hall and its estate. As Lord of the Manor he had some rights over common, unenclosed, land. He shared these rights with other land-owners and local people called freeholders. The area referred to as ‘Morley Carr’ is that area also called Carr Lane Top. In the maps of 1824, and later, there are straight sided fields in this area which look like enclosures, but we are evidently considering a time before this happened. At some stage, but probably after 1740, Edward Leedes constructed a glass-house and also a pot-oven for firing pottery; for reasons unknown he did this on land regarded as ‘common’. In 1780 another local land owner, Dr Richard Richardson jnr of Bierley Hall, together with a gang of men (possibly others with rights on the common land) destroyed the glass house and pot oven. Edward Rookes Leedes re-erected the glass-house and pot-oven on land which was indisputably his own. This rebuilding probably also took place in 1780 and must have occurred earlier than 1788 when he died. After Edward Leedes’s bankruptcy and death his trustees sold off a property which consisted of a glass-house, pot-oven, three cottages and a smithy. It was worth £105.

There are still some difficulties. We know 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 (ie 1780 for 1750)? If the date of 1780 is indeed correct then we may have no less than three glass-houses in Low Moor at various times! Also if the 1780 date is correct then the intervention of Dr Richard Richardson jnr. (1708-1781) was in the year before his death when he was 72 years old. Is this really likely? Finally Edward Leedes commission of bankruptcy was established by July 1781. Would Leedes have been involved in expensive re-building projects when he was so near to the edge, or indeed over it?

I cannot claim to be a social historian and am more interested in technology. I would say that a glass cone was a very major piece of construction. For one thing it would need large underground flues if, as likely, it was coal fired. If the freeholders attacked it when it was fired up (an extremely dangerous thing to do) it would have been destroyed completely as molten glass from broken fireclay pots sprayed into the furnace area. If it was attacked during or immediately after construction, but before firing, it would have been more sensible for Leedes to have reached some financial accommodation with the Freeholders which enabled him to rebuild on the same site. The whole area is now under car parks and buildings belonging to BASF so no remains seem likely to be discovered.


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