Child Labour in the Tutbury Glassworks in 1865

In the glassblowing process, workers were organized into teams or ‘chairs’ of four: the workman or ‘gaffer’, who worked from the glass maker’s chair; the servitor, the footman, and the taker-in, usually a boy, who carried the finished articles to the lehr (annealing oven) where they were slowly cooled.

To ensure maximum use of the furnace, Glass makers worked a unique system, around the clock, each team working two 6-hour split shifts in a 24-hour period.

The Children’s Employment Commission paid an inspection visit to the Tutbury Glassworks in 1865. In their report to Parliament the factory Manager, Mr J. Jones, was quoted: ‘Our principal manufacture is cut glass. In the blowing house the hands change every six hours. One set work from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. The change of hands takes place regularly. There are always two sets going. On Monday work begins at 7. They seldom work after 1 o’clock p.m. on Friday.’

The Commissioners spoke to young Thomas Watson in the Blowing House: ‘I am twelve years old. I take in. I have worked a year and a half. I took in when I first came. I came at 1 o’clock last night and worked to 7 this morning and then came again at 1 o’clock this afternoon. On Friday I usually stop at 7 o’clock on Friday night. I don’t work on Saturday. I can read and write.’ Thomas Meer told them: ‘I am 11 years old. I have worked two months. Before I came I worked in the cotton mill. I was a half-timer then.’ And his cousin Herbert Meer: ‘I am going twelve. I have worked here more than a year. I can’t read. I get 1s a day. I take in.’ All three were sons of glass makers.

It is almost impossible for the modern reader to comprehend the impact of this alternating six hour shift system on the lives and health of these children, staggering day and night between the furnace house and their beds in the Ludgate Street and Burton Street cottages a few yards away.

Karl Marx was moved at the time to observe: ‘Meanwhile, late by night perhaps, self-denying Mr. Glass-Capital, primed with port-wine, reels out of his club homeward, droning out idiotically, “Britons never, never shall be slaves!”’ How far Karl Marx’s characterisation applied to the Tutbury Glassworks owners Eleanor Jackson and her daughters is unclear.

The Museum has detailed information about workers and some of their employment conditions at the Glass factories in Tutbury and Hatton in the 19th century, extracted from the records of the Glassblowers’ Union, the Flint Glass Makers’ Friendly Society.