During the first part of the eighteenth century, England led the world in the production of fine lead crystal. In 1745, however, this came to an abrupt end when the Glass Excise Duty was enacted. Since this law taxed glass by weight, it severely inhibited the production of heavy lead crystal and made it impossible for England to compete with France, Bohemia, and Ireland.
English glass manufacturers suffered under this tax for one hundred years. When the law was finally repealed in 1845, the glass industry began to flourish. One of the great signs of England’s recovery from the tax was the building of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in 1851. The building itself was over a third of a mile long, over four hundred feet wide, and enclosed some eighteen acres. Almost one million square feet of glass was used in its construction. The Illustrated London News considered it the most remarkable building in the world. Within its walls, glass objects of every’ imaginable kind, size, shape, and origin were displayed.
English manufacturers were quick to imitate the successful styles and techniques of the French factories displayed at the Exhibition. Soon millefiori paperweights were being produced by factories in London and Birmingham. Perhaps in response to the lifting of the repressive glass tax, the English glasshouses often produced extremely large, or magnum-sized weights, inkwells, and doorstops.
It is generally believed that the Whitefriars Glass Company of London was constructed in about 1680, shortly after the great fire of London. A 1682 map of London [3.14] shows the glassworks as being near the Inns of Court in the Temple and verv close to the River Thames. This location provided for easy transport of sand, clay, and coal for the furnaces, and other materials needed for the making of glass.
The glass company was named for the white- robed Carmelite monks who lived in a monastery that until 1538 had been located on the site of the
factory. The monaster}’ was dissolved because of the dispute between 1 lenry Mil and the Pope over the King’s divorce. F.ven though the monaster}’ was disbanded, the King did not repeal the ecclesiastic law of sanctuary’, and for nearly sixty years the area remained a haven for “debtors, cutpurses, highwaymen, and all the blackguards of town.” The glass factory itself had a tough reputation. In 1732 the Whitehall Evening Post reported on a clash between members of the Royal Navy and the glassblowers:
Yesterday a Press Gang [a company under an officer detailed to press men into military or naval service] went into the glasshouse in White Fryars [sic] to press some of the men at work there, but they no sooner got in but the metal was flung about ’em, and happy was he that could get out first, and in hurrying out they ran over their officer, who was almost scalded to death.
On another occasion an F..cise Officer came to the factory to collect duty, which at that time was levied according to the weight of the glass produced. “The visit of the tax collector was resisted by the brandishing of blow-irons headed with red hot glass.”
In its early’ years Whitefriars primarily produced glass tableware. Especially popular were the clear glass decanters and drinking glasses used for port, which was considered very fashionable at the time.
In 1834 James Powell (1774-1840), a glass- maker from Bristol, purchased Whitefriars and renamed the company James Powell and Sons. This name was used until 1062 when, after the death of the last of five generations of Powells, the company name reverted to the original White- friars Glass Ltd. Under James Powell’s management, the glass factory became very– well known and respected for a y’ariety of glass products. In 1850, Charles Winston, a barrister and archaeologist who had studied and analyzed the coloring agents used in medieval stained glass, persuaded Powell to begin experimenting yvith the production of such glass. Over the years Whitefriars produced many stained glass windows, some designed by well-known artists such as Dante Gabriel Ros
setti and Edyvard Burne-Jones.
Some believe that White friars made its first millefiori paperweights in 1848. However, an article by John Smith in the 1987 PGA Bulletin proposed that no papenveights were made by Whitefriars before the 1930s. Says Smith, “The Whitefriars glass records are very’ largely preserved and in none of them is there any mention of the manufacture of paperweights before the 1930s. It is inconceivable that they yvould have produced yveights which yvere not documented.” As further evidence, Whitefriars did not exhibit papenveights yvith its other products at the Great Exhibition of 1851, yvhere the company was presented an award for its fine crystal.
I he millefiori paperweights supposedly made during this period at Whitefriars were characterized by the use of a concentric millefiori spacing scheme. Generally these yveights had very low, shallow domes and wide bases. The millefiori canes were usually quite close to or actually touching the bases. Labels found on some of these early yveights bear the logo of the white-robed monk 3.14 London wap (1682) with Whitefriars anti the words “YVhitefriars” and “Powell’s English Glass.”A few early White friars weights include date canes; the majority do not. John Smith gives reasons to suggest that paperweights with date canes were made by another Birmingham factory, John Walsh-Walsh Ltd., which inserted 1848 date canes in pieces made in the 1930s.
The case for early Whitefriars paperweights is not closed. Modern scholars will continue to study the records and the available weights until it can he decided whether Whitefriars did, in fact, make paperweights in the nineteenth century.When Harry J. Powell, the last of the family, died in 1923, the operation was moved from London, where it had been located for over two hundred years, to Wealdstone, Middlesex, a nearby suburb. In keeping with an ancient glassmaking tradition, a pan of hot coals from the glass factory in London was carried to the new Wealdstone works to ignite the new furnaces.
The company continued making paperweights until 1981. Then the business, which included the extensive color library, a stock of millefiori canes, and the Whitefriars name and logo, was sold to Caithness Glass. Caithness is now producing weights under the WTitefriars name.
Birmingham was a main center of glassmaking activity in England during the 1800s. One of the factories in operation during that time was Bacchus, Green & Green of the Union Glass Works, which was founded in 1818. In 1833, the company name was changed to George Bacchus & Co. George Bacchus died in 1840. The next year the firm name was changed to George Bacchus & Sons. In 1858 it was retitled Bacchus & Sons.
The glassworks, which initially specialized in domestic glassware and plate glass, began experimenting with fancy Y’enetian-style glass and paperweights in the 1840s. “Letter weights,” as they were sometimes called, were never more than a minute part of the company’s production; however, they did attract attention. In 1849, an article in the .1/7 Union Monthly Journal of the Arts had this to say:
The introduction of these ingenious and pretty ornaments from Bohemia has induced some of our glass manufacturers to turn their attention to the production of similar objects. We have seen a large number of home manufacture, which, for beauty and variety of colour, are equal to the best imported; and in design are superior to them. .Mr. Bacchus, an eminent glass manufacturer of Birmingham, has produced some that deserve special notice for their novelty and elegance.
Most of the weights made by Bacchus are large, usually more than three inches in diameter.
Another Birmingham glass factory was Islington Glass W orks, which operated throughout much of the nineteenth century. In 1822, Rice Harris and William Gam men (who later became a partner with George Bacchus) directed the factory. In about 1839 Rice I Iarris assumed control of Islington and was in charge of the operation for the next twenty years.
In 1849 Islington displayed millefiori objects at the Exhibition of Manufactures and Art held in Birmingham. No paperweights were listed in the catalogue of that show, but they were certainly being made at that time. In that same year the Art Journal praised the paperweights being produced at Islington:
We have been much interested invxaminingsome specimens of coloured, threaded, and engraved glass, the productions of the Islington Glass Works, Birmingham, in which colours as brilliant and designs as elaborate as any seen in the Bohemian specimens were produced. The articles we have seen consisted of compound millefleur paperweights, coloured and engraved goblets, carafes, and glass slabs of the most beautiful character in green and silver, adapted for finger plates and similar purposes. The whole of these specimens were little, it anything, inferior to the most choice productions of the Continent.
In 1966, when Paul Hollister w rote The Encyclopedia of Glass Paperweights, there w ere only two signed Islington weights in existence. One contains a horse silhouette on a muslin ground, and the other is a close packed millefiori that includes arrow, star, and whorl canes. Both weights include a w hite lo/enge bearing the initials IGW.
Other English Factories
In the past it has been suggested that paperweights were produced at several glass factories in Bristol, Nailsea, and Stourbridge. I lowever, there is little proof or documentation that paperw eights were made in substantial numbers by these or other glasshouses outside the London and Birmingham areas during the mid- to late nineteenth century.
Many factories in England, especially kilncr and Nailsea, are know n or believed to have produced green bottle weights. Also called “dumps,” these pieces were made from the leftover glass that would otherwise have been dumped out at the end of the day. The history and identification of bottle- weights is discussed in more detail in Chapters Two and Four.