We did not have far to travel to reach our destination on this occasion as we were going to visit the Glass Cone and the Lace Guild, both situated just outside Stourbridge in Wordsley. As the Lace Guild is based in a Victorian house they are limited in the numbers they can accommodate, so the party was divided into two, one half going to the Cone and the others to the Lace Guild. Then after lunch the visits were reversed.
On our arrival at the Lace Guild we were welcomed by two members of the History Society, Denise Smith and Phil Baldwin. Denise is very interested in lace and involved with the Guild. Once again the party was divided into two, one half going upstairs and one remaining on the ground floor. There we were given a short introduction to the Guild, and the various aspects of its work. Like many organisations funding is difficult, but they are very fortunate to actually own the building which houses the Guild. They are desperate for more space to display the large collection of lace they hold. In addition space is needed to arrange the archives to make them more accessible. An exhibition to enable the lace to be seen by the public is changed every three weeks.
Like most people, when I thought of lace, I usually thought of Honiton or Nottingham and lace edging to items like handkerchiefs, nets curtains and wedding dresses. It was a surprise to learn just how many different types and styles of lace there are, for example bobbin lace and needle lace and some lace is even named after the country of origin.
The history of lace is fascinating, though at the Lace Guild there was only time to be given an over view. The few details we were given however made me, at least, want to know more.
At the time of Elizabeth I lace was a luxury and only owned by the very wealthy. They would order a piece of lace from a merchant, who would then place an order with a lace maker. As in the case of nail makers in the area it was not the person actually making the product who earned the money but the middleman who pocketed the greater amount.
At this time lace making was a cottage industry which helped to bolster the family income. Even children were taught the craft at their mother’s knee, for the more hands at work the more income earned.
Then in the nineteenth century a machine was invented which sounded the death knell of the cottage lace making. These machines which were developed made lace using Jacquard cards and could make lace much faster and cheaper than the cottages could; this also meant that lace was no longer the preserve of the wealthy. These days most lace comes from abroad while lace making in this country is mainly a hobby.
Queen Victoria also tried to support the much reduced lace industry during her reign. She insisted that her wedding dress and those of her daughters were made of lace, but unfortunately her efforts did not revive the industry.
Following a welcome hot drink the parties changed over and Phil told us about the making of bobbins used to make cushion lace and the different woods used. It was interesting to see the grains in the woods and the way in which two woods are used to make bobbins.
This visit to the Lace Guild had only touched the tip of the iceberg on the subject of lace and has ignited my interest. I now want to know more about the history of lace and the methods used to make it.
The members were reunited so that we could have lunch at the Dudley Arms, which proved to be most enjoyable. In the afternoon, the two parties changed places and my group went to the Cone, while the others went to the Lace Guild.
We were met by a guide at the Cone who first took us to a demonstration of glass making, where a paper weight was made.
as the glass maker worked he explained each process from taking the first load of glass from the heat chamber on a rod, to adding colours, which were black and gold, not a good choice for a group who, in part, were West Bromwich Albion supporters.
The initial amount of glass was gradually increased and shaped until it was the correct size. The glass maker explained that a pad of newspaper is used to mould the hot glass while it is attached to the rod and that hot glass has to be placed in an oven where the temperature is gradually reduced to cool the glass.
The glassmaker inserting his glass into the oven and then right he is turning and shaping it
Following the demonstration the guide explained that glass is made from silica, lead oxide and potassium oxide. The glass furnace was situated in the centre of the cone with ten or a dozen individual melting pots in a ring inside the furnace with their “mouths” facing outwards. Pots are made from refractory fireclay which can withstand the high temperatures inside the furnace. Stourbridge had deposits of this clay and was one of the reasons why glassmakers chose to settle in this area.
When glass was produced commercially the furnace would have been brought up to around 1400 degrees centigrade, after cullen or broken glass had been added. This temperature was maintained for around 30 hours so that the glass would fuse; then the temperature was reduced to 1200 degrees at which point glass resembles honey in consistency and ready to work with. The furnace was not allowed to go out. In fact some furnaces ran for thirty years before they needed to be rebuilt.
These furnace men, classed as unskilled, and without the aid of thermostats, kept the furnaces at the correct temperature simply by the experience they had gained throughout their working lives. Without this skill no glass could have been made.
Glass makers worked round the furnace in teams known as chairs and the number of people in a team varied according to the article being made. When pieces were being made by hand the chair would normally consist of four men, the workman, the servitor, the foot maker and the taker-in.
The workman was the most senior and skilled member of the team who would sit in the glassmaker’s chair and would carry out the final hand-shaping of the glass. The servitor, his chief assistant, if wine glasses were being made, would be responsible for the stem and the foot. The taker-in, the junior member, would take the finished glass to the Lehr (the cooling oven) to be annealed or cooled.
Once the glass was cold, at the end of the Lehr, in a room known as the shrower, the glass was inspected and checked for faults and was sent to be decorated, finishing and packed for transportation. Rejected pieces were broken and reused as Cullen.
In the 19th century glass was taxed by weight. Therefore an excise officer was stationed in the shrower who supervised the weighing of the glass as it came out of the Lehr. The shrower was kept under lock and key, so that no goods could be removed before they had been weighed. The manufacturers bitterly resented the presence of these excise officers as they interfered with the smooth running of the factory. The glasshouse managers had to keep the excise men fully informed of every operation in the factory and if the excise officer could not attend straightaway, the operation could not go ahead.
Up until the Second World War the glasshouse worked round the clock. The glassmakers were divided into two or three shifts. Glassmaking was hot, exhausting work. The temperature in front of the furnaces was enormous and the glare from the molten glass caused eye strain and there was always the risk of burns. Child labour was extensive; many boys would enter the factory at the age of twelve or less and would work the same shift system as the men. As mentioned previously, their main job would be to take the finished pieces to the Lehr for annealing (they were known as takers-in) but had to perform many other jobs such as cleaning and preparation of the irons and tools for the glassmakers and fetching their beer. Woman decorated the glass; they were exposed to dust and glass fragments as they etched the glass and they were also paid less than the men.
In the Cone there are a number of workshops, studios and a shop where it is possible to purchase a variety of items, including the beads, some of which adorned the ends of one of the bobbins shown to us at the Lace Guild, to stop the bobbins rolling over while the lace is being made. You can also enjoy a light meal in the café.
Another great day out visiting two interesting places right on the society’s doorstep.
Thank you Bernard.
My thanks to our mystery days out reporter for the above article incorporating photos by yours truly. The next day out will be to the Mechanical Motor Museum at Northleach in the Cotswolds. We will partake of a two course carvery lunch on the way and we will alos be visiting the impressive "wool" church. The impressive church of St Peter and St Paul is a fine example of the Cotswold perpendicular style and was funded by wealthy wool merchants. The 15th century church is acclaimed as one of the grandest among the many wool churches and its tower dominates the surrounding streets in Northleach. The cost is £25 per person to include coach, entrance fees and lunch. Forms available now so be quick to avoid disappointment or if you have an interest but don’t attend meetings then ring 0121-422-1792 or email email@example.com
Click here to go back to the Oracle page.