Thursday, 19 August 2010

The end

The project to catalogue the first third of the Chance Brothers collection officially came to an end in the last week of July. I feel privileged to have worked with the archives of such an important and underrated company and I am delighted that many of the key records are now finally accessible to the public. I had such a wonderful time working with my colleagues (Sarah, Mo, Richard, Sophie, Matt, Keith and Donna) at CHAS and I would like to thank them for all of the help and support they have given me over the past 12 months. I would also like to thank Alan Taylor, John Everall, Sue Wood, David Encill, Ray Drury and Philip Barnard for their interest and expertise where it has been needed and a big thank you goes out to Sir Jeremy, Toby, Sebastian and the rest of the Chance family for supporting this project from its start right through to its end.

Although, despite the title of this post, I do not see this as the end. It is more the closing of the first chapter of the collection's life here at CHAS. The rest of the collection will be gradually catalogued over the coming years and I hope that the interest in the company will continue to grow as it has done during this project. If you are interested in accessing the catalogue it is now available to view online on the Black Country History Website at Please keep the history of this amazing company alive by visiting CHAS to take a look at the records yourself or by contacting the archive with your enquiries at

Finally, I would like to say thank you to you....yes you, reading this post right now. Whether you became an official follower of this blog or just accessed it from time to time to read about my progress, I am extremely grateful for your interest and support. It has been a real challenge but I feel that you were there with me at every stage. Thank you for taking a Chance on me and my blog!

Friday, 11 June 2010

Nearing the end...

The end of the project is edging ever closer. Goodbyes are always hard for me but the finishing line still seems so far away as there is lots more to do. I have five weeks left to try and finish the section of the catalogue I am working on and tie up any loose ends. A couple of weeks ago we had a visit from Sir Jeremy Chance, his son Sebastian and Sebastian's wife Vicky. They kindly treated Sarah (the Borough Archivist), David Encill (a Chance historian) and I to lunch to celebrate the end of the project. We were then joined by Alan Taylor and his wife Joyce back at the archive to take a look at my work and some of the interesting items amongst the collection. I was then presented with some beautiful fiestaware plates from the Chance family. The plates are a bright royal blue with a gold gilt spirograph design. David Encill, an expert on Chance's domestic glassware later informed me that the pattern, which looks very similar to a popular pattern called Greco, is in fact a far more rare pattern known as Roset that seems to have been a prototype produced for publicity shots and may never have been released commercially. I was surprised and extremely touched to be given these plates and they will always remind me of the great time I've had on this project.

Me, Alan Taylor and all those boxes!

Sir Jeremy's presentation of Roset plates

From left: Joyce and Alan Taylor, David Encill, Sarah Chubb and me

And now it's back to work. I have moved on to cataloguing the sales and marketing records of the company, which are always very exciting. They include the order books, catalogues, price lists, illustrations, photographs and records regarding visits, exhibitions and centenary celebrations. I think I have saved the best for last.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Weddings and weapons

Following my last post, I am pleased to announce that Sylvia Brookes kindly forwarded copies of her wedding photos to me. If you remember, Sylvia and her friend Margaret worked for Chances and Margaret made Sylvia's wedding dress. As you can see, Sylvia looked beautiful on her special day and her dress is a symbol of the close bonds and friendships that were often forged at the works. During the course of this project I have enjoyed nothing more than meeting Chances' ex-employees. Their stories are so real and vivid and they have given me a much more rounded view of the company than just the records could ever provide on their own.

Having said that, I did have quite an exciting surprise looking through the records last week. Hidden amongst piles of papers and wrapped in a crinkled old paper bag was nothing more than a...knuckleduster! Tied to the knuckleduster with a piece of pink string was a very small note dated June 27 1867, which reads, 'This was found among Mr Henderson's papers - it was made for him at the works'. Not only was the knuckleduster itself a strange and unusual find, it was was made even more exciting by the confirmation that it belonged to the lighthouse draughtsmen who had been sacked by Chances for posting an unflattering notice about another colleague through the gatehouse door following a heated argument. I described this incident in more detail in an earlier post called 'Hell hath no fury like an employee scorned'. I hope that the pair never came to blows!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Talking Chances....again

Over the past couple of weeks I have given two talks about Chances. The first was at Thimblemill Library during a coffee morning. The morning was very informal and I had a really enjoyable time meeting the regulars and answering questions as I went through the talk. I met some very interesting people including a lady called Sylvia who used to work in the Vello tube making department. She told me some very interesting stories about the people who worked there. There was Joy who did Diana Ross and Tina Turner impressions around the works and Margaret who was a close friend of Sylvia's and made her wedding dress. It just goes to show that long lasting friendships were forged at Chances. Sylvia described her wedding dress to me and it sounds beautiful. She said that she would forward a picture of it to me so watch this space in case it arrives.

The second talk I gave was at a day school at the University of Birmingham regarding glassmakers in the West Midlands. I was one of four speakers and each speaker had a very different facet of the industry to talk about. Jennifer Davies talked about the rise and fall of the Stourbridge glass industry and gave us an idea of the very interesting work happening at Broadfield House Glass Museum. Sally Hoban introduced us to the famous stained glass artists who worked across the region and described the way that artists were trained at the Birmingham Municipal School of Arts. And Karamdeep Sahota, a project archivist, introduced us to the fascinating records of the Hardman collection at Birmingham City Archives. The four talks that were given and the discussions that followed provided a very broad and varied sweep of the industry across the Midlands and it was an extremely stimulating day, culminating in questions about the future of the glass industry. It seems that whilst the times of large mass-producing glass companies is over, there are many successful individual artists still operating across the region and their more bespoke work offers a view of what the future holds. To get a sense of this future I would advise you to visit Broadfield House Glass Museum to see some of the more contemporary work on display and I was also informed about the International Festival of Glass 2010, which runs from 27 to 30 August at Stourbridge. There will be events, exhibitions, displays and workshops including opportunities to have a go at glass blowing and glass bead making. For more information, check out the website at

Friday, 30 April 2010

Pooh paper patent

It has been quite a serious time on the project for the past couple of weeks. I am still ploughing through the company's financial records and I have managed to draft my colleague Matt in to catalogue the patents that I mentioned last week. Financial and legal records can be quite dry and formulaic so I had no expectation of being able to report any quirky and interesting finds amongst these records, until Matt came across a very interesting patent a few days ago. Most of the patents we have come across so far have been fairly standard and representative of inventions you expect to be associated with a glass firm, such as 'Improvements in the the manufacture of pipes or tubes of glass', 'Improvements relating to optical glass' and the obvious (if unhelpful) 'Improvements in the manufacture of glass'.

Yet Matt stumbled on a patent specification of Henrik Zander dated 1839 for 'Improvements in the manufacture of paper'. Already, the patent appeared to be unusual. It then becomes apparent that the patent is for the manufacture of paper..........from horse manure. It appears to be quite a time consuming process as the dung needs to be cleaned repetitively with cold water, boiled and then mixed with straw, caustic soda and linen to produce the necessary pulp. It is unclear why Chances took such an interest in this invention. It could be argued that they were one of the earliest green companies, interested in recycling (though this is highly unlikely). There are many producers of elephant dung paper on the internet today including and These producers all highlight the following benefits of producing paper from elephant dung:
1) Elephant dung is a renewable resource, unlike wood pulp.
2) It is a free waste product, therefore, good for business.
3) It is often produced in countries where elephants are deemed an agricultural pest, such as Thailand and Sri Lanka, enabling locals to see the animals as assets and not liabilities.
Whether Chances were aware of the eco-friendly benefits of using dung for paper or not, it does retrospectively appear to be a very good idea. And whilst Henrick Zander admits in his specification that he is not the first to produce paper from 'vegetable matter' (this invention can probably be assigned to the Egyptians), he does believe that he is the first to use horse dung in the production of paper. In years to come, when it is possible that we may all be taking notes in our dung paper notebooks, we can look back and be grateful to Henrick Zander: (possibly) the first inventor of horse dung paper.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The 'Chance Brother' of all inventions

It is not an exaggeration to say that Chances were one of the most diverse and experimental of companies. They have an impressive list of accomplishments and here are just a few:

1) They were the first company to introduce sheet glass production to Britain
2) They were the exclusive producers of a very thin glass for use in microslides for over 100 years
3) They were the first company to produce interchangeable barrels and plungers for syringes, revolutionising modern medicine
4) They helped produce some of the first cathode ray tubes for television with John Logie Baird

The records testify to this desire to create new products and improve on others. There are mixture books and reports recording experiments in the laboratory for producing the perfect coloured and textured glass. There are also over 150 patents in the collection for inventions and improvements to glass making processes granted to Chance and its employees. Amongst these are around 20 original letters patents dating from 1842 to 1860 with their original seals and boxes. Letters patents are a legal instrument in the form of an open letter issued by a monarch or government, granting an office, right, monopoly, title, or status to a person or to some entity such as a corporation. These documents are very large and beautifully illustrated with a large decorative seal attached (please see below). A particular form of letters patent has evolved into the modern patent granting exclusive rights in an invention.

It is also clear from the records that Chances could be ruthless when it came to gaining the trade secrets of other firms. In 1887, Chance director Kenneth Alan Macaulay corresponded with an agent in Belgium called Achille Charlot who had found an ex-employee of a glass manufacturer called Baudoux who would sell their knowledge on how to re-produce Baudoux's ruby glass. Initially, the ex-employee wanted £120 but Charlot managed to bring his price down to £70. This equates to approximately £4,000 in today's money. A bargain for a trade secret, I'm sure you will agree!

Monday, 29 March 2010

Money, money, money

Over the past couple of weeks I have started to focus on the financial records of Chances. These records are never viewed with much excitement by archivists as they are considered to be quite dry and boring. This viewpoint comes from a lack of understanding or even a fear of accounting records and I have to confess, I have experienced this fear myself. The sheer range of financial records and opening an over sized book with grids of figures and reference numbers can be quite daunting, especially when these books are not labelled with a helpful title to give you clues as to what the transactions contained represent. And in true Chance style, the range of financial records is overwhelming. The collection contains general, private, specialised and miscellaneous ledgers; journals; cash books; cheque payment books; balance sheets and profit and loss accounts; and tax and excise records to name but a few.

Range of Chance account books

It can really be a headache to figure out what each type of record does but after doing some research, I can give you a brief idea. It is vital to have a good understanding of the financial recordkeeping and reporting processes. Financial recordkeeping starts with an economic event, for example, the receipt of goods from a supplier, and a primary document is produced as soon as possible to record the movement of goods/services/cash to and from the company. These documents are then forwarded to the accounts department where they are summarised and analysed and recorded in the account books, for example, ledgers, journals, etc. Journals provide a daily record of transactions and act as a book of original entry whilst ledgers are books of final entry where the transactions recorded in the journals are listed in seperate accounts. Both types of book traditionally follow the rules of double entry bookkeeping where both the debits and credits of each transaction are recorded beside each other to ensure accuracy. If both totals balance you can be confident that there are no mistakes in your calculations.

Double bookkeeping in a private ledger

This is where the reporting part of the process comes in. Periodically, the balances are extracted from the account books and assembled into a trial balance which is then used as the basis for preparing accounting statements, usually a profit and loss account and a balance sheet. These financial statements are then made available to managers and external users to help reach important decisions on the direction and future of the company. I appreciate that this is a very basic illustration of the way that accounting works and I apologise to all the accountants reading but I hope this goes someway to de-mystifying the scary nature of financial records.

It is now my duty to encourage any interested researcher to actually dive in to these records, rather than tentatively considering them from the safety of the paddling pool. Financial records provide the main evidence and measure of how successful a business has been. And let's face it, the main aim of business is to make a profit. But the records can tell you so much more than just the income and outgoings of a company. The interesting bits are contained in the finer details, for example, the journals and ledgers could possibly tell you how much an individual spent on their boiled egg at breakfast on a business trip, enlightening you to their eating habits or a ridiculously cheap payment for a new piece of machinery might provide an insight into the cosy relationship the company has with its suppliers. The possibilities are endless and if you are brave enough to read between the lines of the grids containing those scary figures, you may just discover something completely unexpected.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

You can always depend on the kindness of Chance employees and experts

Although I am cataloguing the Chance archives, I am by no means an expert on the history of the company and I have had to rely on the expertise of academics and ex-employees to find out further information that puts the records in to context. I have built up a contact list of various people who have a much more in-depth knowledge about Chances and the processes involved in glassmaking. This list is availible here at the archive and it enables us to pass enquirers on to experts who can answer their more specific and complex enquiries that the records themselves can not provide the answers to. I am extremely grateful to these people for offering their time and knowledge to help me, CHAS and Chance enquirers.

One such person is Alan Taylor. He worked in the Drawing Office of the Lighthouse Department and he trained at Chances' Technical College as an Engineering Technician. He has a website that provides more information and Alan's contact details at the following URL:

I have been reliably informed that Alan is happy to recieve any enquiries you might have about Chance lighthouses and his time working at Chances so please do get in touch with him.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Hell hath no fury like an employee scorned

Beware employers everywhere! I have found a fascinating file of correspondence about a draughtsman in the Chance Lighthouse department who was dismissed from the company in 1867....but before I divulge any of the juicy details I will give you an overview of my progress. I finally finished cataloguing the Chance lighthouse records this week and I expect to have a draft catalogue finished very soon. I can then start addressing our backlog of enquiries, so if you have sent us an enquiry about Chances' lighthouse work I will be getting in touch very soon.

In my last week of working through these records I had two very interesting finds. The first was a large bundle of correspondence labelled 'Stevenson'. I am sure that this has already rung some bells with the lighthouse experts amongst you but as a novice, it was really interesting to find out that this bundle contained many letters written by a very famous family of Scottish lighthouse designers - the Stevenson brothers. The letters included are written by Thomas, David and Alan who were all sons of the esteemed civil engineer and lighthouse builder Robert Stevenson. It also turns out that Thomas Stevenson's son, who happens to be the author Robert Louis Stevenson, caused great disappointment by not following in his family's engineering footsteps and instead decided to write such masterpieces as Treasure Island, Kidnapped and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. So CHAS now has a link (however tenuous) to the great Robert Louis Stevenson.

The second find came in the file of correspondence I introduced at the start of this post. The draughtsman was dismissed by Chances following a heated argument that broke out between him and one of James Timmins Chance's assistants in the Lighthouse Works. The argument was caused by the draughtsman's earlier retort to a letter written by the assistant that he deemed insulting. The retort came in the form of the following unflattering notice posted through the gatehouse door:

Transcription: NOTICE/FOUND DROWNED in the Liverpool Docks, on the Evening of the 28th inst., a man apparently not highly respectable, height about 5ft 8 1/2 in, weight about 13 Stone, being badly marked with the Small Pox, having a bad set of teeth, with little hair on the top of his head, and seeming to have been recently suffering from the effects of past indiscretions. From letters found in his pocket (but nearly illegible) it is supposed that he is from Great Arthur Street SMETHWICK

The correspondence does not, however, stop at this incident. Over the next seven years it becomes apparent that the draughtsman attempted to sell Chances' trade secrets and lied about his involvement in the construction of Chance lighthouse apparatus in a paper he delivered to the Institute of Civil Engineers. So, if you are having problems with your employees, watch out for a notice posted on your office door...

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

'Let them lights shine in America'

Here at CHAS we have received lots enquiries from the U.S.A. regarding Chances, many of these regarding Chance lighthouse apparatus. I was hoping to uncover lots of information on this topic during my trundle through the Lighthouse Works records but I was disappointed to find that Chances did not make much of a dent in the US market. They only supplied a handful of (around 15 first- to fourth- order) lights to America whilst French manufacturers supplied hundreds. According to Toby Chance's and Peter Williams' book Lighthouses: The Race to Illuminate the World, this was because of the close relationship between US maritime authorities and the French, as a result of France's military and diplomatic support for the Colonies in the War of Independence. It was also down to Chance's inability to establish capable agents in New York and Washington.

With this in mind, I excitedly stumbled upon a file and an envelope containing correspondence with Chances' agents in America. Contained in a battered and fragile paper folder, the letters provide a fascinating insight into how marketing and promotion were conducted in the nineteenth century. Most of the letters are from Chances' Boston agent R B Forbes. His letters describe attempts made to encourage the Lighthouse Board in America to purchase Chance lights between 1856 to 1861. He repeatedly admits in his letters that 'I do not think that I would make a good agent for you' and his predictions are soon realised when he has a disagreement with the Secretary, Lieutenant Jenkins, during his first attempt to present a Chance catalogue to the Lighthouse Board. During the next five years it becomes apparent that Forbes was unsuccessful at each attempt he made to introduce Chances lights. The last two letters written by Forbes were sent in September and December 1861, following the outbreak of the Civil War. He optimistically states that 'whenever peaceable relations between the North and South are resumed, Lighthouse apparatus will be wanted, as several of the lights have been destroyed & more will be no doubt'.

History has since told that this was not to be the case and in 1866 Chance were still attempting to promote their lighthouse work in America. In an additional small envelope I found correspondence between Chances, Fred Burdus of the Cosmopolitan and H Fuller, an American Naval official, regarding a Chance lighthouse advertisement in the paper. Fuller writes to Burdus charismatically, 'If your Birmingham friends want to let them Lights shine in America, they should send a copy of last Saturday's Cosmopolitan, to the Secretary of the Navy - to the members of Congress, the Naval Board, Naval Schools, Admirals, etc.'. He also claims that he can get a Bill introduced for the adoption of a Chance eclipser for a fee as 'we cannot turn the Grindstone to sharpen other men's axes for nothing'. It is unclear whether Fuller managed to turn the Grindstone but one thing is certain, not many Chance lights are shinning in America.

One light that does continue to shine in America, however, is a third order middle lens, lovingly restored by Ellen Henry, MFA, Curator at Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station in Florida. She contacted me recently with an enquiry about the light and one of Chances' agents. She also sent me a link to a website dedicated to the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse that describes all of the wonderful work the Association is doing to preserve it and make it available to the public and she has offered me a red carpet tour of the station next time I visit Florida. If you would like to read about the light station and pay a visit yourself, take a look at the website at

Keep that light shining Ellen!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Reely cracking films

Do you remember me mentioning a film reel of the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to the glass works in 1940? What I neglected to mention was the fact that this particular reel was one amongst 66 film reels found amongst the collection. Apart from the odd title scrawled on the boxes and tin containers here and there, we had absolutely no idea what footage the reels contained. We needed an expert with the equipment and know-how to access these films so we contacted Phil Leach at MACE (Media Archive of Central England) at Leicester University. MACE is the public sector moving image archive for the East and West Midlands with a focus on moving images held on film, video, DVD or any other carrier that relate in some way to the Midlands. They provide a place of deposit for the preservation and access of moving image materials and they also provide advice on how to care for film stored at other institutions and where to locate specific films and collections.

Me and Sarah (the Borough Archivist) made a trip over to MACE a couple of weeks ago to drop these films off and Phil kindly projected some of the films for us there and then. First up was a black and white film with a soundtrack about the glass industry in Britain. After a loud blast of the orchestral soundtrack music and the clipped Queen's English commentary, it became apparent that this film may have been a professional mini-documentary that could have been screened at cinemas in the 1940s/1950s during the interval of a feature film , for example. It is unclear whether any of the filming took place at the Spon Lane or Malvern glass works but it seems very likely, given that Chances were the main producers of most glass products.

We then viewed a silent documentary/instruction style film specifically on the manufacture of Chances' laboratory glass Hysil. The tin container had a large sign 'DO NOT OPEN' and it soon became apparent why. This particular film was in quite a bad state with a few tares and at one point the projection was upside down due to an earlier careless repair. After a few tweaks and repairs from from Phil, the film was back to normal and could be projected with hardly a noticeable trace of the damage. There were many films specifically related to production at Chances including continual footage of machines operating and of female workers doing specific tasks when making and packaging laboratory glass. Whilst performing these tasks, a tiny clock was displayed at the bottom of the screen to show how long it was taking. Aside from a shy glance up at the camera and an occasional re-adjustment of their curls and Marcel waves, the ladies showed no sign of nervousness, even though their work was being scrutinised.

The main treat of the day, however, was the aforementioned footage of the King and Queen. Whilst this footage was also silent, we were all surprised to see that half of the film was done in colour. According to Phil, this kind of colour footage of royal visits is quite rare and I have to say, I was quite pleased to see Elizabeth sporting a very fetching shade of Lavender! We were happy to leave these films in the capable custody of MACE, where they will be cared for properly and can be accessed in the future. We are also looking in to having some of the films transferred on to DVDs so that we can access the footage on-site here in Smethwick. After crossing the film reels off my mammoth to-do list I had a nasty shock last week whilst cataloguing the lighthouse records. Hiding under some catalogues and brochures was a 16mm sound reel titled 'Lighthouse Story 1', pictured below. It looks like I might have to make another trip up the M69!

Friday, 22 January 2010

Talking Chances

Yesterday I gave a talk here at CHAS for the Friends of CHAS and members of the public all about Chances and the project. I had spent the week preparing for and promoting the talk and the collection in the press and we had two visits from the Express and Star resulting in two articles (the second is due to be published soon). It was very bizarre to see my face in paper but anything that brings awareness to the collection is great.

As I said at the end of the talk, the most enjoyable aspect of the job so far is to hear the stories and experiences of people who used to work for the company or grew up in the area and have fond memories of the glass works. After the talk, one gentleman told me that he used to work for the firm that supplied Chances with the coal delivered on the nearby canal. Another lady told me about a sweetshop that the Chances used to own and the very strong smell around the site of the glass works that she can still subconsciously smell sometimes when she is walking round the Spon Lane area.

This week I also received a very lovely letter from a lady who used to live by the glass works. She said that she remembered the visit of the King and Queen very well and actually manged to get a very good view of them when she was 7 years old with the other children from her school. Her grandfather worked on the furnaces and his three sons also worked for the company, one of whom lived in the Chances gatehouse. I also received an email from Alan Dean. Four generations of his family worked at Chances starting with his great grandfather who worked there from 1859 to around 1919 and was awarded a long service medal; followed by his grandfather William Timmins, his uncle Roland Timmins and his cousin Anthony Timmins. There is a picture of Alan's great grandfather's medal below (please note the engraving of the tiny lighthouse at the top of the medal).

Thank you so much to everybody who managed to attend the talk yesterday. For those of you who could not make it, please find a link to the PowerPoint presentation that accompanied the talk below.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Shedding some light on lighthouses

It's a brand New Year and I am happy to be back cataloguing the lighthouse records. The Chance Brothers Lighthouse Works was set up in 1851 after James Timmins Chance displayed the first Chance Brothers' lens design for lighthouse manufacture at the Great Exhibition. James' work in the field of optics and dioptrics, previously associated exclusively with France, gained the company international recognition and placed Britain at the forefront of lighthouse design and engineering. By 1951, when the Lighthouse Works celebrated its centenary, the company had supplied more than 2,400 lighthouse lenses and hundreds of complete lighthouse structures to nearly 80 countries around the world.

Hyper-radial single flashing light

Chance lighthouse exhibition stand

There is a huge amount of interest in Chance's lighthouse records and we have a large backlog of enquiries about specific lighthouses, which is why these records are the next on my list to catalogue after the employment records. The lighthouse records are made up of financial ledgers and journals; reference material including articles and books about lighthouse manufacture; and the operational and administrative records including registers of drawings and correspondence between James Timmins Chance and various customers and engineers regarding the sale and installation of specific lights. The most voluminous and arguably most interestering records, however, are the sales and marketing records including order books, catalogues, price lists and exhibition material. There are many large books with photographs and illustrations of the lights and apparatus produced and there is a very complete record of lighthouse customer orders from 1850s to 1930s.

Marketing catalogues, plans and illustartion books

I have just started to catalogue and re-package the marketing records and I hope to have all of these records catalogued within the next few weeks so that we can start to answer enquiries and provide visitors with a draft catalogue.