As you sip from your glass, read by the light of your window or crunch your way across a pavement carpeted with former car windows, you might reflect that glass is cheap, glass is everywhere. But it wasn’t always so. The unlikely alchemy which transforms sand into crystal, opacity to transparency, was once a secret closely guarded.
Travel back a few centuries and even amid the protectionist guilds of the City London – those who sought to exclude outsiders from becoming fishmongers, tallow-makers, chandlers and the rest – glass was special, an almost magical process guarded jealously by the aristocracy. The secret had travelled down the centuries and across Europe from the glass makers of Murano and Burano, in the Venice Lagoon to London where – amid its finest exponents – were the glassmakers of Ratcliff.
‘Bowles’s Manufactory’ and its ‘Glass Houses’ first appear on maps of the East End in the 1790s, as part of a detailed plan of the area drawn by William Fraser of the Shadwell Waterworks. Ratcliff had, in 1794, been almost totally destroyed by fire – the worst conflagration in London since the Great Fire in 1666 and not matched again until the bombs of the Blitz a century and a half later. Fraser, the sort of man to whom historians say prayers of thanks, was an assiduous type who set to carefully describing Ratcliff in painstaking detail.
John Bowles had started his glassworks at the Bear Garden Bankside in Southwark in the 1670s after splitting with his partner the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham was a sharp business brain as well as a toff, though his claim that he had discovered the art of making looking-glass plates (mirrors in other words) and previously a secret only of the Venetians was questionable. Glassmaking was tricky certainly. It was hard to get heat and process consistently right, with medieval glass generally knobbly and translucent rather than transparent, but there were already a select few who had the art. Certainly though, anybody who could make glass good enough for mirrors could make a lot of money, and Buckingham managed to obtain a patent, or monopoly, in 1663, from Charles II.
In 1768 though, Buckingham’s double dealings saw him proclaimed traitor, lodged in the Tower of London and stripped of his patent. But the secret was (at least partially) out. The Duke gave the whole business to his apprentice John Dawson, with the money behind a six-acre factory coming from John Bowles. Within a year or two Dawson had mysteriously disappeared from the business, and Bowles relocated from cramped Bankside to the expanding hamlet of Ratcliff. It gave good access to the Thames, where the silica, sodium carbonate and limestone arrived on barges, and from whose wharves the finished glass was despatched to Europe, and it gave room to build. Equally important, Ratcliff already had a tradition of glassmaking, stretching back decades. Perhaps here Bowles found the skilled men he needed to make his Crown Ratcliff pieces.
Back in 1621 in Broad Street, Ratcliff, Abraham Bigoe had won his own patent from James I to produce glass. In 1680, the Bigoe family sold up and left for Stourbridge. Bowles appears to have taken over the works and, razing them to the ground, started from scratch. He leased the stretch of Ratcliff between Love Lane (then called Cut Throat Lane), the eastern boundary of Sun Tavern Fields and Schoolhouse Lane. It was a huge operation, with new brick workshops and storehouses, a house, stables, gardens and orchards. Nearly a century later the works was going strong, producing its ‘crown glass’ – window-glass which bettered the former supply from Normandy. Bowles was making glass for the windows of coaches for portraits and for the new fashion of sash windows, which were replacing the old lattice casements with their diamond-shaped panes. For decades, the glass was made with a crown embossed in the centre of each plate. Some say there are windows in some old houses in Ratcliff in which the figure can still be faintly traced.
The secret was jealously guarded. Of course we have our secret formulas today. The makers of Coca Cola and KFC earnestly talk of secret recipes containing dozens of ingredients, of only a handful of the cognoscenti knowing the whole truth, and those few always choosing, Royal Family style, to travel separately, lest the whole crew be lost at once. The Bowles family, meanwhile, bought all their raw ingredients from the Continent. Sodium carbonate of the quality they needed could only be obtained (so they believed or claimed) from the burnt ashes of a Spanish weed called “barilla”. It may have been hocus pocus and hype – but it certainly made their process hard to copy. It also made them rich.
But every family business runs out of steam in the end it seems. The Bowleses managed to keep the business for five generations. The story ends in 1794, the year of the Ratcliff Fire. Family firms, like the Royal Family, always need an heir and a spare, but that year the company was inherited by a minor, far too young to run the business and certainly too young to rebuild after the fire. The Bowleses were now extraordinarily wealthy but they seem to have simply decided enough was enough at this point – and simply shut the family firm.