Glasshouse Walk (formerly Glasshouse Street), just off the Albert Embankment, is now the only reminder of what was once an internationally important industry in Vauxhall.
Glass-making was first introduced to Britain by the Romans, who started blowing glass into moulds, thus allowing a wide variety of shapes to be made, including the first glass windows around 100 AD. Indeed, the Italians, and particularly Venetians, remained pre-eminent in the glass industry for many hundreds of years. They originally made their glass by heating silica (sand) with sodium carbonate ("soda ash"), although many glassmakers eventually used potash (potassium carbonate) in place of soda ash. (Soda ash and potash are the major components of wood ash, but also occur as mineral deposits.)
The Venetians protected their technology very successfully, including when working abroad, and grew rich on its proceeds. But foreigners began to challenge Italian dominance through various innovations from the 1600s onwards. For instance, a British patent was granted to Sir W Slingsby in 1610 for burning coal instead of wood in glass furnaces. The use of wood was then made illegal in England and, in 1617, Sir Richard Mansel acquired the sole rights for making glass throughout the country. Most monopoly rights and patents lapsed during Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate (1649-1660) but, in 1663, the Duke of Buckingham, although unable to obtain a renewal of the monopoly, secured a ban on the importation of much specialised glass, thus paving the way for his own investment in glass-making in Vauxhall (1670) and Greenwich.
Buckingham's glassworks employed Venetian craftsmen to make mirror glass up to about 1 metre long, and the works continued to make glass until around 1780. In the meantime, other glasshouses faced increasing competition from another innovation, lead crystal ("flint glass"), which was developed by the English glassmaker George Ravenscroft in the 1670s by substituting lead oxide for part of the potash then used to make high quality glass, and Buckingham's Greenwich glass house was forced to close soon afterwards. Further up river, however, another glassmaker John Bellingham returned from Holland to begin making "Dutch" lead glass in Vauxhall in 1671, initially in partnership with, and soon in separate premises from Buckingham.
Why Vauxhall? In part, this was because glass works fumes were highly polluting and so glassmaking was prohibited anywhere near the City of London. Also, the nearby river was also very useful for transporting coal and sand to the works.
Buckingham, by the way, was quite a character. He was a royalist who benefitted after the restoration from his prior support for Charles II . And he favoured religious toleration, earning the respect of William Penn, the Quaker who went on to found Pennsylvania. His highs included being reputedly King Charles II's richest subject and later being appointed Chief Minister and then Chancellor of Cambridge and High Steward of Oxford Universities. His lows, however, were many. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London at least twice and his tenure of high office was said to be chiefly marked by scandals and intrigues. He left children, but none of them were legitimate so his title died with him.
Interestingly, from Vauxhall's point of view, Buckingham dabbled in chemistry ("a chymist") and this probably led to his interest in glassmaking. Overall, however, he was judged (including by himself) to have wasted his life. He was said to be "A man so various that he seemed to be not one but all mankind's epitome: stiff in opinions, always in the wrong ... Was chymist, fiddler, statesman and buffoon". And on his deathbed he declared "O! what a prodigal I have been of that most valuable of all possession - Time!"
Nearly 200 years ago, the following advertisement appeared in a London gazette:
These were the products of a once celebrated, but now almost forgotten local industry - having gone the way of motor cars, Marmite, night-lights and pickles.
Not surprisingly perhaps, glass-making in England often had an Italian connection. The Venetian Giacomo Verelini was producing glasses (nowadays extremely valuable) at his works in Broad Street (now Black Prince Road) during the last quarter of the 16th century; and after his death a growing glass industry came under the control of a number of monopolists. One of these was Sir Robert Mansell, a retired Admiral who had business connections with Murano, outside Venice. When not helping to suppress the Barbary pirates, he gained a virtual control over the infant British glass industry and was perhaps the first to make looking-glass in this country. By 1618, at his glass-house in Broad Street, Venetians were at work, and pit coal, a recent innovation, was used for smelting the raw materials. Significantly, at that period a royal proclamation prohibited the use of wood fuel for smelting (because of the despoiling of the country's woodlands) and thenceforward coal was used for the firing of furnaces - an early case of conservation.
Thus it was that Mansell joined forces with another monopolist for making glass, Sir Edward Zouch, Marshal of the household of James I, and by 1617 they had started a glass works, using sea-coal or pit-coal, in Newcastle. Not long after, these same entrepreneurs were installed at Vauxhall which, according to a contemporary description, bore a similar relationship to London as Murano does to Venice. Here, Mansell and his partners made looking-glass until his death in 1661. It seems clear that their establishment at Vauxhall was the forerunner on the site of a subsequent works which flourished for more than a century, during which glass, with "export to all Europe" was one of the main industries of the parish.
The site was roughly square, bounded to the north by what is now Glasshouse Walk SE11, and to the south-east by the curving angle of Vauxhall Walk, only a stone's throw from the gooseberry hedges and later the elm avenues and nightingales of Jonathan Tyers' Vauxhall Gardens. The frontage towards the Themes extended from Gunhouse (or Gunners) Stairs to Vauxhall Stairs (today Lack's Dock), but was separated from the river bank by a broad way with a strip of buildings and gardens, corresponding to the present-day Albert Embankment.
This area was described as the 'Vauxhall Docks! The firm must have owned or rented a wharf here giving access to the river, which was then the high-road of London col1lllerce and essential to such a factory in the 17th century. The site with its buildings is clearly shown on Roque's Map of london in 1746, inscribed 'PLATE GLASS HOUSE'. In 1848 the London & Southwestern Railway was extended from Vauxhall (Nine Elms) to Waterloo, thus obliterating half of the site: the remainder, now cleared, forms part of the New Spring Gardens park.
The venture was launched by no less a character than George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham (1628-1687), of whom Dryden wrote the famous lines:
This Alcibiades of the 17th century was petitioning, in his 36th year, for the patent for making looking-glass, of which art he claimed to be the "inventor" in England, having been the first to import the Venetian secret; together with the monopoly in the making of glass plates (glasses for coaches, and other plates). The patent was granted, and the Duke's factory was set up at Foxhall (order dated 30 June 1663). later, under his patronage, a company of Venetian artisans under the master craftsman Rosetti was brought to London for the purpose.
The royal patent was revoked however, some five years after, when Buckingham was out of favour at court - for some months in 1667 he had been imprisoned in the Tower. The Duke had travelled and lived in Italy, no doubt on an extended Grand Tour. Glass-making was his hobby, just as alchemy and other chemical experiments had been before, and this coincided with the emergence of post-Restoration science (another part, incidentally, of the historical scene in Lambeth) An element of secrecy, however, attached to the craft of glass-making, which was still something of a mystery at that period, and was to be closely guarded for some time to come.
Certainly profit as well as science interested the Duke. Though the philosopher's stone eluded him, his Vauxhall venture, being something of a monopoly, became profitable. By 1680 he had another factory in Greenwich, where wine glasses were made. But what interest in the business the Duke may have retained is not clear; he died without succession. On September 19th, 1676, John Evelyn came "to Lambeth, to that rare magazine of marble, to take order for chimney-pieces etc, for Mr Godolphin's house-le also saw the Duke of Buckingham's glasseworke where they made huge vases of mettal, as clear, ponderous, and thick as chrystal. They also made looking-glasses far larger & better than any that came from Venice".
About 1680, John Dawson was apprenticed to these works and subsequently became manager; his son Edward was sent to Venice to learn the latest developments of the craft. We know that Edward died in 1775, and until 1786 the business was carried on under the name of Dawson, Bowles & Co. Apparently the 'Venetian secret' had also been transmitted by the Duke to a partner, John Bowles, who, with Dawson, became the sole owners.
Bowles had been a merchant of Turkeys - then an increasingly fashionable dish - and this brought him into association with leading glass men and importers of materials. The success of the glass firm seems to have been considerable, being described in the late I8th century as 'prodigious' and 'amazing'. Fire insurance records show that at the time of J. Dawson's death, there were two houses, the Great Glass House and the Little, with three warehouses, etc, including the Dawson house, covering six acres in all. At the time of closing, the manager was one Rosetti, a descendant of the original of that name who had been brought over to this country by the Duke of Buckingham.
There were of course several other glass-works in Lambeth, probably the last of which closed in 1851, but our Vauxhall works maintained its plate-glass supremacy. leaving to others crown window glass and green or bottle glass. Table glass does not appear to have been made in Lambeth. The first 'glass coach' was made, it is said, for Louis XIV (before that, carriages were curtained with flaps of leather or tapes- try). Be that as it may, the demand for coach glass during the next centuries must have grown unflaggingly and a fair proportion of the Vauxhall production must have been of that sort.
Blown plate-glass could attain a size of about 7' x 4'. The Vauxhall plate was always blown, the typically Venetian method, and it seems likely that the 'huge vases of mettal' mentioned by John Evelyn referred to this technical process. French plate, on the other hand, was always cast - a method not introduced into this country until the 1770s - to meet the demand for very large sheets for chimney glasses and pier glasses (as used for example by the architect Robert Adam). The Vauxhall premises perhaps like other London glassworks, were rather small for this process, which was successfully started at Ravenshead in 1773 as a rival to the manufactory at St Gobain in Picardy. In seeking to cater for the rococo style, Vauxhall was already old fashioned. In fact, Vauxhall looking-glass was often bevelled, and a subtle bevel (or 'diamonding') is usually taken to be the true sign of age - the hallmark of 'genuine Vauxhall'.
The plate-glass shop window did not come until somewhat later; a pity, perhaps, that it ever did.