Glasshouse College

Stourbridge, West Midlands DY8 4HF

2000

The Trust applies its successful method to its second specialist college in the heartland of the Industrial Revolution in Stourbridge, at the dilapidated Royal Doulton glassworks

Glasshouse origins

In the early 17th century, glassmakers from Bohemia and Lorraine in northeast France were among those who founded the glass industry in Stourbridge, taking advantage of the rich natural resources of coal for fuel and fireclay for lining furnaces. The Coalbourne Hill Glassworks, one of the earliest known industrial glass workings in northwest Europe, was built in 1691 by Thomas Bradley Jr. The new cone structure acted like a giant chimney, increasing airflow to create higher temperatures. There is evidence that the site originally had at least two glass cones. 

In 1809, the glassworks, now owned by Hill, Waldron, Littleton and Hampton, was making bottles. By 1839, the glassworks belonged to Stevens Brothers and Co. and they were manufacturing black and German amber bottles.

In 1913, Thomas Webb and Corbett Ltd bought the site and remained there until 1969 when Royal Doulton took over Webb Corbett, which ceased production in 1999.

On 31 May 2000, Ruskin Mill Trust acquired the site that by now was vacant apart from a team of glasscutters and their foreman, who were still cutting glass.

The Coalbourne Hill Glassworks in the 1900s

Coalbourne Hill Glassworks in the 1900s

Renovation

Ruskin Mill Land Trust purchased the Webb Corbett glass factory site in 2000. Staff and students from Ruskin Mill College started preparing the site that summer for the first cohort of Glasshouse College students. Five of the glassworkers were recruited to provide continuity of the historic trades.

The extent of the work required meant that the Glasshouse site development was achieved in phases; it took eight years to secure the first major grant. In the meantime there were smaller achievements, including renovating the packing area into a coffee shop and creating a beautiful courtyard.

In 2008, a grant was awarded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund that enabled Ruskin Mill Land Trust to apply for match funding and kickstart the significant renovation of the site. In 2010, funding from Advantage West Midlands transformed the Ruskin Glass Centre. Following that, with support from Arts Council England, the Glasshouse Arts and Heritage Centre was created to provide a space for the growing performing arts programme at Glasshouse College, as well as an exhibition space and heritage displays. The additional workshops for craftspeople expanded the craft village of the Glass Centre and created the thread from the past to the future of the glassmaking industry.

Softening the industrial site by creating the aesthetically pleasing courtyard

Softening the industrial site by creating the aesthetically pleasing courtyard

Curriculum

Glasshouse College has an innovative and diverse curriculum, with glass as its signature craft. It includes drama, eurythmy, animal care, horticulture, woodworking, textiles and more. One of the initial social enterprises at Glasshouse College was NuLife Glass, which dismantled television screens and recycled the glass to create artefacts, including the Flowform water sculptures in the Glasshouse courtyard.

Students have a several glass crafts to choose from. In hot glass, students shape the molten material into paperweights and other decorative items. They also blow the molten glass into vessels, either using moulds or shaping the vessel as it emerges. Glassmaking also includes glass etching, either with acid or with cutting wheels. Students practice cutting a range of patterns and designs, and create their own. They can also work in stained glass and fused glass.

Students have to be vigilant when working with hot glass, the material and process require a very high level of focus, skill and attention. The students who come from the local area are likely to have families who worked in the glass industry. Epigenetics offers the possibility that we may appreciate the latent capacity that can flourish when our students touch the glass, thereby enabling what was once industrial drudgery under the division of labour to be gifted back to them as a healing balm. Learning centuries-old crafts and processes is helping the community to understand and overcome the trauma of the industrialisation of the glass industry, and helps to recreate communities of practice.

Student gathering molten glass from the furnace

Student gathering molten glass from the furnace

Past Treasures

In 2014, Glasshouse College entered phase two of its development, part-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, European Regional Development Funding and the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership. As part of the development project, a series of archaeological digs took place on the site. The digs revealed glass artefacts as well as the remains of up to four historic glass cones. They were organised by Nexus Heritage and were supported by students and staff from Glasshouse College and the local community.

The cones that were found are of significant historical value dating back as far as 1785. One such time capsule contained many old artefacts. In the warehouse cellars, also unearthed, there were beer bottles and discarded clay pipes, perfume bottles, vases, champagne flutes and olive oil bottles.

This extensive excavation project needed help. Each day twenty volunteers, many of whom had no archaeological experience, came to help with the dig and record finds. Local primary school children also came to assist and learn about their valued heritage.

The dig and renovation work continued for several months. An old map, handed down through the centuries, indicated the site of another glass cone dating back to 1691. After careful excavation, the team discovered distinctive cones that had formed the outer part of a furnace.

Other items were discovered, including window glass, phials, lenses, tiles and cut lead crystal. The finds are kept in the Webb Corbett Visitor Centre at Glasshouse, which is open to the public and runs a programme of events. The story of the site and the buildings is testament to the community that helped to rediscover and record history.

archaeological dig behind Glasshouse College

An archaeological dig behind Glasshouse College

Casting the bell

Ruskin Mill, Horsley Mill, Glasshouse and Freeman College all have their own bell, each cast with the help of students and the community. Each bell chimes a different note; the intention was to ring a new chord across the industrial land.

Aonghus Gordon wanted a way to include the Stourbridge community in the casting of the Glasshouse College bell. He wondered if there were old pieces of jewellery, perhaps wedding rings from former marriages, throughout the Black Country. The Stourbridge News ran an article about the casting of the bell, offering the community an opportunity to come and throw in rings or other jewellery to contribute some gold to the molten metal. Aonghus anticipated that one or two people might show up, but did not expect there to be a queue! Students collected copper for the bell from old electrical cables to add to the gold and silver. The craftspeople worked with Bill Benton to make a mould and furnace for the bell.

A plug in the furnace shot out, letting the bronze escape – the molten metal disappeared into the ground as if a miracle had happened. Aonghus and the craftspeople dug up the bronze and the bell was recast with added tin. As with any craft, mistakes can happen, but in recasting the bell, the team stayed loyal to the task. The bell now hangs at Glasshouse College and is rung to mark the festivals.

Molten bronze escaping from the furnace during the casting of the bell

Molten bronze escaping from the furnace during the casting of the bell

Culture

Festivals and community events play a key part not only in the students’ development but also in engaging the community. The International Festival of Glass, hosted by the Ruskin Glass Centre every two years, was established to recognise the craftsmanship and skill of the glassmakers and to strategically position Glasshouse in the Stourbridge Glass Quarter.

The biennial festival showcases British and international contemporary studio glass in the historic context of the Stourbridge area. Recognised as the UK’s leading glass event, it brings thousands of visitors to Stourbridge, with a full programme of demonstrations, talks, immersive activities and performances. The key feature is the flagship exhibition, the British Glass Biennale that features work by leading British and international glass artists.

In addition to the glass culture, eurythmy performances play a key role. Eurythmy UK, based at Glasshouse College, offers individual eurythmy sessions to Glasshouse College students, along with training and performances. It is an important contribution to the college as the artistic presence helps to heal the aftermath of the industrial revolution. There is a connection from the movement of the glassmakers, through Flowforms in the courtyard, into eurythmy performance.

There is an extensive events programme at the Glasshouse Arts and Heritage Centre. Housed in a former glasshouse it holds a 400-seater auditorium, a studio theatre, and displays of historic artefacts, films and stories. The cultural programme includes music and drama performances, storytelling and art exhibitions open to students, staff and the public. Our students help select performances, organise and host events that provide an opportunity to interact positively with the community. There is a thread that runs from the Arts and Heritage Centre, through the college and theatre, into the Ruskin Glass Centre and the workshops of the craftspeople, connecting the past, present and future of glass.

Eurythmy at Glasshouse College

Eurythmy at Glasshouse College

Lamp of Memory

The regeneration of the Glasshouse College building injected new life into the walls. It transformed its past and future needs by re-imagining craft items to afford them civility, social decorum and direct purpose. Imagination and creativity are at the heart of this process. When Aonghus Gordon and John Gush entered the Royal Doulton glass factory, they felt an immediate vibrancy that revealed its potential as a future specialist college.

When Ruskin Mill Trust purchased the factory in 2000, glassmaking was still undertaken there. A number of the glasscutters and intaglio etching workers stayed to transform their mastery in glass into teaching skills to students, not necessarily to be glasscutters and blowers, but ultimately to encourage students to give back to their community, an offer that had a transformational effect on their lives.

The Webb Corbett factory had a great impact on the Stourbridge community; it was important that memories were retained in the renovations. The Heritage Centre pays tribute to generations of families who worked in the glass industry in stories and photographs. Its industrial nature cannot be forgotten or erased; instead, through craft and creative skill, it can be transformed. 

“It is the centralisation and protectress of this sacred influence, that Architecture is to be regarded by us with the most serious thought. We may live without her, and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her”

 

 – John Ruskin

 

Marking out patterns for cutting

Marking out patterns for cutting