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Whitefriars History Part 1
James Powell & Sons were not only Britain’s longest running glass house they were the most productive, innovative and in my opinion, by far the best. Their glass always reflected the fashion of the day and in many cases actually made the fashion possible in the first place, through their development of new technologies and processes and their inspired designs. The factory of Whitefriars, largely forgotten until recent years is now enjoying a huge revival, collectors and museums worldwide are taking a serious new look at the glass of James Powell & Sons (Whitefriars Glass).
  James Powell 1774 -1840
James Powell 1774 -1840
  The Old Glass House in Tudor St
The Old Glass House in Tudor St

Although having advertised as 300 Years of Glass making. Records actually date back to 1720, for a small glassworks off Fleet Street, London.

The factory really came into its own when James Powell a London wine merchant and entrepreneur, purchased the factory in 1834, the idea was to give his three sons a viable occupation. The Powell’s were related to Baden Powell, the Scout Movement founder.

 

The Powell’s were initially ignorant of the art of glass making, but by necessity soon acquired the skills needed and adapted and improved upon the new technologies of the industrial revolution. A large portion of their production during this early period was the manufacture of church stained glass windows, they invented and patented processes of manufacturing, the sections of glass or “quarries” this innovation set them up as leaders in the field when hundreds of new Victorian churches were being built across the country and indeed the world.

During the later portion of the 19th century the Powell’s became closely associated with leading architects and designers notably T G Jackson, Edward Burne Jones, William De Morgan and James Doyle. Not to mention Philip Webb that designed glass for William Morris and was manufactured by Whitefriars. By the late 1850’s the firm’s attention now begins to include designs and production of domestic table glass after manufacturing glass for William Morris's revolutionary Red House.

  Harry James Powell
Harry James Powell
 In 1875 Harry James Powell, the Grandson of the founder joined the factory. Harry an Oxford graduate, having specialized in chemistry. His approach to glass making was somewhat more scientifically based. He was responsible for many new innovations in glass technology, new colours from chemical processes and new techniques. Notably the development of heat resistant scientific glass, for use in laboratories and industry, and for the likes of x-ray tubes and early light bulbs.  
 

Harry’s fascination with developing new forms of glass such as opalescent glass moved the company to new heights of late Victorian fashion. Interestingly there is a Straw Opal vase set in the foundations of Tower Bridge. They exhibited in almost every major exhibition around the world. A large portion of the tableware produced was inspired by historical glass, Venetian, Roman and copied from oil paintings in Europe's museums and art galleries. He was also somewhat of a socialite and was involved with many organizations and movements. Harry a follower of Ruskin regularly lectured on glass and glass technology at major industrial seminars.

The factory’s designs moved with fashion which at this time was the new Art Nouveau style, During this period the factory produced some of their most stunning glass. They were by now earning their place as world leaders in the field of quality glassware.

In 1919 James Powell & Sons changed its name to Powell & Sons (Whitefriars) Ltd and plans were made for a new factory, This was to be a large state of the art building with every modern facility and technique available. In 1923 the furnaces were lit in Wealdstone near Harrow West London, using a flame taken from one of the furnaces in Fleet St and carefully moved to Harrow in a brazier (a metal pan containing burning coals).

The new factory in Wheadstone
The new factory in Wheadstone

Business was good but the vast expenditure of building the factory and plans to build a “Garden suburb” style housing village for the workers, (The Powell’s were heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement who's ethos was to produce top quality hand made crafts, and to give the skilled craftsmen good pay and good accommodation). But the pressure of the village had put great financial strain on the business. Reluctantly they decided to scrap the housing development and concentrate on glass manufacture.

Production in the new factory was about half domestic and half scientific glass utilizing the work and experiments James Powell had pioneered on heat resistant glass, glass tubing and new colours in the previous few decades.

A Stars and Comets vase in Amber
A Stars and Comets vase in Amber

Between the wars period was a very productive and creative time for the factoryand their financial situation had improved.
New glassware became more colourful and in many cases heavier. Optic molding and the dramatic use of wheel engraving in geometric designs reflecting the “Art Deco” style, that was the fashion, indeed the upper and middle classes that were the core customers were enjoying the Roaring Twenties.
  

This halcyon period was about to come to an abrupt end with the onset of World War II. Glass production continued was strictly limited to essential glass only, as dictated by the government as part of the war effort.

After the war the company struggled to return to its pre-war prosperity, rationing which continued until the early fifties and fires at the factory all contributed to a gloomy outlook. Some of the factory's key skilled craftsmen had enlisted into to the armed forces, and many of those had not returned.

The Festival of Britain came in 1951 and happier times for the factory, indeed the whole country benefited from this attempt to re-start the economy and manufacturing industries. Whitefriars was chosen as one of the businesses to represent modern British industry, live glass blowing demonstrations were provided for a war wary public. As always Whitefriars embraced the new styles of the time, and the 50's style was no exception. This was largely inspired by the new atomic age. Indeed the splitting of the atom had a profound effect on design in general in the Western World.

The remaining years of the decade saw the Scandinavian style which was sweeping Europe, the clean lines and sophisticated designs found approval with major retailers such as Selfridges and Fortnum & Masons. Another important development was the invention of slab glass or concrete glass, a new form of stained glass window. Thick slabs of coloured glass were set in concrete making a kind of mosaic, which proved popular with churches, schools and public buildings as they reflected perfectly the 1950's look.


Click here for part II



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