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Percival, Vickers British and Foreign Flint Glass Works, Manchester

by Ian Miller


The main ingredients of glass are silica, derived from ground flint or sand, potash or soda, and lime. Glass is made by mixing these materials together and melting them in large pots, and then forming the required shape from the semi-molten liquid. The traditional centre of the British glass-making industry of the later Middle Ages was the Weald of Sussex and Surrey, where there was a plentiful supply of sand and bracken, from which potash was made. More importantly there was an ample supply of wood, used in the glass-making furnaces. Continental glass-makers, and particularly the Italians, made the finest wares during this period, whilst English producers occupied a position at the lower end of the price and quality range. A major change to the industry occurred in the decade after 1610, when coal widely replaced wood as a fuel, but it demanded improvements to furnace design. This resulted in the glass-making industry relocating to the coalfields of Lancashire and Tyneside. Lancashire had the added advantages of its proximity to the Cheshire saltfield, the source of raw materials for the manufacture of soda (which replaced potash), and to the port of Liverpool for exporting finished products. By the end of the 17th century there were works at Warrington, Liverpool, and near Manchester.

The typical English glasshouse of the 18th and early 19th centuries was a tall brick cone with a chimney opening at the top, and a partially enclosed furnace in the centre. Air was drawn into the furnace through large underground tunnels. The fire was in a firebox below the floor, and flames passed into the furnace through the eye in the centre of the floor. The pots that contained the glass were arranged in a circle around the furnace floor. The flames from the fire were deflected down onto the pots, and then passed via small flues into the outer dome and the chimney, as shown on the drawing below.

To make the glass, the glass-maker passed a hollow iron rod through one of up to ten small openings in the side of the furnace, and into a pot containing molten glass. This was then blown into a pear shape and transferred to another iron rod, known as a ‘punty’. The glass-maker then rotated the rod until it was flattened by centrifugal forces. Finally, the glass was passed through an annealing furnace to cool slowly.

Diagram of a glasshouse An important advance in the glass industry was the introduction of casting plate glass by the British Plate Glass Company at St Helens in 1773. This works, at the time it was built, was the largest industrial building in the country. In the casting process, molten glass was ladled from the furnace onto an iron casting table and then rolled into a plate. Many further technological changes were introduced during the 19th century, and especially at glassworks in St Helens: it is unsurprising that many accounts of English glass-making in the 19th and 20th centuries focus upon St Helens. However, an important industry became established in Manchester, with over 25 glassworks in operation by the 1870s. One such works was that established in 1844 by Thomas Percival and William Yates, on land adjacent to the Rochdale Canal in the Ancoats area of Manchester. The works was equipped with two furnaces, an annealing house, workshops, and a large building along the street frontage that was used as offices and a warehouse. By 1852, the company partners were joined by Thomas Vickers, and after William Yates left in 1862, the company became known as Percival, Vickers British and Foreign Flint Glass Works. It was a very successful concern, and by 1863 it had become the largest glassworks in Manchester, with a total workforce of 373. A wide range of glass vessels was produced, including decanters, tumblers, and wine glasses. During the 1880s the works was expanded to include a third furnace, which appears to the rear left on this engraving.

The business went into liquidation in 1914 and the works was demolished, although the former offices and warehouse building was converted into a textile factory. The land to the rear, including the area of the furnaces, was redeveloped for use as a paper factory.
The site was vacated in 2000, and an application to erect apartments there was passed recently on condition that the remains of the glass works were investigated archaeologically.

1901 engraving - taken from an original catalogueBetween October 2003 and February 2004, OA North conducted an excavation and survey of the site, which has produced some very interesting results.

The finer details of glass-making were closely guarded secrets, and little was recorded in the period from 1820 to 1900. One of the reasons for this is that glass-makers were careful not to broadcast their innovative processes in order to remain competitive in an age when technological improvements were commonplace. The excavation of the Percival, Vickers British and Foreign Flint Glass Works has examined two furnaces built in 1844 and one of some 40 years later. Several notable differences existed between the two types of furnaces, representing technological advances. Most striking was the physical size of the later furnace, which was somewhat larger than its earlier counterparts and therefore capable of containing more pots of molten glass. The method of fuelling the furnaces was also very different. The earlier furnaces were fed with coal via an opening just above the furnace floor, whilst the later one employed an apparatus that forced the coal into the fire from below. Known as a ‘Frisbee Feeder’, this device worked on the same principle as an Archimedes screw. Coal was carried to the feeder from the adjacent canal via an underground tunnel that also provided some of the air draught for the furnace. The two passages around the edge of the furnace seen in the photograph provided the workmen with a means of passing from one side of the fire to the other, and also improved the flow of gases within the furnace. These improvements allowed a larger furnace yet reduced fuel consumption.

The Late Furnace Fully Excavated
Upon leaving the furnace, the blown glass vessels were passed into the annealing shed, where they cooled slowly at a uniform rate. They were then ready to be transferred to the cutting and engraving workshops, where fine detail was applied.

The excavation and subsequent analysis was funded entirely by a partnership between Urban Splash Ltd and Lever Street Properties Ltd.