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.