George Davidson and the Pressed Glass Makers' Friendly Society


Very few original records survive for the Davidson company. The documents described on this page have been very kindly supplied by Michael Barton. Michael's father, Tom Barton, was works manager at Davidson from the late 1950s until the early 1960s.

Tom Barton (by Michael Barton)

George Davidson's may not have given its best years to my father, Tom Barton, but the reverse is certainly true. In those austere years, with WWII a recent memory of all but the very young, my father, (a staff captain in the Burma campaign), worked long and hard to overcome the vagaries of glass production, aged machinery and occasionally obstacles of a more human kind. Weekends were something that other families enjoyed and our few seaside holidays at Scarborough were usually interrupted by Tom returning to 'the works' to tend an ailing furnace or press or whatever. 

Towards the end of his years at Davidson's, following a take-over,  it seemed that his biggest obstacle was the owners themselves. But my father, a true gentleman, always had a warm affection for his staff which, I believe, was wholeheartedly returned.   During an office clear-out, my father saved a small file of pre-1900 records. These had slipped down the back of a filing cabinet and were the lucky escapees of the bonfire. As he attached enough importance to them to bring them home, so have I, keeping them over the years. On seeing Chris's excellent website, I instantly offered then to him. I hope you will enjoy the insight these old papers give us into the working world of glass two centuries ago.

Unions in the Glass Industry

'Of all of the tyrannies which has been the out come of the development of Trade's Unionism none can equal that exercised by the Society of Flint Glass Blowers and Makers'

So was the comment by the Pottery Gazette and Glass Trades Review in 1878. At other times the Gazette described the glass unions as a cancer. It was not surprising that the factory owners - the masters - hated the unions so much. The unions had control of every aspect of glass making from agreed pay rates to staffing levels. A company could not take on a worker or apprentice without the union's consent. Disputes could lead to long and damaging strikes, some of which lasted many months.

The unions were created to protect the rights and interests of their members. Life in Victorian England was hard for the working man. The Trade Union movement was a reaction against what many saw as the exploitation of the workers. They gave the workers protection against the excesses of management. Benefits included strike and sick pay and even payment if the worker was dismissed because of 'oppression' by the management.

The Pressed Glass Makers' Friendly Society

The Society of Flint Glass Blowers and Makers was the main trade union in the Stourbridge glass making area where most of the glass was blown rather than pressed. In the North East it was The Pressed Glass Makers' Friendly Society. Like The Society of Flint Glass Blowers and Makers, it was a strong union which had a say in every aspect of glass manufacture.

The union had an agreed rate of pay. The glass workers were paid by the hundred, that is they received a fixed amount of money for every 100 pieces made. This system was introduced towards the end of the 1870s. Every article of glass made had a price based on the  complexity of the piece and how long it took to make. Each man in the 'Chair' would receive an amount based on this price, according to his position. The rates were negotiated between the union and the factory management.

To be counted towards the hundred a piece of glass had to come out of the Lehr with no damage nor be misshapen. This was a constant source of conflict as the glass presser had no control over the Lehr and many articles were not passed due to problems in the annealing process. We shall see this later in some of the correspondence between the union and Davidson.

A price catalogue is one of the surviving documents rescued by Tom Barton and can be viewed by clicking here

All unions had a rule book and the Pressed Glass Makers' Friendly Society was no exception. Two surviving rules books were rescued, one from 1885 and the other from 1887. They can be viewed here and .

The rule books laid down the contributions members made to the union and what they could expect in return in the way of benefits. The rules also laid out the conduct of the members. The union had a central committee which governed the union. The committee consisted of one delegate for every 40 working members and an extra delegate for the unemployed. There was also a full time committee secretary who was paid by the union. The salary of the secretary was laid out in the rule book along with other financial arrangements such as travelling expenses for the delegates.

The union, as well as setting wage rates, also defined 'Factory Working Rules' . The rules stated when work should start, the minimum number of turns worked each week, when a turn should start and what the payment rate should be for new moulds. Use of Apprentices is also covered in these rules. These rule books were frequently updated. Copies exist for 1927 and 1937 in the Pontefract Museum. The 1937 rules were jointly agreed to by Bagley, Davidson, Jobling and Sowerby.

Correspondence between the Union and George Davidson

One of the constant sources of friction between the glass makers and the management concerned articles damaged in the annealing process. If the Lehr was not working correctly or running at the wrong temperature or otherwise being mismanaged then the glass passing through could become cracked, melted or misshapen. As the workers were paid only perfect items this represented a loss to them which was outside of their control. In July 1872 the union wrote to George Davidson to obtain agreement that they should not suffer loss due to problems with the Lehr. The letter, reproduced here , lists 5 resolutions which in summary were:

  1. The workers should be paid for work that was damaged as a result of the failure of the Lehr
  2. The workers should get an account of their work out of the Lehr
  3. That no bad work be broken down until it has been examined by the men who made it
  4. The workers shall receive a written account of their work at 2pm each day
  5. That all bad work should be examined by 3 glass makers and that their decision should be final.

The next letter is from 1876 and is an agreement between the union and Edward Moore and Co. In this agreement the union drop the right to be paid for cracked work from the Lehr providing they are paid for work melted in the Lehr due to mismanagement or faults in the Lehr. Edward Moore sent a copy of this agreement to George Davidson a month later . From the next letter it appears that Davidson also signed up to this agreement.

Two years later in 1878, Davidson appears to have gone back on this agreement. In a letter from the Union , they complain that not only had Davidson stopped paying for melted work but also the Lehrs were overstretched. The letter goes on to complain about the treatment of Union officials by Davidson's managers and also levels a complaint against the works manager Mr Ellis. The Union complains of the arbitrary treatment the men receive from Mr Ellis and warns of the 'unpleasant consequences' that could follow if he does not change his ways.

What the outcome of this disagreement was, we do not know. George Davidson appears to have been hostile to the union. After the fire in 1881 he attempted to employ non-union men, but was eventually forced to replace them with union labour.

The last surviving letters date from February 1888, and this time concern Davidson's use of apprentices. Davidson, it appeared, had too many. The unions rules stated that there should be a maximum of two apprentices for every three chairs and that no two apprentices should work together, rather each apprentice should work with a journeyman. Davidson did not reply to the first letter, and so a second letter was sent a week later giving Davidson fourteen days to reply. What became of this we do not know.

These documents and letters give us a brief insight into the role of the Unions in the glass industry and the concerns of the men and owners of the factories. They remind us that when we look at pressed glass at a fair or in our own collections, the glass was hand made by skilled men working in difficult conditions and the Union, although disliked by the factory owners, gave some measure of protection to the work force.

(c) 2004 Michael Barton and Chris and Val Stewart