Thursday, 2 July 2009

Last Chance, Next Chance

It's one of the best-known sites alongside the canal in the West Midlands: the canyon alongside the derelict Chance Glassworks factory in Smethwick. It's maroon-brown bricks and elegantly proportioned windows gaze, now blankly, out over the New Line way below and the main railway line opposite. Behind, the M5 strides past on concrete legs, leaving bitter, rancid dust all around.

Today, the graffiti artist has declared it to be a Slum in large white letters, but what was Chance? Who or what did this company do, other than the blindlingly obvious?

The Beginnings
The first industry here was a small glassworks, built on part of a Blakeley Hall Farm by Joseph Stock in 1814. At that time, Smethwick was a rural area with just a few houses strung out along the Birmingham to Dudley Road and alongside the canal. It was a ten acre site stretching from Spon Lane towards Oldbury. There had been a farm here since the 14th Century, but the safe, secure and smooth transport offered by the waterway placed a premium on all canalside property.

In those days, it was all open fields and most of the Black Country place-names were simply small villages: it was, of course, first the canals and then the railways that were to change the landscape for ever.

In 1824, Lucas Chance bought the single glasshouse and immediately built a second one, with a third added four years later. However, the firm was not a great success and he needed financial support from his brothers William and George who had built up a successful ironmongery trading business in Birmingham.

Lucas' break came when he visited the more advanced glass manufacturers on the Continent, including those of Georges Bontemps at Choisy-le-Roi outside Paris. Lucas and Georges became good friends and the Frenchman helped with both technology and recruitment of skilled workers. These French craftsmen taught their English colleagues the skills of creating various types of glass, and even left their legacy on local language - apparently the word "journey" (from "journee") is used locally to mean 'a shift', as is the word "gamin" (from "garcon") for 'apprentice'. This was not straightforward as incitement of French workers to emigrate was a serious criminal offence in those days!

The Business Grows
In 1832, Chance started producing sheet glass and so became the first company in Britain to produce flat window glass. The business grew at an incredible speed, requiring new glasshouses but also requiring supporting factories and chemical plants to make the sulphate of soda, sulphur, acid and whote ash. They quickly ran out of space and opened factories nearby, using boats to transfer the products; this included the Oldbury Chemical Works, opened in 1835, which soon became the biggest single chemical plant in the Midlands.

The company made three types of glass - plate, crown and flint - in glasshouses in the shape of a cone, with a huge furnace surrounded by up to eight pots made out of Stourbridge Clay.

Crown glass was the most extensive type, created by a man blowing and waving the glass globule as it was molten, eventually ending up with a large circular sheet of glass. At the centre was a boss, which used to be seen at the centre of so many windows - a swirl of glass like a bullseye. This bullseye style is retained in many heritage buildings around Britain, although most people and owners will have no idea why it was ever done in the first place.

Chance grew fast and expanded into new and different areas: it was to become the world's leading maufacturer of specialist scientific and optical glass. The company was to provide the glass for the Crystal Palace hall of the Great Exhibition in 1851 and also for the Houses of Parliament, including the white glass used for the four faces of Big Ben. Indeed, such was the fame of the Chances firm that their glass was regularly used for glazing the windows of the White House in Washington DC.

One of the most spectacular developments was the creation of the lens for lighthouses which required incredibly complex designs and complicated design. The work became so lucrative that Chance eventually built entire lighthouses - except for the brick structure itself - manufacturing and installing every piece of equipment. Men from the Black Country would travel the world to 'shine the light out onto the seas'. The glass was so pure and the designs so effective that when the company reglazed the St Catharines lighthouse on the Isle of Wight, the lighthouse keepers requested blue-tinted spectacles to protect their eyes from the dazzling light!

Domestic Glassware
Chance Glass was always popular,and even today is much-loved and much-collected.
Several books have been written about the glassware, and given the critical importance of canals to the business - and perhaps vice-versa for a while - it would seem that Chanceware would be as collectable to the waterways community as Meashamware!

Last Chance, Next Chance
Chances started to decline before the Second World war, possibly constrained by their cramped location in Smethwick. They were in competition with glass manufacturers from all over the world and some companies were more successful than others. Pilkington took a share of the company and later, for security reasons during the war, optical glass production was replicated in St Helens. It appears that large parts of the older manufacturing processes were demolished in the mid-1940s, but in 1957 optical glass production moved to St Asaph in Wales.
While the Pilkington-Chance empire grew, mainly using the Pilkington name, in 1981, the Smethwick site closed, and flat glass production moved entirely to St Helens.

Today and Tomorrow
Fittingly, a project to document the living history of the Chance business and its employees won Heritage Lottery Funding in 2006. After much research, a website - Chance Encounters - was launched. Sadly, it seems dormant now, and with hindsight, might have been better considered as part of the website which is active and popular.

A number of photographs of Chance's - including the factory and the processes and products -is at the Revolutionary Players website.

Considerable further information is also available, about both Chance and the glass industry, at the Broadfield House Glass Museum in Stourbridge.

Although the elegant buildings are Smethwick are now long vacant, the lights and glass both vanished, there is some kind of happy ending, as when the Smethwick home of Chance was closed in 1981, a little piece of it moved down to a newer factory in Malvern, where they continued to manufacture glass tubes and other specialist and medical glass equipment.

Happily, in 1992, this little corner of pure Chance became independent again - reintroducing both the Chance name and the Chance logo.

When I am passing by the big walls of Chance, I always imagine it with furnaces roraring, of men pulling huge tubs of molten glass, of boats laden with coal, class, chemicals and waste. The roar of the motorway becomes that of the stoked fires and the rumble of the crates and boxes being shifted. I also imagine that Chances of Smethwick is not dead, just resting.

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