Glazing the Crystal Palace

Paxton and Prince Albert are well known to fellow Crystal Palace locals. Pubs, monuments and the museum remind us of their role in bringing the Crystal Palace to Hyde Park in 1851, then to Sydenham / Penge in 1854. But next to nothing is known about the firm that manufactured the glass, an incredible feat of industry and innovation. That firm was Chance Brothers, founded and run by my ancestors.

Over Christmas I researched a monograph on their involvement, entitled Glazing the Crystal Palace.

The Great Exhibition building could not have been built and glazed if it weren’t for Chance Brothers. They had developed new techniques to produce large, lightweight sheets of glass, and managed to produce 293,655 sheets and ship them to London for assembly in less than 39 weeks. At the height of production, they produced 60,000 sheets in one fortnight.

This contemporary illustration gives an idea of just how manual this work was.

The history is also one of class conflict, immigration and scientific endeavour.

The legacy for architecture and glass has been profound. Sadly, the legacy for the company lasted up until 1951, when it was fully acquired by Pilkington, and then to 1981, when the last manufactory in Smethwick was shut down.

I visited the site yesterday with my partner, Rachel, to talk to Mark Davies of the Chance Glass Works Heritage Trust. He showed us around the dilapidated site, and talked us through the Trust’s regeneration plans – providing homes (including social housing), workspace, a heritage museum and a lighthouse with an original Chance lens (!) to put this tired corner of Smethwick back on the map.

For my part, I hope to persuade the Crystal Palace museum to provide more information on Chance Brothers than a single brief mention of RL Chance, and to let other local residents learn a bit more about the singular contribution the firm made to the building and to the technology of glass. Download my monograph to learn more!

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