Wednesday, 16 December 2009

A very Happy Chance-mas to you all!

This is my last week working on the Chance collection in 2009 but before running off to finish my present buying and gorge myself on all of my favourite Christmas food, I wanted to do one last December post to put everyone in the Christmas spirit. Unfortunately, it has been quite difficult to find much information in the Chance collection about Christmas but this week I stumbled upon a description of the annual pensioners' social gathering, which occurred once a year around Christmas time and was inaugurated by the cashier George Lewis in 1905. The pensioners would invite the Directors to tea and one of George Ferguson Chance's or Henry Stobart's sons would impersonate Father Christmas and hand out presents including tea, tobacco and fruit on behalf of the Directors.

I have also found a mention of children's parties that were held by all of the departments of the company. Joyce Taylor, Alan Taylor's wife who is also an ex-employee of Chance, describes in an interview available on the Chance Encounters website how they would put Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy films on in the cinema room for the children and that they also had clowns and conjurers for entertainment.

I would now like to send the readers of my blog some festive Chance greetings and the best way I could think of doing this is to send you all a real Chance Christmas card. I have found a very pretty card originally sent in 1951 with the message 'With the Season's Greetings from Hugh and Cynthia Chance'. The picture on the front of the card and the inscription inside commemorate the centenary of The Great Exhibition which was held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. This was an extremely important event for Chance as they not only glazed the entire building with their sheet glass, but their first lighthouse optic ever made was also displayed there.

All that remains for me to add to the delightful little card above are my own Christmas greetings. I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and I will be back in the New Year reporting on my progress with the lighthouse records.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

It's a wrap

As Christmas is approaching, I thought I should get some present wrapping practice in at work. And before you protest and argue along the lines of "they pay these people good honest taxpayers' money to wrap their presents whilst they should be grafting", you will be relieved to hear that it was archival and all in the name of Chance. Way back in October, I posted a description of the Chance ledgers afflicted by red rot and gradually decaying. I mentioned that John Everall, the conservator at Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies offered to spend a day showing us how to consolidate these ledgers and slow the effects of the decay down. Well that day was Monday and two of my colleagues and I met John at West Bromwich Town Hall, armed with brushes, newspaper and empty glass jars. John bought along a vat of pva glue and made a very watered down, milky version of the glue to paint on to the leather bindings of the ledgers. Between us we managed to paint all of the worst offenders by the afternoon, helped along by a cup of tea and one or two mini rolls (thanks Sarah!). I couldn't believe how quickly we got through them and they are now clean to the touch and shining like new (well almost). So a big thank you goes out to John for his expertise and Sarah and Keith for their painting skills.

Another big thank you goes to 'origami' Sophie who started to help me with the more fiddly task of wrapping the ledgers in acid free paper and tape. We wanted to wrap the ledgers in a way that enables them to be opened and read without having to remove the wrapping. This meant that we had many fiddly folds to make and as the books are so big the two of us had to wrap each book together to prevent causing any further damage to the books (and ourselves). We managed to wrap an entire shelf of books in the time we had yesterday. There are, however, another 32 shelves left to do so I think we will be wrapping for quite some time yet.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009


This week I have been arranging and cataloguing the health & safety records of the company. Whilst it never really occurred to me before, it should not have come as much surprise that accidents were a common occurrence in a glass works. As Robert Wilkes, a previous employee of Chance, commented in an article called 'Chance Brothers 1950/1' published in Glass Circle News (N0. 109, December 2006) glass, 'is one of the nastiest, most dangerous materials on Earth'. He describes the hazards faced every day at the glass works from third degree burns in the 'hot end' to 'drawing blood or taking out an eye' in the 'cold end' as the glass can 'fly without warning' when it resists being shaped.

Chance kept an accurate record of the accidents that took place at the works. There is a series of 7 accident books from 1898 to 1942 that record every accident at the Spon Lane Works following the Workmen's Compensation Act 1897. The books read like a grizzly catalogue of every possible injury you can imagine from the expected cuts, burns and severed fingers associated with glass work to the more unexpected head and back injuries caused by falls into the blowers hole and crushed feet caused by dropped shells (a common occurrence in the book recording accidents in the shell department during the First World War). Whilst the accident books only go back to 1898, Chance had been concerned about the health of their employees from as early as 1841 when they set up the Provident Society, which provided benefits to the employee and their family in the event of sickness or death. The first surgeon was appointed in 1843 to prescribe to the workmen, attend to their wives and families source all medicines and appliances for the dispensary and report regularly to the Board. The only records I have found relating to the Provident Society and healthcare from 1841 to 1898 include the surgeons' correspondence and reports up to 1849 and blank application forms and medical cards.

Aside from the individual injuries recorded in the accident books, there is also a newspaper cutting of a report written in the Birmingham Mail dated Tuesday 8th December 1953 about a major incident that occurred at the glass works and surprisingly, this accident had nothing to do with glass. Four men died when the archway of an underground vault collapsed during demolition work of old buildings near the canal. A further nine men escaped with either mild injuries or shock. The accident was considered to be on the same level as a 'war-time incident' and the Civil Defence squad of the glass works, comprising many volunteers experienced at removing bodies from bombed buildings during the Second World War, was called in to help the 'chains of workers [who] removed bricks one by one in a feverish bid to reach [the bodies]'. It took over two hours to recover the first body. It must have been horrendous for the men desperately trying to recover their dead colleagues from the rubble but they persevered as 'cups of tea were bought out from the factory canteen but the workmen stopped only a matter of seconds to gulp it down before resuming their grim task'.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Thank you

I would like to take the opportunity this week to thank everyone who has followed my blog so far. The emails and comments I have received have been overwhelming and I am extremely grateful for your support. When I am cocooned down in the basement, immersed in boxes and papers it can sometimes feel as if I am the only person interested in this collection and I forget about the hundreds of different people who are waiting for the chance to access these records. Which is why I was pleasantly shocked by a surprise visit last week from Toby Chance, who popped in to CHAS to meet me and see how I am progressing. Toby has written a book about Chance's Lighthouse work with Peter Williams called Lighthouses: The Race to Illuminate the World, which will be extremely useful for me when I start cataloguing the lighthouse records next week. Having gone through many of the boxes of records himself to conduct his research for the book, he can appreciate how overwhelmed I occasionally feel by the size and scope of the collection.

I have also been fortunate enough to meet and speak to Alan Taylor and Ray Drury, previous employees of the company who have offered to help me when I get stuck with understanding how Chances operated. Whilst the records provide the textual evidence of how work was done at the company it is very hard to imagine what it actually felt like to work at the glass works. Alan and Ray can provide this insight and it is very interesting to hear their stories. Ray has kindly sent us a copy of an interview he participated in as part of the Taking Chances project in 2006, recording the experience of Chance employees. I have also received other items from followers of the project. Kevin Byng bought in some photos taken in 2004 of Chance Glass Limited in Malvern, which was set up by Chance Brothers Limited in 1946 for the production of syringes made from precision bore tubes and laboratory glassware. This branch is now the only part of the company that is still operational today. Thomas Tag from the USA Lighthouse Society has also forwarded a copy of a photograph taken of Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Chance in 1940, which I previously posted details of. I will post these images on the blog as soon as I get permission from the owners.

If anyone else has any items of interest they would like to share or deposit with CHAS or if you would like to leave feedback about what you have read on the blog please feel free to post a comment or send me an email to

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

A job for life?

Whilst working my way through the employment records over the past two weeks I have been struck by the realisation that the well-worn cliche 'a job for life', harking back to the halcyon days of continuous work at the same company, is not a particularly accurate description of employment in the late 1800s/early 1900s. I have been under the impression that we are currently witnessing an increasing number of employees on fixed-term contracts as temporary employment becomes the norm for many people. Yet, Chance's service agreements with their employees suggest that fixed-term contracts have always been a prominent form of employment.

There are hundreds of service agreements amongst the collection, which offered employees fixed-term employment for a period of between one and ten years (subject to three or six months notice being given by either employer or employee). Once the employee's term of service was over they had to write a letter offering their services again for a suggested term and wage and the company would then negotiate with them to confirm or alter these new terms. This means that some employees who continuously worked for the firm over a longer period may have had many service agreements during that time, for example, John Penn's twenty two years of service as a clerk is made up of five service agreements for a period of three or four years each . Permanent agreements seem to have been offered more to the managers and directors of the company.

Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that there was a high turnover of staff at Chance. The company has a very strong record of long service employees and these employees were awarded accordingly. For 25 years of continuous employment they were awarded £10 and on completion of 45 years service a presentation was made and the employee could choose from a gold wristwatch, a chiming clock, a camera, binoculars or a barometer. For example, William Grigg received a gold watch and a medal on his 80th birthday in 1916 after completing more than 60 years of service. Which proves that although employees were not often on permanent contracts, they did often have a job for life at Chances.

Long service employees and pensioners at the Chance Pensioners' Party 1945

After cataloguing the main bulk of service records I am now moving on to catalogue the wages and salaries books and records. Once again, it appears that in true Chance style, these are not a straightforward run of records. The picture below shows a sample of the salaries books. Each book is a totally different shape and size and they each records different details regarding salaries, for example, the biggest book contains quarterly and yearly salary payments whilst the smallest book contains notes on salary ranges for different jobs. I will keep you posted on how I progress with this mixed batch next week.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

All work and...some play

I have completed cataloguing the corporate and share records of the company and it is now time to move on to a much bigger series: employment records. There has been a great amount of interest in these records from people whose relatives used to work for Chance and they are, therefore, a priority for the project. The expected records associated with employees are all present, including registers, salaries ledgers, pension records and health and safety records such as accident books. But the list does not end there. Chance were very interested in the welfare of their workers and a whole host of opportunities and initiatives were open to them.

The best place to look for information about these services is in the staff handbook. The book was designed to 'make every reader feel at home' by ensuring that 'nobody is ignorant of what might be called the larger life of the Works'. The first part of the book introduces the employee to the welfare services that are on offer including, amongst many others, Provident Society membership offering admission to convalescent homes and benefits in the event of sickness absence or death, various assurance and savings schemes including a depositors scheme to help employees gain a financial interest in the company and opportunities to voice their opinions through the suggestion scheme and Works Consultative Committee. The second part of the book is devoted to the 16 rules every employee should follow regarding working hours, clocking in and out, collection of wages, health and safety, sickness and secrecy. Rule 8 regarding conduct is quite amusing:

'It is not our affair how you amuse yourselves away from the Works, but in the Works themselves, in the interests of everybody bad language, skylarking, cycling, idling, card playing, gambling, or betting, or offering tickets for sale or receiving in exchange for money tickets for football or racing sweeps, or distributing or collecting football coupons or betting slips, etc., are strictly prohibited.'

This does not mean, however, that the Works did not indulge in some amusement. Employees were expected to contribute towards the upkeep of the recreation club pavilion and ground for sporting activities, dances and concerts. These activities were greatly appreciated by the workers and this is clear from the fond reminiscences of past employees that were recorded as part of The Public's Taking Chances project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2006. Their stories are available in the Chance Encounters magazines and website produced as a result of the project. This website is available at

Monday, 2 November 2009

Lest we forget

Since the launch of this year's poppy appeal I have been reflecting on the records in the Chance collection associated with both the First and Second World Wars. Chance had an instrumental part to play in both wars and there is a wealth of material in the archives that testifies to this including correspondence and agreements with the Secretary of State for War, Admiralty & Minister of Munitions; minutes and correspondence associated with Umbroc, the shadow factory established by Chance and Pilkington at St Helens to ensure that bomb damage at Spon Lane would not disrupt the production of the vital optical glass required for the Second World War; posters advertising war products produced by the company; and reports and images of air raid damage. In this blog, however, I would like to focus on the records associated with the First World War.

In September 1921, at the unveiling of a memorial tablet, which records the names of employees of the Spon Lane Works that lost their lives in the great war, Sir Hugh Chance said that Chances were 'the eyes of the Army, Navy and the Air Force'. This is a fairly accurate description as the company made optical glass for gun-sights, range-finders, submarines, field-glasses and air-craft. Sheet glass was produced for trench periscopes, coloured glass was used for signalling and ship lights, special glass was supplied for gas masks and the Lighthouse Department supplied searchlights, flashers, bomb-sights and produced shells in the thousands (please refer to the picture below of the Shell Department at the glass works). In order to ensure that all of these necessary products were produced many men working at the glass works were not permitted to join up. In order to avoid receiving the cat-calls and white feathers that were handed out by a certain class of women to mark cowardice, these men were encouraged to wear a war service badge to show that they were employed in essential war work (the 1915 'On War Service' badge below was also found amongst the records).

Of the 337 men who joined the Colours, 242 returned to the works, while 55 died or were killed in action. These 55 are commemorated on the tablet, which the employees raised £120 towards the cost of whilst the directors promised to find the balance. It is important to note, however, that most of the remaining 40 men could not return to the glass works as they were 'incapacitated'. The fate of the wounded, both physically and mentally, is often neglected in the overall story of war and conflict as the tally of death tends to take precedence, however, I was taken by the story of one man who applied for the position of assistant works manager in 1921 after serving as a Lieutenant during the war.

There is a bundle of correspondence regarding his application and it is clear that Chance deemed him to be the best man for the job out of around a hundred candidates, despite the fact that he had suffered from shell shock during the war. In a reference, his previous employer describes him as 'one of our best students' and 'a very capable engineer'. To ensure that his illness during the war would not affect his appointment, Chance organised a thorough medical examination. Whilst the doctor states that the candidate's 'manner is a little jumpy' in a letter following the examination, he concludes that there is no reason why he should not succeed at the job and the company soon appointed him. Three months later, however, the new assistant works engineer was forced to resign. A year after his resignation he sent a letter to Chance requesting a certificate confirming that his resignation was due to ill health caused by 'my war disability', in order to claim an increased pension. Chance were happy to oblige and confirmed in their certificate that after a while, 'the strain of work told on him and, after being absent on one or two occasions, he finally broke down...and was compelled to send in his resignation, which was accepted by us with regret'. It is clear from this correspondence that Chance wished to help with the claim in any way they could. What is unclear from the records is whether the promising ex-serviceman ever managed to pull the pieces of his life back together.

Monday, 26 October 2009

I am now an expert in business....honest!

Since writing my post of 12 October regarding the arrangement of the archive, you will be pleased to hear that I have finally decided on a basic arrangement for the collection. I have also decided to have seperate sub-groups within the overall catalogue for the records purely associated with the subsidiary companies. Phew! Now it's time to catalogue.
During the past fortnight I have been cataloguing the corporate and share records of the company. I am reliably informed by my more expert colleague Sarah, that these two categories of records are usually quite straightforward. I, therefore, approached these records with supreme confidence until I remembered that I have absolutely no idea what debentures, share certificates and articles of association are and what purposes they serve! After a quick trawl of some reliable internet sites I was now armed to face these records with my arsenal of knowledge and renewed vigour only to be reminded that Chance are not your everyday, run-of-the-mill company. They liked to change things...a lot.
For instance, take the memorandum and articles of association, the two documents that when combined form the constitution of a company (see, my arsenal is honed and ready). Most companies tend to amend these documents rarely and there are usually only a few of these documents in a business collection. In the case of Chance, the company seems to have amended the documents at least 13 times from 1888 to 1955. To complicate things even further, there are many duplicate copies of each edition of the documents. Normally, these duplicates would be removed, however, some copies have interesting notes and attachments scribbled and stapled by their previous owners. All of these copies, therefore, must be kept to maintain these variations in the records.
After a fortnight of piecing these two puzzles together I now feel confident that I have finished cataloguing both the corporate and share records of the company and that I can move on to the more cumbersome employment and financial that another share certificate hidden under that stack of files over there.......?

Monday, 19 October 2009

By Royal Appointment

The images of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visiting bomb sites and munitions factories during the Second World War are now iconic. Due to their many morale-boosting visits they became strong symbols of national resistance as they travelled the country spreading the word that they were there for their people. In April 1940, shortly before the first bombs were to fall on the area, the King and Queen visited Birmingham and the Black Country. They visited various places during their two-day stay guessed it....the Chance glass works!

I have found various references to this visit in the collection, the first being a commemorative brochure detailing the itinerary. The flavour of the visit seems to be munitions and air services including visits to B.S.A. Guns Ltd., the Air Raid Precaution Services, The Balloon Centre, Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd. and the School of Technical Training for mechanics, flight riggers and aeronautical engineers. Slotted in near the end of the itinerary on 19 April at precisely '1500 hours' is a tour of Chances glass works. The tour covered the Lighthouse Works, the Optical Department and the Pressed Glass Department.

Before leaving the factory, the King and Queen signed the visitors book (and their extremely legible, yet surprisingly humble signatures can be seen in the picture above). I also came across a film reel titled 'Visit of T. M. King & Queen to C. B. & Co. Ltd. April 19th 1940'. It would be lovely to see some images of the event to accompany all of the textual traces found but unfortunately, we do not have the correct equipment for projecting this film reel so we have contacted MACE (Media Archive of Central England) to give us a hand.

In the meantime, I did find an article on our microfilm here at CHAS from the West Bromwich Midland Chronicle and Free Press, 26 April 1940. The article states that at Chance, 'the King and Queen saw processes of manufacture, which despite the many factories of all kinds they must have inspected, were entirely new to them'. The writer then goes on to describe the following anecdote (and ladies, you may wish to stop reading at this point):

'The Queen took a most intelligent interest in the processes seen at the works...Mr Hugh Chance told me afterwards that when she was shown some brightly coloured glass articles she was immediately attracted, but he found that her interest in the colours was not merely a woman's interest. She realised at once that the colours had a definite purpose which was not ornamental'

Monday, 12 October 2009

Lets come to an arrangement

Now that we have a complete list of what's included in the collection it is now time to create an arrangement for the catalogue. There are two main principles that an archivist has to adhere to when arranging a collection. The first is provenance, which requires that records are listed according to the organisation that created them. The records of different organisations or departments and branches within those organisations should not be mixed. This theory also extends to the subsidiary companies of an organisation, which are separate legal entities and should be treated thus. The second principle is original order. Ideally, the records of an organisation should be arranged in the order they had when last in active use. So far, so sensible.

Yet, when these theories are applied to a real life collection whose structure has been adapted many times during the 150 year life of the company, the arrangement is not so straightforward. In the case of the Chance collection, the original order is not discernible. The records were boxed at random and have occasionally been re-arranged by members of the Chance family when researching the history of the company for speeches and publications. So, should the current grouping of records be maintained or should I attempt to re-construct the original order? The records of subsidiaries are also often combined with that of the parent company, for example, the salaries ledgers include details of workers producing rolled plate glass for Chance and workers producing submersible pumps for the subsidiary company, Sumo Pump. Should records regarding subsidiary companies, therefore, be separated from the parent company records when in other series they have been combined? Dilemmas, dilemmas!

I have decided that the most practical solution is to structure the catalogue according to a classification scheme, which sets out a clear, neutral structure for the collection according to the functions that it performed (e.g. share records, employment records, production records, etc.). I now need to decide whether I should separate subsidiary company records and the records of distinct departments, such as the Lighthouse works and the Optical division from the main company records........already, I feel a headache coming on........wish me luck!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Ledgers and red rot and dust - oh my!

Since my last post I have continued to list the contents of all the boxes and I finally completed the listing of the ledgers yesterday. Typical Victorian administration includes a huge variety of sizes of books and ledgers to record the everyday operation of an organisation and Chance are no exception. Accounts, wages, sales and statistics recording defects in glass manufactured are all recorded in books ranging in size from pocket notebooks to huge and cumbersome ledgers, which clearly appealed to the Victorian sense of grandeur.

The main problem we have with these ledgers is that they are gradually rotting away, forming a fine red powder as the tanned leather bindings degrade and crumble to the touch. This powder has a characteristic acrid smell and after prolonged exposure it can cause mild to moderate skin irritation or allegic reactions. Nice! After a few hours of listing these volumes I am often covered head to foot in this red powder and I can confirm that, unlike a St Tropez treatment, you are not left with a healthy glow.

Unfortunately, once red rot decay begins there is no way of reversing the process but it can be slowed down. We invited John Everall, the conservator at Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies, to take a look at our volumes and suggest ways of treating and re-packaging them. He suggested that we brush off any loose dust particles on the bindings, consolidate them by painting them with a very watered down pva glue so that they hold up to being handled and then wrap the volumes in acid proof paper and boxes. He has very kindly offered to come along for a day in December to show us how to go about doing this and I am really looking forward to our preservation production line and the opportunity to finally banish red rot dust from the collection (for the immediate future at least!)

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Take a 'Chance' on me

Sandwell Community History and Archives Service (which will from now on be referred to as CHAS) took a chance on me with my appointment as Project Archivist almost two months ago at the end of July. Since then I have been trying to get my head around the collection and the history of the company. From its inception in 1824 as a humble manufacturer of crown glass for windows, Chance grew to become one of the premier glass manufacturers in Britain. In his Walks in the Black Country and Green Borderland (1868), Elihu Burritt comments on the Chance glassworks that, “In no other establishment in the world can one get such a full idea of the infinite uses which glass is made to serve as in these immense works”. This entirely sums up my impression of Chance since starting my research. Chance produced crown, sheet and rolled plate flat glass; a very thin glass for use in microscope slides; laboratory glass; ornamental coloured glass; decorative domestic glass; optical glass and perhaps most famously, lenses and apparatus for lighthouses all around the world. The list is endless, making for an extremely rich collection, which will appeal to a myriad of users both locally and internationally. It also makes for an extremely complex collection to catalogue (and a headache for the archivist!)

The collection is around 30 cubic metres in total and consists of minutes, letterbooks, financial and share records; employment records including salaries and pensions; legal records associated with patents, trademarks and agreements; catalogues and other publicity material; and extensive production records, such as mixing books and drawings. The first step before any cataloguing can take place is to list all of the material. This involves going through each of the approximately 300 records management boxes and 400 ledgers transported over from Pilkingtons to see what items/information they contain. Whilst this can be a time consuming activity it does enable me to get physically stuck in to the collection and find some really interesting items.

Over the next year I intend to use this blog to report on my experience cataloguing the collection and I hope it will be of interest to anyone who happens to stumble upon it. I will highlight any interesting records I come across, describe the process and challenges of cataloguing and comment on any events that take place associated with the project. So if you're interested in the history of the company, glass production in general, lighthouses or fiestaware please do take a chance on this blog.