A brief overview of a Midlands glassmaking company that was destined to become legendary throughout the maritime world
In a letter to his wife dated 17 July 1757, after narrowly avoiding a shipwreck, Benjamin Franklin wrote: ‘Were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house’.
Chance Brothers Glassworks is of enormous historical and cultural significance. The business was established on 18th May 1824 when Robert Lucas Chance purchased the works of the British Crown Glass Company on the borders of Smethwick and a rapidly-developing Birmingham. His brother William joined him in 1832 and sealed the future for a company that was to become the largest glassmaker in the land and which, in the following decades, produced specialist glass at a scale unprecedented in the UK for clients of every type. In doing so, the company made an invaluable contribution to the development of the UK’s modern economy and society.
image: Wikimedia Commons
The supply of glass for the Crystal Palace, constructed to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, was probably the company’s most famous single project but it was the design and production of lanterns for the first generation of modern lighthouses, to consistent standards of clarity and luminescence, which was arguably the company’s greatest achievement. Its development of the Fresnel lens system contributed immeasurably to maritime safety, a field wherein it reigned supreme for over a century and the legacy of which can still be seen in virtually every lighthouse around the globe.
For an indication of this dominance see the map extract from Lighthouses: The Race To Illuminate The World by Toby Chance & Peter Williams under Further Info.
image: Wikimedia Commons
extract from Lighthouses: The Race To Illuminate The World
For more than 130 years Chance Brothers was one of the most important industrial employers in the Midlands and its workshops extended across nearly 30 acres southwards from the current site into the North Smethwick area. There are many former employees still alive today who, along with their families, remember vividly the significance of the company and the sense of community and solidarity that it created across the workforce. The site finally closed in 1981 yet its stark remains are still very much extant and no-one can drive along the M5 without noticing the imposing seven storey building directly alongside the canal that dates back to 1847. The view from the New Main Line of the Birmingham Canal Navigations is equally impressive.