A Tutbury Fairy Tale – The Three Pied Pipers

The Early History of Glassmaking in Scropton Lane

Once upon a time…

Alexander Sivewrigh
t came to Tutbury in the late 1830’s when Henry Jackson’s Tutbury Glassworks in Ludgate Street was rapidly expanding and recruiting skilled glassworkers from around the country. Though seemingly unexceptional in his job as a glassblower, Sivewright rose to prominence in the affairs of the Glassmakers’ trade union. Self-educated, tireless and diplomatic, he became the union’s national Secretary and helped it establish a position of strength against fierce opposition from the employers.

But in 1863 he switched sides – left his job, stepped down from the union, and set up in business himself, founding the first glass factory in Scropton Lane, Hatton (which was considered part of Tutbury in those days). Skilled labour was the key to the industry and Sivewright successfully tempted away many of Jackson’s best Blowers to join him across the river. The tune he played them probably had an element of utopian fantasy, with enlightened employer and committed employees combining in harmony.

But the dream turned to nought. Sivewright perhaps lacked the ruthlessness and financial acumen needed to survive in a cut-throat world and within four years he was bankrupt and the Hatton factory closed in 1868. He died in 1872, a sad end to a heroic life. His errant Glassblowers were initially scattered around the country under the union’s scheme for relocation of unemployed labour, before gradually finding their way back to Ludgate Street, tails between their legs.

John Thomas Haden Richardson was manager of the Ludgate Street factory at the time of Sivewright’s 1863 decampment. Scion of an illustrious family of Stourbridge glassmakers, he had been brought in by the Jacksons to provide some professional management to their operation. He steered it through the labour shortages, but by 1871 was ready to try his own luck.

Undeterred by Sivewright’s experience he resigned his job and, with family support behind him, re-opened the Scropton Lane factory, renaming it the Royal Castle Glassworks. Skilled labour remained a vital ingredient of success and, lo and behold, he found Sivewright’s magical pipe (which lay abandoned on a warehouse shelf), dusted it off and used it to beguile a second procession of glassmakers from the “top shop” in Ludgate Street to the “bottom shop” “down Hatton”.

 Photo to come]

Richardson did indeed flourish for a good while (whilst the Jacksons stagnated), but a trade depression set in after 1880 and he spent the next twenty years trying to keep afloat, often in bitter dispute with his Blowers and their union as he tried to cut costs. There was one fairytale moment in 1899 with a Royal Visit to the Royal Castle by the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary to George V, and the Princess Diana of her day), who was staying at nearby Longford Hall. But Richardson must have been desperately papering over the cracks that day and he finally closed down in 1900. The men were thrown out of work, though a few of his most skilled blowers begged themselves back onto the Ludgate Street payroll. The Tutbury factory was on its last legs as well by then and was rescued in 1906 through a takeover by the Stourbridge firm of Thomas Webb & Corbett Ltd.

George Harry Corbett was the Corbett in Webb & Corbett. A born salesman, from a modest background, he formed a rather uncomfortable partnership with Thomas Webb, member of a leading family in Stourbridge’s glass “aristocracy”. Corbett was sent from Stourbridge to Tutbury to run the newly acquired factory in 1906. He got it back on its feet, but before long the Sivewright and Richardson story repeated itself.

By 1910 Corbett was itching to run his own show and, behind the Webbs’ back, he arranged to take on the lease of the old Scropton Lane glassworks and put it back in business on his own account. Webb found out, forced him out of the partnership and a third tussle for skilled labour ensued in Tutbury. The Webbs had establishment resources to help their cause, including a now cosy relationship with the Union which threatened to “black” members who moved. But Corbett had the magic pipe (which he’d found in the safe in Richardson’s old office) and its tune was so entrancing that a whole workforce was soon dancing its way across the Dove Bridge to the Royal Castle – not just blowers this time, but cutters, engravers, furnaceman, mechanic, and all. And Corbett was a thoroughly modern employer – within weeks his new crew were happily “bonding” on an “away day” in Dovedale, iconically photographed outside the Peveril of the Peak Hotel.

A brave new dawn … but behind the fairytale facade Corbett was managing things with financial smoke and mirrors. He brought in outside investors, but by 1913 the same old story was unfolding and he was forced acrimoniously out of the business by the new shareholders, losing both his job and his investment. (Another casualty of this period was our second hero, JTH Richardson, who had been eking out his declining years in the Manager’s house adjoining the factory, and who was evicted, probably by the new shareholders shortly before he died in 1914). The factory carried on a further ten years, its production being switched from high-class cut crystal tableware to more mundane light bulbs and tubing with a much reduced skilled labour demand. Ironically the Webb Corbett factory was well set on the road to success in this period in the hands of Walter Guest, newly arrived from Stourbridge to succeed Corbett. Whether the wandering Blowers and Cutters turned up once more on the Ludgate Street doorstep asking for their old jobs back is not known, but they are likely to have received short shrift from the uncompromising Mr Guest.

Corbett sued his former colleagues in a case that reached the High Court amid considerable newspaper coverage. A minor award of damages was dwarfed by a major bill for costs that must have ruined him. His business career never recovered. He died in 1948, the third flawed hero of this tale.