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The Rise & Fall Of
*English Pressed Glass

By Rod Crowshaw

As an antique pressed glass differs from other items in that it was a product not of design (though that would follow) but rather one born of necessity. It is fair to say that it was both an integral part and a direct result of the great Victorian period which we call the 'Industrial Revolution'.

In the early 19th century Britain was in a unique position, having the ability to supply goods world wide. This prosperity created a new and growing middle class, who not only shared in the Victorian passion for filling their houses with decorative objects, but now wanted and were able to afford items which had previously been the privilege of the gentry of the 18th century.

In larger houses a vast range of items would be required for entertaining and domestic use. These would include two or three dinner & desert services, numerous glasses for water, ale, wine, sherry, port, brandy and also custard and syllabub cups & glasses. In addition there would be decanters, finger bowls, carafes, ice plates, sweetmeat dishes, comports, cream & sugars and so on. Of those items made in glass, most would be cut or engraved and with the exception of items from the high class glasshouses in Stourbridge, Birmingham & London , they would in the main come from Ireland . The importation of glass from Ireland had little to do with quality but was merely a way of avoiding the glass tax which was levied at the time on British manufacturers, the tax was based upon the weight of raw materials used and made British glass more expensive.

Whilst quite prosperous, even the new middle class were generally unable to afford the cost of either British or Irish glass and some alternative was required. Pressed glass would become that alternative, initially for the middle classes and eventually for everyone.

Early Plate Circa 1850
Early Plate Circa 1850

Produced initially in the United States of America in around 1820 it had been imported into Britain in very small quantities. Some of the first items to be produced were door and drawer knobs and more interestingly, cup plates. These very small glass plates were unique to the Victorian period and used both in the USA and Britain . Most teacups of the period did not have handles, the hot tea would be poured from the cup into the accompanying saucer from where it would be drunk, to avoid marking furniture or upholstery the cup would then be placed on a cup plate. Whilst examples of pottery or porcelain cup plates can be found, they were almost always made of glass.

The first pressing machine was installed in England in the 1830's by Benjamin Richardson, then manager, at the firm of T Hawkes & Co. in Dudley , West Midlands . Progress was slow however and hampered by the glass tax. Because the tax was levied by weight, pressed glass, being heavier than blown or blown moulded, suffered greatly even though it was faster to produce. Better times were on the way however.

In 1835 the salt tax, which had been levied at nine times its retail value was repealed. This gave rise to much greater use of salt and the production in great numbers of pressed glass salt cellars of a wide range of shapes, sizes and designs. They were produced in pairs, fours and sixes as the rise in salt use continued to grow. In 1845 the glass tax was repealed. It is perhaps interesting to note that many glass house owners were either in local government or members or parliament. Thomas Hawkes was at the time M.P. for Dudley and there can be little doubt that personal interests were involved and pressure brought to bear to get the tax repealed.

It would perhaps be a little strong to say that the production of salt cellars created the pressed glass industry, but there is no doubt that the combination of the repeal of the salt and glass tax, provided the basis for companies to gain a foothold and to eventually expand into one of our greatest industries.

Following the repeal of the glass tax, production expanded at a dramatic rate and for a short period between 1840 and 1870 companies in the Midlands such as Hawkes, Rice Harris, Bacchus & Green and Guest, improved production methods & built up a large local industry. Pressed glass from this period can be found, invariably its design is almost identical to that of its Georgian cut glass predecessor. During the 1850's companies also sprung up in the Manchester area, again producing high quality glass in a similar form to that being made in the Midlands . The companies in both these regions were using lead glass in their production, and whilst they no
Early georgian Style Pressed Glass Tankard.
Early georgian Style Pressed Glass Tankard.
longer suffered the ravages of the glass tax, lead glass was still an expensive commodity, a new discovery was to revolutionise the industry and bring about an era of great wealth and prosperity for the glass manufacturers.

It was discovered that a semi-lead glass, produced by adding soda potash, resulted in a glass that was equally hard wearing, ideal for pressing and considerably cheaper than lead glass. Whilst it lacked some of the qualities of lead glass, in particular clarity of colour, these problems could be overcome. So it was that companies sprang up in the North east of England to produce this 'new' glass and soon the names of Sowerby, Davidson, Greener & Edward Moore would become synonymous with the pressed glass industry.

The major Manchester firms such as Percival Vickers, Molineaux and Webb and Derbyshire continued to produce pressed items in lead glass and to their credit stayed in business presumably because of their innovative designs and the exceptional high quality of the finished article. The same could not be said of the midlands companies who were unable or unwilling to compete and either went out of business or reverted to blown glass production.

Left: Sowerby Toast Rack. Right: Davidson Sugar Bowl
Left: Sowerby Toast Rack. Right: Davidson Sugar Bowl
By the mid 19th century manufacturers were experimenting with colour and went on to produce a range of both transparent and opaque colours. One type of opaque glass, often referred to as 'slag glass' was supposedly so named because it involved the use of impurities (or slag) from one batch of glass being mixed with another and thereby producing a marbled effect. This is a myth, in fact the production of any coloured glass, including 'slag' was a highly technical procedure involving the use of many chemicals and compounds.

It is difficult for us at this time to appreciate the influence that this 'new' glass had on society but one could draw a comparison with the introduction of plastic in modern times. In addition to its positive advantages for the common man, who could now afford 'nice things', we must also remember that this was a major industry with a huge skilled workforce and that the glass was exported world wide. Davidsons own motto was "From Gateshead to the world" And yet despite this, the industry was to fail.

By the mid 1880's production and exports were at an all time high and yet less than 30 years later was in decline and would eventually be lost forever. The decline of the industry was brought about by circumstances only too familiar to us in the 21st century, industrial relations. From the outset, employers and employees were in conflict regarding rates of pay, speed of working, methods of production and the numbers and skills of the men involved. Whilst companies such as Davidson overcame many of their problems and went on to have a good working relationship with their employees, other companies did not fair so well and all suffered to some extent.

The men were originally represented by various societies such as the 'Flint Glass Workers Association' whose aim was to assist members in case of sickness, unemployment, bereavement etc., but they were not normally involved in direct dealings with the company. The early 1850's saw the associations taking up the position of modern trade unions, opposing changes in work practice, dealing with wage demands, and, as far as the employers were concerned, interfering in matters which were not their concern, a situation they refused to tolerate. This eventually lead to the great lock-out of 1857-59 when production ceased altogether. Eventually a code of rules was drawn up, though it has to be said it was more agreeable to the workers than to the employers. The code was full of restrictive practices and included such rules as the one which prevented a worker being promoted to a higher grade, no matter how skilled, if a worker of that higher grade was already unemployed, no matter how inept he was. Whilst the rules initially had little effect the industry failed to expand and realise its potential. Competition from overseas, where goods were being produced faster and cheaper began to eat into the British market. An extract from the Pottery Gazette dated May 1897 gives some indication of the situation.

"Certainly we have much to fear from Germany & Belgium; they have conquered us entirely; we have nursed the glass trade for its protection until there is little to protect & we would caution other trades to take warnings by the present state of glass industries in England - which are reduced to a state so abject as to have 1 man in every 3 idle, even though the number of hands has decreased in the last 50 years. Where we have failed in glass making is not from the want of talent but from adaptability; we have not adapted our labour and products to the want of the community."

In hindsight we could apply that statement to the decline of many other industries if we substitute 'glass' for Coal, Steel, Cars or Clothing. We have obviously failed to learn from history.

By the late 19th century the pressed glass industry was all but lost. Unable to compete, factories closed or were taken over by larger ones. One or Two major factories continued into the 20th century but at a very reduced capacity. Some later innovations such as cloud glass gave rise to a possible revival in fortunes but this was short lived. The beauty of high quality British pressed glass was lost forever.

Article Written by Rod Crowshaw (Pressed Glass Collectors Club).

The Pressed Glass Collectors Club was formed in 1994. Please take the time to visit their website, where details about membership can be found.

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