Hazards and Diseases

Many industries used hazardous materials that caused illness and disease. Before regulations introduced by The Factories Acts and current Health and Safety regulations, these noxious substances were not controlled and there was no protective clothing issued to workers. In the glass industry the most toxic materials used were red lead, putty powder, and acid.

Diseases and epidemics in the 19thC such as Cholera, Smallpox, Typhus, and the Plague resulted from viruses and bacteria and the management of these was basic and poorly understood.

Industrial disease, in a particular industry was known but comprehension and prevention was even more obscure. Phossy jaw, formally known as phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, was a disfiguring occupational disease affecting those who worked with white phosphorous in the matchstick industry. Pointers Rot suffered by needle pointers in the needle industry in Redditch was caused by inhaling stone and steel dust generated by dry grinding of needles on a wheel. Hatters shakes was a form of chronic mercury poisoning occurring in workers exposed to mercury, especially during the manufacture of hats, characterized by muscle tremors, mental and behavioral changes hence the expression ‘As mad as a Hatter’.

In the Glass making industry the fine red lead oxide used in making lead crystal caused Dropped Hand, a lead poisoning wrist-drop due to the prolonged effect of lead inhalation, on the radial nerve. The workers who were most vulnerable were those doing the job of pot filling, where ingredients were mixed by hand.  Stopping exposure to the lead source could mean a slow recovery but that meant them becoming unemployed.

Lead poisoning–Wrist drop is associated with lead poisoning due to the effect of lead on the radial nerve. 

Glass cutting: conditions were also poor, requiring a fixed leaning posture and close watching with the eyes, a constant grip of the glass to hold it against the wheel and the hands constantly wet, sometimes paralysing the hands.

Putty powder was a mixture of lead and tin, a paste used to lubricate the cutting wheels got under fingernails. Boys were kneeling underneath cutting wheels and had their heads constantly over the box or trough that held the putty powder constantly inhaling it as they applied it to the wheel. Meals were eaten with unwashed hands and if the putty powder remained under the nails for a few days it caused the hand to contract and it was difficult to straighten the fingers.

Dropped hand was a common condition among cutters caused by prolonged contact with the lead. In 1850 the Morning Chronicle reported a cutter who had twice been afflicted with dropped hand regained the use after ceasing the work for 12 months; he quit the trade fearing he would not recover from a third occurrence.

Working inside the glass cone was a dark sulphurous environment, it was poorly ventilated and the updraft from the furnace filled the air with smoke irritating the eyes, nose, and the lungs. Lungs take a long time to fully heal, and some had scarring and suffered shortness of breath for the rest of their lives.

The Heat at the mouth of the furnace was another hazzard; it was estimated to be between 35-50 deg C where the blowers stood and the tekker-in working in temperatures ranging from 26-35deg C Many turned feint and were ‘obliged to knock-off’. It was not just the heat, but the effects of unequal temperatures and young boys exposed to much steeper gradients of change made them very sleepy, and they would sing to stay awake. Lovibond Percival Manager at Ostlers in Birmingham remarked

the constant heat and glare of the glory-hole affected the eyed at a very early age’

General ill health resulting from the working conditions was particularly noticeable in the young who were usually pale, thin, ill-grown and unhealthy, suffering from bad eyes, stomach, bronchial and rheumatic afflictions. Names of the illness, when Union sick allowance was claimed cannot be relied upon as most were self-diagnosed.

The young tekkers-in were not regarded as glassmakers, see footnote, so their poor work environment was not considered as important. it was estimated that a tekker in would walk distances of 32-36 miles during a shift, sometimes without shoes or socks and carrying the weight of an iron 6-7ft, with up to 3lbs of glass. They would run errands to fetch beer and were often ill-treated, ‘boxed around the head’ if they took too long, the glass maker could be bad tempered, even brutal.

they would knock boys down and kick them, I had a nasty cut to my head. I didn’t suffer too much though as I generally worked with a relative’

Relatives treated the boys more humanely and they had a better chance to learn the techniques. ‘

Once I was taking a glass and I fell and broke it, when I returned to the chair and told the gaffer, he ran at me, knocked me down and kicked me. I saw boys hit on the back of the head with blowing irons with glass on the end and heads cut. They leathered us sometimes”.

None of this was reported at the time. In the Brierley Hill Advertiser 22/1/1862, George Ridger of Holloway End Glass Works was sued by the father of tekker-in G Green. Ridger had accused him of neglecting to clean his blowing iron and struck him of the head and knocked him down. Ridger was fined 1s plus costs. This was an exception as most assaults were ignored.

Ill treatment was the ‘dark side’ of the respectability that flint glassmakers claimed.

Acid Etching as a decorative technique was seen as a quick and cheap alternative to wheel engraving, but it required hours of processing with an acid-resist wax coating, the design etched through the wax, and the piece then dipped in hot hydrofluoric-sulphuric acid mix.  It was the dipping of the pieces that was the most obnoxious part of the process.

Originally the process was done in an open shed without heating, Later the vats of acid did have shields over them to draw the fumes away. The pieces needed to be held firmly usually in a frame or with a home-made wooden handle to keep them moving in the acid and to prevent acid from entering the mouth of the piece. In addition, the acid dippers used hand made ‘mops’ of cotton pads to remove the scum forming on the piece from the action of the acid on the glass. They worked with the piece in one hand, the mop in the other and leaning over the vat of fuming acid.

From the mid 1930’s acid dipping was used on all cut pieces of tableware to speed up the finishing of glass cutting. The whole piece was dipped in acid and fractions of a millimetre of glass was removed from the surface, polishing the cuts, and leaving a smooth brilliant finish.

Edith Shutt: The Art & Craft of Glassmaking, W E Cook, published by Stuart & Sons 1930

A booklet published by Stuart & Sons in the 1930’s shows an employee, Edith Shutt, acid dipping. It states that the acid mixture is intensely corrosive, and the workers are protected by heavy rubber aprons and gloves. Edith is pictured in her smart clothing and a lace trimmed collar. She is wearing glasses and her hair is uncovered. It was known that the fumes would frost your glasses and strip the colour from your hair.

Ladies who worked as acid dippers at Royal Brierley Crystal confirmed to me that the ladies would wrap themselves in brown paper from the packing shops, tied with string, before putting on the rubber aprons, gaiters, gauntlets, and wooden clogs. They also confided that they removed all their clothes including underwear before wrapping themselves in the brown paper; underwear was expensive, and the acid fumes would rot the fabric.

The acid fumes had a dreadful smell that clung to hair and clothing, there were no washing or changing facilities provided, many ladies used to walk home and bathe in the brew house if the copper was hot, before going into the house.

When the vats of acid were spent it was just poured away on open ground serving as a spoil tip.


The Flint Glass Makers Friendly Society (FGMFS) Union and the Commission of Factories and Workshops Act 1875 paid little attention to the health of the boys as they were not glass makers. The Death Fund report of the FGMFS shows the average age of death of all flint glass makers in Stourbridge between 1858 and 1882 was 48.9y; 2.4y higher than the national average for flint glass makers. 30% of glass makers died before they were 40

Published by Kate Round

My name is Dr Kate Round; I am an outreach presenter and tour guide for Dudley Museum Service In my previous life, I was a research chemist so understand the chemistry of glass having worked on the synthesis of ‘zeolites’ (silica based materials) with my work published in International Journals. I have always lived in the Black Country and have a strong industrial family heritage.

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