While Ireland is famous for its Waterford Glass and Galway Cut Crystal, not many remember that Belfast also at one time had famous glassworks. The pieces produced are very beautiful and now quite valuable. The glass industry at Ballymacarrett is long gone but it should not be forgotten.
With the rapid urbanisation and industrialisation of Belfast, local entrepreneurs began to look to the east of the River Lagan for cheap land on which to expand their businesses. This area on the County Down side of the river was still mainly agricultural, with several large ‘gentlemen’s’ estates and a few small villages. In 1781 Ballymacarrett only had a population of 419.
“In the later eighteenth century, land along the eastern, County Down, side of the River Lagan was largely undeveloped and became available to the merchants and entrepreneurs wanting to engage in industrial development”Ruairi O’Baoill, Hidden History Below Our Feet, 2011
Once begun however, the establishment of factories and manufacturing works spread quickly. Soon there were iron foundries, potteries, rope works, vitriol works and glass producers in the region around the Ballymacarrett and the Lagan villages. Increasing opportunities for employment drew people to the east side of the river. By 1791 the number of inhabitants in Ballymacarrett had swollen to 1,208.
The first glassworks at Ballymacarrett were established by Mr Benjamin Edwards in 1776.
The factory was constructed at the eastern end of the Long Bridge, where subsequently the Sirocco factory stood. Edwards was permitted to reclaim land from the banks of the Lagan, and this produced the sand for glass-making. The area today is still known as the Short Strand.
The Long Bridge
The Long Bridge was constructed in the 1680’s and connected the town of Belfast with County Down on the eastern side of the Lagan. It was composed of 21 arches and was described as very long and narrow (22ft wide) with no pavement.
“We proceeded to Belfast, in the County of Antrim, where there is a bridge, under which the river Lagan empties itself into Carrickfergus Bay (now known as Belfast Lough), and it is one of the most stately in the kingdom, consisting of 21 arches, all turned with hewn freestone raised in the hill of Scraba”Philip Luckombe, The Compleat Irish Traveller, 1788
Unfortunately, shortly after the bridge opened it was severely weakened when the heavy artillery of the Duke of Schomberg marched across it on their way to Belfast from Bangor. The Long Bridge was further damaged during a storm in 1692 and again when a boat crashed into it in 1696. The winter floods of 1744 and 1817 caused further structural issues and the bridge was subsequently replaced by the Queen’s Bridge in 1840-41.
It is thought that Benjamin Edwards was born in England, possibly in the Bristol area. However, by 1771 he was working as a superintendent in the glass colliers in Drumrea in County Tyrone, about 50 miles from Belfast. This company advertised in the Dublin Journal that they made all types of glassware including “new-fashioned” wine, beer and cider glasses, candlesticks, jelly and sweetmeat glasses, confectioners jars and all sorts of glass for mathematicians and chemists.
Subsequently Edwards made the move to Belfast to set up his own flint glasswork business. In 1781 in advertisements in the Belfast Newsletter he describes his wares as all kinds of enamelled and cut glassware including glasses, decanters, phials, salts and goblets in which “customers cannot possibly be disappointed”
The circular kiln was composed of a single-wall brick chimney over 75ft high and 164ft in diameter. The conical chimney was constructed of red brick with a battered stone base. It must have been an impressive sight on the shores of the Lagan.
In 1783 Edwards went into partnership with a Mr Shaw. Shaw erected an iron foundry next to the glassworks. Among other products, the foundry produced machines for grinding glass and bottle moulds in round, square and fluted shapes.
The company prospered, in 1788 the value of the glass produced was £1,780. The business arrangement carried on until 1789, when Mr Shaw retired.
In addition, in 1788 Benjamin Edwards opened a warehouse on Hanover Quay, for the sale of his plain, cut and figured glass. He also had a similar enterprise on the Canal Quay in Newry, opposite the Sugar-House. Edwards and Shaw seem to have widened their range of products as they have for sale
“a complete assortment of cut, plain and figured glass, and also pots, pans, griddles and saucepans…”Michael Seymour Dudley Westropp, Irish Glass, 1901
Edwards lived in a house at Bridge End. He had three sons John, Hugh and Benjamin.
He must also have had at least one daughter for in 1800, he made his sons and his son-in-law, William Ankatell partners in the business. However, the partnership dissolved in 1803.
Edwards retired in 1811 and let the firm to Chaine & Young. He passed away the following year, on 29th September 1812.
The Edwards Descendants
John Edwards, had established a tobacco-pipe manufacturing business next to his father’s concern in 1789. In 1803 he started a new glass-house at 79 Peter’s Hill but this failed and John was bankrupt by 1804. The venture was sold to Joseph Wright and subsequently in 1840 to John Kane.
Benjamin (junior) advertised his own glass-making business in 1813 but two years later he was in financial difficulties. However, the firm seems to have struggled on for some time before being purchased by T J Wright & Co in 1826.
In the later 19th century, M S D Westropp mentions another member of the Edwards family
“About 1870 John Edwards, a descendant of Benjamin Edwards, was making glass bottles in Belfast, but only on a very small scale, and the manufacture did not last long”Royal Irish Academy, Vol 29, 1911
(By chance we came across a William John Edwards in the 1901 Irish census who was listed as a glass bottle-maker. He also had a son named Benjamin).
Smylie & Company
In 1781 another glass producing firm was founded in Ballymacarrett. Thirteen well-off Belfast businessmen joined forces to raise the capital for this new venture. Among those involved were Waddell Cunningham, Thomas Greg, James T Kennedy, Charles Brett and John Smylie. Thomas McCabe of Vicinage, a watchmaker and United Irishman, also at some point had a financial stake in the business.
A sum of £1,300 was invested in Smylie & Company which opened in 1784. They began by manufacturing bottles. Advertising in the local paper –
“Glass bottles equal to any imported here are now ready for sale at the new glass-house Belfast, at twenty-two shillings per gross for twelves, thirteens and fourteens, and twenty shillings for pints. Vitriol bottles, bell glasses of all sizes; gooseberry bottles; bottles for Gardevins (a large bottle or decanter for wine), and every other article in the black glass way to be had. Gentlemen may have their initials stamped on their bottles for an additional four shillings and four pence per gross”Smylie & Company Advertisement
The new brick cone-shaped kiln stood over 118 ft high and measured 72 ft at its base. It was the largest glasshouse in Ireland (and Britain) at the time. In 1792 a second glasshouse was built on the site.
“The manufacture was to take place at Ballymacarrett where one of the three large glass houses that was erected still remains. It stands 120 feet high, taller than the Albert Memorial…”Francis Joseph Bigger, September 1924
On 14th January 1788, the Smylie Company started to produce plate and crown glass for windows. The best quality glass cost 42shillings per side and second quality 40shillings per side. This they claimed was as good as English glass and 14% cheaper. At its peak the annual value of Smylie’s window glass was £9,500. Finished products could be shipped from a quay on the Lagan.
The New Glass House Company
In 1823, a former employee of the original Edward’s Glass-house, John Wheeler, set up his own business in the area. It was known as the New Glass House Company.
It was sold to John Kane (the same gentleman who was to purchase the Peter’s Hill concern) in 1827. It was renamed the Shamrock Glass Works in 1829 and remained open until 1850. Kane opened a shop at 40 North Street to sell his products – rich cut glass, patent deck lights, lunette watch glasses and lampshades among other glassware.
The Beginning of the End
During the 1770’s and 1780’s, due to the developments in production and the lifting of trade restrictions, glassmaking was an attractive and profitable enterprise in Ireland. New techniques involving the use of metal in the firing process produced the high-quality flint ware associated with this period.
“The art of glass making, engraving and cutting was successfully worked for some years in Ballymacarrett by Edwards and others. The flint glass table-glass can be recognised by a peculiar milky opalescence”Town Book of Belfast, A Perspective View of Belfast in 1790
Unfortunately, the Ballymacarrett ‘heyday’ of glassmaking was short-lived.
Entrepreneurs were able to enjoy this ‘boom’ until 1825 when the Irish Excise Act brought profits tumbling. By the mid-19th century glass manufacturing in Ballymacarrett and in Belfast had all but disappeared. A small firm, O’Connor & Carson continued to produce glass in the district, at Claremount Place into the 1850’s. In the 1854 street directory we see there are still professional glass-workers living in Ballymacarrett.
- William Agnew – watch-glass maker
- William Davis – watch-glass maker
- William J Rodgers – glass-cutter
- Robert Boyce – glass-cutter
- John Connor – glass blower
- James Gamble – in glass house
- John Howard – glass-cutter
New Road (from Glass House Corner to Holywood Road)
- Thomas Huston – glass blower
- James Kenna – glass blower
- Daniel Kilkenny – glass blower
- John Power – glass blower
For those wishing to see examples of Belfast glass the Ulster Museum has a few items on display.
The glass kiln of Ballymacarrett however, remained a distinctive sight on the Belfast skyline. It only actually collapsed during a storm in 1937.
“That peculiarly-structured chimney has no compeer among Belfast’s many chimney stacks, either mill or household. It is ‘the last of the Mohicans’, just a sad, lingering relic of the Ballymacarrett glass industry”Alfred S Moore, Belfast Telegraph, 16th February 1929
Modern Times – Walking on Broken Glass
In 2005 the Ballymacarrett site was the subject of archaeological excavations to discover the remains of Belfast’s industrial heritage. As no glass kilns from the period survive in Ireland, the uncovering of these remains was highly significant.
“To uncover a glass kiln is a rare thing, but to uncover two of them on the one site has probably not happened before in an archaeological context. The quality and extent of the surviving remains is surprising, given the intensity of industrial activities and development over the last two and a quarter century since the 1780’s”Paul McCooey, Database of Irish Excavation Reports
The discovery of these kilns, and other evidence of manufacturing, charts the development of Belfast and is a blueprint for the Victorian city.
“As can be seen from …the industrial action on the site, it is central to the origins of the industrial Belfast. This is a period when Belfast begins to evolve from being a market town of the late 18th-century to the heavy industry giant of the late 19th-century”Paul McCooey, Database of Irish Excavation Reports
Ballymacarrett – From a Rural Village to a Shipbuilding Giant
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