An ARTICLE published in the ‘Chance Comments’ magazine for July/August 1953 has caught the eye here at the Bugle and given us the opportunity to climb aboard our wellworn time machine (on this occasion travelling back to 1852) to experience a rare and extraordinarily descriptive first hand account of a visit to one of the Black Country's most famous industrial institutions, Chance Brothers Ltd. of Smethwick.
The Chance Comments magazine stated that Mr Humphrey Green of Wickford, Essex, had sent in a copy of Charles Dickens' "Household Words" (issued in March, 1852) that featured a story entitled "Birmingham Glass Works". After a little research we discovered Chance Comments had abridged the original Dickens version, published on Saturday March 27th 1852, but we couldn't resist including the whole text, possibly penned by Charles Dickens himself.
Household Words was a weekly magazine launched in March 1850, with Dickens at the helm as editor. Costing just tuppence a wide readership was assured and allowed Dickens freedom to include stories he hoped would appeal to the masses.
Following the invention of cast plate glass in 1848, astonished visitors to the Great Exhibition in 1851 saw an exhibition hall, the Crystal Palace, with the largest amount of glass ever used in a single building. The result was a spectacular sight unrivalled anywhere in the world; but where had all the panes of glass, 293,655 in total, been made? Household Words was about to discover the answer and reveal the findings to the waiting world ...
"In plain words we have been permitted to see the glass-works of the Messrs.
Chance, near Birmingham. In old reports of the glass-manufacture, we find Birmingham low in the list of places in England where the process is going forward. It can never be so again. The establishment which produced the Crystal Palace must stand first in the world until something greater has been done.
“Messrs. Chance's works are not in the town, but at Smethwick, half an hour's drive from it: and, indeed, they would take up too much room in any town. The buildings occupy many acres, and the canal has to stretch out various branches among them. The number of men, women, and children employed, are twelve hundred or upwards. The schools on the estate contain from four hundred to five hundred children (not all connected with the works however); and the consumption of coal is — but we will excuse any reader from believing it without seeing the coal heaps — from eight hundred to one thousand tons per week.
“To those of us who consider and calculate about buying ten or twenty tons of coal per year, it is a marvellous thought — that of the coal-bill for an establishment which consumes nearly one thousand tons in a week, and in every week of the year — say forty-seven thousand tons in a year.
“Visitors to the works may pass hither and thither for four or five hours together without entering the same place twice; and they may go again and again, without coming upon many traces of their former visits. The vastness of the buildings is as striking as their number; and the passage through lofty, dim, cool, vaultlike sheds, is an admirable preparation for entrance among the furnaces and kilns.
“In one of these sheds we see, heaped up against the walls, masses of sulphate of soda. This portion of the material is brought from the alkali works of the same firm, not very far off. In another shed there are millstones revolving on edge, for grinding to dust the small proportion of coal required hereafter.
Elsewhere we see heaps of chalk; and, in one shed, the greatest quantity of fine sand we ever saw in one place, except on the sea-shore. St.
Helens, near Liverpool, yields very fine sand for glass-making; but this roomful is from Leighton Buzzard, where there is a sandpit belonging to this firm. As it is silted, wreaths of it rise like white smoke and curl under the rafters.
“It is a desperately rainy day; and the roads which lead from one place to another are inches deep in black mud and puddles. Of course, the canal does not look very engaging; and the procession of boats on it, laden with coal, is about as wet as everything else.
There are carts in the alleys filled with broken glass; and there are heaps of broken glass piled up against the walls.
“Women are at the cart's tail, or under sheds, picking the glass; that is, separating whatever is stained with iron in the process of glass-making, or otherwise coarse, to be made into coarse glass again, while the clear and fine is set apart for higher purposes. A cart-load of rubbish and sweepings is about to be shot into a canal-boat. Being drawn across our path, the cart is ordered away, but the man in charge calls out from the other side, that we must wait our turn.
“Shocked at such a speech, men within hearing rush to turn the horse and spill the rubbish on the wharf, which afflicts the strange-looking carter. The poor fellow is not quite sane. One of the pleasant incidents often observable in these large establishments is the employment of poor creatures who would otherwise be sadly desolate.
Where there is a will there is a way, in large concerns, of finding something that the foolish or the partially infirm can do; and it seems as if the will was never wanting.
“Up the inclined plane we go now, under heavy drops from the eaves, and take shelter in a place curiously furnished.
The large floor is almost wholly occupied with great cauldrons of ash-grey clay — very handsome cauldrons, round, smooth inside and out.
(Story continues in Bugle 1052).