Saturday, September 25, 2010

Whitefriars to Winsor and Newton: Workers aren't ready to be walked into a glass case!

HAVING an idle afternoon, a few years ago, and chancing to be in the Headstone district of Harrow, I went into the park, and took shelter from a shower in the museum, where besides the exhibits there's a cafe. It just so happened they were holding an exhibition of glassware from the Whitefriars Glassworks. What's more,while I was having my cup of tea, I was soon surrounded by some very nice people who had worked at Whitefriars, and were holding a jolly little reunion.

Ignoramus that I am, I had never heard of Whitefriars until that wet afternoon, I mean to say apart from their contents and whether they had a handle, glasses just hadn't been my thing. But seeing some of the beautiful items on show, I was impressed, and understood the pride of the people who had made them.

I learned that Whitefriars Glassworks had begun near the Temple in the City of London, its name taken from the monks in white habits, Carmelites or White Friars, who occupied themselves thereabouts. Though they had long gone when the glassworks was founded in 1680, there is still a Carmelite Street off Fleet Street, and a Whitefriars Street which used to be called Water Lane.

In 1923 the original works was moved to a new site in Wealdstone. A long tradition was that the furnaces should remain burning at all times, so when the site was moved a lit brazier was carried to the new site and used to ignite the very first furnace there. By then the firm had changed hands more than once, and become “James Powell & Sons”, after a wine merchant who bought it in 1834.

James Powell's grandson Harry became manager by 1875, and is credited with innovative designs in the Arts and Crafts period. Carrying on in charge through the First World War, he died in 1922. The following year the firm moved out to Wealdstone. The original name of Whitefriars was not resumed until 1963.

It is as Whitefriars that it seems to keep coming up on television programmes about valuable items found in auctions and attics. Pieces by designers like Geoffrey Baxter are much sought after collectables and prices have soared. Born in 1922, Baxter joined the firm as assistant designer in 1954. Taking influence from Scandinavian designs and his own modern ideas, he created cased glass, coloured glass encased with clear crystal glass. The colours were rich ruby red, blue and green, produced in 1955.

In 1964 William Wilson and Harry Dyer launched the “Knobbly Range” at the Blackpool Fair. These were free blown pieces of glass that were heavier and thicker than any other pieces produced before with a lumpy finish to the outside. Baxter was involved with producing the colours for the range, there were two choices either solid coloured cased glass or streaky colours in brown or green. The “Knobbly Range” was in production right through until 1972.

Baxter's most famous range is the “Textured Range” launched in 1967. Using natural materials such as tree bark he lined the moulds so that when the glass was blown into them it created a textured feel to the outside resembling the bark of a tree. He drew his inspiration from other natural and man-made materials. Baxter used coiled wire to create other effects. His favourite vases was made by using irregular slabs of glass and building them together to make blocks on top of each other. This is the highly collectable “Cube Vase” or more commonly known today as the “Drunken Bricklayer”.

Whitefriars was also one of the leading makers of stained glass. The studio carried out the whole process themselves from melting the glass and flattening it through to cutting and leading. There are examples of Whitefriars stained glass windows in churches and cathedrals all over the world.

Unfortunately, the combination of innovation and tradition with a skilled workforce was not enough to carry Whitefriars through Thatcherism and recession. Domestic spending power fell from 1979. So did overseas orders as the pound rose and priced British goods out of the market. It was not only in the North that monetarism hit manufacturing. Behind the 1980s facade of prosperity from the City finance and property sectors in London and the South-East, factories and jobs were going down.

In 1980 the recession hit the Whitefriars works. Their orders at the annual trade fair at the NEC in Birmingham were not enough to cover overheads. Demand for the glass had suddenly taken a downward slide. Management decided it could not meet fuel and labour costs, and decided to close the works and make people redundant. So after 300 years of production, a firm whose skills and readiness to innovate had led the market, passed into history.

Of course, fashions in goods such as studio glassware change, and when people are worried about losing their jobs or paying their mortgage they may not be buying such items. But ironically, thirty years after the works closed, Whitefriars glassware has become so much a valuable collectors' item there are fakes being produced for the market.

Meanwhile, we have seen an even more famous name than Whitefriars go, although not closing but shifting overseas. In January 2009, Wedgwood, which had been marged with Waterford glass in Ireland, and whose shares failed in the 2008 global financial crisis, was placed into administration. Three months later in March KPS Capital Partners announced it would invest €100m and move jobs to Asia to cut costs and return the firm to profit.

And now another W, the famous artists' materials supplier Winsor and Newton, or as it's nowadays known, Colarts, is threatening to go from its place on Whitefriars Road in Wealdstone. Founded in 1832 in Rathbone Place,W1, when Fitzrovia was a busy artists' quarter, this firm boasted of Turner and Constable as customers. It has been manufacturing on the Wealdstone site since 1937, and among those who buy their paints and brushes from it is HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.

Taken over by the privately-owned Beckers Group(about which information appears scarce, on the Internet at least), Colart still uses the respected Winsor and Newton name, boasting that it produces "The Worlds Finest Artists' Materials".

Colarts makes an average of £5.3 million pre-tax profit from the Wealdstone site, according to my union, Unite. Yet the company now says the factory is too old, and can't be expanded. It proposes to close it by the end of next year and relocate to Le Mans in France. This would throw 200 workers on the dole in Wealdstone.

Contrary to what the Con Dem government might have us believe, these workers are not choosing unemployment as a "lifestyle". They are fighting to keep their jobs, and more important to keep their small but distinguished industry in Wealdstone, where it could offer work for a new generation. "We say yes to investment in a new local 21st century Colart factory", says a union leaflet.

Brent Trades Union Council has agreed to send the Colart workers a message of support, and I am sure others will back their fight.

It is funny how those patriots who like to wave flags, and complain that immigrants or minorities "change the character of an area", like the blockheads who wanted to march on the Harrow mosque, or the newspapers that moaned about halal meat in schools, never seem to notice or mind overmuch when capitalists close down an area's factories or end a tradition of skills.

It is the workers whose skills and effort made these famous British brand names. Capitalists are happy to carry on using the names if they can, while dumping the workforce. It is fine seeing your product on exhibition in a glass case. But the workers are not willing to become a museum piece! The heritage industry is no substitute for an industrial heritage.

After many years of work which enabled an employer to make his profits and his name, and benefited the country besides, workers have no control over their workplace or their future, which capital can take away. We have to challenge this.

On Whitefriars:

Winsor and Newton site:

Unite says keep Colart's open:

Labels: , , , ,


At 11:41 AM, Blogger vickim57 said...

Cheers for this story, Charlie. I'll keep an eye on the Winsor and Newton workers' campaign.

Vicki from Barnet TUC


Post a Comment

<< Home