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Chance Brothers

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Chance Brothers

Chance's Glassworks, Spon Lane, Smethwick

Chance Brothers and Company was a glassworks originally based in Spon Lane, Smethwick, West Midlands (formerly in Staffordshire), in England. It was a leading glass manufacturer and a pioneer of British glassmaking technology.

The Chance family originated in Bromsgrove as farmers and craftsmen before setting up business in Smethwick in 1824. Situated between nearby Birmingham and the Black Country in the agglomeration of the Midlands industrial heartland, they took advantage of the skilled workers, canals and many advances that were taking place in the Industrial West Midlands at the time.

Throughout its almost two centuries of history many changes have affected the company which, now privatised, continues to function as Chance Glass Limited, a specialised industrial glass manufacturer in Malvern, Worcestershire at one of the former small subsidiary factories. The social and economic impact of the company on the region is the subject of a project sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund.


19th century

Robert Lucas Chance (8 October 1782 – 7 March 1865),[1] always known as 'Lucas', bought the glassworks of the British Crown Glass Company in Spon Lane in 1824, which specialised in making blown window glass.[2] The company soon ran into difficulty and its survival was guaranteed in 1832 by investment from his brother William Chance (29 August 1788 – 8 February 1856)[1] who owned a successful iron merchants in Great Charles Street, Birmingham. After the partnership with the Hartley Brothers was dissolved, Lucas and William Chance became partners in the business, which was then called Chance Brothers and Company.

Chance Brothers was amongst the earliest glass works to carry out the cylinder process in Joseph von Fraunhofer, the pioneers of the manufacture of high-precision lenses for observatory telescopes.[4] Bontemps agreed to share the secret with Chance Brothers and stayed in England to collaborate with Chance for six years. In 1848 under his supervision a new Chance plant was set up for the manufacture of crown and flint glass for telescopes and cameras.[5] Just three other companies in Britain made glass in the same way, Pilkington of St. Helens, Hartleys of Sunderland and Cooksons of Newcastle. During 1832, Chance Brothers became the first company to adopt the cylinder method to produce sheet glass, and became the largest British manufacturer of window and plate glass, and optical glasses.

Other Chance Brothers projects included the glazing of the original Crystal Palace to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the Houses of Parliament, (built 1840–1860). At that time it was the only firm that was able to make the opal glass for the four faces of the Westminster Clock Tower which house the famous bell, Big Ben. The ornamental windows for the White House in America were also made there. Other products included stained glass windows, ornamental lamp shades, microscope glass slides, painted glassware, glass tubing and specialist types of glass.

Elihu Burritt (1810–1879) the American philanthropist and social activist once said about Chance "In no other establishment in the world can one get such a full idea of the infinite uses which glass is made to serve as in these immense works".

In 1900 a Baronetcy was created for James Timmins Chance (22 March 1814 – 6 January 1902), a grandson of William Chance, one of the Chance brothers who started the family business in 1771. James became head of Chance Brothers until his retirement in 1889, when the company was formed into a public company and the name changed to Chance Brothers & Co. Ltd. Sir James Chance was the first baronet of the family baronetage.[6][7][8]

20th century

London souvenir glass ashtray

Another member of the family, Edgar Chance, a noted ornithologist,[9] managed the business between the first and second World Wars.[10]

In the early 20th century, many new ways of making glass evolved at Chance Brothers such as the innovative welding of a cathode ray tube used for radar detection.

Chance also popularised slumped glass tableware, called Fiestaware[11] that included many innovative designs, including the famous Swirl pattern.

Pilkington Brothers acquired a 50% shareholding in 1945 but the Chance operation continued to be largely separately managed and a factory was established in Malvern, Worcestershire in 1947 to specialise in laboratory glass where the operation was incorporated as an arms-length subsidiary under the old name Chance Brothers Ltd. In 1948 the Malvern plant produced the world's first interchangeable syringe. By the end of 1952 Pilkington had assumed full financial control of Chance Brothers, but did not become actively involved in its management until the mid- to late-1960s. When plastic disposable syringes displaced glass in the late 1960s, the range of its precision bore product was diversified.

The production of flat glass ceased at Smethwick in 1976. The remainder of the Smethwick works closed in 1981, thus ending over 150 years of glass production at Smethwick and all flat glass production was absorbed by Pilkington's St Helens factories. Remaining glass tube processing, especially the manufacture of syringes and laboratory glassware, was moved to the Malvern plant.

In 1992, during a period of rationalisation at Pilkington, a management buy-out reverted the Chance plant in Malvern[12] to private ownership and it once again became an independent company, changing its registered name to Chance Glass Limited, but retaining the historical Chance logo. Since then the company has continued to develop its range of products and processes, and areas now served include the pharmaceutical, chemical, metrology, electronics and lighting industries.



Heceta Head Lighthouse in Oregon. The Chance Brothers Fresnel lens, built in the early 1890s, is still in operation at this historic light station

From 1851, Chance Brothers also became a major lighthouse engineering company, producing optical components, machinery, and other equipment for lighthouses around the world. James Timmins Chance pioneered placing lighthouse lamps inside a cage surrounded by fresnel lenses so as to increase the available light output; these cages, known as optics, revolutionised lighthouse design. Another important innovation from Chance Brothers was the introduction of rotating optics, allowing adjacent lighthouses to be distinguished from each other by the number of times per revolution that the light flashes. John Hopkinson, the noted English physicist and engineer, invented this system.

Rolled-plate glass

One of Chance's major contributions was the development of rolled-plate glass. During the 20th century, rolled-plate glass was to become the mainstay of the company's operation.

Clock faces

The German opal glass in the faces of the clock in the Clock Tower, Palace of Westminster (housing Big Ben) of the Houses of Parliament were damaged by Luftwaffe bombs during World War II. The damaged glass pieces were to be replaced, but due to the differences in colour, it was decided to replace all the glass. The glass replaced by Chance uses a process known as opal-flashed - a thin layer of opal glass that is 'flashed' onto the outer faces of clear glass.

Large glass

In about 1848 Chance was one of the first companies to produce very long pieces of window glass, following technology developed as a result of finding a solution for an order from Joseph Paxton for a very large greenhouse on the Chatsworth estate of the Dukes of Devonshire.


Based on technology by Sir William Crookes, Chance Brothers was responsible for perfecting the manufacture of glass for earliest optical lenses to block the harmful ultra violet rays of the sun while retaining their transparency.[13] Chance continued to use Crookes as a tradename into the 1960s.

Cathode ray tubes

Chance first developed cathode ray tubes (CRTs) just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Using Hysil glass, a borosilicate glass similar to Pyrex, Chance was then a major contributor to developing new methods for the production of cathode ray tubes during World war II that were precursors to the modern CRT television screen. The tubes at that time were used for radar detection displays.[14]

Heritage site

The glass works lies between the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) Old Main Line and New Main Line canals near the Spon Lane locks and has several Grade II listed warehouses and adjacent canal bridges on the BCN New Main Line. The works lies within the Smethwick Summit - Galton Valley Conservation area. There is also a listed memorial to James J. Chance, one of the partners, in West Smethwick Park.

Commenting on the Taking Chances project, Anne Jenkins, the Heritage Lottery Fund regional manager said:

The Chance Brothers Glassworks was a large employer in the 1800s and had a huge impact on the social history of Smethwick. This project aims to capture, preserve and share this history to ensure local people can learn about the history on their doorstep.[15]

Chance Brothers Ltd archives

The archives of Chance Brothers Ltd are held at Sandwell Community History and Archives Service. In June 2009, a project archivist was appointed to catalogue the collection. By June 2010, they aim to have catalogued around a third of the collection including corporate, financial, legal, employment and lighthouse records. They have also set up an online blog to record the progress made during the project.[16]

See also


  1. ^ a b Lundy, Darryl. "p. 21406 § 214059 - William Chance, father of the founders". The Peerage. 
  2. ^ Revolutionary Players
  3. ^ Kohlmaier, Georg & Sartory, Barna von (1986) Houses of Glass: a nineteenth-century building type; translated by John C. Harvey; p.47. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press ISBN 0-262-61070-1, ISBN 978-0-262-61070-4
  4. ^ King, Henry C. & Jones, Harold Spencer (2003) The History of the Telescope; p. 176. Courier Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-43265-3
  5. ^ Derry, Thomas Kingston & Williams, Trevor Illtyd (1993) A Short History of Technology: from the earliest times to A.D. 1900; p. 20. Courier Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-27472-1, ISBN 978-0-486-27472-0
  6. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Chance, James Timmins, first baronet, by Charles Welch
  7. ^ Lundy, Darryl. "p. 21408 § 214076 – Sir James Timmins Chance, 1st Bt.". The Peerage. 
  8. ^ Kidd, Charles; Williamson, David (editors). Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage (1990 edition). New York: St Martin's Press, 1990.
  9. ^ Dixon, Bryony. "The Cuckoo's Secret". British Film Institute. Retrieved 18 May 2010. 
  10. ^ Chance & Hunt
  11. ^
  12. ^ official Chance web site. retrieved 7 June 2009.
  13. ^ British patent No.312,728 filed 19 March 1928, Accorded 6 June 1929
  14. ^ Broadfield House Glass Museum, Kingswinford, Dudley Chance Brothers Glassworks, (Slide and Transcript no 13 by Arthur Reeves).
  15. ^ Taking Chances, a history of Chance Brothers' glassworks supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund
  16. ^ Chance Brothers Archive


  • David P. Encill (2007), pub.: Cortex Design. Chance Expressions, A History of Domestic Glassware from Chance Brothers - the study of all the domestic glassware produced by Chance Brothers from 1929–1981. ISBN 978-0-9549196-1-0
  • David P. Encill (due in 2013), pub.: Cortex Design. Chance Additions, A Supplement to Chance Expressions, A History of Domestic Glassware from Chance Brothers.
  • Toby Chance, Peter Williams (2008), pub.: New Holland. Lighthouses: The Race to Illuminate the World
  • Henry C. King, Harold Spencer Jones (2003) The History of the Telescope pub.: Courier Dover, ISBN 0-486-43265-3
  • Georg Kohlmaier, Barna von Sartory (1991) Translated by John C. Harvey: Houses of glass: a nineteenth-century building type pub.: MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-61070-1, ISBN 978-0-262-61070-4
  • A. D. Morrison-Low (2007) Making Scientific Instruments in the Industrial Revolution pub.: Ashgate ISBN 0-7546-5758-2, ISBN 978-0-7546-5758-3
  • Georges Bontemps (1868): Guide du Verrier Translated by Michael Cable as: Bontemps on Glassmaking. Reprinted: ISBN 978-0-900682-60-5
  • Hisham Elkadi (2006) Cultures of glass architecture Ashgate Publishing, ISBN 0-7546-3813-8, ISBN 978-0-7546-3813-1

Further reading

  • Chance, J. F. (1919) A History of the Firm of Chance Brothers & Co., Glass and Alkali Manufacturers. London: Printed for private circulation by Spottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co. (a postscript was added in 1926)

External links

  • Chance Glass Ltd - Official Company Website
  • Taking Chances, a history of Chance glassworks: Heritage Lottery Fund. Retrieved 7 June 2009
  • The Infinite Uses of Glass, West Midlands industrial history project. Retrieved 7 June 2009
  • Chance Brothers Archive. Retrieved 15 October 2009
  • Chance pyrex and precision glass tubes, Malvern. Corporate website. Retrieved 7 June 2009
  • The Domestic Glassware of Chance. Retrieved 7 June 2009
  • Toby Chance web site of the Chance family. Retrieved 7 June 2009
  • Society of Glass Technology web site. Retrieved 7 June 2009
  • History of Lighthouses. Retrieved 7 June 2009


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