The 400-year-old glass industry in Stourbridge is slowly being given a new lease of life, as Steve Bradley reports.
In the great glass town of Stourbridge, something positive is stirring.
Its manufacturing dreams shattered by years of declining demand and withheld cash injections, this brow-beaten part of the Black Country is fighting back as it celebrates its magnificent gift to the world.
The dwindling 400-year-old glass industry, once the lifeblood of the town, is slowly being given a new lease of life as a combination of activists, businessmen and women, craftspeople and educationists strive, in slightly piecemeal fashion, to make it prosper.
And, yes, the politicians are coming on board. Somewhat belatedly, according to some commentators, but now they appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet, with words to the effect that Stourbridge, with its backdrop of magnificent factories rendered dark and dingy by years of hard-fought survival or dereliction, has a craft whose past, present and future is worth noting and encouraging.
The first tangible good news has come from the Glasshouse Development Project at the site in Wollaston Road in the Amblecote area of the town, owned and operated since 2000 by the Ruskin Mill Education Trust. Here, a college, focusing largely on glassmaking skills plus other arts, crafts and even agriculture (using Vale Head Farm in nearby Kinver), has been running in buildings deserted by Royal Doulton some 145 years after Thomas Webb and Sons, had first set up a glass works there.
The private college, for young people aged 16 to 25 with autistic spectrum disorders, had been looking to improve facilities in the largely dilapidated buildings and was knocked back to the tune of £8 million two years ago as the capital programme of key funder, the Learning and Skills Council, dramatically fell apart. But it has received a welcome double boost this year, opening the bright and airy Ruskin Glass Centre in August after collecting £1.54 million from doomed development agency Advantage West Midlands.
And in November, it was announced that the Heritage Lottery Fund was contributing a further £1.85 million to transform the imposing Lower Glasshouse, close to the main A491, into a multi-purpose arts, heritage, exhibition and education centre.
The building, already used for the International Festival of Glass in the summer as well as for student drama performances, is in dire need of refurbishment, as Glasshouse development project director Ian Clements acknowledges.
Looking at the flimsy corrugated iron roof and sidestepping patches of ice on the floor of the mostly-unheated facility, he says: “We had to get a couple of guys up there with a cherry picker, putting blobs of stuff on the holes. It’s just got us through the festival – we had glass here worth thousands of pounds. The building is on its last legs.”
But if the same careful house-keeping is used as was employed on the adjacent Glass Centre, then students and community – who will be invited to visit and hire what will be the town’s only arts centre – can look forward to a first-class facility. There could also be a £750,000 boost to the project in the new year from the European Regional Development Fund for, among other things, better signage from the main road.
The Ruskin centre is the Glasshouse’s commercial arm, with 15 workshops created as home to independent mainstream businesses including live glass-blowing, studio glass artists, engravers, glass decorators, and glass repair specialists plus complementary trades of furniture design, hand-made soap, textiles, photography, printing and publishing. Firms on site, keenly awaiting the pledge made to Lottery chiefs for an increase in visitor numbers from 13,000 to 25,000 by 2015, are obliged to provide work experience for some of the college’s 86 students as part of their tenancy agreements.
Glass engraver Ian Dury, aged 57, from Kinver, who once produced 230 tumblers and glasses for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, to the design specifications of the latter, is among the enthusiastic tenants. The former director of now-defunct Stuart Crystal’s retail division in the town says: “So many people are writing off glass making but here’s proof that it’s rising from the ashes. The new centre is absolutely brilliant.”
The college’s principal Ollie Cheney, temporarily setting aside his worries about a Government shake-up of college funding, which could leave the Glasshouse with an annual £8 million shortfall, welcomed the investment in buildings nonetheless.
He says: “For me the most important thing is that it gives opportunities for our students to make a valuable and lasting contribution to their, and our, community through work, through the curriculum and through the arts. Also, from a skills-for-work point of view, it gives them great opportunities in hospitality, catering and all different areas of events management.”
On a wider scale, Ian Clements is about to hold talks on European funding with developer Ian Harrabin, who is working with Dudley Council on a parallel project to find a viable new museum to house Stourbridge’s 6,000-strong collection of glass, rated as world-class by experts.
The pair will co-ordinate their bids, with Mr Harrabin seeking to incorporate a museum into a flagging scheme for flats and house opposite the Red House Glass Cone, a former furnace turned visitor attraction up the road in Wordsley. Dudley Council wants to move the glass collection from Broadfield House, Kingswinford, saving £120,000 a year, to the Cone, which it owns, but has been told by campaigners that the space is not big enough.
Mr Harrabin contacted the council in principle to offer some of his land – the 1.6 hectare former Stuart Crystal site – across the main road for the museum, with possible European money helping his own development to stack up financially. Listed buildings on the site, boosting its potential heritage appeal, include a unique early 20th century glass kiln and an engraving shop dating back to the early 1800s.
Controversy over moving the glass collection prompted the formation the British Glass Foundation, a charitable trust set up by experts in the field to find a suitable home for the priceless artefacts.
Spokeswoman Janet Hendry originally set up the Save Our Glass Heritage group in the town to urge greater ambition in place of pure cost-cutting.
She says: “We’ve started negotiations with the council, so it’s positive from our standpoint. We just hope we will be able to work constructively with them to find the right venue to house the collection. There’s more and more talk about the idea of “Big Society”, where communities are getting involved with decision-making. We’re hoping we’ll be allowed to step up to that challenge, to access funds that the council wouldn’t be able to access.
“As long as there’s enough room for a hot glass studio, where glass blowing can be seen, to house the collection, and for education, research and conservation facilities, we’ll be happy.”
Cash-strapped Dudley Council’s cabinet member for regeneration Coun Les Jones has agreed to look at Mr Harrabin’s proposals, which could pose no extra strain on the authority’s resources, having himself initially favoured trying to find space for the collection at the Cone. The collection offers an invaluable insight into the town’s industry, which was established at the beginning of the 17th century by glassmakers from Lorraine in north-eastern France. They were attracted to the area by the availability of coal for fuel and fireclay for making furnaces, and by the end of the 1600s Stourbridge’s glasshouses began to make the lead glass tableware for which the area is famous. The golden age of the Stourbridge glass industry was the Victorian period when firms introduced a dazzling array of cameo, coloured glass and crystal that equalled the best in the world.
Plowden and Thompson, which specialises in coloured and scientific glass, is the only glass factory still operating in an original glass cone site. Two crystal manufacturers, a few traditional cut-glass manufacturers and a handful of studio glassmakers are the survivors of a bygone era.
As Leigh White, manager of the Ruskin Glass Centre, put it: “This used to be a centre of the glass-making trade. What’s happening here on our site is proving that glass-making and glass in general are still very much alive in Stourbridge.”