The Glass Tax

Here at the Red House Glass Cone is the only surviving example of a travelling lehr, or cooling oven. It is a metal conveyor moved slowly by turning a mechanical wheel attached to chains. It is arranged in two parts, the hot side is the Lehr or annealing oven and the cold side is the Shrower; where women worked to clean, inspect, and pack the glass.

The Glass tax was introduced as a window tax in 1696, in the reign of William III. In 1745 the Glass Excise tax was introduced in the reign of George II, to tax all glass making including the finest flint glass made in Stourbridge.

The tax was calculated on weight of the products put through to the shrower. It was said to be an unfair tax as the ingredients to make glass were essentially worthless and the tax therefore applied to the skill, labour, and ingenuity of the glassmakers.

Initially the tax was £10/ton but by 1795 when the Red House Glass Cone was built, it had tripled to £30 /ton, equivalent to £3.2k today. An article published in the Lancet described the tax as being 300% of the value of the raw ingredients therefore unaffordable and it was noted as being detrimental to health, as it caused a deficiency of light particularly in poorer homes.

The administration process in the glass manufactories was inconvenient and time consuming; all material inputs had to be weighed, and at the end of week any fused unused glass remaining in the pots had to be ladled out and weighed. These operations stopped production, so piece work earnings stopped. Everything that was made had to be put through the shrower even obviously imperfect pieces. Glasshouses were taxed on products that had to be broken up as poor quality and returned to the pots as cullet.

By 1825  it became law that all glasshouses had to be licenced at a cost of £1.5k, equivalent to £110k today. This was an exorbitant extra cost to be bourn particularly by small glasshouses.

Complex rules were introduced to close loopholes in the administration of the rules. All furnaces, pots, lehrs, and working areas, had to be numbered, and the contents assayed. The lehr had only one entrance and that had to be kept locked. Each factory could only make one main product, and as a result innovation and diversity of ranges stopped.

Glasshouses needed to notify the Excise officer of every operation in the factory, such as filling or charging pots, requiring 12hours notice; opening ovens or weighing rooms and pot changing, all required 6hours notice. It was estimated that most glasshouses issued 60- 70 notices per week and all weights recorded had to be ROUNDED-UP in favour of the revenue.

Excise Officers were based in the shrower where the weight of taxable glass was assayed,  and there were three tax men per factory to cover the 24hour operation. At the shift changeover, both officers patrolled together to deter officer fraud or corruption.

There were bars and padlocks on all openings through from the hot side to the cold side, and as pans emptied of their newly cooled glass, the contents were weighed, and the pan was initialled by the excise officer before it could be returned to the hot end on the lehr.

The tax man could stop the process at any time to check the assay, during which time production stopped and no money was earned, needless to say, he was intensely disliked, and was nicknamed ‘the watchdog’; his office in the corner of the shrower was called the DOGHOLE, the origin of ‘being in the doghouse’.

If there was any doubt or discrepancies, the factory Owner incurred huge fines, even if he was at home asleep!!

The application of the tax stopped all experimenting and innovation, ingredients for colours, particularly ruby glass, had to be added incrementally. This was made extremely difficult and time consuming with a notice and the subsequent delay with every addition.

There were many problems caused by the tax; it cost thousands of pounds to administer, it caused loss of production, and earnings, so many unlicenced glasshouses or cribs opened and they undercut the prices charged by licenced glasshouses. Exports of glassware was exempt from the tax, so many fraudulent export documents were generated to cover glass sold illegally on the home market.

There were many criminal offences for not abiding by the tax laws, and these led to many – Court appearances. The working man was being criminalised. The offences included:

  1. Making glass illegally
  2. Removing glass illegally
  3. Concealing glass to evade duty.
  4. Receiving glass with Fraudulent intent
  5. Being FOUND in an illegal glasshouse    and all offences if convicted could lead to imprisonment.

Flint Glassmakers maximised their profits with their decorating skills. Decoration of the glassware added a disproportionate value compared to the weight, ensuring higher profits. English glass decorating became innovative and highly skilled to add value to the products. Skills such as cutting, engraving, etching, enamelling, and gilding.

Air twist Stems on wine glasses was both decorative and lighter weight reducing the tax liability. Air twist remained as a decorative technique after the glass tax was abolished.

Air Twist Ariel glasses in the ‘Rhythm’ design by John Luxon in1964, won gold at California State Fair in Sacramento. He also designed a new tool to speed up the air-twist process. Many glassmakers moved to IRELAND to set up their business as there was a Free Trade Agreement, and good shipping and transport links. By 1815 there was huge kudos to owning glass, heavy decorated glass was a status symbol, huge windows were a sign of wealth, as were personal Glasshouses or greenhouses to grow produce out of season.

Thomas Hawkes of Dudley Flint Glassworks, in Stone Street, specialised in blown and pressed glass which was heavier. In 1834 he was elected as the MP for DUDLEY, and in 1829 he could be seen canvasing his followers in the Dudley Arms Hotel in the Market Place. In the smoke room, the tables depict glassware of jugs, hot toddies, roemers, and candlesticks[1]. Thomas Hawkes lobbied parliament for the REPEAL of the glass tax and in 1835 a Commission of enquiry into the effects of the unfair tax was held. Within a year in 1845, the Glass Excise Tax was repealed. It gave a huge impetus to the industry, in time to showcase our glassmaking skills at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition.  The Crystal Palace was glazed with over 400tonnes of plate glass made by Chances Glassworks in Oldbury; and Follet Ostler Glassworks of Broad Street, Birmingham constructed a huge crystal fountain, weighing 4 tonnes, as a centrepiece of the exhibition.

In 1835, the DUTY PAID in the UK on glass production amounted to £748k; equivalent £75m today. Assuming an average rate of 20% as todays VAT, the industry value would be over £400m. This is a good indicator of the size of the glass industry whose success and wealth were based upon the skill ingenuity, labour and strength of our glassmakers.

Watch my video blog on The Glass Tax

[1] The Smoke Room, Dudley Arms Hotel, 1825 1829

William J. Pringle (c.1805–1860)

Brooke Robinson Museum

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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